One of 1933's most shocking murders was committed May 27 in Flint, Michigan, by a 17-year-old boy after a quarrel with his mother. The confrontation was nothing new — teenager Balfe MacDonald long had been considered a problem child — but his actions that day confirmed fears his mother had shared with a neighbor just two days earlier.

Syracuse American, May 28, 1933
Woman Killed, Police Look for Her Son
FLINT, Michigan (INS) — A well-defined set of fingerprints and a blood-stained pair of trousers, to which gray hairs adhered, furnished the first clues last night in the slaying of wealthy Mrs. Grace R. MacDonald.

To this evidence was added the story of the millionaire widow’s next-door neighbor, Dr. David L. Treat, that Thursday night Mrs. MacDonald fled to his home in her night clothes and burst in sobbing that “Balfe just threatened to kill me!”

Balfe MacDonald, 17, missing since early yesterday, is sought for questioning in the murder of his mother.

The fingerprints were found on the bloody bookend with which Mrs. MacDonald’s head was crushed sometime before dawn yesterday.

Enhancing the suspicion attaching to the boy was the discovery of the bloody clothing. The trousers, blotched by stains to which hair of the same color as the mother’s adhered, were found in a tangle near the bed in Balfe’s room.

The search for the boy and William Terwilliger, 16, an intimate friend, missing with him, turned to Chicago when detectives learned Balfe had boasted he would attend the world’s fair whether his mother “liked it or not.”

Balfe is the only son of the late Bruce MacDonald, a banker. He died two years ago, and at that time his estate was estimated at $3 million. He was formerly president of the First National Bank of Flint.

Mrs. MacDonald was the mother of two other children, Mrs. Harold Palmer, 26, of Ann Arbor, and Gwen Laurie, 23, a co-ed at the University of California, Berkeley.


Buffalo Courier-Express, June 13, 1933
Teen Admits Beating Mother to Death
FLINT, Michigan (AP) — Seventeen-year-old Balfe MacDonald, a “problem youth” who fought against parental control, confessed yesterday that he beat his mother, Mrs. Grace Baird MacDonald, 54, to death in her bedroom on May 27. County authorities said the teenager admitted killing his mother during a quarrel in which she threatened to have him placed in a reformatory.

The confession was made a few hours after MacDonald, with his companion in flight, William Terwilliger, 16, were returned here from Nashville, Tennessee, where they had been arrested on charges of attempted extortion.

“I hit her three or four times,” said the youth, explaining that he used the heavier of two bookends in his mother’s room.

“She looked at me and her arms were up,” he went on. “She said, ‘You can’t do this to me.’ She didn’t say anything more and just tossed over and over in bed and said, ‘Balfe!’ ”

MacDonald, attired in fresh clothing, was arraigned before Justice Frank W. Cain yesterday afternoon on a first degree murder warrant, and examination was demanded. It was set for June 16, and MacDonald was taken to the county jail. He showed no emotion as he was brought into a crowded courtroom.

Terwilliger, against whom no formal charges have been made, is held as a material witness. Local authorities said he probably would be returned to Nashville to answer the attempted extortion charges there.

Young MacDonald’s statement indicated that against his mother’s wishes he had brought Terwilliger to his home and placed him in the basement to wait until MacDonald obtained money from his mother’s purse for a trip to California.


Two years later, while housed in a Michigan prison, Balfe MacDonald gained attention because of an unusual new state law that billed convicts — those who could afford it, anyway — for living expenses.

Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal, August 23, 1935
Inmate to Pay Room and Board
LANSING, Michigan — Michigan’s prisons aren’t free hotels. There are no “Board and Room” signs hanging on the doors of the state’s penitentiaries, but there might as well be!

Many of the state’s convicts — at least five percent of them — are finding that even in jail they must pay their “hotel bills.”

Michigan’s new and unique law stipulates that prisoners must pay for their own keep, when able. It threatens to make Balfe MacDonald, Flint problem boy who beat his mother to death with a heavy bookend, its first “victim.”

It is estimated by Warden Charles Shen of the Michigan Southern penitentiary that approximately five percent of the entire prison population of the state will be affected by the measure. Its return in dollars and cents remain to be determined.

Young MacDonald was selected as the first target because he holds the somewhat drab distinction of being the state’s wealthiest prisoner.

He is the son of a former Flint bank president, who left a fortune of $3 million when he died. However, the estate dwindled to approximately $500,000 by 1933. Balfe’s share of it, together with $40,000 he received from his mother’s estate of $240,000, left him with a personal bank account and estate of approximately $300,000.

Mrs. Grace MacDonald, his socialite mother, was found beaten to death in her mansion in Flint on May 27, 1933.

Authorities began preparations to prosecute him on a first degree murder charge and attorneys for the youth immediately conceived what was known at the time as “a million dollar insanity defense.”

Finally, however, MacDonald pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to a 10-to-20 year term. This means he will serve from 7-1/2 to 15 years.

Counsel for John J. O’Hara, state auditor general, recently filled a bill for $464 in circuit court at Flint to cover the cost of MacDonald’s prison accommodations to date. The petition cites the inmates fare costs from 52 to 90.5 cents per day.


Balfe MacDonald was released from prison in February, 1940, and given what was left of his father’s estate, estimated at about $200,000.

On October 27, 2007 a story by Jeff Johnson was published in the Flint Journal. It was about the house where the murder had taken place. It just so happened that it was up for sale — again.

The Georgian colonial home at 1611 Crescent Drive in Flint's upscale Knob Hill subdivision was built in 1916 by one-time city mayor George Kellar.

A few years later the house belonged to Grace MacDonald, who had three children — two daughters and son Balfe. Whether Balfe's father, banker Bruce J. MacDonald, ever lived at 1611 Crescent Drive, wasn't mentioned. He died in 1922.

After Balfe MacDonald killed his mother, the house went on the market, but remained unsold for a few years until a real estate agent bought it and lived there for 27 years.

In 1979, the house was purchased by Helen Wirsing, who never had the chance to live there because she, too, was killed by her 17-year-old son who shot his mother at the family cottage on one of the lakes in Holly, a few miles south of Flint. Mark Wirsing buried his mother's body near the cottage, but it wasn't discovered for six months. The boy admitted the killing, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

By now, the house at 1611 Crescent Drive was considered by some to be haunted. That didn't discourage Dr. Vladimir Schwartsman, who knew all about its history when he bought the house in 1981. Schwartsman, who later moved to Utah, told reporter Johnson that he and his family lived happily in the house for 11 years — and never once encountered a ghost.