Monday, December 30, 2019

Detroit's Pfeiffer Brewery and Johnny Pfeiffer

The Johnny Pfeiffer plaster-of-paris figurine depicts a Revolutionary War minuteman playing a fife. Designed by Walt Disney Studios in 1951 for the Pfeiffer Brewing Company, the back bar statuette was made by the Plasto Corporation in Chicago. A company spokesperson says Pfeiffer Brewing commissioned eight different versions of Johnny over the 1950s. Two thousand of the 7.25 inch figurines were produced every month making it the most common and least valuable statue they ever produced, currently selling on Ebay for $25 to $45 depending on condition and the motivation of the buyer.

Brewery founder Conrad Pfeiffer brought the original beer recipes from Germany in the late nineteenth century. The original styles were "Pfeiffer's Famous"--a light lager--and "Pfeiffer's Wurtzburger"--a dark lager. Their brew masters used only new seasoned white oak kegs and barrels to insure consistent quality and taste. Pfeiffer became Detroit's third most popular beer brand behind Stroh's and Goebel before Prohibition took effect in 1920.

Repeal was passed by Congress and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in December 1933, ending America's nightmare experience with Prohibition. Beginning in February 1934, Pfeiffer restored the exterior beauty of its original building built in 1889. The interior of the plant was completely remodeled, enlarged, and modernized. Legal beer shipments resumed on May 15, 1934.

Pfeiffer gained considerable market share after Prohibition repeal largely due to heavy-handed distributors who intimidated vendors and tavern owners to take their beer products over other brands. Complaints from vendors prompted the Michigan Liquor Commission to investigate Pfeiffer distributorships.

On February 22, 1935, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Gordon E. Tappan testified at a Liquor Commission public hearing that "(Pfeiffer Brewing Company) made no attempt to screen its distributors for character, qualifications, morals, or police records." Tappan charged the company and its agents with using strong-arm tactics to muscle in on Michigan's beer industry. The company made no attempt to rid itself of underworld influence.

The Macomb Distribution Company had Mafia boss Joe "Uno" Zerilli and his underboss William "Black Bill" Tocco on their board of directors with Anthony Lambrecht, Alfred Epstein, Abe Rogoff, and H. Armin Weil, who also had police records. The board of Meyer's Products Company--another Pfeiffer distributor--included Donald F. Gray--president; Charles Leiter--vice-president and Oakland Sugar House Gang co-boss; Henry Shorr--treasurer and Sugar House Gang co-boss; Elda Ruffert--secretary; James Syla--manager; Sam "the Gorilla" Davis--company agent and known Purple Gang enforcer; and Henry Toprofsky--company agent and known Purple Gang enforcer. 

Pfeiffer Brewery officials were required by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to show cause why their brewing license shouldn't be revoked. Then president William G. Breitmeyer pled ignorance and said the company was having trouble keeping up with demand. They didn't need to force their products on anyone. On April 10, 1935, the company agreed to bar all persons with criminal records from serving as beer distributors and suspended their contracts. Despite the bad Depression-era publicity, Pfeiffer became Detroit's most popular brand overtaking Stroh's and Goebel by the end of the 1950s. But trouble was brewing on the horizon.

In the 1960s, Budweiser, Miller, and Pabst sought to become national brands. Because of their assets, access to capital, and huge advertising budgets, the Big Three brewers put many regional brewers out of business--not because of superior products but because of marketing and financial resources.

To compete with the Big Three, Pfeiffer changed its corporate name to Associated Brewing Company (ABC) in 1962. ABC acquired and consolidated smaller Midwestern brands and breweries to position itself in the national market, but they overextended themselves and became overburdened with debt. The old Pfeiffer brewery and bottling plant on Beaufait Avenue closed in 1966, and by 1972, the rest of ABC's remaining assets were sold off.

Detroiters are left with some aging memorabilia and a few random facts. In some small measure, the microbrewery movement of the twenty-first century is nipping at the heels of the national brands and cutting into their profits. Many of the old-style beers are once again available for our quaffing pleasure.

Many thanks Renee Reilly-Menard for gifting Johnny Pfeiffer to me along with the Vernor's gnome. The Detroit Historical Museum already has Johnny Pfeiffer in its collection. He looks good on my mantelpiece. I think I'll keep him.

Home for the gnome:

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Elusive Purple Gang--Now Available From Amazon

The Elusive Purple Gang: Detroit’s Kosher Nostra is a concise history of one of America’s most notorious and violent Prohibition gangs. The four Burnstein brothers and their associates were the only Jewish gang in the United States to dominate the rackets of a major American city.

From their meteoric rise to the top of Detroit’s underworld to their ultimate demise, The Elusive Purple Gang is an episodic account of the Purple Gang’s corrosive pursuit of power and wealth and their inevitable plunge towards self-destruction. 

A quality Wheatmark Inc. paperback edition is now available from Amazon with ebook formats avaliable at the end of November. A digital audiobook is in production and should be available in late December.

2020 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Prohibition. I hope readers young and old will find The Elusive Purple Gang informative and interesting. As always, Amazon reviews are kindly encouraged. Thank you.


Monday, November 11, 2019

John Norman Collins's Murder Alibi

John Norman Collins on Triumph motorcycle he used to pick up Karen Sue Beineman.

Part three of the Detroit Free Press retrospective article on killer John Norman Collins and the Washtenaw County Murders details two prison letters he wrote to his Canadian cousin John Philip Chapman in 2013. In them, Collins states he is innocent of the Karen Sue Beineman and Alice Kalom murders, and he names the killer.

A footnote to this three-part feature story is that Collins broke his long-standing rule of not responding to media requests and wrote the Free Press last Tuesday asking that they not publish the articles. Then, he proceded to slander me writing I was using him to snare women into my web. Just for the record, I don't have a web.

John Norman Collins Mugshot August 2, 1969.
Collins throws Eastern Michigan University Roommate Under Prison bus 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Washtenaw County Murders--1967-1969

Photo credit: The Detroit Free Press
Over a period of three summers, the bodies of seven Michigan young women and a high school student from Oregon visiting in California were found discarded in the countryside. The prime suspect was a handsome, high school sports star from Center Line, Michigan, who began his killing spree at Eastern Michigan University in 1967. Part two of this three part feature recounts the murders.

The Victims 

Friday, November 8, 2019

Detroit Free Press Delves Into the John Norman Collins Case

Michigan Department of Corrections mugshot--2014.

Detroit Free Press investigative reporter Frank Witsil took up the John Norman Collins murder cases and discovered that I have a collection of over twenty prison letters Collins wrote over the years to four different people--all who voluntarily decided to share them with me.

Two of those prison letters were sent to Collins's Canadian cousin John Philip Chapman. What makes those letters different from the others is for the first time Collins puts forth an alibi for the murders of Alice Kalom and Karen Sue Beineman. His motive for doing so will be made quite clear.

Witsil's three-part survey of the Collins case concludes with an exclusive report detailing his alibi which throws his former Eastern Michigan University roommate under the prison bus fifty years after the fact. People who follow this case will be more interested in the state of Collins's mind than any serious criminal revelations. Parts two and three of the Detroit Free Press feature will run in the coming days.

Collins Feature--Part One

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Gaslighting--A Sociopath's Favorite Tool

The psychological phenomenon known as gaslighting has become a colloquial term to describe a form of mental abuse where a dominant individual manipulates a weaker person's sense of psychological well-being to undermine the victim's mental stability. It is the manipulation of external reality to make someone doubt their sanity.

The term derives from the popular 1944 American film entitled Gaslight--based on a 1938 British stage play. Frenchman Charles Boyer plays the sociopathic husband of the psychologically frail Ingrid Bergman. This memorable film portrays a husband's attempt to destroy his wife's sanity by manipulating her perception of reality, so he can steal her jewels.

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman
Sociopaths instill a high level of anxiety and confusion to disorient their victims. Information is twisted and spun by them so victims begin to doubt themselves. Targets lose faith in their ability to make judgments and become insecure about their decision-making abilities.

