Sunday, July 14, 2019

The 1928 Delray Murder of Sportsman Gus Nykiel

A young Gus Nykiel next to his sister Martha. Their father John is wearing a hat. The woman in the striped dress is an unknown employee. They are standing in front of the family grocery store located at 8800 West Jefferson Ave. which became Joey's Stables named for Gus's youngest brother.

August "Gus" Nykiel (pronounced Nickel) was a popular local Detriot athlete who played semi-professional football for a team called The Delray Merchants almost one hundred years ago. The team's name was changed to the Detroit Tigers football franchise, but it failed after its first season with the National Professional League in 1921. Nykiel decided to sponsor the team which became a semi-professional powerhouse keeping the name. They played semi-pro clubs from around Michigan and the Midwest. The Tigers became regional champions and were the team to beat for several years. Nykiel became a popular, sporting world figure who had a sport's field named after him.

Gus Nykiel began his rum-running career shortly after Prohibition began. First, Gus and his three brothers--William, Frank, and Joseph--used a rowboat and made several trips a day hauling liquor and beer to the downriver area. The Nykiel brothers eventually built a fleet of speed boats and became some of the wealthiest bootleggers on the river. Gus and his brothers had ties to the Purple Gang's downriver distribution network.

Delray, Zug Island, the Detroit River, and the Rouge River.

Delray lies across the Zug Island channel and the Rouge River where boats could be unloaded and powerboats could evade Coast Guard patrol boats on the Detroit River. It was an ideal place to smuggle liquor. If a boat had to toss its load, burlap bags full with liquor bottles were tied with loops called rabbit ears. When the coast was clear, smugglers would come back with a grappling hook and retrieve their goods. Sometimes, local Delray and River Rouge boys would watch the evening gun battles between customs agents and smugglers from the shoreline. They would remember where the loads were ditched--usually near or on shallow sandbars. When the danger passed, the boys would dive in and retrieve what they could often selling the Canadian whiskey back to bootleggers.


On March 17, 1927, saloon owner Gus Nykiel was arraigned in federal court for reopening his saloon at 8631 West Jefferson Avenue which had been closed and padlocked on federal court order. Several undercover Prohibition officers made buys which resulted in the raid. Large quantities of beer, whiskey, and wine were seized. Nykiel was said to be the owner of four other places where liquor was stored and distributed: 8866 West Jefferson, 465 Clairpoint, 110 Henry Street, and 3021 Fourteenth Street.

Nykiel was released on $5,000 bail. When his case came to trial, he plead guilty to violating the padlock injunction and owning the property but denied ownership of the liquor. He admitted he knew it was stored in his business. Federal Judge Charles E. Simons fined him $1,000. The owners of the liquor were identified as Sam Kert and Sam "Sammy Purple" Cohen. They were under federal indictment for conspiracy to violate the Prohibition laws. The two Sammies were known mentors and associates of the Purple Gang.


Gus Nykiel
Nykiel's saloon was shut down permanently, but within a month, he opened a new location up the street at 8824 West Jefferson. At about 10:00 p.m. on June 27, 1928, Nykiel was parking his car in front of his saloon and scratched the paint of James Zanetti's car. Zanetti was a gunman from Chicago hired to extort money from bootleggers and speakeasy owners in the Downriver area for Pete Licovoli's East Side River Gang.

According to Gus's brother William, Zanetti began verbally abusing Gus, so Gus walked up and punched the out-of-town hood twice in the face. "I'll smack you again if you come around here looking for trouble. Tell your friends that Gus Nykiel hit you." Zanetti and Mike Dipisa--said to be gambler "Jimmy the Greek's" bodyguard--returned fifteen minutes later looking for Gus. The two men went into the saloon and spotted him behind the bar. Dipisa said he wanted to talk to Gus outside.

As soon as Nykiel stepped out the door, he was shot five times at close range and fell to the sidewalk. The shooters ran toward their getaway car. River Rouge Constable Edward A. McPherson happened to be in the saloon serving a summons when he heard the shots. With gun drawn, he stepped outside and exchanged gunfire hitting Dipisa. McPherson--for his pains--was shot in the upper jaw. Passerby, Mrs. Catherine Krozyck, was hit in the hand by a stray bullet.

