Looking Back: Birmingham’s first murders in 1825

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 12, 2017

Unless you can’t find a parking space, you probably don’t associate the word “murder” with Birmingham.

But Greenwood Cemetery was actually established after two brutal ax murders.

On the evening of April 6, 1825, the bodies of Polly Utter and her 13-year-old daughter, Cynthia, were found outside their cabin just off the Saginaw Trail — known then as Woodward Avenue — north of what is now downtown. Both had sustained large ax wounds on their necks and faces. Polly’s husband, John, and their eldest son had been gone all day, and a toddler and a newborn were found safe inside the cabin.

Suspicion immediately fell on the Utters’ boarder, Imri Fish, brother of the local minister, Elijah Fish. Like the majority of men in the area, both were veterans of the War of 1812. Elijah reported that Imri had run at him with an ax and had killed his horse on the same day of the murders. According to the family, Imri had fallen into “periods of derangement” over the previous nine years. A few days before the murders, he had been found naked in the woods.

Terror swept through the small community as darkness closed in with Imri still at large. There was no police force or even outdoor lighting to put minds at ease in the lonely cabins along the trail.

Fear didn’t stop the women in the community from coming together to ensure that Polly and Cynthia had proper burials, though. According to a local woman who lived during that time, her father stood guard at their door with his rifle while her mother and other ladies of the community set to work. They stitched two burial shrouds out of the only scraps of material in their sewing baskets. Later, various members of the community would help John Utter care for his three surviving children.

In another generous gesture, Ziba Swan donated a quarter-acre of his land to provide a proper burial for the Utter women. That quarter-acre became Greenwood Cemetery. Visitors can still see the monument to Polly and Cynthia Utter in the section closest to the east entrance. Their neighbors and generations of later Birmingham residents rest alongside them.

Imri Fish was apprehended the next day. He declared that it had been “his duty” to kill the two women. He was declared insane by the first court in Oakland County and died later in the county jail in Pontiac.

— Caitlin Donnelly, museum assistant at The Birmingham Museum