The Strange Death of Danny Dodge

It started as a Cinderella story—the tale of a simple Manitoulin Island girl who falls in love and marries a prince. But its ending was dark, and the strange death that is part of it is still not fully explained. The prince—and I guess we might call him that, since he was the son of industrial king John Dodge of the Dodge Motor Co.—was Daniel George Dodge, but everybody called him Danny.

In 1938 at the age of 21, Danny had dark hair, combed straight back, steel-rimmed glasses and the firm Dodge family jaw. He liked to tinker alone with experiments in his workshop.

At that time, he owned a lodge out on Manitoulin’s Maple Point. You can almost see the place from the village docks of Kagawong, on the island’s north shore, not far from where the St. Mary’s River spills into the northern reaches of Lake Huron.

When I first started looking into this story in the late 1980s, a few older villagers were still around in Kagawong who remembered Dodge. They recalled that he used to speed about in a flashy red convertible “with lots of horns and lights.” Sometimes Dodge would give them rides to the nearby town of Gore Bay. They remembered his racy speedboat. And they recalled how he used to like to hang around the Kagawong docks with the local kids and wait for the packet boat to bring the mail.

“He was kind of like James Dean,” said Austin Hunt, who lived pretty much his whole life in Kagawong. As a boy, Hunt had known Dodge, who was about five years older.

To see the hamlet of Kagawong today is pretty much to see what it looked like in the 1930s, except the railroad tracks are gone. It’s a quiet, pretty village, and just a short walk through the trees lies Bridal Veil Falls, which gave the town its name. In the Ojibwe language, kagawong means “where mists rise from the falling waters.”

Dodge owned a lodge on Maple Point, which was about a half-hour ride out the bone-jarring peninsula road from Kagawong. The lodge, which I’ve visited several times, was no Mackinac Island mansion, but then it was no primitive hunter’s cabin, either. It was a sprawling ranch-style place with a huge stone fireplace, a pool table, an electric generator. Outside, young Dodge had a tennis court and a small dock where he kept his mahogany resort boat named MAC.

This was very modest stuff considering that the young man was worth about $11 million back in the days when just $1 million really amounted to something. (Such wealth would equal about $150 million today.)

As villagers tell the story, Danny fell in love “with an island girl.” She was the telephone operator in the nearby town of Gore Bay. Back in those days, you had to speak to an operator every time you made a call. Her name was Annie Lorraine MacDonald. She was 19.

Lorraine (whose name was sometimes spelled Laurine in newspaper stories) was tall, athletic and, in her later years, given to wearing large hats. When Danny broke the news of his wedding plans, the Dodge family was aghast. His widowed mother, Matilda Dodge Wilson, apparently pegged Lorraine as a gold digger who only wanted a piece of the family fortune. But in the end, Danny persevered. The couple was married August 2, 1938, at Meadow Brook Hall in what is now Rochester Hills.

Newspapers reported that days later the honeymooners showed up at Danny’s lodge on Manitoulin Island. Lorraine made her presence felt within days. Dodge fired his longtime caretaker and hired three of Lorraine’s friends – Frank Valiquette, Lloyd Bryant and Bryant’s wife.

Then on August 15, disaster struck.

The story gets a little muddled at this point, but apparently Danny and his new helpers were out one day doing stupid kid tricks. Now remember that Dodge was only 21. The three men were in the garage literally playing with dynamite. They were laughing and lighting dynamite sticks and throwing them out the window. Lorraine looked on from the door.

At one point, Danny lighted a stick and threw it, but it hit the window ledge and bounced back inside. By some accounts, it set off a pile of dynamite caps on the floor.

The blast was horrendous. Wood splinters and metal fragments flew everywhere. Newspapers reported that all four were injured and burned. One newspaper quoted doctors as saying Danny Dodge’s injuries apparently were so severe that he could not have survived.

Bryant, in fact, lay near death. His body was riddled with splinters and shrapnel. His stomach was cut open and an artery in his arm was slashed. It’s unclear why they chose not to drive a car. Perhaps the rough road would have been too painful for the injuries. Instead, they decided to use Dodge’s boat to get to Little Current, an island town to the northeast.

