Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Fleisher Brothers--Louis: Unlucky or Stupid? (Part 1 of 2)

Alcatraz--the Rock.

Two bonus posts to supplement The Elusive Purple Gang: Detroit's Kosher Nostra. The Fleisher brothers, Harry, Louis, and Sam struck out on their own after the Purples imploded. Part two is linked below.
 
Despite Abe Burnstein disbanding the Purple Gang in 1935, former members Harry and Louis Fleisher were directly responsible for keeping the defunct gang's name in the local press from the late 1930s through Harry's death in 1978. Those boys couldn't stay out of trouble. Every time their names appeared in the press--and there are hundreds of citations--the tags "former Purple Gang members," "alleged Purple Gang members," or "Purple Gang leaders" preceded their names.The Fleisher brothers may hold the record for the most family members to do hard time on the Rock--Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary off the coast of San Francisco.

Harry, Louis, and Sammy grew up in the same Paradise Valley neighborhood as the Burnstein brothers and other tough street kids who eventually coalesced into the Purple Gang. They learned their street smarts by preying on handcart operators at the Eastern Market and harassing shop owners on Hastings Street with petty crime and vandalism.

Harry Fleisher began his underworld career as a driver and bodyguard for Oakland Sugar House Gang leader Charles Leiter in the 1920s. Harry was a trigger man and shakedown artist of legal and illegal businesses like speakeasies and disorderly houses (brothels). For unknown reasons, Harry interacted as little as possible with younger brother Louis.

Louis began his professional crime career as a trigger man, a labor "organizer," and a hijacker for the Sugar House Gang. When the Sugar House Gang suffered a devastating bust of their leadership in the late 1920s, Louis gravitated to the Purple Gang.

When Louis was only twenty-two years old, he was the first of the three Fleisher brothers to serve hard time. Lou Jr.'s day job was helping his father Lou Sr. run an auto junkyard. Their side-job was retrofitting touring cars with hidden compartments for smuggling illegal liquor or concealing guns.

Louis Fleisher mug shot--1927.
In 1927, Louis and three other men hijacked a semi-truck in Flat Rock, Michigan, loaded with 400 new automobile tires bound for Detroit from Akron, Ohio. A green Studebaker sedan swept in front of the semi blocking it at a stop sign. Four men jumped out of the car with shotguns and machine guns commanding the drivers to get out of the truck. They were bound and shoved into the back seat of the Studebaker.

Two of the hijackers took the truck and the other two drove off with their captives. The bound men noticed there was some chrome trim damage on the passenger side of the car. One of them took the added precaution of spitting on the rear window to mark the car as the one they were abducted in. The truck drivers were released unharmed twelve hours later. The empty semi-truck was found two days later, and the green Studebaker with the faulty trim was tracked down shortly after that. The car's serial number revealed the owner to be Louis Fleisher.

Louis was located and arrested, but he refused to identify the other hijackers he was working with. After an initial plea of "not guilty," Louis changed his plea to "guilty," reasoning that he was safer in prison than on Detroit's streets. If he took the rap and served his time, he would prove himself to be a stand up guy and survive. If he was released on bail, he would be considered a risk to the gang and sooner than later he would be found dead on a city street someplace. A federal judge sentenced Louis to ten years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. He served a minimum sentence of six years and three months before being paroled for good behavior.

Sam Burnstein
Nine months after being paroled, Louis went into business with former Purple Gang speakeasy operator Sam "Fatty" Burnstein--not blood-related to the Burnstein brothers--reputed leaders of the Purples. Sam and Louis were brothers-in-law; Sam's sister Nellie was Louis's wife. Fleisher and Burnstein opened a scrap metal and auto junkyard in the autumn of 1935 far from Detroit in Albion, Michigan. The business was named Riverside Iron and Metal Company. Both men needed to demonstrate to their parole boards that they had gone "straight" and had a steady source of income.

These guys must have loved crime because their junkyard was a front for a safe cracking operation in central Michigan. The parolees went into a partnership with the Lizard Gang--a Hamtramck burglary ring. A nine-month crime spree ensued.

Louis used his mechanical, fabrication, and body shop skills to convert a 1935 Graham Paige sedan into a rolling fortress.The Graham Paige was stolen from a Dodge dealership in Ferndale, Michigan. This particular car was desirable because it was wider than other makes and was equipped with an eight-cylinder Blue Streak supercharged engine that could reach speeds of 100 mph. The car was bulletproofed, the passenger side doors were retrofitted to open extra wide, and a ramp was welded to the undercarriage which rolled out to load stolen safes quickly.



