Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ypsilanti, Michigan - The Frontier Years

Demetrius Ypsilanti
The Huron River Valley has been a thoroughfare for humans since ancient Native Americans used the river for their transportation and their village sites. A main trail from the big river to the east, which the French called “de troit” (the strait), led west along the Huron River where it crossed over at a narrows and led into the thick, game rich forests which the local Indians called home for many generations. The spot was the crossroads for several Indian tribes, primarily the Huron, the Ottawa, and the Pottawatomie.

Ypsilanti began its pioneering life in 1809 at the edge of the frontier known as The Michigan Territory. Three enterprising Frenchmen opened a trading post known as “Godfrey’s on the Pottawatomie Trail,” where the Indian trail crossed the narrows in the river. They traded gun power and other French goods to the local Indians for beaver pelts and other Indian products from the forest. When the Indians began to feel the squeeze of frontier civilization in the form of treaties pushing them westward, the traders followed them and left their trading post in ruins.

Ten years later in 1819, General Lewis Cass, the governor of the Michigan Territory, signed the Treaty of Saginaw. What was to become Washtenaw County passed out of the hands of the local tribes and into the hands of the Territory. In 1823, a full-fledged settlement called Woodruff’s Grove was established, and in 1825, the territorial government commissioned the surveying of a road linking Detroit and Chicago. 

The surveyor, Mr. Orange Risdon, found the job an easy one. Over many generations, the local Indians had blazed the most convenient trail west - the old Indian trail from Detroit.

Judge Woodward
Three Detroit businessmen, the most notable of whom was Federal Judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward, purchased the original French Claims from the families of the original deed holders and plotted out a village as soon as the Chicago Road, later known as Michigan Avenue, was surveyed. 

The judge loved history and anything Greek it was said. Americans of that era were interested reading in their newspapers about the War of Greek Independence, as the United States had only fifty years before gained its independence from England. 

A courageous Greek general, Demetrius Ypsilanti (1793-1832), held the Citadel of Argos with only 300 men against a Turkish army of 30,000 men. When their supplies ran out, General Demetrius Ypsilanti and his men escaped without losing a single man. He became an international figure of his time.

Woodward wanted to name this new town after his hero -Ypsilanti - much to the chagrin of his co-investors. They wanted the town’s name to reflect the area’s easy access to water power from the Huron River, so they proposed names like Waterville and Watertown.  

But Judge Woodward had a forceful, dominate personality, and he was the lead investor with the highest public profile, so he got his way. The town has been known as Ypsilanti ever since.

Next post: Ypsilanti, Michigan - Coming of Age

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ypsilanti Water Tower Title Replaced

When I began writing about the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor coed murders of 1967-1969 almost two years ago, I decided on the title In the Shadow of the Water Tower. It had a noirish and pulp-fiction quality that seemed to suit the subject matter. 

In addition, the first two victims and their alleged murderer lived virtually in the shadow of the water tower. As I got deeper into the research and learned more about the facts and the people connected with these cases, I became increasing uncomfortable with the title. 

Then it struck me. Why taint Ypsilanti's beloved landmark with the John Norman Collins controversy? The Water Tower played no role in any of the seven murders that Collins is thought by many to have committed. 

I decided to change the name of my non-fiction book to The Rainy Day Murders, which is what the media called these killings early on because rain was a factor in most of the murders. 

Some police investigators thought that the rain may have acted as a trigger that drove the murderer to kill. Other investigators thought the rain helped destroy evidence at the body drop sites, and the killer was merely perfecting his stealth.

The Rainy Day Murders title also presents the thematic subject matter of the work right up front. The word "murder" is a strong and evocative image that clearly labels the product inside. 


This Michigan Historic Landmark, completed in 1890, has stood proudly for 123 years. Built on Ypsilanti's highest point, the 147 foot tall building is clad in Joliet limestone with four crucifixes set into the stonework to protect the workers who built it.

On a personal note, my wife and I were walking to McKinney Union, sometime in the mid-Seventies, heading south down Summit St. Two city workers were pouring a new cement sidewalk leading up to the double door entrance of the Water Tower, whose tall doors were swung wide open.

I asked if we could go inside and take a peek. One of the workmen said, "Sure."

Grinning, we entered and started up the stairwell. Many people since 1890 had left their mark and written their names on the walls over the years. Somewhere near the top of the staircase on the inner wall, we signed our names and dated it with permanent marker.

Once in the top portion, wooden cross braces and other structural elements were visible, as was some radar and other buzzing electrical equipment. The entrance to the cat walk was locked, so we couldn't see the magnificent 360 degree view of Eastern Michigan University and the nineteenth century residential section of historic Ypsilanti. 

Local university legend has it that when a virgin graduates from EMU, the tower will fall down. Such legends exist at many universities, but Ypsilanti and Eastern experienced the "rainy day murders" up close and personal. Now the expression isn't as clever or funny as it once seemed.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Psychic Peter Hurkos vs. John Norman Collins

Ancient myths and tales abound with stories about oracles, seers, soothsayers, sorcerers, and fortune tellers. Common among these legends is an appeal to a charmed man or woman who has the gift of inner vision. Usually, the person comes from outside the village or town where an overwhelming problem is plaguing the community and he or she agrees to relieve the populace from their resident evil.

Since Jack the Ripper cast a pall over London's East End in 1888, in virtually every serial murder case that goes unsolved for any length of time, a psychic is called in to relieve the public of their collective angst. It is a common appeal for supernatural assistance when confidence in local law enforcement erodes.

Murderous crimes that go beyond simple killing and become ritualized orgies of carnage and butchery evoke antediluvian images of blood thirsty ghouls, evil witches, and demons in league with Satan. These images are deeply embedded in the human psyche and express our deepest psychological fears.
Enter psychic Peter Hurkos, the self-proclaimed first police psychic, arguably the most famous psychic of his day.  Hurkos believed he had a "psychometric" sense, the ability to gain information about people from physical contact with inanimate objects they had touched. He also believed he could enter a crime scene and pick up an aura. "Vibrations" he called them.

Peter Hurkos honed his skills into a popular nightclub act and rubbed elbows with many Hollywood and Las Vegas celebrities. He was a favored guest on the talk show circuit and appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Dinah Shore Show to name just a few.  

After an inauspicious performance and ensuing bad publicity from his work on the Boston Strangler case in 1964, his bookings were fewer and farther between. He just wasn't news anymore.

His agent fielded an offer she took over the phone for him to go to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and see if he could help with the coed killer case there. At first, Hurkos declined, but his agent convinced him that if he could help find the killer, his career would get a boost.

On Monday, July 21, 1969, as he was getting off the plane at Detroit's Metropolitan Airport, Hurkos noticed a cadre of media waiting on the tarmac to interview him. There were too many newsmen chasing too little news in Ann Arbor, and Hurkos put some new life into the story, so they were there to welcome him, and he didn't disappoint them.

With characteristic bravura, the Danish psychic challenged the killer, "He knows I'm coming. I'm after him and he's after me. But I am not afraid. I come thousands of miles to find him and I won't give up." 

While he was in the area, the Danish psychic wanted to examine the landmarks of the cases and handle items of evidence obtained from earlier police investigations. What harm could there be with that?

Taking exception to Peter Hurkos' unauthorized collaboration on the case was Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglas Harvey. There were chain of custody issues regarding the collection, cataloging, storage, and admissibility of evidence. Law enforcement didn't have the time to waste on a man who some people thought was a media hound.

Peter Hurkos, with five police escorts, explored the Friday Ann Arbor nightlife to get a feel for the area. Hurkos also wanted to personally thank John Sinclair and members of his commune at Translove Energies on Hill St. in Ann Arbor. They were the people who raised the money to summon the psychic from California. 

When Hurkos returned to the Inn American early the next morning where he was lodged, the desk clerk told him that a young man about six foot tall with slicked down hair and wearing a turquoise colored shirt, handed her an envelope at about midnight addressed to Dutch psychic/Peter Hurkos

When his police security detail asked if she could recognize him again, she said, "No. I was busy with another customer and it happened so quickly. He was gone."

Hurkos opened the letter and read it silently. It directed him and the police to search for a burned out cabin on Weed Rd. in the northeast corner of Washtenaw County not far from where several other murder victims were found. They would find "something interesting" there the note assured them. The psychic had finally been enjoined in direct communication with the killer.

Hurkos had a "feeling" about this message and gave it to the police to investigate. Then he went to bed. A crew of investigators was hastily formed to investigate the tip in the middle of the night in the pouring rain. They searched the entire area for a burned out cabin they would never find. After an hour, the police returned to the Task Force Crime Center. They had had their fill of Mr. Hurkos. 

Three days after Karen Sue Beineman had been reported missing on Wednesday, July 23, her nude body was found in Ann Arbor township, face down in a small gully. The dump site was less than a mile from the Inn America where Hurkos was staying and the Holy Ghost Fathers Seminary where the crime task force was headquartered. 

The latest murder and the disposal of the body were a blatant affront to everyone connected with this case. Even worse for Hurkos, news of the police finding Miss Beineman's body was kept from him. When he was asked by a reporter for a comment on the matter, he was totally in the dark. The Dane was furious and complained to the prosecutor's office.

During his uneventful week in Ann Arbor, Hurkos cast a wide net. He variously described the killer as a troubled genius, an uneducated vagrant, a sick homosexual, a transvestite, a member of a blood cult, and a drug crazed hippie.

Arrow points to site where Karen Sue Beineman's body was discovered
Once Miss Beineman's body was removed from the gully and the scant evidence secured by the State Police Crime Lab, Hurkos was escorted by the assistant prosecutor and permitted to examine the drop site. Under the withering glare of Sheriff Harvey from the street above, Hurkos made his way down the gully to the spot where the body had been found.

He got down on his haunches and spread both hands out and felt the ground where the body had been. Try as he might, the spot was cold, no vibrations or emanations of any sort.  

With growing resistance from the police and his press entourage shrinking, there was little to be gained by staying in Ann Arbor. Hurkos and his assistant, Ed Silver, left town on Monday, July 28th, headed for the West Coast.

In the end, Sheriff Harvey turned out to be the only clairvoyant on this case. He predicted, "I think these murders will be solved with good old-fashioned police work." Their prime suspect was under arrest within a week. 

One Step Beyond: "The Peter Hurkos Story" 1/6