All four of the wounded, plus Bryant’s wife, got into the 250-horsepower Lodge Torpedo speedboat. Lorraine, despite her injuries, took the wheel. Valiquette sat beside her. Danny and the Bryants were in the back, with Bryant’s wife desperately trying to stop her husband’s bleeding.

If the lake waters had been smooth, Dodge’s speedboat could make the trip to Little Current in about 40 minutes. But the North Channel waters were not smooth that day. The boat was battered by waves more than four feet high. After two hours, the boat had only reached Honora Point and was still another 40 minutes from Little Current.

After two hours of struggling with the high waves, Lorraine finally accepted that she was too injured and too exhausted to continue driving. “I asked Frank (Valiquette) to take over driving the boat,” Lorraine testified later at a coroner’s inquest. “My arm hurt so badly.” That’s when it happened.

“I then heard Mrs. Bryant scream, and when I looked, Dan was going over the side of the boat,” she testified. “We turned back and tried to rescue him, but could not. We searched for about 10 minutes.” At that point, with the boat still bouncing in the waves, Lorraine and others made their best guess as to their location and then continued on to Little Current to try to save Bryant’s life.

The drowning of Danny Dodge was front-page news in Detroit and across the nation. By some reports, Danny’s stepfather, Alfred G. Wilson, offered a $1,500 reward to anyone who could find the body. Scores of boats, including a two-person submarine, converged on the waters off Honora Point. Days went by, and then weeks. Still, no one found the body. Searchers were giving up hope. But then, 23 days later, two fishermen pulled in the remains of young Dodge.

On October 24, 1938, a coroner’s jury in Little Current handed down its verdict: “accidental death by drowning.” But was it accidental? No one really knows except those who were in the boat that day. Some islanders speculate that the young bride, who might have been casting greedy eyes on the Dodge fortune, planned this apparent accident—or at least took advantage of the bizarre circumstances. One might suspect the Dodge family—due to their misgivings about the wedding in the first place—might have been given to such speculation.

Some agree with the coroner’s jury that, in the rough waters, Danny simply slipped and fell. Others think that Danny Dodge stepped off into the water because he was crazed with the burning pain and was seeking the cool relief of the water. Lorraine, after a court battle, eventually inherited at least $1.25 million from young Dodge’s estate.

In 1991, when I first happened on this story during a visit to Kagawong, two of the survivors were still alive. One was Lorraine; the other was Lloyd Bryant, the man whom everyone thought would die. Following the accident, Lorraine had a brief marriage to the plastic surgeon who helped her recover. Later, she married another doctor, lived in Indiana and then moved to California. Locals say that from time to time, this island girl would return home for a visit.

As for Bryant, I managed to find him after a bit of a search. And it was worth it. He put a new slant on those final minutes in the boat. Then pushing 90, he had been living in a Gore Bay nursing home. But while there he met and married another resident and they moved into their own house nearby.

When I knocked on his front door, he and his wife, Lillian, were just sitting down to lunch in the kitchen. Bryant invited me, offered a glass of juice, but said he would not talk about the Dodge incident. He indicated that the Dodge family had put some pressure on him to keep quiet. But Lillian, his wife of two years, urged him to open up a bit.

At that point, Bryant said, he did not blame Dodge for the explosion. “I can’t say a bad thing about Danny,” he said. “He was always good to me.

“But,” he went on, “the newspapers had it wrong. They said he would have died anyway. But Danny wasn’t hurt hardly at all. There weren’t any cuts more than a half-inch long or a half-inch deep.

“I think he was scared,” interjected Lillian, speaking of the young man who was responsible for the accident. “He thought Lloyd was going to die. And he just jumped overboard.”

Bryant just nodded. The incident had happened 63 years before, but tears were welling up in his eyes.

Gerald Volgenau writes from Ann Arbor. “The Strange Death of Danny Dodge,” is from his book, Islands: Great Lakes Stories, available in bookstores and online.

Meredith Krell is a printmaker and painter from Charlevoix. Her work can be found in galleries throughout Michigan.