The Michigan State Police were baffled. Fifty businesses had been burglarized over a vast section of central Lower Michigan. Robberies occurred in Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Jackson, and Ionia. The burglary team stole safes from businesses and either blew their doors off with nitroglycerin or took the safes to the junkyard and burned off the combination locks with an acetylene torch.

On May 11, 1936 at 2:30 a.m., night clerk Jack Kane at the Capital Hotel next door to the Isabell Seed Company in Jackson, Michigan, heard men struggling to load the company's 500 pound safe through the side doors of the Graham Paige sedan. The burglary was reported to the State Police, but troopers were too slow on the scene to make an arrest or give chase. Then on May 30th, a local Albion resident reported to state police that a suspicious Graham Paige sedan was being stored in a barn across from the junkyard in Albion.

Officers from the Michigan State Police and the Albion Police Department descended upon the barn, broke in, and found the car with its left side strafed with bullets. The police also discovered two sets of stolen license plates, weapons, and burglary tools. Nitroglycerin, blasting caps, and fifteen feet of wire were concealed in the side panels of the car. State Police quickly arrested Fleisher and Burnstein along with their wives. Two junkyard employees were also brought in for questioning but later released for lack of evidence. After a brief investigation, Louis and Sam were indicted and posted bonds of $5,000 apiece. While awaiting trial, Louis jumped bail and remained at large for a year.

On the night of April 8, 1938, Louis Fleisher's car was pulled over by the Highland Park police. His wife Nellie tossed a .38 calibre automatic pistol out the passenger window which police soon found. A clumsy attempt had been made to etch out the gun's serial number. Louis and Nellie were arrested with a twenty-two-year-old man who gave his name as Jack Sherwood but was soon found to be Sid Markham--a first-degree murder fugitive from Brooklyn, New York. Markham was extradited to New York where he was convicted and sent to the electric chair in Sing Sing Correctional Facility on January 18, 1940.

Samples of weapons found in Fleisher apartment.
 
Louis and Nellie's arrests led to a search of their Highland Park apartment where police found what they described to reporters as "the largest underworld arsenal ever found in the Midwest." The unregistered arsenal was neatly packed in a trunk containing submachine guns, automatic pistols, revolvers with silencers, brass knuckles, tear gas shells, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The Fleishers were held in Milan Detention Farm under a $50,000 bond each. On April 7, 1939, Louis Fleisher was sentenced to thirty years in Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary; Nellie received ten years in a Federal detention home. After serving nineteen years of his original sentence, Louis was released for good behavior from Alcatraz at the age of forty-one.

As a moth is drawn to a flame, so was Louis drawn to crime. On midnight Sunday, October 26, 1958, Fleisher and partner in crime Joe Anielak were caught red-handed trying to torch Dorsey's Cleaners on East Seven Mile Road. Anielak climbed on the roof with a length of rope. He threw one end down to Fleisher who attached a five-gallon gas can to the rope and Anielak pulled it up. They did this twice.

Little did the pair know they were under police surveillance on the ground and hidden on the roof tops of adjoining buildings. Anielak drilled several holes in the roof with a brace and bit auger. He inserted a funnel and was about to pour gas through the hole when police scout cars turned their floodlights on the roof. Anielak tried to flee, but when a detective fired a warning shot at him he surrendered. Fleisher was arrested in the alley. Because Fleisher had broken the terms of his parole, he was sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary to serve out the rest of his original thirty-year Federal sentence while awaiting trial on the Michigan charges.

The two men were charged with three counts: conspiracy to place explosives, breaking and entering, and intent to destroy property with explosives. Each of the counts carried a fifteen-year sentence. Detroit defense lawyers Joseph Louisell and Ivan Barris delayed proceedings for two years until they plea bargained for an attempted arson charge which carried a maximum five-year jail term. It was unlikely that a jury would convict the defendants on the original charges because no explosives were found at the crime scene. The prosecutor didn't want these men acquitted. On October 17, 1960, the men pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of attempted arson and were given a three to five year sentence.

Louis Fleisher was transferred from Leavenworth to Milan Federal Prison to serve out his sentence. On April 3, 1964, he died of a heart attack in his jail cell just nine weeks and two days short of serving out his Detroit conviction for arson and leaving prison a free man. He was fifty-nine-years-old.


***

Louis' older brother Harry and his younger brother Sam also had checkered underworld careers which will be the subject of part two of this post.

The Fleisher Brothers (Part 2) 

Friday, June 18, 2021

Rubin "The Voice" Weiss and His Wife Elizabeth "Woman of a Thousand Voices"

Elizabeth and Rubin Weiss rehearsing.

Rubin Weiss was born sometime in 1921 in Detroit, but no public record was recorded in Wayne County. He may have been born at home which was more customary in those days. As a child, he performed in Yiddish skits and plays within Detroit's growing Jewish community. Rube attended Northern High School and earned a master's degree in English while attending Wayne State University.

In December of 1941, Weiss entered the United States Army and fought in the European theater of World War II and rose to the rank of captain. At war's end, Weiss decided to try his hand at acting in New York City, but after a year of struggling, he decided to return to his family in Detroit and landed a job as an English teacher at his high school alma mater from 1946 through 1952. To supplement his modest teaching income, he picked up what radio and advertising work he could get. As soon as he was sure he could make a living in radio, he quit his day job.

Early in Weiss' WXYZ-Radio career, he specialized in playing "bad guys," much to the disappointment of his mother. His voice was much larger than he was at five-feet, five inches. His voice was versatile, and Weiss often played four or five roles in a single fifteen-minute episode. He was a featured player on popular Detroit radio shows like The Green Lantern, Challenge of the Yukon, and The (original) Lone Ranger, where Weiss met his future wife Elizabeth Elkin in 1948.

Later in Rube Weiss' career, he would run into people randomly who had no idea who he was until he spoke in his distinctive, resonant voice. Not only was Weiss' voice familiar because of his work in radio and television, he was the raucous announcer for "Saturday, At Detroit Dragway" heard on pop radio stations all over the Detroit and Windsor airwaves in the 1960s. What many Detroiters do not realize is that Weiss played Santa for sixteen years at the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day Parade. When fans would meet Weiss in person, they often remarked, "You sound taller on radio," his retort was, "I'm six-five when I stand on my money."


Rube Weiss said the most fun he ever had in his long career was being a regular on Soupy Sales' WXYZ-TV evening show at eleven o'clock. Rube and a talented cast of radio performers took their schtick to the small screen. His characters included big game hunter Colonel Claude Bottom, loudmouth pop tune composer Shoutin' Shorty Hogan, detective Charlie Pan, and The Lone Stranger's sidekick Pronto.

Weiss was a much sought-after freelance pitchman for Detroit and national brands. A short list of the brands he lent his voice talents to are Kay's Jewelers, Velvet Peanut Butter, Midas Mufflers, Chrysler Corporation, Kellogg's Special K, Lincoln Continental, and Marlboro cigarettes. 

Rubin Weiss passed away from an "internal infection" on April 25, 1996 at the age of seventy-six in Huntington Woods. Weiss' professional awards are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say he won an American Federation of Television and Radio Actors Guild (AFTRA) Gold Card Award and several Emmy and Clio awards for his extensive work in radio. He is buried at Clover Hill Park Cemetery in Birmingham, Michigan.

***

Rube's wife Elizabeth was no less distinguished in her career than her husband, while also giving birth and being the proud mother of five children. Elizabeth Elkin was born in Detroit in 1925. Her talent as an artist and actor got her into Detroit's Cass Technical High School where she majored in Commercial Art. During World War II, Elizabeth became one of the youngest draftswomen in Detroit drawing plans for fighter airplane parts.

After the war, Elizabeth returned to the stage at Wayne State University performing in classical plays like Taming of the Shrew and Oedipus Rex at the Bonstelle Theater which was originally the Temple Beth El on Cass Street (Piety Row) when it was built in 1902. Elizabeth honed her acting skills and landed a job doing summer repetory theater in New York City where she earned her Actor's Equity card. While appearing in The Importance of Being Ernest with the Actor's Company in Detroit, she became reunited with Rube Weiss, who was directing the play. They fell in love and married at Workman's Circle in 1949.


Elizabeth thought her regular voice was ordinary, but she could do dialects, foreign accents, or whatever a role required. A Detroit newspaper profiled her as The Woman of a Thousand Voices for her countless radio and television commercials.

Elizabeth and Rube's home was a gathering place for actors, artists, scholars, and comedians, where she became the hostess and gourmet cook. The Weiss home became so popular that the family was dubbed the Jewish Waltons. The family led a rich social life grounded in Elizabeth's love of Jewish culture.

