The Gory ’20s

Illustration by Lori Langille

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.

The Milaflores Massacre

The Thompson submachine gun, an assault weapon originally designed to sweep German trenches in World War I, was one of the iconic symbols of the Roaring ’20s, but it wasn’t until March 28, 1927, that the “tommy gun” made its murderous debut in Detroit. About 4:45 that morning, residents of the Milaflores Apartments at 106 E. Alexandrine were blasted out of their sleep by chattering bursts of automatic gunfire.

Those arriving on the scene encountered a grisly sight. In the hallway outside Apartment 308 were the shredded bodies of three men, later identified as Joe Bloom, George Cohen, and Frank Wright. The fusillade of .45-caliber slugs had produced a macabre Swiss cheese-like effect, tearing away chunks of wood, plaster, and flesh. Bloom and Cohen were nearly cut in half, while Wright, riddled by at least 14 bullets, managed to linger a short while in the hospital before dying. “The machine gun worked,” Wright said. “That’s all I remember.”

Even in the Wild West atmosphere of Prohibition-era Detroit, the city’s first tommy-gun murders stood out as a sickening new low. The police quickly identified the victims as second-drawer hoods and assumed the massacre was tied to yet another underworld beef. But who were the executioners?

Signs pointed to a loosely organized, up-and-coming band of thugs known to be involved in bootlegging, extortion, and kidnappings. The press had tagged them the Purple Gang. Items found in a search of Apartment 308 suggested several individuals associated with the gang used it as a hangout, including Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher, a pair of sociopath career criminals from New York who had set up shop in Detroit.

Detectives theorized the chain of events began with the shotgun murder of Johnny Reid, a liquor agent for the Purples, on Christmas night, 1926. Wright, an all-purpose punk from Chicago, was suspected of having been hired by local Italian mobsters to kill Reid. After Wright killed another known associate of the Purples a few weeks later, allies of both victims responded by kidnapping one of Wright’s friends, gambling hall operator Meyer “Fish” Bloomfield. A phone call lured Wright to the third-floor apartment at the Milaflores, where Bloomfield’s release would presumably be arranged. Bloom and Cohen came along. The three walked into an ambush. The assassins emerged from behind the fire door at the end of the hallway and blasted away. Reporters later counted at least 110 bullet holes.

The following day, police pulled over a car on Woodward. Weapons were found inside. Taken into custody were Axler and Fred “Killer” Burke. With his dead eyes, flat expression, and Hitler-style mustache, Burke was a particularly menacing figure. It took a special “feel” to handle a powerful weapon like the Thompson, and Burke was reputed to have a jeweler’s touch with the trigger. Police speculated that, aside from taking on the job of killing Wright for professional reasons, Burke would have had a personal motive, as he and Reid were close friends who had once belonged to a St. Louis gang known as Egan’s Rats.

Other Purples and their associates were interviewed. Nobody knew anything. The seized weapons proved not to be those used in the killings. At a habeas corpus hearing two days later, investigators could offer no substantial evidence to warrant the further detention of Axler and Burke. The judge had no choice but to order their release. Like so many other investigations of gangland killings, this one quickly dried up. The murders did, however, result in a state ban on hardware stores and other retail outlets selling tommy guns to private citizens. Henceforth, only the police and military could legally buy them. (“It’s the safest gun to shoot in city streets,” declared one advertisement.)

Nobody ever stood trial for the Milaflores Massacre, an act of brutality that established the Purple Gang as the lords of Detroit’s underworld. Four years later, another sensational triple homicide — this time of rivals at the Collingwood Manor Apartments — resulted in the murder convictions and imprisonment of several key Purples, effectively breaking the gang’s back.

