The Gory '20s

(page 4 of 5)

Police documents from the 1929 Evangelist family slayings.

slaughter of the evangelist family

As a faith healer and self-styled prophet, Benny Evangelist was immersed in the dark world of voodoo. This association may have cost him and his family dearly. On the morning of July 3, 1929, a neighborhood real-estate agent let himself into the Evangelists’ home at 3587 St. Aubin, near Mack. He discovered the mystic sitting upright in a trance-like state at his desk. “Evangelist’s plight was devastatingly apparent,” Royce Howes wrote in the 1948 book, Detroit Murders. “His head lay on the floor beside him.” In the upstairs bedrooms, the decapitated victim’s wife, Santina, and four children — Eugenia, 4, Margaret, 5, Angelina, 7, and 18-month-old Mario — lay in “a gory shambles.” All had been hacked to death, evidently with a machete. At the time, it was the worst mass murder in Detroit’s history.

Evangelist, an Italian immigrant born Benedetto Evangelista in 1896 and a carpenter by trade, had founded a cult called the Great Union Federation of America. Worship services took place in the basement of the family home. The Detroit Free Press described Evangelist’s religious sanctum: “Eight or 10 wax figures, each hideous and grotesque to the extreme, and each presumably representing one of the ‘celestial planets,’ were suspended on the altar in a circle by wires from the ceiling. Among them was a huge eye, electrically lighted from the inside, which Evangelist referred to in his bible as ‘the sun.’ ” The walls and ceiling were lined with light-green cloth. A large sign in the basement window, visible to passersby, bore the words: “Great Celestial Planet Exhibition.”

Police made a hash of the case. Hundreds of cops, reporters, and gawkers trampled the crime scene, destroying whatever clues the killer may have left behind. Frustrating investigative efforts was the tight-lipped and clannish Italian immigrant community. Not a single one of Evangelist’s “disciples” could be located, and despite the fact that hundreds of people had come to him for cures, only a handful would even admit to knowing the man.

In the end, nobody ever was charged, though police pursued several promising angles. One involved a semi-secret band of criminals known as the Black Hand, which Evangelist and distant members of his family seemed to have been involved with in some fashion. Police uncovered several notes, including one dated six months before the murders that warned Evangelist: “This is your last chance.” It was signed “The Vendetta.” A hatchet was drawn under the signature. Other circumstantial evidence kept this an open avenue of inquiry, but the various strands could never be woven into a satisfactory hypothesis.

Detectives also explored the possibility that Umberto Tecchio, the last man to see Evangelist alive, was the killer. Tecchio stopped by Evangelist’s home the evening before the murders to make the final payment on a house Evangelist sold him. A friend who accompanied him stated there was nothing unusual about the meeting and that he and Tecchio — who three months earlier had knifed his brother-in-law to death in an argument over a debt — went out drinking the rest of the evening before going home to their boardinghouse to sleep. However, years later a paperboy told police he had seen Tecchio on Evangelist’s front porch early on the morning of the murders. Tecchio died in 1934, and a key witness was deported to Italy, thwarting investigators.

The most intriguing supposal could serve as the storyline of a low-budget “slasher” film. Evangelist had previously lived in York, Pa., where he knew a railroad worker named Aurelius Angelino. Both were natives of Naples, Italy, and shared a fascination with the occult. In 1919, Angelino attempted to kill his entire family with an ax, hacking two of his children to death before being stopped. He was sent to an insane asylum, where he twice escaped and was recaptured. In 1923, he broke out a third time — and was never seen again. Had Angelino somehow made his way to Detroit, where his old friend had set up his eerie basement shrine? As Howes wrote, the massacre of the Evangelist family “is much more suggestive of the fanatic run amok than it is of the neighborhood bad man.”

“Evangelist, no doubt, was insane,” said the parish priest who oversaw the family’s interment at Mount Olivet Cemetery. “I do not believe Evangelist was sincere in practicing the creed he had established. Rather, I believe he founded the mysterious cult with all of its weird props and practices with the sole idea of making money.” What Evangelist ultimately made were headlines — and a mystery that endures.

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