Later in life, she performed in many Jewish Ensemble Theater Yiddish language productions. Rube would regularly appear on Detroit television celebrating Jewish holidays. Both of them were active in their synogogue and the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit. Elizabeth taught an Institute for Retired Professionals (IRP) Yiddish language group for many years.

Elizabeth Weiss was a lifetime member of the Screen Actor's Guild and AFTRA. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alliance for Women in Media, and she was inducted in the Silver Circle of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Like her husband, Elizabeth received many professional and community service awards too numerous to list here.

But without a doubt, Elizabeth was most proud of her large and devoted family of five children, sixteen grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren who continue to be inspired by her example. Elizabeth Elkin Weiss passed on at the age of ninety on September 18, 2015. Her funeral was held at the Ira Kaufman Chapel, and her remains are interred beside her husband at Clover Hill Park Cemetery.

SATURDAY, At Detroit Dragway

Friday, June 11, 2021

Detroit History Under Marsha Music’s Watchful Eyes


Marsha Battle Philpot (aka Marsha Music) is a familiar Detroit figure and longtime booster of the city who describes herself as "a writer and griot (storyteller)" of Detroit's post-World War II history, and its gentrification over fifty years later. Born on June 11, 1954, Marsha is the oldest child of the late blues record producer Joe Von Battle and his second wife, the late Westside beauty, Shirley (Baker) Battle.


Joe ran a blues and gospel record shop with a makeshift recording studio in the back room on Hastings Street, at Mack Avenue, just north of the Black Bottom area of Detroit. Joe recorded John Lee Hooker, Rev. C.L. Franklin and his fourteen-year-old daughter Aretha, among many other singers long forgotten.



Joe met Shirley Baker as she waited on the streetcar outside of the record shop, and he gave her a job. Soon he was smitten, despite being married with four teenaged children. After several years of going together, Joe bought Shirley a large house in Highland Park, a city within Detroit’s city limits, and he divorced his first wife. After Joe and Shirley had two children, they made it official and married.

 

Marsha never knew of her parent’s early unmarried status until after her mother’s passing at age 79. "I grew up in the era of Highland Park’s lush prosperity, and I would have led a very middle-class life, but every weekend, there I was on teeming 12th Street, working at my father's record shop. I came to love the neighborhood and its people." Joe's original record shop on Detroit's Eastside was bulldozed to make room for the Chrysler Freeway and urban renewal which Joe and others astutely described as "Negro removal."

 

 

Joe opened his new shop on 12th Street in Detroit's Westside in 1960 while struggling with alcoholism and Addison’s Disease. Seven years later, civil strife and conflagration consumed the 12 Street neighborhood in what history notes as the Detroit Riots. Some social historians and Black Detroiters have come to describe the event as "The Rebellion" as the social and economic forces leading to the insurrection of July 23, 1967 predated the event by decades.

 

As a direct result, Marsha became an activist during the turbulent 1960s. The late General Baker, a founder of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, became a surrogate father to Marsha. Highland Park had top schools during Marsha Battle’s early years and she was a good student, trained in classical music. Reeling and adrift, as her father’s drinking and conflict in the home worsened, she got pregnant at the age of sixteen and never completed high school. Her father died in 1973. Shirley worked after Joe's death cleaning offices for the Ford Motor Company. Shirley was able to support her two youngest children and put them through school. She passed away in 2008.

 

Marsha went to work at the Frito-Lay snack plant in Allen Park, Michigan to support her son, and at twenty-two year old had another son. After eleven years at the Frito plant, the single mother of two came into her own when she was elected to lead Local 326 of the Bakery, Confectionary, and Tobacco Worker's Union, at the age of twenty-eight. Her election was notable on several counts because she was the first African American, the first woman, and the youngest person to ever serve as union president representing workers from Frito-Lay, Taystee Bakeries, Hostess Bakeries, Wonderbread, and many other affiliated bakers and confectioners in Detroit and beyond.

 

Her main cause was to fight concessions that management was trying to enforce throughout the industry. Marsha brought new blood and energy to the job. “The people who work in these shops pay my salary, put clothes on my back, and feed my kids. I have to represent their interests.”

 

The father of her second son was an on-air news personality on WABX, and Marsha spent much of her twenties as what she calls a “rock chick.” With her father’s country blues and gospel roots, her love for the Motown Sound, the British Invasion, and hard rock music on Detroit’s underground radio station expanded her musical appreciation ever wider.