Axler and Fletcher managed to stay out of prison, only to be found shot to death inside a parked car in Pontiac in 1933. Burke, who had a falling-out with the Purples before going to work for Al Capone in Chicago, was by then serving his own life sentence for killing a policeman in St. Joseph, Mich. A raid on Burke’s residence uncovered a small arsenal, including a pair of Thompsons that ballistics tests tied to the ultimate gangland rubout of the era: the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Fred “Killer” Burke (left) was suspected of being involved in the Milaflores Massacre, a 1927 Purple Gang hit. Gus Winkler (right) was also active in Detroit’s underworld. Both were thought to have participated in Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Dr. Loomis and the Other Woman

The evening of Feb. 22, 1927, was wet and cold. Despite the rain, Dr. Frank O. Loomis later told police, he decided to take a walk. When he returned to his home on the 1300 block of Marlowe about 45 minutes later, he found his wife, Grace, dead on the floor of the sunroom. Her face had been battered and there were deep cuts on her arms and fingers. A window had been smashed. The $100 Loomis said he had given Grace to buy clothes for their two young children, who were sound asleep at the time of the murder, was missing.

Friends described Loomis as an upstanding citizen, a doting family man whose practice included many charity cases. There was no apparent motive for him to kill his wife, a nurse he had married in 1914. But detectives didn’t buy his story. They found a scorched wooden stake and a pair of pearl buttons in the basement furnace, indicating to them that he had burned the murder weapon and his bloodied shirt before notifying authorities. Moreover, two people walking on Marlowe reported hearing a shrill scream around 9:05 p.m. It was at about that time that a telephone operator handled a call from an unknown woman who shrieked before a man’s voice came on the line. “Never mind,” he said, then hung up. Loomis contended that at that particular time he had been blocks away on his walk.

Loomis was arrested and put on trial. Every day, hundreds of people tried to squeeze into the small courtroom where prosecutor Robert Toms and Louis Colombo, one of the city’s top defense attorneys, heatedly clashed. Colombo contended that a peeping Tom had watched Loomis hand his wife the $100, then waited until the doctor left before breaking into the house and fatally beating Grace, taking the money and the murder weapon with him as he fled. It was a simple, straightforward, and plausible scenario. But then there was Gertrude Newell.

Detectives and reporters knew quite a bit about Newell, even if the jurors weren’t allowed to. Described as an “auburn-haired charmer,” the slender, flighty divorcée had been spotted being squired to speakeasies by Loomis several times before Grace’s murder. After the murder, police apparently planted listening devices in Newell’s Wabash Avenue apartment, though whatever they may have learned was inadmissible. The prosecutor “brought her name in, rather timidly, some thought, and Loomis admitted that he had had a cocktail with her once, and dinner with her and her parents another time,” wrote crime reporter Charles Givens. However, “she was declared a hostile witness and therefore could only be called to the stand on rebuttal.”

Loomis was known to have a temper, but during cross-examination the 36-year-old suspect was cool, methodical, and unbending. Meanwhile, Colombo parried the prosecution’s expert witnesses with those of his own. After a three-week trial, the jury took just 35 minutes to arrive at a verdict. The doctor was found not guilty.

For the next year, Loomis was hounded by the press and shadowed by the police, forcing him to constantly change his office and residence. As he renewed his oft-contentious relationship with Newell, his practice fell into disarray and his debts mounted. “He was just so wrapped up in her,” said a friend, “he couldn’t think of anything else.”

On the evening of May 18, 1928, the two quarreled. “I know a hell of a lot more about you than you know about me,” neighbors heard Gertrude yell. The next morning, Loomis was found dead inside a dentist’s office adjoining his own, head down on a desk. He had inhaled illuminating gas. A half-empty whiskey bottle and an opened Bible were nearby.

Loomis left three suicide notes. One was to a friend, which read in part: “G. drives me crazy …. My God! How I love her! Perhaps we will meet again when both of us may be more reasonable.” Another was to a local paper. It began: “I am not guilty of murder. My conscience is clear.” Detectives strained to parse Loomis’ words. Even in death he continued to insist that he did not commit murder, which technically was true if he had killed Grace in a fit of rage. In the eyes of the law, such an unpremeditated act is considered manslaughter.

