The Gory '20s


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In a decade rife with hoods, hit men, bootleggers, and two-bit punks who thought nothing of spilling blood if they were crossed, slayings were common. Then there were murderous crimes of passion more singular in motive. Following are some notorious cold cases that still bring chills today, and which earned Detroit national notoriety during the Jazz Age.

It was, in every sense of the phrase, murder most foul. The odor emanating from the unclaimed steamer trunk at the American Railway Express warehouse in New York grew stronger with each passing day. Finally, freight office employees could take it no longer. They opened the cheap trunk — and gagged at what they found. Inside was the decomposing corpse of a young woman, her heart, lungs, and other internal organs missing. Police determined the victim had been murdered in Detroit and then shipped to New York. 

It was July 23, 1920. The ’20s, a decade renowned for its decadence, was off to a roaring start. It would not be the last time during this period that Detroit seized national headlines for a murder that titillated the public and perplexed detectives. Exactly a decade later, in the predawn hours of July 23, 1930, Detroit’s most popular and influential radio commentator, Jerry Buckley, was gunned down inside the lobby of the La Salle Hotel on Woodward. The assailants fired nearly a dozen bullets into the crusading “Voice of the People,” including six to the back of the head.

Although not related, the two murders, spaced 10 years apart, serve as bookends to a time that saw a soaring number of homicides in Detroit. Many were gang-related, the distressingly routine byproducts of turf battles over liquor trafficking during Prohibition. Some were so singular in their motive or execution that they immediately became part of the city’s lore. What follows are several sensational homicides from Jazz Age Detroit. Because there’s no statute of limitations on murder, these cases officially remain open to this day, which is not to say that investigators at the time didn’t usually have a good idea of who was responsible.

Most homicides “are not deep mysteries or even aggravating riddles to detectives,” Charles Givens, a reporter for the Detroit Times and Detroit Free Press, once observed. “In nine out of 10 unsolved cases, they are virtually certain who the murderer was. Proof is another thing. Ask questions of detectives who handled these so-called mysteries, and in the majority of cases, you get the same answer: ‘We know who the murderer was, but there were no eyewitnesses and he had sense enough to keep it simple.’ A shrug of the shoulders … the simple art of murder.”

the woman in the trunk

Throngs of morbid New Yorkers flocked to the rail express warehouse on East 44th Street on that July day in 1920, as word spread of the monstrous discovery of a mutilated young woman crammed into a trunk. The unclad body “had been laid open, as if with a surgeon’s knife, from throat to pelvis, and all internal organs removed,” The New York Times reported. Was a new Jack the Ripper on the loose? Policemen kept the rubberneckers at bay as the body was removed to the morgue and investigators began their grim work.

The trunk was addressed to James Douglass, in care of the American Express Co. Paperwork showed it had been shipped by A.A. Taiturn of 105 Harper, Detroit, on June 10, and moved into storage on June 17. Detectives discovered the sender’s name was supposed to be Tatum. Clerks had misread the scribbled handwriting as “Taiturn.” This explained why they had been unable to locate the trunk for a deliveryman who told police he had been hired by a certain “E. Le Roy” to claim it for the fictitious Douglass. Police theorized the man who paid the deliveryman for his unsuccessful pickup had been the killer.

Allan Tatum, the purported sender, surrendered to police in Birmingham, Ala. The linotype operator had returned there after spending several months in Detroit. He had nothing to hide. In fact, he was so scared of Le Roy — a man he had never met — that he opted to remain jailed for protection’s sake.

The woman in the trunk was soon identified as Katherine Lou Jackson, a young, petite divorcee who was the common-law wife of Eugene Le Roy. The couple had met the previous year while staying at the Interurban Hotel; both were newcomers to the city. By the spring of 1920, they lived in a third-floor room at the apartment building on Harper.

Le Roy was known to have a short fuse. According to Tatum, Jackson had told him that Le Roy once chased her out into the street with a knife, threatening to kill her. Tatum and Jackson had known each other in Birmingham. At Jackson’s request, Tatum came to Detroit to comfort her. Whether they also were lovers is unknown. Le Roy, who at the time was enjoying his own affair with an actress, obviously thought so.

Police surmised Le Roy killed Jackson out of jealousy, possibly using chloroform to first knock her out. No bloody clothes or blankets were ever found, suggesting the killer had burned them in the basement incinerator. Le Roy used Tatum’s name as a sick joke and a false lead when shipping her remains out of town. He had apparently intended to pick up the trunk and destroy its contents, a plan that backfired because of a simple misspelling on the sender’s address label.

Le Roy was faintly recalled by acquaintances as having been employed in the auto industry, either as an engineer or mechanic, though that may have been a ruse. He was variously described as “ferret-faced,” a man of medium build, dark complexion, and “shiny black hair,” wearing “sporty clothes” and “frequently in the company of women.” He was said to use perfume “lavishly.” New York police quickly implicated him in two recent hotel murders, including that of a 17-year-old woman. This person reportedly used several aliases, including P.P. Poulvrer, O.J. Woods, and O.J. Fernandez.

Whatever the fugitive’s true identity, he had a much larger and considerably less-documented world to move around in than today. In 1920, there were no national crime databases, DNA registries, computers, or even Social Security numbers to assist the authorities. It was still possible for a wanted man to simply vanish. So it was with Le Roy. Over the next several years, men resembling him were spotted in Mexico, arrested in Cheboygan, and detained in Uruguay. Each time, however, what seemed a promising break in the case came to nothing.

The last flurry of sightings occurred in Chicago. In February 1925, a carnival worker named Frank J. Le Roy was arrested, principally because of his name and a unique scar that matched the one the suspect was thought to have on his left leg. However, police soon determined the man had been in a Cleveland jail at the time of the murder. That November, a waiter matching Le Roy’s description was picked up in the same city. He, too, was soon set free.

An already cold trail slipped into deep freeze. No trace of Le Roy was ever found. Neither was a second trunk the killer was known to have shipped from Detroit the same day as the first — this one presumably containing the victim’s missing organs.

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