White supremacists of the 1930s maintained there was one sure way to identify a fellow member of the “master race” — blushing. It was thought that only a true pureblood Aryan could display a noticeable change of color in their skin upon an episode of shyness, shame, or modesty. That Charley Poole was a non-Aryan was not the real issue with the Black Legion, which saw to it that his cheeks were eternally blanched for a different, more powerful reason: the sanctity of Protestant womanhood. On the night of May 12, 1936, the young unemployed autoworker was taken into the countryside west of Detroit and shot five times at point-blank range, an honor killing that was the latest in a long string of atrocities committed by the black-robed vigilantes.“Nobody could hate Charley,” cried Becky Poole, after being told by detectives that her husband’s body had been found near Gulley Road in what is now Dearborn Heights. “He never hurt anyone in his whole life.”
That wasn’t what the local chapter of the Legion — which included Becky’s brother-in-law, Lowell Rushing — believed. Rushing had gotten wind of Charley’s occasional arguments with Becky and reported back to his friends at the Wolverine Republican Club, one of various fronts the Legion used to mask its activities. He exaggerated the Pooles’ discord, which typically centered on Charley’s inability to find a steady job. At a secret meeting inside a rented hall, “Colonel” Harvey Davis helped stir Legionnaires into a frenzy by describing Charley as an abusive husband who had beaten his pregnant wife so badly she had miscarried. “What shall we do about such a man?” he asked. “Whip him!” members yelled. “Kill him!”
The following evening, as Becky lay in her bed at Detroit’s Herman Kiefer Hospital, Rushing lured Charley into a car filled with Legion members. Charley, a talented sandlot ball player, thought he had been invited to the organizational meeting of a factory baseball team, which would have assured him a job at the sponsoring plant. But, in the hard-boiled vernacular of the day, this was a one-way ride. “You’ve beaten your wife for the last time,” he was told before being shot and dumped into a ditch.
As unremarkable as Poole’s life had been up to that point, in death he wound up extracting an extraordinary price from his killers. His murder caused the previously unknown Black Legion to explode into the headlines, resulting in most of its leaders being sent to prison and exposing the clandestine brotherhood of bullies to ridicule. “Hooey may look like romance and adventure in the moonlight,” The Detroit News editorialized toward the end of the Legion’s brief but spectacular appearance on the public stage, “but it always looks like hooey when you bring it out in the daylight.”
Despite its similarities with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Black Legion wasn’t a direct descendant of that right-wing organization, but more like a sinister stepbrother. Many Legionnaires were former or concurrent members of the Klan, originally a vigilante group active in the former Confederacy for several years following the Civil War. In 1915, the Klan was jolted out of its decades-long dormancy by D. W. Griffith’s controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. Hollywood’s first blockbuster sentimentalized the KKK and provided a new generation of extremists with a template for ritualistic terrorism, right down to the cross-burnings and standardized white costumes — dramatic devices Griffith had invented for the movie. The flood of immigrants and Southern blacks to America’s big cities brought made-to-order targets, allowing the resurgent Klan to expand from its rural Southern roots and become a truly national political movement, agitating for such reforms as immigration control. The “Invisible Empire” soon controlled state governments in Indiana, Colorado, and Oregon.
During the 1920s, the KKK’s heyday, Michigan reportedly had more Klansmen than any state in the country — as many as 800,000, according to some estimates, though historians today believe a figure in the range of 80,000 to 120,000 is more plausible. Roughly half lived in metro Detroit. Prospective members — many of whom were white factory workers originally from the South — had to swear to be a “native born, true, and loyal citizen … a white male Gentile person … a believer in the tenets of the Christian religion, the maintenance of White Supremacy, and principles of pure Americanism.”