The last note was addressed to the police: “A newspaper article will be published in 24 to 48 hours explaining this action on my part. Please be patient until then.” If Loomis had indeed written and mailed a clarification of events — possibly even a confession — it never arrived. Meanwhile, Newell suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. She soon left town. Where she went and what happened to her afterward is unknown.

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.


Silencing the People’s Mouthpiece

During the 1920s, Detroit recorded 1,284 homicides and had one of the highest murder rates in the country. The killing didn’t stop once the calendar flipped to 1930. In fact, until a growing economic depression and the repeal of Prohibition saw murders drop and property crimes rise, the new decade was simply a continuation of the old. In the first two weeks of July 1930, at least 11 gangland figures were killed. Mayor Charles Bowles was viewed as being inept, aloof, and in the pocket of criminals, leading frustrated citizens to successfully petition for a special recall election.

Bowles’ most powerful critic was WCHB radio host Jerry Buckley, who nightly used the power of the airwaves to attack corruption and espouse populist causes. Buckley, 39, came from an old Corktown-neighborhood family and was revered by his listeners. Curiously, the “voice of the common man” did not originally support the recall, calling it undemocratic, until changing his mind just before the election.

Detroiters voted overwhelmingly on July 22, 1930, to oust Bowles. After spending the night covering returns at City Hall, Buckley returned to the La Salle, where WCHB had its studios and the commentator kept a suite. A phone call from an unidentified woman brought him to the lobby, where he took a chair and waited. At 1:45 a.m., three men strode in, drew revolvers, and fired a flurry of shots at point-blank range. After the gunmen fled, a stunned hotel employee used the newspaper Buckley had been reading to cover his exploded head.

The assassination sickened a city already fed up with lawlessness, helping to make Buckley’s funeral one of the largest Detroit had ever seen. But grief turned into disbelief when the press published unflattering revelations about the martyred crusader. The most damning was that Buckley had extorted money from racketeers in exchange for “going easy” on them; sometimes he played both ends against the middle, shaking down opposing parties. Suddenly, his about-face on the recall suggested something other than a sincere change of heart. Beyond the allegations of blackmail was Buckley’s reputation for womanizing and enjoying the high life. Any of these activities could have made him a target.

A grand jury returned indictments against three men, all linked to east-side gangster Pete Licavoli. Ted Pizzino had been a tenant at the La Salle; police found him in bed shortly after the murder, still partially clothed. His roommate, Angelo Livecchi, was nabbed in New York just as he was hastily arranging a trip to Italy. “Scarface Joe” Bommarito also was arrested. Each was charged with first-degree murder.

“The court battle raged on for weeks and public interest was sustained to a proper pitch throughout,” wrote Free Press police reporter Charlie Haun. “Theory after theory for Buckley’s murder revolved around the jury’s collective heads. Buckley was killed because of his action against those interested in keeping Mayor Bowles in office … killed because of a double cross … killed because of a woman. You could take your choice.”

A key witness, Frank Tara, was brought in under heavy police guard. Tara testified he was standing outside the hotel’s Adelaide Street entrance when he heard gunshots in the lobby. Moments later, two men he later identified as Pizzino and Livecchi rushed past him and jumped into a waiting getaway car. After newspapers published his photograph, Tara refused to take the stand again. “It’s my death sentence,” he exclaimed. The terrified witness was held in contempt and his testimony stricken, dealing a major blow to the prosecution. After six weeks, the case finally went to the jury. Loud arguing could be heard behind closed doors. Thirty-five hours later, jurors emerged with a verdict: not guilty.

There are many unanswered questions about Buckley’s murder and about Buckley himself. Today, some armchair criminologists name a different set of gunmen — John Mirabella, Joe English, and Russell Syracuse, all of whom fled to Youngstown, Ohio — as the likely killers, though the exact motive behind such a high-profile slaying remains speculative.

Detroit has chalked up more than 25,000 homicides in the 80 years since Buckley was gunned down. After all this time, his murder is still “on the books,” a classic cold case and a chilling reminder of what human beings are capable of doing to one another, no matter what the era.

Bak is a Dearborn-based writer.

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