Gaslighting describes an antisocial personality disorder that relies on deception, denial, mind games, sabotage, isolation, and destabilization. It is a form of narcissistic abuse that occurs in all types of relationships and every walk of life. This syndrome is often associated with marital relationships, but anyone can be a victim. Gaslighting can be seen in abusive parent-child relationships and in the workplace with an aggressive boss brow-beating his employees. It is mental bullying that can escalate into physical violence. These narcissists are puppet masters who often manipulate people for their own personal gain or to play twisted power and control games.

Gaslighting is a deliberate and progressive method of covert control that imposes a form of psychosis on its victims. Brainwashing, interrogation, isolation, and torture are all forms of psychological warfare used by the military, intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and terrorist organizations. On any level, it is a human and civil rights violation. 


For more detailed information on gaslighting and a link to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, view the following link:

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Detroit Police Pioneer Radio Dispatching During Prohibition

During the lawless period of Prohibition, law enforcement and the underworld took full advantage of the automobile as their mode of transportation. The four-cylinder Ford Model T was inexpensive enough to be widely available to the masses and law enforcement. But other automobile manufacturers were making more expensive sleeker and faster cars giving gangsters the edge. The underworld had a ready source of money where the police had to go through official channels to secure government funding. Car manufacterers like Cadillac, Chrysler, Packard, Chevy, and Dodge outclassed and out-maneuvered the policeman's Tin Lizzy.

It wasn't until December 2, 1932, that Ford Motor Company introduced its V-8 engine making the Model A the car to beat. It left the in-line six-cylinder engines of its competitors in the dust. The Detroit Police were quick to buy thirty Ford Phaetons equipped with a new weapon in their fight against organized crime.

Ford Phaeton, V-8, radio-equipped Detroit police car.
Notice the bullet deflector protecting the radiator.

Detroit Police began experimenting with radio-equipped patrol cars in 1921. At first, it was one-way communication that could dispatch cars but not receive signals from patrol cars. Patrolmen had to find a phone booth to report to the station. In those days, the Detroit Police shared a frequency with a commercial radio station and cut into its programming to dispatch patrols.

Seven years later on April 7, 1928, Detroit Police radio operators broadcast throughout the city for the first time on a dedicated frequency from the Belle Isle police precinct. The new radio system reduced police response times and increased arrest rates. It was an instant success, quickly making radio-dispatching standard police practice nationwide.

In 1987, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers honored the technical achievement of the Detroit Police Department with a plaque on the front of the now deserted Belle Isle precinct station, commemorating the electrical engineering milestone of dedicated police radio communications.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Berry Gordy's Lost Portrait

Rare, faded photo of DeVon Cunningham's portrait of Berry Gordy
--washed out from a flashbulb.

Berry Gordy and Motown Records did for popular music what Henry Ford and his company did for the automobile business--they changed American culture. Coincidently as a young man, Gordy worked on Ford's assembly line and learned lessons he would apply to his music empire allowing Motown to crank out an unprecedented number of hits enriching the American songbook--bringing what was once labeled "race music" into the era of "rhythm & blues." While Henry Ford made automobiles available to the masses, Berry Gordy brought his Motown sound to a national and international audience crossing racial barriers once thought impassible.

In the late 1960s, Anna Gordy Gaye--sister of Berry and wife of Motown performer Marvin Gaye--commissioned Detroit artist DeVon Cunningham to paint a portrait of her mogul brother. The first two attempts with Berry in a shirt and tie were cast aside because Anna felt they didn't capture Berry's "spirit." When Marvin Gaye complained after losing an argument with Gordy about a creative issue, he said, "That man is a fierce warrior." That image resonated with Anna. She showed a portrait of Napoleon to Cunningham which evolved into a portrait of Berry Gordy.

Napoleon Before St. Helene by Paul Delaroche

Anna presented the portrait to her brother on October 4, 1969, at the annual Loucye Gordy Wakefield Scholarship fund raiser, enabling twenty-six inner-city high school graduates to attend college. The fundraiser was held at Gordy's Boston-Edison, tile-roofed Renaissance estate.

Mrs. Gaye maneuvered the guests into a large parlor where the huge painting hung. Artist DeVon Cunningham unveiled the four by six foot portrait before the assembled guests--including many of Detroit's glitterati. There it was, Berry Gordy with an imperious look of command on his face as a Black Napoleon. Berry took one incredulous look and broke into laughter. Cunningham remembers him saying, "Damn, I like it."

Gordy displayed the portrait in his Detroit mansion for years before moving to Beverly Hills, California to expand Motown into the movie business. When the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute sought to locate the painting to verify its condition and ownership for their catalog of important American portraits, Berry Gordy could not be reached for comment, but his publicist stonewalled the researchers about the whereabouts of the portrait.

"The Smithsonian has been searching for almost two years," said Bethany Bentley--National Portrait Gallery spokesperson. "Getting on the list can lead to art museums requesting pieces for exhibits." The National Portrait Gallery gave up searching for the portrait but listed it anyway marking its location as "unknown."

Artist DeVon Cunningham talking about his "docu-art" in 2017

Artist DeVon Cunningham hasn't seen the portrait since he painted it. When interviewed by the Detroit News, Cunningham said he spoke to several of Gordy's associates who told him someone put it in Berry's head that it's not a compliment to be shown as Napoleon. After several books came out critical of Gordy and his Motown hit factory, he was concerned with his legacy and may have had the portrait destroyed.

If true, Cunningham was deprived of the public exposure and acclaim the National Portrait Gallery listing would have surely brought him. 

DeVon Cunningham speaks about his art

Hitsville USA 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Fleisher Brothers--Harry and Sam: Crime Doesn't Pay (Part 2 of 2)

Harry Fleisher 1920 (seventeen years old)

Harry Fleisher started his professional criminal career in 1920 as a driver and strong-arm man for the Oakland Sugar House Gang. The leaders of the gang and twelve young thugs were rounded up and charged with extortion in the Cleaners and Dyers War in 1928. The young enforcers put the fear of God into their victims and witnesses against them. Key witnesses recanted their original statements to police or simply disappeared. The Sugar House Gang beat the rap but suffered from the public exposure.

Soon, the leaders of the Sugar House Gang were arrested on a Federal charge of violating the Volstead Act (the Prohibition law) by providing brewing supplies and equipment for the illegal manufacture of beer and whiskey, and for running several industrial-sized stills around the city. The gang disbanded with Charles Leiter and Harry Shorr under federal indictment. What hurt the organization more than anything else was the destruction of their equipment and massive supplies of distilled alcohol.

Joe Burnstein
Joe and Ray Burnstein were now free to form a spin-off gang of trusted neighborhood friends and former Sugar House members who soon became known as the Purple Gang. Harry Fleisher was part of the gang's inner circle; his brothers Louis and Sam became foot soldiers. Louis specialized in hijacking and labor racketeering, and Sam was a truck driver and strong-arm man for the organization.

Ray Burnstein
In a tactical move that threatened the Purple Gang's existence, Ray Burnstein, Harry Keywell, Irving Milberg, and Harry Fleisher laid in wait for several members of the Little Jewish Navy--a group affiliated with the Purples. Izzy Sutker owed Burnstein $1,300 dollars for a liquor purchase he was two weeks late paying back. But there were other issues. Sutker and his boys were interloping Chicago hoods nibbling away at Purple Gang territory by opening several speakeasies on their turf.

Believing the Burnsteins were phasing out of the liquor business and going legit, Izzy Sutker, Hymie Paul, and Joe Lebowitz showed up at an improvised meeting they thought would make them rich men. Burnstein childhood friend Solomon Levine--and business partner of Izzy Sutker--was duped into driving Sutker and his wing men to the Collingwood Manor Apartments on September 16, 1931 to discuss the deal. But the Purples were harboring another grudge which could not be forgiven or go unanswered. One of their men was murdered outside a Purple Gang protected gambling joint on their territory. Word on the street pointed the finger at Sutker as the trigger man.

Levine, Sutker, Paul, and Lebowitz were greeted at the front door of apartment 211 by Ray Burnstein and ushered-in to sit on the living room couch. After a brief conversation, Burnstein left the room sayin he had to make a phone call to the gang's business manager from the corner drugstore. Minutes later, Ray was behind the wheel of his Chrysler sedan honking the horn and revving the engine. That was the signal for his boys to stand up and torpedo the Little Jewish Navy where they sat.

The assassins left with Solly Levine in shock. He had no idea he was driving his associates to their deaths. The gunmen scurried down two flights of stairs, burst out the alley door, and jumped into the waiting car. "I let you live, Solly, because you're my friend," Ray told him before he hit the gas pedal and sped off squealing his tires.

Shortly after they fled, Levine was dropped off a few blocks away and given cab fare to return to his sports book (betting parlor). Detroit homicide detectives recognized the victims and knew where they lived. After questioning several residents of the boarding house, they discovered that Solomon Levine had driven off with the Sutker, Paul, and Lebovitz a couple of hours earlier. The police detectives were quick to arrest Levine, who turned state's evidence. Levine knew he was as good as dead if he didn't.

Burnstein and Keywell were captured later that evening, and Millberg was caught early the next morning while packing his bags in his apartment. Conspicuous by his absence was Harry Fleisher. He had the good sense to go home, hug his wife goodbye, grab his bug-out bag, and leave town immediately. For this, Fleisher earned the underworld nickname "Slick." After a highly publicized three-week trial, Ray Burnstein, Harry Keywell, and Irving Milberg were convicted and given life sentences at Marquette Prison dealing a staggering blow to the gang.

Fleisher remained at large for nine months. While "on the lam," the Detroit press corps missed no opportunity to drop Harry's name in the newspapers or on radio news broadcasts. Because of his alleged involvement in Detroit's "snatch racket" (kidnapping), Fleisher's name was implicated as a possible suspect in the Lindberg baby kidnapping. The FBI charge gave Harry national exposure as his face and description appeared on wanted posters hung in every police station and post office in the nation. Fleisher was being hunted coast-to-coast.

On June 9, 1932, Harry Fleisher surprised Detroit Prosecutor Harry S. Toy by showing up with his lawyer at the prosecutor's fifth-floor office in Detroit Police Headquarters. Fleisher was arrested and held without bond. Despite the prosecutor's best efforts to try Fleisher, Toy's star witness who could link Harry to the Collingwood Massacre was unable to be found. The case against Fleisher was dismissed. Twenty years later, missing witness Sol Levine reappeared in Detroit. Levine told a Detroit Free Press staff reporter that he had shipped out of New York on a tramp steamer to make himself scarce. "I made $135 a month--the first honest money I ever made. It felt good."


Harry Fleisher's arrest file was one of the thickest in the history of the Detroit Police Department coming in at 204 pages. He was arrested thirty times for charges ranging from receiving stolen property, grand larceny, violating the prohibition law, armed robbery, assault with intent to kill, kidnapping, possession of an unregistered gun, suspicion of murder, and a traffic violation. Convicted four times but serving no jail time, Fleisher paid fines totaling $715--chump change for him. What he paid in lawyer fees was much higher.

Despite Prohibition ending on December 5, 1933, there was still money to be made in trafficking illegal alcohol. Now that the state and federal governments were in the liquor business, the cost of legal booze with a federal tax stamp was costly. Harry and his youngest brother Sam were operators of a 4,000 gallon unregistered distillery that took up three stories of a warehouse building at 5620 Federal Avenue.

Sam Fleicher 1935 (twenty-four years old)
While under FBI surveillance, Sam drove a semi-truck loaded with 10,500 pounds of brown sugar--purchased from a wholesaler in Cleveland, Ohio--to the Guardian Transit Company warehouse at Sixteenth and Pine Streets in Detroit. The brown sugar was loaded into smaller vans and transported to the Fleisher brothers' distillery. On April 11, 1935, a Federal alcohol tax unit raided the operation and arrested former Purple Gang members Sam Fleisher, Jack Selbin, and Joe Stein. Once again, Harry managed to escape before he was arrested.

Harry Fleisher was named in the original warrant but remained at large until he surrendered himself to Federal authorities on October 29, 1935 when he was indicted, placed under a $2,500 bond, and held over for trial with the other men. All four men were convicted on April 11, 1936 of conspiracy to violate the Internal Revenue Service Act, given eight-year prison sentences and fined $20,000 each. Additionally, the Fleisher brothers had a federal tax lien of $14,028 levied against them for unpaid taxes on 2,275 gallons of alcohol.

