(Frank) Murphy’s Law

He held several lofty positions in local, state, and federal government, but Frank Murphy was always a champion of the downtrodden. And, although politics is often a dirty business, he remained untainted and ethical
(Frank) Murphy’s Law
Frank Murphy on a downtown Detroit rooftop in 1930, the year he was elected mayor after Charles Bowles was recalled. Photograph courtesty of Richard Bak

Frank Murphy had been one of the most famous men in America, and now he was dead. On a warm summer day in 1949, some 20,000 Detroiters quietly shuffled through the marbled expanses of old City Hall to say goodbye to the beetle-browed crusader. Another 20,000 were turned away. “They came in shirt sleeves and they came with dinner pails,” a reporter observed. “There was sadness in their faces and many wept publicly, unashamedly.”

The rank and file had a special affection for Murphy, whose mediation of the landmark 1937 Flint sit-down strike had given the fledgling United Automobile Workers a breakthrough victory. At Dodge Truck, where workers had observed one minute of silence when company president Walter Chrysler died, factory hands paused at their workstations for a full five minutes to honor Murphy. When management declared it would dock workers 15 cents each for what amounted to excessive mourning, they countered in a way that would have drawn a sympathetic nod from the recently departed. They went out on strike.

Murphy was a friend to the disadvantaged, a guardian of the downtrodden, and a hero to the working class. As Recorder’s Court judge, mayor of Detroit, governor-general of the Philippines, governor of Michigan, U.S. attorney general, and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, his life intersected with some of the great issues and events of his time. The New York Times described him as “one of the most earnest, interesting, and able men in public life,” an idealist who was “a searcher after the Grail if ever there was one.” Twenty years after his death, downtown Detroit’s new Recorder’s Court was named after him. It has since been expanded into a judicial center known as The Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. Outside is one of the last works by noted Cranbrook sculptor Carl Milles, The Hand of God, which the UAW commissioned to honor Murphy.

Among the pallbearers who accompanied Murphy to his final resting place in his hometown of Harbor Beach was Jim Lincoln, who was on Murphy’s staff in Lansing and Washington before going on to a long career in Detroit as a city councilman and judge. “One of his finest qualities was his easygoing way with people,” says the 92-year-old Lincoln. “Anyone could speak his mind to him and feel at ease. In his eyes, every person, no matter what their skin color or station in life, had dignity and was worthy of respect.”

Murphy had a pretty full life, even before coming to prominence in Detroit. Born William Francis Murphy in 1890 to Irish-American parents in what was then called Sand Beach (on Lake Huron in Michigan’s Thumb), he chose law — his father’s profession — over his mother’s wish that he become a priest. He earned a law degree at the University of Michigan, then did graduate work in London and Dublin. He went overseas again during World War I, serving as an Army captain in occupied Germany before accepting a position as assistant U.S. attorney in the Detroit office. He prosecuted bootleggers, bank robbers, and other criminals, losing just one case in three years. He also created the office’s civil-rights section, the first in the nation.

Murphy had shown himself to be a fearless prosecutor, but he resigned in 1922 to concentrate on the private practice that he and a college friend, Edward Kemp, had set up. Kemp was a quiet and conservative counterweight to Murphy. In the coming years, Kemp would accompany his friend throughout all his travels, remaining his closest confidant.

Murphy had long been active in Democratic politics, and had gained a reputation as a speaker. In 1923, he was persuaded to run for Recorder’s Court judge. Backed by The Detroit Times, which had a running feud with one of the sitting judges, Murphy outpolled all candidates to claim a seat on the municipal court. From that vantage point, he saw what needed fixing and took appropriate action. He changed the bail system so poor citizens could more easily make bond and created a separate traffic court to handle the growing number of minor auto-related offenses that were clogging the docket.

The most important civil-rights trials of the 1920s took place under Murphy’s gaze. One September evening in 1925, a group of whites threatened a black family moving into a house at 2905 Garland on Detroit’s east side. Shots rang out. One member of the mob dropped dead and another fell wounded. Eleven blacks were taken into custody, with the homeowner, Dr. Ossian Sweet, the first to stand trial for murder.

