The Dark Days of the Black Legion
(page 2 of 3)
Poole, 22, was a slightly built, pleasant-looking man of French heritage, with slicked-back hair and a pencil mustache. A Catholic who had been chased out of Kentucky by the local Klan, he had been married for three years to Becky, an attractive, blond-haired Baptist. In the spring of 1936, she was pregnant with their second child. Charley had been approached about joining the Legion but said no. His mildly disparaging comments about the group annoyed Lowell Rushing, a young Legionnaire whose brother was married to Becky’s sister. Rushing fabricated a story about Charley beating Becky, knowing full well the Legion’s likely response. Some people later suggested Rushing was infatuated with Becky and wanted to remove Charley from the scene. Whatever his motive, the result was the same.
Detroiters were shocked at newspaper stories describing Poole’s murder, with page-one photos of the murdered man’s young family producing a blend of outrage and sympathy. Within days, several of the victim’s friends stepped forward and described three men as having visited Poole’s house on the day of the killing. Harvey Davis, a 38-year-old employee of Detroit’s public-lighting department, was the first to be taken in for questioning.
Davis had a commanding presence: tall with graying close-cropped hair, bushy eyebrows, and a perpetually sullen look. Speaking with a Southern accent, he talked in a roundabout way about “something sinister and gigantic, a threat to the peace of the nation itself.” Fascinated detectives were hearing of the Black Legion for the first time. Every person of interest Davis named was quickly tracked down and brought in. Search warrants were executed, and soon an arsenal of pistols, rifles, ammunition, knives, blackjacks, whips, and leather-bladed bludgeons was stockpiled on desktops for the cameras. Some detectives donned robes for the photographers. On May 22, nine days after Poole’s body was found, Detroit’s three dailies screamed with front-page news about “a fantastic tale of terrorism … straight from the heart of the Deep South of Carpetbag days.”
Among the earliest of those arrested and charged in the Poole case was the chief triggerman. Dayton Dean worked with Davis in the public-lighting department and was a “major” in the Legion. A short, thickset Navy veteran with oddly spaced eyes, the 36-year-old grade-school dropout admitted he had fired the first shots — but only because he had feared being plugged by Davis if he hadn’t obeyed his command. Dean had once been tied to a tree and flogged by his fellow Legionnaires for some transgression, and that memory was still fresh.
Dean was shocked to learn from detectives that Becky Poole had actually given birth to the baby she had supposedly miscarried (a girl she named Nancy) and that she claimed to have never been mistreated by her husband. “A horrible mistake,” Dean said. “But I was just following the orders of my superiors.” To the delight of his interrogators, the shaken suspect abandoned the blood oath he had made to keep the inner workings of the Legion a secret unto death. He started talking — and kept talking for days. In the view of Charles T. Haun, who covered the case for the Detroit Free Press, “somewhere in that peculiar mind there was a sense of fair play, a willingness to be a good boy after having been such a very bad one. It made police a little afraid of what he had to tell, but most of his stories turned out to be true ones.”
The second murder Dean detailed, after Poole’s, was the racially motivated “thrill killing” of Silas Coleman. One May evening in 1935, the 42-year-old Army veteran was taken out into the marshes near Pinckney and forced to run for his life before finally being gunned down. The ringleader was Davis, who had simply wanted to “see how it felt to shoot a Negro,” Dean said. On another occasion, a carload of Legionnaires, frustrated over not finding their targeted prey, randomly shot and wounded a black man walking down an Ecorse street.
More revelations poured forth — of murders and attempted murders, of fire-bombings and floggings, of spooky rituals and ominous-sounding oaths. Dean told of failed Legion plots to kill the publisher of a Highland Park newspaper, who was running for office against a Legion candidate, and the mayor of Ecorse, who had hired too many Negroes for the Legion’s taste. He described the initiation ceremony, where new members knelt with a loaded pistol aimed at the back of their head and swore: “In the name of God and the devil, one to reward and the other to punish, and by the powers of light and darkness, goodness and evil, here under the black arch of heaven’s avenging symbol, I pledge and consecrate my heart, my brain, my body, and limbs; and swear by all the powers of heaven and hell, to devote my life to the obedience of my superiors that I will exert every possible means in my power for the extermination of the antichrist, Communist, the Roman hierarchy, and their abettors.”
Caught up in the excitement of this newfound threat, the press published unsubstantiated claims of the Legion’s size and its body count of victims. The Legion was said to be responsible for as many as 50 deaths, many of them staged suicides, stated the Free Press, while The Detroit News reported 10,000 Legionnaires in Wayne County alone. The Associated Press wrote of “vague stories of a plot to establish a Fascist dictatorship with 6 million armed men taking part in a coup … .” This involved issuing the Legion’s ultimate password, “Lixto,” which, when sounded at a prearranged time, would call members to take over government buildings, arsenals, and power plants.
Just how insidious was the Black Legion? In Oakland County, Circuit Judge George Hartrick conducted a one-man grand-jury investigation. He estimated the Legion had between 2,200 and 4,500 members countywide. In addition to scores of policemen in Pontiac and Royal Oak, their ranks included 86 public officials, among them the county prosecutor, a state legislator, and the police chief of Royal Oak. In Wayne County, the city halls of Ecorse and Highland Park were found to be riddled with “black knights” in positions of power, while Detroit’s police chief was widely suspected of being a Legionnaire. These kinds of ties helped explain why certain crimes committed by the Legion before Poole’s murder were unenthusiastically investigated.
Among the most shocking developments — though it didn’t come to light until after the trials of Poole’s killers were completed — was Wayne County prosecutor Duncan McCrea admitting to having “accidentally” signed a membership card. Legion defendants testified McCrea had actually gone through the initiation ceremony and attended secret meetings. McCrea’s past affiliation with the Legion didn’t prevent him from vigorously prosecuting the Poole case.
Each new revelation ramped up the hysteria. At the time, the public was absorbing newspaper reports and newsreel images of fascism on the march throughout Europe. Could a homegrown movement topple the U.S. government? The ongoing depression of the 1930s provided the perfect ingredients for revolution: fear, desperation, confusion, and hate. Two national symbols of intolerance were right in Detroit’s own backyard, as automaker Henry Ford and “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin shook their fists at Jewish bankers and Bolshevik union organizers. In such an environment, it was easy to over-reckon the power and reach of this strange new group.
However, the deeper investigators dug, the more apparent it became that the Legion was not a tightly controlled national paramilitary organization of ideologically driven acolytes prepared to move in lockstep at a moment’s notice. They found an uncoordinated collection of cells of poorly educated blue-collar workers, centered principally in Michigan and Ohio, with a scattering of members in Indiana and Illinois. According to historians who have studied the Legion, its membership rolls numbered between 60,000 and 100,000 overall.
As exemplars of the model Christian behavior they demanded of others, local Legion leaders fell far short. Davis was revealed to have been a petty criminal in Kentucky before moving to Detroit, serving time for grand larceny and impersonation. Dean hardly qualified as anyone’s choice to defend the flower of Protestant womanhood. After his first wife divorced him for cruelty, his common-law wife — with whom he’d had two children — left him after he was found taking “indecent liberties” with the woman’s 14-year-old daughter. The woman said she dropped sexual-assault charges against Dean after his Legion friends threatened to “dump me in a ditch.”