Nykiel was taken to Delray Receiving Hospital where he died from his wounds. Dipisa was taken to Detroit Receiving Hospital where he died from a shot to the head, the back, and his right eye. When police notified Mrs. Nykiel of her husband's murder, she wept at news. "Gus may have been a bootlegger," she said, "but he was a faithful husband and a good father."

Gus Nykiel's funeral service was July 2, 1928 at St. John Cantius Roman Catholic Church in Delray. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery. Thousands of people paid their respects along the procession route to the cemetery. The majority of mourners were women, but underworld figures and police detectives were sprinkled among the crowd. 

Gus's younger brother William told Inspector Henry J. Garvin of the crime and bomb squad that he witnessed the shooting. At the inquest, William repeated what he saw. But Garvin thought that the murder was more than a road rage incident. The inspector told reporters he believed the East Side River Gang was trying to seize control of Nykiel's business interests and control smuggling on the Detroit River from Lake St. Clair to Monroe.

James Zanetti was arrested by two police officers after a short car chase and taken to Wayne County Jail. Because he attempted suicide in his cell, Zanetti was admitted to the psychopathic ward of Receiving Hospital, where he was heavily guarded and chained hand and foot to a hospital bed. Nurses reported that at intervals, he would shudder, roll his eyes back in his head, and quiver issuing long, drawn out moans. Psychiatrists believed Zanetti was mentally sick from "crime hysteria" or what was better known on the street as being "yellow." Dr. Polzker believed Zanetti's suicide attempt failed because he didn't have the courage to follow through with it.

The Zanetti trial was slated to begin on August 30th, but the prosecution's primary eyewitness--William Nykiel--could not be found. The case was postponed twice before Detroit police announced on September 8th that their key witness was hiding out for fear of his life in LaSalle, Ontario where they had no jurisdiction to extradite him. The prosecution proceeded without him. On September 13th, James Zanetti was acquitted of Gus Nykiel's murder. After the not guilty verdict was delivered, Zanetti and his lawyers were surrounded by back-slapping and handshaking from their underworld supporters.

Gus Nykiel left his widow and child an estate worth $55,000 which is over $800,000 in today's money.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

In Search of Detroit's Purple Gang

Photo credit: Don Gutz

I just returned from a research trip to the Walter Reuther Library and the Wyandotte Historical Museum to find some local color about Detroit's Purple Gang and the Prohibition era. Finding anything new about this group of Jewish mobsters after almost 100 years is like recovering bootlegged Canadian booze from the bottom of the Detroit River--what hasn't been dredged up already remains buried deep beneath the sand.

Obtaining simple documents like vital records for known Purple Gang members is next to impossible. Descendants of Purple Gangsters--protective or ashamed of their notorious family members--jealously guard their family documents, relics, and photographs. The trauma of losing husbands, brothers, uncles, and fathers to gang warfare and inter-gang disputes reflected badly on a family's reputation within their Jewish community. Their personal stories were not to be talked of in public, with the press, or even with younger family members who were kept in the dark. The less said, the better.

A Purple Gang roundup photo with several predominate members.

Stories of the gang's early years are the stuff of folklore and their legacy is mythic. What remains of the Purple Gang's real story is sprinkled throughout the pages of vintage 1930s-1940s newspaper articles written in real time as the gang achieved notoriety by becoming the dominant gang in Prohibition Detroit. Once the press gave the gang a name and marquee status, law enforcement went after them with a vengeance.

My nonfiction treatment of the Purple Gang saga is entitled The Elusive Purple Gang--Detroit's Kosher Nostra. It will be a concise history of their rise from juvenile delinquents committing petty street crime to young adults controlling Detroit's rackets during the city's most lawless and deadly period of its history. Rather than assume an academic voice, I chose to take on the voice of a storyteller to attract a popular audience of readers unfamiliar with the Purple Gang's history. The release of the book will coincide with the 100th anniversary of Federal Prohibition in 2020.