 

Marsha, a voracious reader, loved to write since childhood, but it was not until the growth of the internet that her writing took off in an unusual way. Around 2000, while searching on eBay for a new watch, she struck up a conversation with a seller which lead to an invitation to join an “online wristwatch community.” She loved wristwatches and began to write about them on moderately and high-end, international connoisseur’s watch sites.

 

Marsha also began to expand on her writing and wrote about growing up in the Detroit music world. Much to her surprise, in the world of watches there were some record collectors too who recognized the names of her father’s record labels: JVB, Von, and Battle Records.

 

Marsha realized there was knowledge about her father’s recordings among blues collectors worldwide, but there was very little known about him. A fire grew within her to return Joe Von Battle’s name to public notice and gain him the recognition he deserved and was deprived of when his larger legacy went up in smoke during that horrible summer of 1967.

 

 


Marsha also began writing for a group dedicated to music headed by rock critic Dave Marsh, who had long encouraged her writing. In 2008, she started a blog entitled Marsha Music. After a short time, she encountered many blues scholars on The Real Blues Forum, headed by author Paul Vernon, who were estatic to read stories about Joe's Record Shop.

Marsha, like her father, struggled with alcohol but adopted a life of sobriety in 1987 at age thirty-three. She returned to her family home in Highland Park in 2000, but in a cruel irony it burned in an electrical fire in 2007. Marsha has been divorced twice and was widowed in 2018.

 

Through it all, she has written about her life in Detroit. Under the pen name of Marsha Music, she is an author whose essays, poems, and first-person narratives about Detroit's history appear in many notable anthologies such as Sonic Rebellion: Music as Resistance, Heaven Was Detroit, and A Detroit Anthology.


Marsha is on a crusade to bridge the gap between Detroit's past and its present. Lots of city history has happened in between, about which Marsha writes and eloquently speaks. Marsha wears dramatic clothing, hats, and turbans, striking a commanding presence wherever she appears. She is a much sought-after speaker with a forward-looking message.

 

"[Detroit] needs a restorative movement to heal what has happened here, as the working people of the town competed against themselves over the right to a good life. We have to share stories about the experiences of the past era. As we move forward in Detroit, there must be a mending of the human fabric that was rent. Small continual acts of reconciliation are called for here."


Marsha has appeared on HBO, The History Channel, and PBS. In 2012, she was awarded a Kresge Literary Arts Fellowship, and in 2015, the Knight Arts Challenge. In 2017, she was a narrator in the documentary 12th and Clairmount about the origins of Detroit's civil upheaval of July 23, 1967. Her poetry was commissioned for a narrative performance with the Detroit Symphony in 2015 and another for the Michigan Opera Theatre in 2020.


Marsha is currently completing a film project and book about her father. And if that wasn't enough, as of 2021, Marsha Battle Philpot began serving on the Board of Directors of the Detroit Institute of Arts.


In 2020, Marsha retired after a career with the Wayne County Third Circuit Court system of almost thirty years; currently, she lives in the Palmer Park district of Detroit. Her long and distinctive list of accomplishments and her dedication to public service have revived her father’s legacy as a Detroit music pioneer. Marsha’s achievements would make her parents proud. 


Before Berry Gordy There Was Joe Von Philpot Producing Records in Detroit 

The Detroitist by Marsha Music 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Ottawa War Chief Pontiac (Obwandiyag) Attacks Fort Detroit

No images of Pontiac are known to exist. This engraving is from 1879.

During the French and Indian War (1754-1763) against the British, most of the Great Lakes Native American tribes allied themselves with the French, whom they regarded as brothers. When the British defeated the French in Quebec, New France (Canada) in 1760, control of Fort Pontchartrain was surrendered to British General Jeffery Amherst. The fort changed from a French trading post to an English military stockade with a strong military presence. The French fleur de lis was replaced with the British Union Jack flag, and the fort was renamed Fort Detroit.

French settlers and trappers developed relationships with their tribal neighbors. They hunted and trapped together, shared food, traded beaver pelts and Indian artifacts for European goods, intermarried, and collected their annual tribute from their Great White Father--French King Louis, the XV. A stipend was paid to the tribes for trapping and hunting rights on Indian land which drew Indians in large numbers to Fort Pontchartrain. There were several peaceful Indian encampments near the fort.

The new British commander General Amherst considered these payments bribery and discontinued them. Unlike the French, Amherst placed restrictions on trading gunpower and ammunition which the Indians needed to hunt so they could feed and clothe their families. To add insult to injury, Amherst made it quite clear to the tribal leaders that they were now British subjects living on British land.

Rather than treat the Indians like equals as the French had done, these Englishmen considered themselves superior by every measure. It was clear to tribal leaders that the British intended to drive the tribes from their ancestral lands and hunting grounds. With English rule, it was only a matter of time before the empire builders and the inevitable flood of aggressive settlers would overrun the land.

The Ottawa, Potawatomi, Huron, Ojibwa, Wyandot, and Chippewa formed a loose confederation to confront their new reality. Ottawa War Chief Pontiac rose to prominence among the Great Lakes tribes for advocating the overthrow of their white overlords. He was the most outspoken tribal leader in favor of driving the British from their land.

On April 27, 1763, Chief Pontiac held an Intertribal War Council ten miles south of Fort Detroit near where the Ecorse River spills into the Detroit River in present day Lincoln Park (Council Park). Over 500 Great Lakes Indians and the heads of nearby French settlements gathered. Chief Pontiac urged the tribes to join the Ottawas in a surprise attack on the fort. The overall strategy was for the tribes to breech the British forts in the Northwest Territory, slaughter the soldiers, and lay waste to the undefended settlements.

The attack on Fort Detroit by Frederick Remington.

The attack on Fort Detroit began under the cover of darkness on May 7, 1763. A war party of about 300 Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwa warriors approached the fort from the waterfront in 65 canoes and surrounded the stockade, but the garrison commander Major Gladwin was warned of the attack by an informer, so his soldiers laid in wait and repelled the attack. The fort remained under siege for the next 153 days.

When news of Pontiac's attack on Fort Detroit spread, his example was the spark that instigated widespread Indian uprisings throughout the Northwest Territory west of the Allegheny Mountains. On May 25th, Potawatomi warriors overwhelmed soldiers at Fort St. Joseph on Lake Michigan, while on June 2nd, the Chippawa captured Fort Michilimackinac in St. Ignace, Michigan killing most of the inhabitants. Pontiac's early successes won him prominence among the Great Lakes tribes and notoriety among the British.

By mid-June, Fort Detroit's supplies and munitions were running low. Major Gladwin sent an urgent appeal to Fort Pitt for emergency provisions and reinforcements. On July 29th, Captain James Dalyell broke the blockade of the fort by arriving at night with twenty-two barges, 260 Redcoat soldiers, several small cannon, and a fresh supply of provisions, ammunition, and gunpowder from Fort Niagara. As the flotilla made its way slowly upriver to Fort Detroit, warriors from a Wyandot and Potawatomi village opened fire on them killing fifteen Redcoats.

The day after Captain Dalyell's successful relief expedition, the young officer wanted to exact revenge for the attack and killing of his men. Dalyell asked his new commanding officer Major Gladwin for permission to lead a night attack on Pontiac's encampment located two miles from the fort. Against the major's instincts and better judgement, Gladwin approved the mission.

Redcoats in marching formation

At 2:00 a.m., a raiding party of 160 Redcoat infantrymen marched toward the Indian encampment two-abreast carrying rifles with fixed bayonets along a road now known as East Jefferson. Two oar-powered flatboats mounted with small cannons followed the soldiers along the shoreline for added firepower.

Pontiac was forewarned of the attack by sympathetic French settlers. His warriors set up several defensive embankments and hid behind the natural cover and wood piles. As the soldiers quietly marched toward them, the barking dogs of French settlers heralded their approach.

The Redcoats halted before the Parent's Creek Bridge at Captain Dalyell's command. Just before dawn, an advance guard of twenty-five soldiers made it halfway across the bridge when the Indians opened fire on them. The British surprise attack was a dismal failure. The gunboat crew fired their booming cannons towards the skirmish with little effect.

Dalyell rallied his troops several times to renew their attack, but each time they were repulsed. Dalyell ordered his troops to retreat towards a nearby French farmhouse for cover. A small party of Indians were inside the house and opened fire on the soldiers killing Dalyell and many others. The survivors fought their way back to the fort after six hours of tactical retreat.

Redcoats break formation

The British lost four officers and nineteen enlisted men with thirty-nine wounded. Four hundred Native Americans fought in the battle losing only seven warriors with twelve wounded. The dead soldiers were thrown into Parent's Creek, thereafter known as Bloody Run because its waters ran red that day. The battle occurred on the site of present day Elmwood Cemetery.

One eyewitness to the battle and its aftermath was teenager Gabriel Casses dit St. Aubin. His most vivid memory was seeing the severed head of Captain Dalyell stuck on a picket fence post. When Major Gladwin learned of the death and decapitation of Captain Dalyell, he offered a two-hundred pound bounty for the head of Chief Pontiac.

By September, Pontiac's loose tribal confederation was beginning to fall apart. The Potawatomi made peace and returned to their villages to help with the harvest and hunt wild game to provide for their families during the harsh winter months. Pontiac sent Major Gladwin a message that he was abandoning his siege and open to peace talks. The larger war continued through 1766.

When Pontiac was unable to persuade the Western tribes to join the rebellion and realized the French would not come to their aid, Chief Pontiac travelled to New York to negotiate an end to the frontier war. Though Pontiac's larger plan was successful--eight of eleven British forts fell--Pontiac and his warriors were not able to defeat Fort Detroit, which led to the chief's loss of stature. Fort Pitt and Fort Niagara also were able to hold out against Indian attacks as well.

British officials were keen to end the war because it was costing the Crown dearly in supplies and manpower. Not understanding the decentralized nature of Indian warfare, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson formally ended the war on July 25, 1766, with the signing of the Treaty of Oswego with Chief Pontiac.

When Pontiac agreed to peace talks, he claimed to hold more authority over the Intertribal Council than he actually held. This fueled resentment among the tribal leaders who felt the treaty was a capitulation. On May 10, 1768, Pontiac sent word to British officials that he was no longer recognized as chief by his people. He retired to Illinois to live peacefully with his relatives.

Unbeknownst to Pontiac, a Peoria Indian council in Illinois met secretly and agreed that the former chief was to be executed for an attack several years before on Black Dog, a Peoria chief. A Peoria warrior who was related to Black Dog clubbed Pontiac from behind and stabbed him to death on April 20, 1769, outside the French town of Cahokia, Illinois.

Murder of Pontiac

Historians note that Chief Pontiac was an Ottawa war chief who influenced a wider revolt against the British to drive Great Lakes Indians from their ancestral land. But how did Pontiac's name echo through history?

Famed British officer Captain Robert Rogers claimed to have met Pontiac in 1760 when he and his Rangers took control of Fort Pontchartrain from the French and again when he was a participant in the Battle of Bloody Run in 1763. Capitalizing on his war fame as an Indian fighter, Rogers wrote a play in 1765 named Ponteach (sic): The Savages of America, which became popular in Europe making Chief Pontiac the most famous American Indian of the eighteenth century.

Cadillac Establishes Fort Pontchartrain in 1701 

Friday, May 7, 2021

Before Berry Gordy There Was Joe Von Battle Producing Records in Detroit

Joe Von Battle in his Hastings Street record shop

J
oe Von Battle was born in 1915 in Macon, Georgia and moved during the Great Migration with his family to Detroit, Michigan. In his teens, he worked doing odd jobs in Detroit’s famous Eastern Market until he found work with Detroit Edison digging trenches and burying electrical lines. During much of World War II, Joe worked double shifts. One shift at the Hudson Motor Car Company and the other shift at the Chrysler Plant across the street. When the war ended, Joe was permanently laid off like many other African American workers, displaced by White veterans returning from the war.

Joe Battle vowed to be his own boss and never work for anyone again. He added Von for a middle name as a young man, emulating European film actor Erich Von Stroheim, who he admired. When he opened his record business, he realized it was helpful on his business cards, obscuring his African American ancestory. In 1945, a narrow grocery storefront was vacated at 3530 Hastings Street in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood on the lower Eastside, Joe Von Battle stepped in and opened Joe’s Record shop.

Joe outside his store


In 1948, Joe Von Battle purchased a reel-to-reel tape recorder and made a makeshift recording studio in the back of his shop. There he recorded artists like John Lee Hooker; Washboard Willie; pianist Detroit Count, who recorded “Hastings Street Opera;” Tamp Red who recorded “Detroit Blues;” Louisiana Red, Memphis Slim, Kenny Burrell, and many other country blues musicians.

Joe Von Battle recorded the final songs and sounds of the people who migrated north for a better life. His shop specialized in records that appealed to African Americans from the rural South who left to work in the automobile or steel industries for a better life. Country blues traveled with them. Joe is believed by music historians to be the first African American record producer in the post war period recording on the JVB, Von, and Battle Records labels.

His record shop played host to Detroit’s itinerate blues musicians. Typically, the music was performed live by a singer with his guitar and maybe a washboard and a harmonica player for accompaniment. Country blues was raw and rooted in the struggle for survival in a world of inherited misery. It sung about poverty, loss, suffering, desertion, death, booze, and loneliness. Country blues had its feet firmly grounded to the earth and rural life.

 
Joe recorded another style of music with a hopeful spiritual message born out of the same misery—gospel music. Joe was most proud of the close to one-hundred sermons he recorded of legendary pastor C.L. (Clarence La Vaughn) Franklin at the original New Bethel Baptist Church on Hastings Street down from his record shop. On Sundays, Joe would broadcast Reverend Franklin’s sermons on speakers set up outside the shop, his storefront always attracted a crowd.

Probably the most precious recordings he ever recorded were eight hymns sung by Reverend Franklin’s fourteen-year-old daughter Aretha before she signed with Columbia Records in 1960 secularizing her music. When Aretha Franklin signed with Atlantic Records in 1966, she was paired with producer Jerry Wexler who helped her become the Queen of Soul.

Aretha Franklin performing


In 1956, the Federal government announced the construction of the National Interstate Highway System spelling doom for Hastings Street, the heart of Detroit’s African American business community and further down Hasting’s Street Paradise Valley, Detroit’s legendary blues and jazz entertainment district. The construction of I-375 was a useless 1.062-mile spur that ran parallel to I-75. When the Black business community was uprooted, the financial health of many successful African American entrepreneurs was cut short.

The transition prompted a Black diaspora to the 12th Street area on Detroit’s Westside creating overcrowding and increased racial tension in the city. The Black community was boxed in by real estate covenants and red lining restricting their free movement around the city and the greater Detroit area.

Joe Von Battle moved his record shop to 12th Street in 1960, but by that time there was a new sound dominating the radio and television airways of Detroit threatening his business. “There is a different generation now,” Joe told the Detroit Free Press. “All they want to buy is that Motown stuff with that beat, and they want to dance. Today, young disc jockeys won’t play the blues. They say it’s degrading,”

Berry Gordy brought a polished professionalism and aggressive promotion to his Gordy/Tamla/Motown record labels. The new urban sound was sleek, suave, and sophisticated appealing to a broader, younger, crossover audience. The content of the music changed from the tough realism of the country blues to lyrical, hard-driving rhythms and strong choral arrangements with a strong pop music flavor.

The modern male and female groups wore fancy, matching outfits and danced synchronized choreography to the music. The Motown sound was tailormade for television and radio, taking the new music from Detroit’s Westside to the rest of the country and the globe.

Not only did the music change, the record industry changed also. In the 1960s when the chain department stores established record departments, they began selling rhythm and blues singles and albums. Rhythm and blues entered the mainstream. Independent, specialty record shops could not compete. 

Then on July 23, 1967, as if to add insult to injury, 12th Street erupted with racial strife and conflagration. The first night Joe protected his store with a weapon but the second day he was ordered by police to evacuate the premises and allow the authorities to restore order. That took a week.

In the meantime, Joe’s business was looted, torched, and hosed down by the fire department. When Joe and his family were allowed to return to the record shop, the smell of charred wood and melted vinyl hung heavy in the air. Twenty years of tape-recorded blues history, Joe’s life work, went up in smoke or down the drain.

Looters oustside of Joe's shop in July 1967




                              

Joe’s daughter Marsha laments that “Some of the most significant voices in recorded history were on those melted and fire-soaked reel-to-reel tapes. Thousands of songs, sounds, and voices of the era—most never pressed into vinyl—were gone forever. I believe Daddy died that day. My father’s alcoholism gravely worsened after his life’s work and provision for his family was destroyed by looters and rioters.” Joe also suffered for years with Addison’s disease and died a broken man in 1973 at the young age of fifty-seven.

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Marsha Battle Philpot—aka Marsha Music—wrote a biography about her father to document his music legacy. Marsha brought Joe Von Battle's story back to life in 2008 in her Marsha Music: The Detroitist blog. She writes about Detroit's African American history on her blog.

Marsha Battle Philpot also has published a beautifully written book of poetry and prose titled The Detroitist: An Anthology About Detroit dealing with the era of Detroit's white flight in the 1950s and 1960s and its impact on those left behind.

Marsha Music's Blog