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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Devil and Martin Rowney

In the spring of 1838, Martin Rowney, a discharged soldier who had been trading with the Indians on Puckaway Lake in Green Lake County, returned to Portage for a drunken spree that lasted for two weeks or more. At the end of it he took an oath before fellow-trader John De La Ronde that he wouldn't drink another drop of liquor as long as he lived.

"He was living with me," De La Ronde later recalled, and "slept in the same room that I did. He awoke up in the night with terror, jumped close to my bed, and told me that the devil wanted to take him away. I pushed him with force, and told him that if the devil had him, he had no business with me. He began to cry and lament over his condition, keeping it up some time."

De La Ronde went back to sleep and in the morning tried to get his hung-over friend back on his feet with a little proverbial hair of the dog. Much to De La Ronde's surprise, "When tendered some liquor in the morning he declined it, saying he had sworn not to drink any more and he would rather die than taste it. I had toast and strong tea made for him at breakfast. He barely tasted the bread, but drank two cups of tea and appeared much better."

Rowney then decided to start a new life free from strong drink and, he hoped, any further pursuit by the devil. "He told me he had an idea of going to Madison to take a lot there, as it seemed a point of some promise. He left us about eight or nine o'clock and about eleven or twelve, Smith, the mail-carrier, told us that he saw a man four or five miles up the road crying and appeared to be out of his mind.

"I started in company with J. Walsworth, Laront, Parin Carpenter, and old man Rowan. We found the track about half a mile north of Rocky Run. There was a little island surrounded by sand. We measured it all around and I found it twenty-five and a half feet on either side to where any trees or grass grew. On that patch of grass thus surrounded, we found his coat, vest, pants, hat, and other clothing, but no trace of himself. In his pocket there was a pocket-book containing some memorandum papers and several dollars in money. We took all his things and brought them home.

"We met Captain Low and reported to him the sad story. He told us to go and get some soldiers to aid us in making a farther search. I engaged fifteen Indians whom I promised to pay well to find him, dead or alive. Captain Low came with twelve soldiers, and ten or twelve citizens joined in the search, which with a brief intermission was kept up till the close of the following day; but no clue was found of him and nothing was ever heard of him afterwards.

"I knew him to be very clumsy, not being able to jump three feet to save his life, and what became of him was a mystery."

This is just one of hundreds of stories from our state's early history that are hidden like buried treasure inside the memoirs, documents, interviews and diaries online at Wisconsin Historical Collections.

[John De la Ronde, "Personal Narrative." Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol. 7, pages 361-362.]

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on July 27, 2009

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