The convicted men were transitioned into the federal penitentiary system in Leavenworth, Kansas. After a month of quarantine, they were taken by train to San Francisco, and from there were ferried across the bay to Alcatraz Island where they served four and a half years of their eight-year sentence. They were released early for good behavior. Again, the men were transitioned to Leavenworth before being released on June 28, 1940. In 1941, Harry Fleisher opened a florist shop on Twelfth Street. Sam went to work at his father's junkyard in Jackson, Michigan after his release.


Michigan State Senator Warren G. Hooper
Harry and Sam were habitual criminals determined to lead a life of crime. On January 11, 1945, State Senator Warren G. Hooper--while en route to his home in Albion, Michigan--was shot three times in the head at close range and found next to his burning car on U.S. Highway 99 near Springport in Jackson County. Passing drivers told state police they saw a maroon car blocking Hooper's sedan on the wrong side of the highway. Hooper was slated to be a key witness against Frank D. McKay--former Republican National Committeeman--in a state government race track bribery case.

Chief of the Michigan State Police Detective Harold Mulbar told the press that Senator Hooper had refused police protection. "The Hooper murder was definitely a paid gangster killing," Mulbar said. An intensive search for the killers kicked up several ex-cons who pointed the finger at four men who tried to hire them to assassinate the state senator. Fearing they would violate their paroles and be sent back to prison, the ex-cons turned state's evidence. The corroborated testimony of Henry Luks, Al Kurner, and Sam Abramowitz led to the convictions of Harry Fleisher, Sam Fleisher, Myron "Mikey" Selik, and Pete Mahoney for conspiracy to commit murder. 

The conspiracy was hatched at O'Larry's Bar located at Boston and Dexter Streets in Detroit. First, Henry Luks was asked if he knew how to wire dynamite to a car's ignition. Luks said he did. Several days later, he reconsidered and said he didn't have access to dynamite and refused the $3,000 job. Alfred Kurner was then asked and offered the same amount, but he also refused citing problems with the parole board. Then, Sam Abramowitz agreed, but after making several trips to Adrian in preparation for the hit, he dropped out of the plot when he saw Hopper at home with his wife and kids. Abramowitz didn't have the stomach for it. He returned to Flint, Michigan where he had worked as a barber since his parole from Jackson Prison in 1943. 

On July 31, 1945--after a grand jury trial lasting two weeks--a jury of five women and seven men reached a guilty verdict after only two hours of deliberation. The grand jury was unable to determine who shot Hooper or who financed the $15,000 fund to murder him. The defendants were sentenced to serve four and one-half years in Jackson Prison. Pending an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court for a new trial, the men were released on $25,000 bonds on July 10, 1946. When their appeal was denied, Harry Fleisher and Mikey Selik jumped bail.

Fleisher dodged arrest for fifteen months. Acting on a phone tip, he was seized by FBI agents in Pompano Beach, Florida--thirty-five miles north of Miami. He and a woman companion Bernice Jackson were registered at a tourist court as Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Goldwyn of Toledo, Ohio. The couple left the cottage and drove to the beach in Fleisher's pickup truck. A squad of four agents dressed in sports shirts and slacks slowly closed in on the couple sunning themselves on the beach. When the agents were noticed fifteen feet away, they rushed on Fleisher and held his face down in the sand while they handcuffed him. Miss Jackson stood quietly with her hands up in the air. When their cottage was searched, a submachine gun was found with 400 rounds of Colt ammunition. Fleisher had $1,200 cash in his possession. He was arrested on a Federal fugitive warrant, and Miss Jackson was jailed as a material witness.

Fleisher was extradited to Michigan arriving at Willow Run Airport aboard a Capital Airlines plane in the custody of two U.S. Marshalls and a Federal guard. He was whisked away to Milan Federal Prison on January 22, 1950. Two days later, the beleaguered fugitive confessed to Detroit Free Press reporter Ralph Nelson that "I'm glad it's over. It hasn't been fun being hunted. I'm looking forward to seeing my wife Harriet. I expect to have a rough time with her. She knows about the other woman, but Hattie knows that a man travels practically unnoticed when he travels with a woman. She'll understand that. I've always tried to keep Hattie from being involved in any of my troubles."