The Elusive Purple Gang post:

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The "Cure" for Hysterical Women Behind Asylum Walls

Life Magazine advertisement from August 22, 1912.

The concept of the "weaker sex" in the 1800s made women more susceptible to charges of mental illness or emotional breakdown. Before the mid-1800s, women who suffered from depression or mental illness were believed to have an incurable disease of the soul. Many of these women were sent to institutions popularly known as the mad house, the insane asylum, or the nut house. Some were undoubtedly sent to local parish priests for exorcisms.

Because of existing gender stereotypes and a patriarchal society, women who disagreed with their husbands or families could be committed without formal legal proceedings or medical exigency. Institutional records indicate that women were labeled mentally ill and committed at a much higher rate than their male counterparts.

Biddy Hughes was Michigan's Eloise Asylum's first official mental patient. She was committed by her family in 1841 when she was in her mid-thirties. She was kept behind locked doors until her death fifty-eight years later.

Being a woman in the nineteenth century would make any woman hysterical--a collective term then used to describe all manner of women's mental health issues--ranging from menstruation-related issues, pregnancy-related issues, post-partum depression, chronic fatigue, and anxiety. The word hysteria derives from the Ancient Greek word for womb--thus womb disease.

Asylums were essentially warehouses for non compliant women. Once committed, these unfortunate women were subjected to a daily life of neglect and abuse. These indignities only drove troubled women deeper into mental illness regardless of why they were there. Insane asylums were not places for treatment or cure of the mentally ill.

Women had no voice to protest nor did they have any advocacy beyond the asylum gates. They lacked the solidarity to stand up for themselves or each other. Once admitted, it was next to impossible to be discharged. Bad treatment by attendants and terrible living conditions led to many asylum suicides from constant harassment, violence, loneliness, and despair.

In the Victorian age, the perfect wife did not demand time or rights for herself. She was supposed to be subservient to the needs of her family. Her husband in particular. Women with strong personalities and active minds could never conform to that role without sacrificing the core of their beings. Unsatisfied and vindictive husbands could have their wives committed for stepping outside the boundaries of her role as a wife.

Married women were sent to asylums for nymphomania, promiscuity, bearing an illegitimate child, or being the victim of rape. Women who practiced sex outside of marriage were accused of moral imbecility and could be committed for the public good. Many husbands used commitment as a convenient alternative to divorce.

By the mid-nineteenth century, doctors began regarding mental illness as a medical problem. With little formal training, they tested their quack theories on mentally ill patients. Perhaps the most egregious example of a gratuitous treatment was devised by male doctors who created a condition they called Hysterical Paroxysm.

Doctors would give female patients "pelvic massages" to release the women's pent-up libido and frustrations. It wasn't long before women were being treated for frustration and anxiety as outpatients in doctors' offices. After the electric vibrator was invented towards the end of the century, women could effect this treatment in the privacy of their own homes.

Doctors of this era believed women who tried to improve their station in life by asserting their independence, getting an education, or living outside the family unit without a husband were considered suspect. Women who were outspoken, volatile, or expressed discontent were labeled mad if they refused to fit the stereotypical mold of the passive housewife. Many women were driven to mental illness by the rigid strictures polite society imposed upon them.

Mental health researchers in the Victorian age devised three archetypes of the mad woman:
  1. The Ophelia (named after the heroine in Hamlet). These women were pliant and pleasant--code words for easy to control.
  2. The Crazy Jane. These patients represented psychotic women who were clearly disturbed and needed to be watched.
  3. The Lucia (named after Renaissance poisoner Lucretia Borgia). These patients were prone to violence and considered dangerous.
Imposing these labels on women was a way for men to garner further control over women and possess them more thoroughly. Doctors of the day warned against any activity that might change a woman's domestic status. Suffragettes and women's rights advocates were particularly troublesome for the status quo and challenged the system.

Meanwhile, Edith Lanchester was committed in 1895 by her brother for refusing to marry. She was diagnosed as insane by reason of "over-education" while her brother took full possession and ownership of their jointly inherited estate.

"When We Called the Insane Asylum Eloise" link:

Monday, June 3, 2019

Literary Classics 2019 Awards Ceremony

For self-published authors who labor long hours in obscurity, winning a writing award is a cost effective way to gain exposure for your book title. Most competitions include press releases, photo opportunities, book cover medallions, and formal presentation ceremonies.

Winning a writing award competition is a valuable tool for self-published authors to gain media exposure and to network with like-minded individuals who share similar goals and challenges. Scheduled receptions and author forums allow for social opportunities with other writers to share information about our best practices and marketing strategies creating a sense of community for one brief weekend.

This year's Literary Classics Awards Ceremony occurred on May 12th, 2019 in Rapid City, South Dakota. My book The Richard Streicher Jr. Murder won a silver medallion for adolescent mystery and a gold medallion for true crime.

As an added bonus, my wife and I took a side trip to Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial to make our trip a three-day weekend vacation. Both attractions are truly wonderous and awesome to see.

If you haven't entered a writing contest, you might want to give it a try. Winning is a great motivator.

Link to my Amazon author site. 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Brave New World of Betty Boop

Classic Betty Boop Sketch
Betty Boop was a music novelty character who was a sex symbol during the Great Depression. She was a caricature of Roaring Twenties flappers--young women who smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, drove cars, and danced the Charleston in speakeasies. Betty Boop became known as the "Boop-Oop-a-Doop girl." Her personality can best be described as moxie.

Max Fleischer with his creation.
Betty was a creation of Max Fleischer Studios targeted for an adult movie audience during the 1930s. She wore short dresses, high heels, garters, and contoured necklines. Betty's "innocent sexuality" was a mixture of girlish naivete and vampish allure which some people would define as infantilizing women.

In 1932, jazz singer Cab Calloway performed in the famous film short "Minnie the Moocher" singing that evocation song while the video blended into a Betty Boop animation which defined her character and made her a star. This musical short was one of the original music videos and the song became Calloway's signature theme song for subsequent stage appearances.

As Betty's popularity progressed, many of her early cartoons found her fighting off predatory men trying to compromise her virtue, making some modern American women view Betty as a feminist icon against sexual harassment. By 1934, the Hayes Production Code forced animators to tame the Boop character by making her a ambitious career girl trying to make it in the big city. She began wearing appropriate business attire and less jewelry. The newer cartoons lost their edge and their popularity--the last of the original cartoons was made in 1939. The Betty Boop series gained a new audience when her cartoons were released for television making Betty an American cartoon superstar.

Helen Kane
Betty's "baby doll" voice was similar to the voice characterization of actress Helen Kane whose musical comedy stage career had faded by 1931. Kane brought a $250,000 infringement lawsuit in 1934 against Paramount Pictures for "deliberate caricature exploiting her personality and image."

Esther Jones
During the trial, it was discovered that African American cabaret performer Baby Esther (Esther Jones) used a similar vocal style in her Harlem Cotton Club act. Even the scat "Boop-Opp-A-Doo" was created by Jones as a vocal jazz improvisation. An early jazz novelty short film was found featuring Baby Esther performing her "baby doll" style. The New York Supreme Court ruled that the "baby doll" technique did not originate with Kane. 

Six different actresses portrayed the voice of Betty Boop. Two of them--Margie Hines and Mae Quistal were also the voice of Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons of the same era. 

Although the series ended in 1939, Betty's character appeared in two television specials in the 1980s, and she made a cameo appearance in the feature movie Who Shot Roger Rabbit? in 1988. Her image is still popular worldwide and has become a merchandising goldmine for King Features Syndicate.

Link to "Minnie the Moocher"

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Purple Gang Tied Up In Chains

Purple Gang perp walk.

A decisive federal arrest of Purple Gang members marked a change in the public attitude towards Detroit's most notorious Prohibition-era gang. Prior to their arrest on May 24, 1929, members of the Purple Gang were often arrested, arraigned, and released before beating whatever rap they were accused of. The public believed that the gang was prosecution proof. There was lots of evidence to support that belief.

But this time was different. The gang wasn't dealing with the Detroit or Wayne Country court system. Conspiring to violate the prohibition law was a federal offense and twelve known Purple gang members were rounded up. Federal Judge Charles C. Simons levied bail of $100,000 each against Eddie Fletcher, Abe Axler, Irving Milberg, and Harry Sutton--the four men caught in the act. The other eight "associates" were held on $50,000 bail apiece.

For the first time in the gang's history, the city's professional bail bondsmen couldn't post bail for that sum of money. The official blanket charge was that on May 10, 1929, the Purple Gang "entered into a conspiracy with Canadian liquor exporters to purchase and import beer and liquor. Known gang members delivered two cases of whiskey to the Lido Club, a cabaret on 3747 Woodward Avenue owned by Abe Burnstein said to be the leader of the Purple Gang."

A young Abe Burnstein.
Burnstein could not be reached for comment. Abe was attending a crime conference in Atlantic City--the first of its kind. Crime bosses from around the country attended and made decisions like a corporation would that affected the direction of organized crime in America. This was where the modern mob was born. But Abe's youngest brother Izzy was among the men arrested.

The boys had to cool their heels in the Wayne County Jail. Their faces fell when they saw the U.S. Marshall approach them with a length of chain with six pairs of handcuffs welded to it. The twelve men were cuffed together in tandem along either side of the chain leaving one hand free to hide their faces on their perp walk. Then, they were led to the Marshall's van for a ride to the Wayne County Jail.

All but four of the men were released on writs of habeas corpus for lack of evidence. Fletcher, Axler, Milberg, and Sutton were held over for trial. Two months later, they reappeared in federal court each ten pounds trimmer. Apparently, county jail food didn't agree with them. All four were convicted and charged the maximum sentence--twenty-four months in federal prison and a $50,000 fine each. They were credited with two months for time served. Finally, the Purple Gang myth of immunity from prosecution was broken.

The Elusive Purple Gang 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Eastern Michigan University Student Queried - "Is Paul (McCartney) Dead?"

The biggest hoax in the history of Rock & Roll is surely the "Is Paul Dead?" controversy. On Sunday afternoon, October 12, 1969, Thomas Zarski, an Eastern Michigan University student, called [Uncle Russ] Gibb, a concert promoter and popular D.J. for Detroit's underground music radio station - WKNR-FM.

On the air, Zarski asked Gibb what he knew about the death of Paul McCartney. This was the first the D.J. heard of it. "Have you ever played "Revolution 9" from the The White Album backwards?" Zarski asked.

Gibb hadn't. Skeptical, he humored his call-in listener and played the song backwards. For the first time his audience heard, "Turn me on, dead man." Then WKNR's phone started ringing off the hook.

Apparently, the rumor started when Tim Harper wrote an article on September 17, 1969 in the Drake University (Iowa) newspaper. The story circulated by word of mouth through the counter culture underground for a month until Zarski caught wind of it. He called Uncle Russ asking about it. Gibb had solid connections with the local Detroit and British rock scene because he was a concert promoter at the Grande Ballroom--Detroit's rock Mecca.

University of Michigan student Fred LaBour heard the October 12th radio broadcast and published an article two days later in the October 14th edition of The Michigan Daily as a record review parody of the Beatles' latest album Abbey Road. This article was credited for giving the story legs and was the key exposure that propelled the hoax nationally and internationally.

The legend goes that Paul died in November of 1966 in a car crash. The three categories of clues were:
  1. Clues found on the album covers and liner sleeve notes,
  2. Clues found playing the records forward, and
  3. Clues found playing the records backwards.
The clues came from the albums:
  1. Yesterday and Today,
  2. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,
  3. Magical Mystery Tour,
  4. The Beatles [the White Album], and
  5. Abbey Road.
Some people thought the Beatles masterminded the hoax because of the large number of clues. They thought there were too many for this story to be merely coincidental. 

The story peaked in America on November 7th, 1969, when Life magazine ran an interview with Paul McCartney at his farm in Scotland, debunking the myth.

For more detailed information on the myth and the clues, check out these links:

Video link: