John D. Voelker

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John D. Voelker (right) in the trailer for Anatomy of a Murder, with filmmaker Otto Preminger (left)

John D. Voelker (June 19, 1903[1]–March 19, 1991), better known by his pen name Robert Traver, was a renowned fly fisherman, and a member of the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. His early professional career was as an attorney, judge, and later a writer. He is best known as the author of the novel, Anatomy of a Murder published in 1958. The best-selling novel was turned into an Academy Award nominated film—directed by Otto Preminger and starring James Stewart—that was released July 1, 1959. Duke Ellington wrote the music for the movie. It is critically acclaimed as one of the best trial movies of all time.

Anatomy of a Murder is based on a real homicide and subsequent trial that occurred in Big Bay, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the early morning of July 31, 1952.[2] Coleman A. Peterson, a lieutenant in the Army, was charged with murdering Maurice Chenoweth. The alleged motive was revenge for the rape of Peterson's wife by Chenoweth. Voelker successfully defended Peterson, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Life and work[edit]

Voelker had German ancestry.[3] He was born in Ishpeming, Michigan, and spent most of his life there. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1928 and practiced law for a time in Chicago, Illinois, before tiring of city life and returning to Ishpeming to enter private practice. Later, he was elected to the office of Marquette County prosecutor. In 1957, he was appointed the 74th justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and was subsequently reelected to that position. After the success of his novel, Anatomy of a Murder, Voelker retired from the court in 1959 in order to write full-time and to fish at his beloved Frenchman's Pond.[4] There, he devoted himself to writing, and perhaps above all else, fly fishing, with a special passion for wild brook trout. Although he traveled far in his pursuit of trout, he recognized the Upper Peninsula as a particularly special place to fish. His writings, though steeped in fly fishing, also embraced the larger beauty of nature, and human nature.

Under the pen name Robert Traver, Voelker published a number of novels and short stories with legal themes, all with the small-town Upper Peninsula Michigan setting he was most familiar with. He chose to write under a different pen name in order to assure others that his agenda as a writer and a prosecutor were completely separate. He also published three books on fishing which are regarded as classics of the genre. The Escanaba River was the setting for many of his fishing stories.

Voelker was profiled as a subject of an On the Road segment with Charles Kuralt on the CBS Evening News and was regarded by Kuralt as one of the most interesting subjects that the correspondent interviewed in his career.

In 1964, John Voelker wrote Testament of a Fisherman, under the nom de plume Robert Traver. To a vast number of trout anglers, Voelker’s piece best exemplifies the love of this sport.[citation needed]


Thomas M. Cooley Law School, one of the largest law schools in the United States founded in Lansing, Michigan by a former Michigan Supreme Court Justice, names its various graduating classes after prominent Michigan jurists. In May 1997, Thomas M. Cooley Law School graduated the "John D. Voelker Class."


  • Trouble-Shooter: The Story of a Northwoods Prosecutor, 1943 (memoir)
  • Danny and the Boys, 1951 (novel)
  • Small Town D.A., 1954 (short stories and essays)
  • Anatomy of a Murder, 1958 (novel)
  • Trout Madness, 1960 (short stories)
  • Hornstein's Boy, 1962 (novel)
  • Anatomy of a Fisherman, 1964 (non-fiction)
  • Laughing Whitefish, 1965 (novel)
  • The Jealous Mistress, 1967 (essays)
  • Trout Magic, 1974 (short stories)
  • People Versus Kirk, 1981 (novel)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "John D. Voelker Biography". Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society. 
  2. ^ Shaul, Richard D. (November–December 2001). "Backwoods Barrister" (PDF) 85 (6). Michigan History. pp. 84–87. OCLC 220951644. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 1, 2008. Retrieved December 7, 2011. 
  3. ^ Baker, Fredrick M., Jr. & Vander Veen, Rich, III (May 2000). "John D. Voelker: Michigan’s Literary Justice". Michigan Lawyers in History. Michigan Bar Journal 79 (5): 530–31. ISSN 0164-3576. 
  4. ^ McCullough, Chelsea (2003). Voelker's Pond: A Robert Traver Legacy. Chelsea, MI: Huron River Press. ISBN 978-1-932399-00-4. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]