Fleisher pleaded guilty on the Federal fugitive charge on February 1, 1950. On February 24, 1950, Bernice Jackson--a former Detroit prostitute--was sentenced to five months in the Miami City Jail for harboring an escaped criminal.

After Fleisher served his five-year sentence in Milan Prison as a Federal fugitive, he was shuttled back to Jackson State Prison to serve his five-year sentence for conspiracy to murder Senator Hooper. Because of a conviction for the armed robbery of the Aristocratic Club in Pontiac, Michigan in 1945, Fleisher had an additional 25 to 50 years to serve. Once again, Slick jumped bail while out on appeal.When Harry was released from Jackson Prison in the mid-sixties, he took a legitimate job as a warehouse manager for Ewald Steel Company.

Harry Fleisher died in 1978 at the age of seventy-five. He was preceded by Louis, who died in Jackson Prison on April 3, 1964 at the age of fifty-nine and Sam, who died on January 18, 1960 in Miami, Florida at the age of forty-nine. All three brothers succumbed to heart failure.

The Fleisher Brothers (Part 1) 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

How Hollywood Movie Posters Evolved

Since the motion picture industry's infancy in the nineteenth century, posters and billboards were the centerpiece of the studios' advertising campaigns. The first movie posters were simple outside placards listing the program being shown inside auditoriums, nickelodeons, and other public venues. The name of the film, the producer, and the director were listed. There were no movie stars yet. These handbills were distributed on the streets and posted outside businesses or wherever there was foot traffic to incite awareness and generate hype to sell movie tickets.

The first movie poster was created in 1890 by French painter and lithographer Jules Cheret for "Projections Artistiques." In early Hollywood, playbills began illustrating a film's scene or an array of overlaid images from several scenes. Ordinarily, they contained a basic image and text with the film title in large lettering, sometimes with a tag line. Soon, actors' names were added to the posters.

The illustrators were most often anonymous and did not sign their work. They were hired as studio staff. Prior to the 1990s, illustrations instead of photographs were far more common. Today's movie posters contain a billing block in small print at the bottom which includes an array of licensing and consumer information.

Today, movie poster images are used on websites, DVD packaging, magazine ads, and movie databases. They can hint at the plot, highlight the stars, or offer an abstract representation of a key moment in the film.

Between 1940 and 1984, film posters were exclusively made and distributed by the National Screen Service. The advertising traveled with the film canisters from one exhibitor to the next. At the end of the film's run, the posters were returned with the film canisters and pretty beat up. Few survive intact. In the 1980s, the American film studios took over the direct production and distribution of their poster advertising and began to license the sale of poster reprints for fans. These have little or no value to collectors.

The first movie poster auction by a major house occurred on December 11, 1999. Today, original artwork and vintage posters command huge prices. The record price paid for a single poster was $690,000 for Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis, far more than the original film cost to make.

Nine decades of movie posters are depicted with a brief explanation of trends for each decade. There are many fan favorites shown.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Terror In Ypsilanti--House of Mystery/NBC Radio August 15, 2019

Thank you to the House of Mystery for interviewing me (August 15, 2019) about my true crime book Terror In Ypsilanti and Michigan serial killer John Norman Collins.

The interview occurs 20 minutes into the program and runs for about 25 minutes. The Detroit Fox 2 News feature is in three segments--each with its own link.

Terror In Ypsilanti Los Angeles Radio Interview--August 2019 

Detroit Fox 2 News feature about the Washtenaw County Murders--September 2019

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Fox 2 News Retrospective of Ypsilanti's Co-Ed Murders

John Norman Collins--1970

If you missed Detroit Fox 2 News investigative reporter Rob Wolcheck's retrospective on the fifty years since the Ypsilanti Co-Ed Murders of 1967 through 1969, this feature story is told over three nights.

For your convenience, I've linked the news segments together in this post.

Part one: Fox 2 News--Ypsilanti Co-Ed Murders 1967-1969

Part two: Who is John Norman Collins?

Part three:

Los Angeles NBC radio interview

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: