Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Antoine Cadillac--Detroit's First Godfather

Bust of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac
An expedition financed by the French monarch--King Louis XIV--and promoted by his Minister of Marine--Comte de Pontchartrain--appointed Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac as their agent to establish a fur trading post and fort in New France. In return, Cadillac was granted generous riverfront real estate. He envisioned a permanent French colony controlling the fur trade routes through the upper Great Lakes, with him at the helm.

Commander Antoine Cadillac led a fleet of 25 large canoes--with 50 soldiers, 50 empire builders, 2 Roman Catholic priests, and his 11-year-old son--on a 52 day trip westward from French-controlled Montreal to the western bank of a swift running river that connected Lac Erie with Lac St. Clair.

This site was chosen because it was the narrowest point of the strait--de troit--which is how Detroit earned its name. There was an eroded 40' clay bluff leading up from the river bank to a flat clearing. Once a fort was built on the plain, anything moving up or down the river could be seen and was in easy range of their cannons. This was a defensible position to discourage the British and control the fur trade.

The empire builders arrived on July 23, 1701 and began work on a log fort Cadillac named after his benefactor--French Minister of Marine--Comte de Pontchartrain. Two days later, a mass was said in honor of Ste. Anne--the patron saint of France and mother of the Virgin Mary. After the service, the foundations for the church were laid. Catholicism had come to the wilderness.

Fort Pontchartrain contained a warehouse which doubled as a store. There were also two guard houses, Ste. Anne's Church, and about 15 houses within the fort. Lots could be no larger than 25 square feet and some were smaller.

In a report about Detroit to his superior officers, Cadillac noted, "Especially attractive was the region that lies south of the pear-like lake to which they gave the name of St. Clair, and the country bordering upon that deep, clear river, a quarter of a league broad, known as Le Detroit.

"On both sides of this strait lie fine, open plains where the deer roam in graceful herds, where bear, by no means fierce and exceedingly good to eat, are to be found, as are also the savory poules d'Indies (wild duck) and other varieties of game. The islands are covered with trees; chestnuts, walnuts, apples, and plums abound; and in season, the wild vines are heavy with grapes.

"Le Detroit is the real center of the lake country--the gateway to the West. It is from there that we can best hold the English in check."

French trade with the local Native American tribes went well for the most part. Cadillac encouraged the Ottawa, Huron, Pottawatomie, Miami, and Wyandotte tribes to cluster together in villages near the fort for protection from their mutual enemies--the Iroquois and the British. In total, Cadillac estimated that there were about 2,000 Indians in and around Fort Pontchartrain allied with the French.

In 1702, the first European baby born in Detroit was the daughter of Alphonse de Tonty--Cadillac's second-in-command--and his wife. Not to be outdone--in 1704--the Cadillac's gave birth to Marie Therese, who became the first recorded baptism christened in Ste. Anne's Church registry.

Cadillac wanted the settlement to grow rapidly, but few if any unattached women were available to single men, so he proposed that christened Indian women be allowed to marry French settlers. The Jesuit priest strongly objected on moral and religious grounds, and the plan was soon rejected. This is likely the first official instance of discrimination in Detroit's long history.

In 1707, Cadillac began issuing farm grants--known as ribbon farms--to attract new settlers. These farms ranged from 200' to 1,000' wide and extended from the shoreline for 2 or 3 miles. Each farm had waterfront access. Many of Detroit's current street names derive from the original ribbon farm grant holders--for instance--Beaubien, Campau, Livernois, Riopell, Dequindre, and others. Cadillac plotted out 68 parcels. 

Cadillac acted like a feudal landlord requiring farmers to pay him an annual rent and a percentage of their grain to use the windmill he had built on the waterfront north of the fort. He was the mill's sole proprietor and could charge whatever he wanted. Renters were also required to work on Cadillac's farm for a specified number of days each year.

To engage in any kind of trade, settlers had to pay a licensing fee and annual taxes. Cadillac grew rich by padding the fees and taxes and skimming off the top. When he withheld the allotment of imported brandy behind padlocked warehouse doors, it was discovered--and reported--that he was trading it to the Indians for beaver pelts. He had defied a Royal decree not to provide liquor to the native population.

When complaints about Cadillac reached Montreal and Paris, King's Deputy Francois Clarembault went to survey Detroit area holdings in 1708 and found they did not match Cadillac's reports. After nineteen days in Detroit, Clarembault returned to Canada and sent his findings off to France. In 1709, Count Pontchartrain wrote to Cadillac complaining that he showed "too much greed and little moderation in his dealings with the settlers."

In 1710, Cadillac was called to Quebec to answer charges against him brought by his detractors. He was acquitted of extortion and abuse of power charges but was removed from his post--never to return to Detroit. The following year, Cadillac was promoted to the governorship of the Louisiana Territory.

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: