Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.
Morning Star, March 08, 1999, Pg. 4
Last September in this column we featured an article about David Duncan (1810-1868), the “Albion Hermit.” He lived a recluse life on 80 acres of land which was located near the Kalamazoo River, south of where the Caring Community Church is located today on Irwin Avenue. “Dunk’s Cove” is the name for the big curve in the Kalamazoo River a mile west of Riverside Cemetery, for it was near this site that “Old Dunk” made his abode.
This month marks the anniversary of his death, when he was found on March 6, 1868. Duncan had come to Albion in the spring of 1835 from New York. He came here as a peddler of goods which he had purchased at an auction of merchandise damaged by a fire in New York in December, 1834. He ran out of merchandise and subsequently purchased his land from the U.S. government.
Duncan began to act queerly, and Albionites wondered about the background of this man. One source wrote shortly after his death in 1868, “What caused him to live in this manner has always been a mystery here. It was supposed by some that he was disappointed in love and by some that he had committed crime and had chosen a life of seclusion to shun detection. Every effort to trace his nativity always proved unsuccessful. So he has lived worse than a brute and died equally as bad.”
Duncan first dug a hole in the side of the earth on his land where he lived for ten years. In 1847 he erected a small frame house which he never finished. A family by the name of Smagg was said to have lived with him for about six months. He lived alone for many years, growing vegetables and raising cattle which he took to market.
Dr. Elmore Palmer wrote in 1908, “Everything clearly indicated that he never washed himself or his rags. Filth in the greatest amount and odors the rankest of the foul are still perceptible to the writer’s olfactories.”
A “John C. S.” wrote in 1868, “He now began to dress more shabbily and grow more miserly until he was really a sight to behold. For the past eight or ten years his dress has actually consisted of bags sewed about his body. In the cold season he wore an oxhide with a hole cut in the middle to insert his head for a suppposed overcoat. A portion of a bag and a piece cut from the hide was sewed together for a cap, and boxes made of oak boards about 6 X 15 inches with half a bag nailed around the top served for boots.” That writer mentioned he had retrieved one of Dunk’s wooden boots upon his death and found that it weighed eight and a half pounds.
In early March 1868, a winter storm hit the area. A Mr. Perrine went to visit Duncan, and found him frozen to death, sitting on the floor against his fireplace, covered with snow. Perrine hurried back to Albion where he contacted Fitz Williams, who organized a group of men which included the Coroner, Dr. Willoughby O’Donoughue.
The group found that “Old Dunk” had $11.18 in his pocketbook, some corn and cornmeal upon which he fed during his last days, and some old sales receipts from 1834 when he had lived in New York. The body was taken to the Albion Fire House, located in downtown Albion, presently 113 S. Superior St. His body was placed in a large tub of water to thaw out. An inquest jury determined that Duncan must have been sick and died of natural causes. One witness stated, “After the clothes were soaked off, the skin actually looked like a scurvy hog and as the frost came out the dirt would crack off in chunks.”
Duncan had kept his money in the National Exchange Bank of Albion, then located on the southwest corner of S. Superior and W. Porter Sts. With his funds in the bank and the $11.18 cash, a cemetery lot and a coffin was purchased for him. Services were held at the fire hall on the Sunday following the discovery of his death. The First Baptist Church minister, the Rev. P. Van Winkle delivered the eulogy. The remainder of the funds in his estate were used to purchase a tombstone.
During the early 20th century Duncan’s tombstone was cracked in half and lay unkept. In 1947 the staff of the Albion Recorder was notified of this and paid to have “Old Dunk’s” tombstone encased in cement foundation where it remains today. Thus the mystery has been solved: It was the Albion Recorder which had “Old Dunk’s” tombstone encased in cement in Riverside Cemetery.
This week we present a photograph of David Duncan, the “Albion Hermit,” and his tombstone in Riverside Cemetery.
The David Duncan Tombstone.
David Duncan, unaware of the camera.
All text copyright, 2016 © all rights reserved Frank Passic