The Sweet case attracted national attention, not the least because the defense brought in the country’s most famous attorney, Clarence Darrow. After a jury of 12 white men could not agree on a verdict in the first trial, Murphy declared a mistrial. Sweet’s brother, the only defendant to admit to firing a gun, was tried next. Thanks to Darrow’s brilliant and theatrical defense, he was acquitted — a stunning victory that affirmed the right of a black man to defend his property in the face of racist threats.

Murphy’s determination to give the defendants a fair trial earned him praise. “It is so seldom that those of us who are trying to secure even-handed justice for Negro citizens encounter one like yourself,” a member of the defense team wrote Murphy, “you may well imagine our joy when that experience does come.”

Murphy liked to affect a tough-guy persona, but the wiry redhead was far from imposing. One observer described his “birdlike” mannerisms. He was an ascetic who eschewed alcohol and tobacco, but occasionally binged on chocolate ice cream. An exercise fanatic, his favorite pastime was horseback riding. His distinguishing characteristic was a set of eyebrows so astonishing they appeared to have been applied with a vaudevillian’s greasepaint.

More intimidating was his incorruptibility. Murphy, coming from a tight-knit family, was devoted to his siblings George and Marguerite, who at times drew enough financial support to be listed as dependents on his tax return. Although he enjoyed a comfortable income for most of his career, it was never near what he could have made in the private sector. “His devotion to public service was total,” Lincoln says. “He was not interested in money. He could not be corrupted because he could not be tempted.”

In 1930, Charles Bowles — a controversial figure with alleged ties to gangsters and the Ku Klux Klan — became the first mayor of a big American city ever recalled from office. At the urging of business leaders and newspapers, Murphy ran in the special election that followed, riding the votes of the “common herd” of ordinary citizens to victory.

Detroit’s new mayor took over a city filled with misery as citizens struggled with the effects of a deep economic depression. Auto production fell 75 percent between 1929 and 1932, resulting in newsreel images of soup lines, labor strife, and political agitators. For many, the loss of a job represented a loss of dignity and an overpowering sense of personal failure. “It seems to me I have lost all my ability as a responsible man,” an unemployed worker who refused welfare wrote Murphy. “It seems to me I have some shortcomings somewhere.”


In confronting the immense challenges of The Great Depression, Murphy was creative and proactive, “a new dealer even before there was a New Deal,” observed his principal biographer, Sidney Fine, a retired University of Michigan professor and historian. He arranged for Detroiters to plant “thrift gardens” on empty city-owned lots, persuaded industrialists to turn over empty factories so they could be converted into boardinghouses for the homeless, and devised a plan that allowed delinquent property owners to pay their taxes over a seven-year period.

Murphy also was responsible for the apple vendors that became the iconic image of Depression-era Detroit. He arranged to have unemployed men, many of whom were physically handicapped, buy apples from a local produce company at 2 cents apiece. The apples were then resold on street corners for a nickel.

At the program’s peak, 650 Detroiters were supporting their families by selling apples.

Murphy’s profile grew when he organized meetings of desperate mayors — first statewide, then nationally — that in 1933 officially became the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He was elected the first president of the group, which helped persuade Congress to provide direct federal aid to cash-strapped cities for the first time in the country’s history. Even the Detroit Free Press, unfriendly to the administration, had to concede: “Frank Murphy could be elected president or emperor of any great country in the world as the Great Humanitarian.” His constituency was made up of laborers, Catholics, blacks, and first- and second-generation immigrants.

The charismatic public servant was not without his faults. He could be self-absorbed, sanctimonious, and too ambitious. Murphy, whose favorite topic of conversation was himself and his work, took some heat for being a publicity hound. The press also questioned the size of his personal security detail — two uniformed officers and two plainclothesmen — when previous mayors had just one or two cops protecting them. But these were minor blemishes on an otherwise outstanding mayoral record. He easily won a second term in the 1932 election that swept Franklin D. Roosevelt into the White House. It was the first time in 80 years that Michigan, a Republican stronghold for generations, had gone for the Democratic presidential candidate.

Murphy had campaigned hard for Roosevelt, and FDR rewarded his loyalty. In April 1933, Murphy was appointed governor-general of the Philippines. He saw the governorship of America’s most important overseas possession as a possible steppingstone to the presidency. While Murphy enjoyed the emoluments of his position — the governor’s palace, the servants, the yacht — he also confessed to feeling guilty about such perks. A devout Catholic, he continued to pray daily from the now-worn Bible his mother had given him the day he went off to college.

Murphy was wedded to his job, which was guiding the Philippines’ transition from a territory to a commonwealth en route to eventual total independence from the United States. “I have work to do and a short time in which to do it,” he wrote his brother.

Such single-mindedness was Murphy’s stock excuse for not settling down with one of his many female friends. Throughout his long public career, the press would report on a variety of companions, including actress Ann Harding and the equally stunning Ann Parker, selected as the most beautiful “girl” at Smith College. His lifelong preference for the company of younger women caused syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler to dub him Frank “Hubba-Hubba” Murphy. When he left the Philippines in 1936, a local newspaper headlined its report: “Manila Maids Mourn Murphy’s Leaving.”

Murphy returned to Michigan to run for governor against the Republican incumbent, Frank Fitzgerald. Not everybody was enamored with the liberal challenger. Rural voters hated the idea of welfare, while business owners considered the New Deal to be an insidious form of Communism. On Nov. 3, 1936, thanks to overwhelming support among Detroit and Wayne County voters, Murphy squeaked out a narrow victory.

The new governor was faced with a major crisis right off the bat. When he took office on Jan. 1, 1937, autoworkers in Flint had just seized a pair of General Motors plants in an attempt to force the automaker to recognize their grievances. GM officials refused to negotiate, so the “sit-downers” barricaded themselves inside, while picketers guarded the gates against police and GM henchmen.

At 88, Geraldine Blankinship is one of a dwindling number of surviving strikers and their supporters from the event. “It wasn’t all about money,” she says. “The conditions were inhumane in the plants.” Blankinship recalls the unusually hot summer of 1936, when workers would “pass out on the line and they wouldn’t even drag them away. You’d have to step over them.” Terror ruled the shop floor. Workers who left the line for the restroom were followed, timed, and harassed. Union organizers were beaten by company goons.

On Jan. 11, 1937, police stormed the barricaded strikers, firing tear gas and bullets. Workers fought back by hurling rocks and hinges and blasting water from fire hoses. At the battle’s end, 27 people had been injured. Thirteen strikers and their sympathizers suffered gunshot wounds. Murphy ordered National Guard troops to Flint. “When we heard that, we thought the strikers were going to get dragged out, maybe even shot down,” says Blankinship, whose father was one of the sit-downers. “But the governor sent them to protect the workers. He didn’t want a bloodbath.”

Murphy ignored a court order to evict the strikers from the plants. While guardsmen kept the peace, he skillfully negotiated talks between the UAW and GM. Both sides gave concessions. On Feb. 11, Murphy announced that an agreement had been reached. The biggest prize was the world’s largest carmaker agreeing to recognize the UAW as the sole bargaining agent for GM workers. After 44 days, what is generally acknowledged as the most important strike in labor history had ended peacefully and with the UAW in firm control of its destiny. From that point, the UAW took off, gaining instant credibility.

Murphy was not against big business; he simply wanted employers to behave more humanely. “We have got to realize that no one is secure until all are secure,” he explained, “that injustice to anyone is injustice to everyone.” When strikers shut down several Detroit auto plants in 1937, he again refused to send in state troops to evict the squatters. Soon Chrysler and other large employers had no choice but to capitulate.

As governor, Murphy could boast the most reform-minded administration in decades. He did away with the spoils system among state employees and installed a civil-service system. The sick, elderly, indigent, and jobless benefited from new legislation. When he lost his re-election bid in 1938, many thought the defeat was payback for his pro-union sympathies, though Lincoln points out that the incumbent was running in an off-year election without the benefit of Roosevelt’s name at the top of the ticket.


Roosevelt soon found another spot for one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, this time as U.S. attorney general. As Murphy boarded the Washington, D.C.-bound train at Michigan Central Station one January day in 1939, he “seemed a little sad to be leaving Detroit because … he felt that it closed that whole chapter of his life,” his sister-in-law observed.

Murphy’s Michigan years had indeed drawn to a close, though the decade he was to spend in Washington was filled with the same high level of achievement. As attorney general, he cracked down on racketeering, most notably corrupt political machines in Kansas City and Philadelphia. He also created the department’s first civil-rights section.

A year later, Roosevelt appointed him to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Lincoln, hearing the news, walked into Murphy’s office to offer congratulations. “Jim,” he said, his head in his hands, “I don’t want to do it.” Murphy, who had been touted by Time as a potential presidential or vice-presidential candidate, knew his political career was over, Lincoln says. FDR, looking ahead to his run for an unprecedented third term, had deftly removed a rival.

Murphy donned his jurist’s robe in February 1940. During his nine years as an associate justice, he stood out as the evangelist on a bench filled with legal scholars. His opinions typically were rooted more in humanism than in the fine points of the law, causing a fellow justice to nickname him “the Saint.” In his dissent to a 1944 decision that upheld the government’s right to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II, Murphy deplored “the ugly abyss of racism” — the first use of the word “racism” in a Supreme Court opinion.

If the cloistered life of an associate justice meant “the end of ambition,” as Murphy put it, certain rumors refused to die. There was considerable speculation that the unattached ladies’ man was, in fact, gay. Among other hints, gossipers pointed to the inseparable relationship between Murphy and Edward Kemp, who shared living arrangements throughout their adult lives. Their unusually close relationship was similar to the one another prominent Washington contemporary, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, had with his constant companion, Clyde Tolson. Roosevelt, whose son-in-law privately considered Murphy a “pansy,” was aware of the gossip and urged Murphy to “get busy” about marrying.

Fine briefly addressed the question of Murphy’s sexual orientation in his comprehensive three-volume biography. The respected historian later said he was “never able to find anything that could pin it down,” though he did uncover a letter, written when Murphy was attorney general, “that, if the words mean what they say, refers to a homosexual encounter between Murphy and the writer.” Deb Price, The Detroit News’ Washington-based columnist on gay issues, and her life partner, journalist Joyce Murdoch, dug into the private lives of Supreme Court justices in their well-received book, Courting Justice. “If I had to bet a week’s salary on it,” Murdoch told a reviewer from The Advocate, “I would say yes, he was gay.”

Toward the end of his life, Murphy was engaged to Joan Cuddihy — the granddaughter of the publisher of Literary Digest and a woman half his age — though there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm on the part of the aging bachelor to actually set a wedding date. Murphy instructed his longtime secretary, Eleanor Baumgardner, to find a house that could comfortably accommodate the engaged couple, along with Baumgardner and Kemp. If Murphy was indeed gay at a time when homosexuality was a crime in most of the country and career suicide for politicians, the effort in keeping such an explosive secret from the public would have added to the stress that was already slowly killing him.

Murphy’s health steadily declined when he was in his 50s. He was treated for heart and circulation problems. He also suffered from sciatic neuralgia. Unable to sleep properly and racked by pain in his back and legs, he became hooked on Demerol and Seconal. His dependency never appeared to impair his judgment, but the seedy nature of his addiction troubled those closest to him. When doctors refused to write him any more prescriptions, he began buying the drugs from shady middlemen in hotel rooms. Murphy insisted he had the problem under control while repeatedly trying — and failing — to wean himself off his addiction.

Ignoring calls to step down because of his failing health and frequent absences, Murphy made it through the 1948-49 term. Just before the court adjourned for its summer recess, the exhausted justice flexed his bicep for a reporter. “They say I’m sick,” he declared. “But feel that muscle. They can’t keep a man like me down.” Shortly after that, he checked into Henry Ford Hospital, where he suffered a coronary thrombosis on the morning of July 19, 1949, his heart holding out until a priest could administer the last rites of the church. He was 59.

Murphy’s estate was later probated at $11,000, not quite enough to satisfy the $12,000 in debts he left behind. For many years, a simple wooden cross marked his grave at a small cemetery on Lake Huron — the terminus to what had been a remarkable journey from the quiet bean fields of Michigan’s Thumb through the raucous corridors of one of the most eventful periods in American history.

“I have never deviated from the path I set out for myself when I first started in public life,” he had reflected in a letter to an old friend. “So many public servants are new-born liberals only to be sound conservatives the next day, forgetting the inarticulate and the plundered poor.”

Bak is a Dearborn freelancer. Editorial@hourdetroit.com.