In 1925, the Klan movement was stopped dead in its tracks by a sensational sex scandal involving its most prominent leader. David Curtis Stephenson, the Grand Wizard of Indiana and 22 other states, including Michigan, was convicted of rape and murder in the case of a woman whose body bore so many bite marks she was described by a witness as looking as if she had been “chewed by a cannibal.” Upset over not receiving clemency or a commutation of his life sentence from the Klan-backed governor of Indiana, the vengeful Stephenson took several public officials down with him. The series of exposés caused a meltdown in membership, from an estimated peak of 6 million in the mid-1920s to about 30,000 a few years later.
During this period, a small-town physician in Bellaire, Ohio, named William Shepard — a former Grand Cyclops in the Klan — fiddled with the Klan’s formula and came up with his own version of hooded Americanism. He called the secret fraternity the Black Legion. (An alternative account says the Legion was originally formed as the Black Guards in about 1925 to provide security for officers of the Ohio KKK.) Shepard’s followers wore black-silk robes sporting a skull-and-crossbones insignia; a black hood topped by a high-horned headpiece also bearing the “Jolly Roger” completed the ensemble.
As Protestant nativists who were convinced that “their” country was slowly being taken over by “aliens,” the Legion’s professed enemies were the same as the Klan’s: Catholics, Jews, immigrants, blacks, Communists, and labor activists. Unlike the Klan, however, the Legion eschewed publicity. They operated in deep secrecy, with any member foolish enough to mention the Legion’s existence to an outsider subject to a bullwhipping. During the day “Dr. Billy” made house calls with a .45-caliber pistol packed inside his satchel; at night, he presided over elaborate initiation ceremonies and the occasional tar-and-feathering of a local deemed to be “un-American.”
The Black Legion expanded and grew lethal after another ex-Klansman, Virgil Effinger, an electrician from Lima, Ohio, assumed leadership in the early 1930s. Effinger, described as a “dour, humorless fanatic,” helped recruit large numbers of members in Michigan. He was capably assisted by an ex-Detroit cop named Isaac “Peg Leg” White. Ultimately, there were tens of thousands of members in the state. While many regarded the Legion as a secret lodge and an outlet for mild adventure, a fanatical few used it as an excuse for night riding that often was more personal than ideological in nature. Their victims may have included the father of a future famous black-nationalist leader.
One evening in 1931, Earl Little was run over by a streetcar in Lansing. Local authorities considered the preacher’s death either an accident or, improbably, a suicide. However, Little’s young son, Malcolm, grew up believing that it had been an execution — a chilling message delivered by the Black Legion to intimidate “uppity” blacks. Malcolm Little, who later would change his name to Malcolm X as he rose to prominence with the Nation of Islam, doubted that his father could “bash himself in the head, then get down across the streetcar tracks to be run over.”
Other beatings, bombings, and murders involving left-wing political and labor organizations occurred over the years. Authorities never seemed able to solve them. Then came the killing of Charley Poole.
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.”
Jack Carlisle, a crime reporter of The Detroit News, visited the Legion’s founder, Dr. Shepard, in Ohio. “To the substantial and solid citizens of Bellaire, like his cronies in the luncheon club, Shepard is a ‘harmless old coot’ who was always joining something and talking a lot of sentimental twaddle about the old South and white supremacy,” Carlisle wrote. “They heard he was a Klansman, and then they learned he wore a black robe with a skull and crossbones, and sat on the hillsides near town at midnight. But the solid folks just thought that was ‘Dr. Billy’s way.’
“To others, like the mill workers and the steel men, Dr. Shepard was a messiah, who stood for mystery and adventure, who sent out the ‘Lixto Call’ for the hillside meetings and gave the secret password from the old South. They called him chief, and they said they were ready to die for him, but Dr. Billy confided ‘they only got drunk instead.’ ” Shepard was no Hitler or Mussolini. He told Carlisle he had never been to Michigan, did not know or approve of any of the Legion’s crimes committed there, and said that any member found guilty of murder should be executed.
By mid-June, the Free Press was criticizing the wave of over-reaction to which it had contributed, saying that the “exposure of the Black Legion’s activities in Detroit has been used by certain newspapers to whip up a wave of hysteria out of all proportion to that dark organization’s power or importance.” The paper dismissed estimates of the Legion’s strength as 5 million members nationally, including 100,000 in Michigan, as “just so much poppycock.” The FBI, whose agents had been following Legion activities for a year, found no evidence of a federal crime and thus declined to get involved. In a memo to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, one special agent described the Legion as “a bunch of low-type hillbillies who have come out of the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee … it is easy to see how they would kill with impunity just on the violation of a woman.”
Nonetheless, individuals targeted by the Legion, notably civil-rights attorney Maurice Sugar, were convinced it was an immense threat. Sugar and Homer Martin, president of the fledgling United Automobile Workers, believed the Legion’s reach extended into the factories of local automakers like Hudson and Packard, where members were given jobs and special privileges in exchange for sabotaging the efforts of union organizers. They insisted Legion members had infiltrated union ranks as management spies, while others worked for the Dawn Patrol Detective Agency, a private security force that guarded factories. Eventually, three unsolved murders of labor activists, one of whom was hanged, turned out to be Legion handiwork. There almost assuredly were more, but Dean could attest only to those crimes he had firsthand knowledge of. Other implicated Legionnaires kept their mouths zipped.
Sugar had a deeply personal interest in bringing down the Legion: They had marked him for assassination. Dean confirmed a couple of botched attempts to kill Sugar the previous year when the liberal lawyer was running for city council and Recorder’s Court judge. Sugar spent months investigating the Legion for a book he never wrote. One of the most chilling plots he uncovered was the plan to release cyanide gas in local synagogues during Hanukkah. Another unrealized scheme involved “Major General” Arthur Lupp of Highland Park, an investigator for the Detroit Board of Health and the Legion’s buffoonish state commander. Lupp, who was not charged in the Poole murder, allegedly experimented with methods of injecting typhoid germs into dairy products sold in Jewish neighborhoods.
Psychologists studied Legion members in custody. Most were Southern transplants with few industrial skills, nagged by a feeling of alienation in an urban environment that seemed to increasingly favor foreigners, minorities, and Catholics at the expense of the old-stock Protestants that had settled the nation. Detroit, one of the largest ethnic and racial melting pots in the country, was particularly threatening. The Legion offered members fraternity in a city of strangers and provided simple solutions in a complex, uncertain world.
On June 29, 1936, Dean pleaded guilty to his role in the Poole and Coleman slayings. He was sentenced to life in prison with no parole. In September, he testified in the trials of a dozen fellow Legionnaires. All but one of the defendants were convicted of first-degree or second-degree murder. During a break in the proceedings, Becky Poole approached the prosecution’s star witness, cradling an infant in her arms. “This is Mary Lou, my oldest girl,” she said. “I have another baby at home, too.” Dean stared at her and said nothing. After the verdicts were read, she strode up to Lowell Rushing. “I hope you never come out alive,” she told her brother-in-law. She got her wish. Rushing was handed a life sentence.
The most notorious fascist group of 1930s America vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. The New York Times, for example, which published 84 stories about the Legion in 1936, wrote only 10 the following year. Although much of the Legion’s suspected criminal activity proved to be impossible to prosecute because of a lack of witnesses and informants, within three years of Poole’s killing, nearly 50 members were in prison for murder and other crimes. Thirteen of them were serving life terms. Many others, their identities exposed in various grand-jury investigations and newspaper reports, managed to keep their freedom, but lost their public-service jobs. The Black Legion was permanently broken, its bizarre story briefly living on in pop culture. By 1940, it had inspired at least one novel, two films (one starring Humphrey Bogart), and an episode of the radio crime drama The Shadow (featuring the voice of Orson Welles).
Charley Poole’s clandestine killers went to their graves not knowing Becky Poole’s own little secret. The fair-skinned blonde’s ancestors included an African-American great-grandmother — a revelation that would have flushed the cheeks of her wayward Aryan defenders.
Bak is a Dearborn-based freelancer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.