Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Detroit's Wrestling Titans

If you grew up in Detroit in the 1950s through the 1970s, chances are you remember Big Time Wrestling (BTW) on WXYZ--Channel 7 which aired on Saturdays at 3:30 pm until 4:30 pm with announcer Fred Wolfe. BTW captured the rough and tumble world of Detroit's blue collar angst. Detroit wrestling fans had a strong work ethic, respect for fair play, and a hatred for dirty tactics and cheating. They particularly loved grudge matches, loser leaves town matches, and wars of attrition which could last twenty minutes or more. BTW wrestlers were not pretty boys from the West Coast or elite snobs from the East Coast--they were blue collar heroes who had to work for a living. 

Dick, the Bruiser
Early wrestling story lines involved coastal invaders coming into our town bragging how tough they were. They would abuse and destroy our mid-level wrestlers trying to climb the ranks and then turn and insult the crowd proclaiming Motor City wrestlers weren't that tough. They would leave town, then a month or so later, these sore winners would return to wrestle our top guys and get their clocks cleaned. A notable exception to this rule was the most hated wrestler in the business--Dick, the Bruiser. He beat the hell out of everyone. In and out of the ring.

Leaping Larry Chene (not Shane)
Some of Detroit's fan favorites were Lou Klein--the Man of a Thousand Holds, Dick "Mr. Michigan" Garza, Haystack Calhoun, Bobo Brazil, Ernie Ladd, Killer Kowalski, George "The Animal" Steele, the Junkyard Dog, and my favorite, Leaping Larry Chene.

Chene (Arthur Lawrence Beauchene) was tragically killed at the age of thirty-five in an early morning car accident on October 2, 1964 while returning home to Michigan from a match in Davenport, Iowa the previous night. Leaping Larry Chene was a credit to his profession and sorely missed by his fans.

That same year, Edward Farhat and his father-in-law bought the BTW television rights and secured exclusive rights to promote wrestling events at Cobo Arena for a mere $50,000. Edward Farhat, better known as The Sheik, was the most hated wrestler in Detroit. Farhat's character usually came out dressed in a robe and an Arab headress. He wore wrestling shoes with exaggerated pointed toes and had a camel printed on his wrestling shorts. The Sheik was the focus of Detroit's frustration with the Middle Eastern oil crisis, and The Sheik did everything he could but set a Ford Pinto on fire in the middle of the squared circle to incite the crowd against him.

Rocky Johnson is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's father.
The Sheik's signature move was the Camel Clutch, but he was also known for "blinding" his opponents with his patented magic fire ball effect. Once his opponent was disoriented, The Sheik would attack him mercilessly and stretch him out for a win. Usually, medics stood by to roll the loser out of the arena on a gurney while the crowd gave the man a howling ovation. As a kid, I was mesmerized by the fireball. A few years later, I discovered that magician's flash paper could be purchased at any magic or novelty shop in town.
The Sheik with his manager Dave Burzynski.
Under Farhat's leadership, BTW matches suddenly became edgier and bloodier with ethnic overtones. In the 1970s and 1980s, Detroit faced the oil crisis and stiff competition from foreign competitors. Farhat imported Japanese wrestlers like Kenuke Honda and Toyota Matahashi to exploit this economic reality. 

The Japanese tag team worked their way up the ranks until they won the BTW title belt by throwing Sumo salt into the eyes of their opponents--shades of The Sheik's fire ball move. Then, in front of rabid Detroit fans, the Japanese wrestlers destroyed the officially sanctioned title belt and replaced it with one made in Japan. They bragged their belt was better quality and less expensive. Those were fighting words in Detroit and the new champions were led out of the arena under police protection and left the country with the belt--as the narrative went. In professional wrestling, the line between reality and fantasy gets blurred, and if you can get the crowd fired up, that's money in the bank.

The Camel Clutch
When the national economy went belly up in 1980, BTW could no longer draw big crowds to fill Cobo Arena or other big venues in the Midwest. The advent of cable TV and two national wrestling federations--one out of Stamford, Connecticut and the other out of Atlanta, Georgia--helped spell the death knell for regional promotions. Professional wrestling went dark in Detroit.

Alex Karris meets Dick, the Bruiser at Lindell's AC sports bar: https://fornology.blogspot.com/2017/02/alex-karras-and-dick-bruisers-detroit.html

Saturday, May 26, 2018

John Norman Collins Canadian Connection

When I speak to people about the Washtenaw County murders of the late 1960s, I am usually asked, "Have you been in contact with any of John Norman Collins's family?" My answer is always, "I've made several attempts without success."

JNC's older brother and his late sister were steadfast in their silence about their notorious younger brother. Neither of John's siblings bear any responsibility for what their brother did; regardless, they both paid a heavy personal price and are victims of the collateral damage from the very public and court case. They chose not to comment--well within their rights.

John Norman Collins (13), his brother (16), and sister (15) - December 30th, 1960.
The Collins' family wall of silence is a legacy from their mother, Loretta--the family matriarch. She was the sole ruler and spokesperson for the family during her son's trial and afterward. Not even John was allowed to speak in his own defense. Now that Loretta is gone, no one speaks for the family. I had just about given up establishing contact with anyone in the Collins clan when I received an unexpected email from a surprising source.

"My name is John (Philip) Chapman; I am John Norman Collins's Canadian cousin. I've been in contact with my cousin since 1981, thirty-two years now--and I have some interesting information I would be willing to share with you pertaining to John's family history and facts he has revealed to me. 

"I normally would never get involved, however, after reading your blog post--Treading on the Grief of Others in the John Norman Collins Case--I agree a debt is owed to history that must be paid.

"My heart truly goes out to those young women and their families who had their daughters taken away from them too soon. If there is anything I can share with you to help, I would be happy to do so."

John Philip Chapman appeared exactly when we needed him most. My researcher Ryan M. Place and I had worked for three years to get someone from the Collins family to speak with us about John's early family history.

Richard Chapman in 1944 on motorcycle seen with his friend Fred Higgins who saved his life.
"John's father--my Uncle Rich--was a light-infantry officer and an explosives/demolition expert in His Majesty's Canadian Services. He lost his left leg in 1944 during the Second World War. After his injury, he spent weeks in a military hospital recovering from battle fatigue and physical complications before being shipped home to Canada. He was on medication for the rest of his life. My uncle lived until 1988.

"I want to correct a public inaccuracy. Uncle Richard was never abusive towards his children or my Aunt Marjorie (Loretta went by her middle name in Canada). He never abandoned his children and never would. My aunt divorced my uncle for alleged 'extreme mental cruelty.' Uncle Rich loved his children very much, however, due (to) the amount of lies Aunt Marjorie put in their heads, they didn't want to be bothered with him. Hoping to avoid dragging their children through a bitter divorce, my uncle gave Aunt Marjorie what she wanted--full custody. My cousin Gail learned the truth shortly before her Dad passed away."

According to Chapman, "My Aunt Marjorie's family felt Uncle Rich was not good enough for their daughter. He wasn't Catholic. Her parents didn't like their son-in-law and offered him money to disappear.... I know for a fact that my Uncle Rich never took the money."

John Philip Chapman
John Philip explained that he had been writing his cousin John (Collins) in prison since he (Chapman) was seven or eight years old. "(Collins) is twenty-five years older than me and has always been like a big brother. In our letters, he refers to me as 'Little Brother'." John Philip Chapman explained that he was an only child and found comfort in the attention from his older American cousin who became a virtual 'Big Brother' for him.

Somehow, Chapman managed to remain ignorant of his older cousin's crimes. Over the years, Chapman maintained a "Don't ask - Don't tell" policy regarding his cousin's imprisonment. After all, Collins had insisted he was innocent of the Karen Sue Beineman murder. Collins also complained in his letters that he was victimized by a rogue cop (Sheriff Douglas Harvey), an overzealous prosecutor (William Delhey), and a corrupt legal system looking for a scapegoat. Now forty-one years old, Chapman's personal search for knowledge about his cousin was making him confront his deepest fears.

John Philip Chapman asked if I would be interested in receiving some of his cousin's prison letters. Chapman had noticed a change in tone and intensity in the letters of late, and he wanted me to look at them. Then, Chapman volunteered something unexpected. He offered to see what other information he could find out from his cousin about his crimes. 

Without JNC's knowledge, over the next four months we received a total of nine prison letters from Collins to his cousin. The letters average seven pages and cover a range of subjects, but one theme became more and more prevalent as time went on. Collins was pressing for an international prisoner exchange with Canada. This was Chapman's original motivation for contacting me. He wanted to know if he and his mother had anything to fear from Collins. I told Chapman that I wouldn't feel comfortable with Collins in my house or my neighborhood.

Chapman told me that Collins tried unsuccessfully to get an international prisoner exchange with Canada in 1981. Canada has more liberal sentencing provisions than the United States, so Collins saw parole as a very real possibility. The basis for his repatriation claim was he was born in Canada and held dual citizenship. He claimed he had relatives and a support system there.

But both JNC's father and his uncle refused to offer their sponsorship to Collins after being contacted by authorities on both sides of the Detroit River informing them of the particulars of Collins's crimes. When the Detroit Free Press ran an article about the possible transfer acting on a tip from a Marquette prison inmate, the Michigan Department of Corrections summarily revoked Collins's application for the international prisoner exchange.

John Norman Collins
Thirty-two years later, Collins summoned up the courage to ask his younger cousin--his last Canadian blood relative--to sponsor him for another prisoner transfer attempt in hopes of receiving dispensation for timed served in Michigan. To Collins's way of thinking, all he needed was a relative and a place to stay; then, he could be assigned to a work release program in Canada and be free of his Michigan prison cell and his jailers. Now, it became clear to Chapman what JNC had been driving at for months--the chicken hawk wanted to come home to roost.

Link to the above mentioned blog post:

Monday, May 14, 2018

When We Called the Insane Asylum Eloise

Gates outside of Eloise Asylum Building - 1940
In 1839, two years after Michigan was made a state, Wayne County bought a 166-acre farm for $800 in Nankin Township in what is now Westland. The land bordered the Old Chicago Road (Michigan Avenue) leading to Ypsilanti and parts west. The purchase included several farm buildings and a log cabin known as the Black Horse Tavern. After a wing was added, the cabin became the new Wayne County Poorhouse housing thirty-five destitute people.

The poorhouse was two days travel by stagecoach from Detroit. The unspoken truth was county officials wanted somewhere to send the dregs of society--vagrants, vagabonds, drunkards, thieves, and brawlers. Soon, the insane and feeble-minded were housed there. The mentally ill were housed on the upper floor of the pig barn chained to the timber framing. It wasn't until 1881 when the asylum's first medical superintendent took over the supervision of the mentally ill and ordered the chains be removed.

In 1872, 157 acres adjacent to the poor house was purchased from the Cady family. Over time, the Eloise complex became a self-sufficient community with its own dairy farm, pig farm, bakeries, a slaughterhouse, a greenhouse, a cannery, a tobacco field, a laundry, a police department, a fire station, and a powerhouse. At its height, the complex housed over 12,000 people with 3,000 people working throughout the grounds.

It wasn't until 1894 that the Wayne County Poorhouse was renamed. The United States Postmaster General approved Nankin Township's petition for a post office of their own. The Postmaster established an order that new post offices have only short names of one or two words not resembling any other post office in their state.

Eloise Dickerson
Recently retired, Detroit postmaster Freeman B. Dickerson was largely responsible for the establishment of the post office in the township. As president of the board, he suggested the post office be named after his four-year-old daughter Eloise. The board agreed and sent her name to Washington D.C., and it was approved on July 20. In what must have been a grand gesture to his only child, had Mr. Dickerson known that his daughter's name would become synonymous with one of the largest mental institutions in the United States, he would have chosen more wisely.

Eloise patients in straight jackets waiting to see doctors.
The Wayne County Poor House became known simply as Eloise. The complex consisted of a psychiatric hospital for the mentally ill and criminally insane, a poor house for the indigent, and an infirmary for tuberculosis victims. The Eloise complex grew to over 902 acres with seventy-eight buildings. The facility was plagued by reports of patient abuse, beatings, neglect, unsanitary conditions, and serious overcrowding--as many as 125 women shared five toilets. The mentally ill had no voice in their treatment which might include electroshock therapy, insulin-inducted comas, and lobotomies.

In 1955, the Michigan Society of Mental Health calculated that on a per patient basis, Wayne County General was the most expensive mental hospital in the world. Farming ceased in 1958. As unused buildings at the complex were closed, most were razed rather than repurposed. Tunnels once used to shuttle patients between buildings were sealed off at access points.

By the 1960s, new theories for treatment of the mentally ill were developing. Psychiatrists began experimenting with brain chemistry treating patients with pills and powders. The problem of mental illness in America grew so large that institutions couldn't house everyone who needed services.

A new approach evolved called deinstitutionalism. Mental hospitals no longer provided long term care but returned patients to society as soon as possible managing their treatment through home care outreach or half-way houses. Those who slipped through cracks in the system made a life on the streets by sleeping in cardboard boxes or living in culverts or under freeway overpasses. Some panhandled for spare change while others railed at the sky and the demons tormenting their souls. Many of these unfortunate people ended up in the criminal justice system. The psychiatric buildings at Eloise were vacated in 1973. Psychiatric care ended in 1977 when the State of Michigan took over mental health services from the county. In 1979, the name of the hospital was changed to Wayne County General.

Between the 1890s through the late 1940s, Eloise had its own morgue and three cemeteries with 7,145 burials of unclaimed bodies--each grave marked by a cement block with a number molded into it. The burials were discontinued in 1948 when the Michigan legislature passed a law to use the bodies of unclaimed wards of the state as cadavers for medical training.

Women's Mental Health in the nineteenth century: https://fornology.blogspot.com/2018/05/the-cure-for-hysterical-women-behind.html