Tour Guide Karen Risko, front, takes the tourists on a walking history and crime tour in downtown Detroit on Oct. 25. The group is crossing Beaubien on the way to the People Mover. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Ghost stories often start with a murder, and through the years Detroit has had plenty of inspiring material.
Curious visitors from as far away as California, hungry for Detroit crime stories beyond those provided by daily headlines, have delved into the city’s sinister and sometimes haunting past by taking the “Notorious 313 True Crime/Ghost Walking Tour” through downtown.
The three-hour tours, which began this summer, usually sell out, tour operator and guide Karin Risko said. This season’s final tour is scheduled for Wednesday.
Detroit joins other cities that offer the chance to explore past crimes. In London, tourists can follow the trail of Jack the Ripper. In New Orleans, there’s a “True Crime Tour” of the French Quarter, while Milwaukee has Jeffrey Dahmer tours, although those have been protested by relatives of the serial killer’s victims.
Risko kept the mood light during a tour attended by 23 people Friday night, many of whom were from outside Metro Detroit. But she sometimes hinted at an undercurrent of danger.
“Critics say, ‘Anyone who wants to follow a middle-aged woman with a lantern through Detroit must have a death wish,’ ” Risko told the group as they gathered at the corner of Beaubien and Monroe in Greektown. “Do you have a death wish?”
The question was met by nervous laughter. Then, in the gathering darkness, as the 7 p.m. bells tolled at the historic Second Baptist Church, the tour commenced.
The first stop was the corner of Lafayette and Brush, an intersection Risko referred to as a “creepy corner.” It was the site of the old Wayne County Morgue, where famed Medical Examiner Dr. Werner Spitz was suspended without pay in 1976 for removing body parts from the morgue without authorization. He was charged with a crime, although the charges were eventually dropped.
The “creepy corner” is also across the street from the Atheneum Hotel, where, in 1994, Lowell Amos gave his wife, Roberta, a lethal dose of cocaine. Amos was later convicted of killing his two previous wives. The Lifetime Movie Network in 2006 aired a made-for-TV movie about his crimes, called “Black Widower.”
“Murder is nothing new in Detroit,” Risko told the group. “Tragedy is nothing new. Who knows what other murders or tragedies happened here.”
Also near the “creepy corner,” a fire on New Year’s Day 1886 destroyed the D.M. Ferry & Co. seed warehouse, giving birth to an 127-year-old ghost story.
“A fireman who was on a 90-foot ladder fell to his death,” Risko said. “Some people say in the early morning hours, they can see a gentleman wearing an old-style firefighter uniform walking the streets, but when he turns around, he doesn’t have a face.”
As the tour continued, Risko touched on the legend of “Nain Rouge,” the dwarfish red creature whose appearance is said to presage doom in Detroit; and the story of French priests who tore down a Native American stone idol on an island in the Detroit River.
“The Native Americans were irate,” Risko said. “They picked up the stones and took them to Belle Isle and put a curse on them. A lot of people say that’s why Detroit has so much bad luck.”
The group moved to the corner of Jefferson and Griswold. “You’re standing on a cemetery right now,” Risko told the tourists, explaining that the site was where the occupants of the first French settlement, Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, were buried after they died.
“As Detroit grew, the bodies had to be dug up and moved further out,” Risko said. “In 1879, they dug up bodies to make way for a farmer’s market. You know it as Eastern Market. While setting up the market, it was not uncommon to uncover skeletons and coffins.”
A few blocks north, Risko told of an early Detroit criminal case involving slave Ann Wyley, who was buried in 1777 in a cemetery that later became the site of Ste. Anne Church, near Woodward and Larned. Wyley was hanged after being convicted of stealing furs from a trading post. In 1817 the foundations of the church were being excavated when workers found Wyley’s body buried face down, her fingernails broken.
“People said she was trying to claw out of the grave,” Risko said.
Two newspapers, The Detroit News and Detroit Journal, figured in the tour. On Nov. 6, 1895, the day after Hazen Pingree was re-elected mayor, people were lined along Larned to get the paper’s morning edition when a boiler exploded, causing a huge fire that killed 30. “People still report smelling a fire burning, but when firemen get here, there’s no fire,” Risko said.
On June 6, 1928, a notorious robbery group known as the “Flathead Gang” broke into The Detroit News building, stole $14,000 from the paper’s Payroll Department, then killed Detroit police Sgt. George Barstad, who died on the building’s front steps.
After Risko concluded the tour by telling of the “Ghost of Steven Simmons,” who was hanged in 1830 near the site of the Skillman Library for murdering his wife in a drunken rage, the group applauded.
“I loved it,” said Marsha Sutvin of Canton Township. “I learned a lot of things about Detroit I didn’t know before.”
The Associated Press contributed.