Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Harry Bennett's Role in the Ypsilanti Torch Murders of August 11, 1931

Torch Murderers Frank Oliver, Fred Smith, and David Blackstone protected from the lynch mob outside by Washtenaw County Police and Harry Bennett's Ford Motor Company "Servicemen." 

The Torch Murders were among the most horrific crimes in Ypsilanti history to that date. On August 11, 1931, three young men--Fred Smith, David Blackstone, and Frank Oliver--had been drinking whiskey at a local speakeasy. They decided to go out on a prowl in their car and rob somebody. In the early morning hours, robbery was the least of their crimes.

During the Great Depression, scratching for a living must not have been easy for the three shiftless young men looking to commit a simple robbery for a payday. They pulled their Model T Ford into Peninsular Grove along a dirt road bordering the north edge of the Huron River. The area was well-known and well-used as a lovers lane. Today, it is known as Peninsular Park off of LeForge Road.

Two teen-aged couples were parking when they were surprised by three shadowy figures. The four teens were beaten and robbed; the girls were raped. When one of the teens recognized Fred Smith, all were murdered. The final indignity was their bodies were soaked with gasoline and torched in their car at another location.

Site of torched car on Tuttle Road
The horrific nature of the crime caught the attention of Mr. Henry Bennett, known to his friends and foes alike as Harry. He was Henry Ford's head of security and UAW union-busting thug. 

Bennett had a chateau-like home built on the north bank of the Huron River off Geddes Road between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. The property was bordered by a concrete and iron reinforced wall courtesy of Ford Motor Company.

Henry Ford had a private railroad spur built leading onto Bennett's property, so his security chief could travel to Detroit in record time if needed. This was before Interstate 94 was built, and Michigan Avenue was the most direct route into Detroit.

After the untimely death of one Joseph York, a Detroit gangster who tried to kill Harry Bennett in his home, Bennett had Ford architects design and build several strategically located crenelated gun towers on the roof of his home--staffed around the clock by Ford Servicemen. The entire area surrounding the Bennett Castle for many miles was known as a no-mans' land for criminal activity. Then the Torch Murders happened almost on Bennett's doorstep.
Harry Bennett's Castle
In a book published in 2003 with the dreadful title of Henry Ford: Critical Evaluations in Business and Management, Vol. 1, authors John Cunningham Wood and Michael C. Wood wrote about Harry Bennett's role in the Ypsilanti Torch Murders. 

"The last crime of any consequence in the (Ypsilanti) area occurred in 1931 (These authors obviously hadn't heard about the John Norman Collins murders) and Bennett cleared it up within forty-eight hours. It was a thoroughly horrible affair

"Bennett was invited to participate in the case by a local sheriff, and he soon had his Servicemen swarming the countryside. Under the noses of the state troopers and the county officials, he shifted the scene of the crime a few feet to bring it into the jurisdiction of a hanging judge (note: Michigan has never been a death penalty state).

"Then he uncovered two informers who named a couple of possible suspects. Taking one of the suspects in tow, Bennett, together with Robert Taylor, the head of the Ford Sociological Department,

Ford Servicemen in action.
and one of his towering Ford Servicemen, took the young man to the basement of his fortified house. There, while one of Bennett's companions created an enormous racket with an electric weight reducing machine, Bennett undertook to get a confession out of the suspect.

"(Bennett) interrupted this job occasionally to dash upstairs and pour a beer for the county sheriff who visited him inopportunely before his basement guest had begun to talk. He tactfully neglected to advise the sheriff what was going on below, and it was not until he had results that he turned his captive over to the police.

The Torch Murder Case--as it became known--was rapidly brought to a successful conclusion. After speedy court proceedings, the accused were indicted, pleaded guilty, and sentenced in the same session. They were hustled down the back stairs of the courthouse and shoved into the backseat of a souped-up Lincoln driven by Harry Bennett himself with a three car police escort. The murderous trio were delivered alive to Jackson Prison--forty-six miles west of Ypsilanti.

For a more detailed account of The Torch Murders, consult Judge Edward Deake's account found in the Ypsilanti Historical Society's publication Ypsilanti Gleanings:

For more information on Harry Bennett, check out a previous post: http://fornology.blogspot.com/2012/09/ford-henchman-harry-bennett-and-his.html

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