Violent secret society plagued 1930s Detroit
Eighty years ago this spring, the murder of Detroiter Charley Poole led to the exposure of the Black Legion, a Klan-like organization that flourished in southeast Michigan. The revelation that tens of thousands of men, including police and elected officials, belonged to a violent, hooded secret society spawned hysteria, demands for a federal investigation and, too, a Humphrey Bogart movie.
Legion members were prosecuted for two murders, but they were responsible for dozens more, as well as beatings, bombings and dire plots.
The legion’s reign of terror rates as one of Detroit’s darkest moments but it coincided with one of its most glorious. Between autumn 1935 and spring 1936, the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings all won championships as undefeated boxer Joe Louis became a national figure.
Author Tom Stanton, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Detroit Mercy, delves into the legion’s activities in his new book, “Terror in the City of Champions.” This adapted excerpt details the 1936 Poole killing.
Dayton Dean, a pipe wrapper for the Detroit lighting commission, went to Eppinger Sporting Goods in Cadillac Square on Monday, May 11, 1936, to take target practice in the fourth floor range.
All Black Legion members were required to own pistols. Dean had two, a .38 and a .45, and he liked to carry them. As a member of a death squad, he needed to be ready. A good soldier of the legion never knew when he would be called into action or what the reason might be: the sins of a union organizer, the settling of a petty score or the overthrow of a dictatorial U.S. government.
The next evening, Dean went to a gathering at Findlater Temple, a two-story structure with 20-foot columns at Waterman and West Lafayette. Nearby was an industrial area that included factories for American Brass and Fisher Fleetwood.
A “White Russian,” Victor Nicholas Schultz, lectured the crowd of nearly 50 legionnaires, decrying the communists who he said had destroyed his native land. He warned the same thing could happen in America. When Schultz finished, Col. Harvey Davis, leader of a legion regiment, took center stage.
There was another serious issue to be tackled, Col. Davis said. A Catholic man, Charley Poole, had beaten and kicked his expectant Baptist wife, Rebecca, so badly that she was in Herman Kiefer Hospital at the very moment, and her baby wouldn’t be born alive, he said.
There was one major problem with the story. It was untrue. Poole had not hit his wife. There had been no beating. Rebecca was in the hospital because she had delivered a second daughter.
Legionnaire Lowell Rushing had helped spread the false story. He disliked Charley Poole for having married Rebecca 18 months earlier. Rushing had grown up with Rebecca back in Danville, Tennessee. Some years back, Rebecca had spent a summer in the home of her sister, who was married to Rushing’s brother. Lowell had spent that same summer under the same roof and become smitten with pretty, 90-pound Rebecca and her high-pitched, childlike voice.
The rumor of the beating became embellished, and grew into the large tale that Col. Harvey Davis spread at the May 12 meeting, inflaming the men with colorful details and working them into a fervor. What should be done? he asked.
Col. Davis already knew. Hours earlier, he had laid a trap for Charley Poole. He had gone to Poole’s rental and found him painting walls. Poole lived in a four-family flat on McKinstry near Fort Street, within sight of the gleaming, six-year-old Ambassador Bridge.
Poole had been mostly unemployed since losing his job around Christmas and was working two days a week with the WPA. Over the years, he had been a mechanic, a chef and a shipman on the Great Lakes, but money always seemed tight. The landlord was allowing him to stay temporarily with the understanding that he would pay him back once he found a job.
Poole was a talented athlete. Col. Davis told him he could get him a position that would include playing for the Timken Axle baseball team. He said he would send someone by later to take him to a team meeting to be measured for a uniform. It was not uncommon for some workers to be hired based on their ability to contribute in the competitive industrial sports leagues. Poole was a catcher, like the Tigers’ Mickey Cochrane.
That night, the livid crowd inside Findlater Temple called for justice. They demanded a beating, a lynching or a one-way ride for Charley Poole. Davis had already procured his gunmen, Ervin Lee and Dayton Dean. Others volunteered. Until then, some had done little with the Black Legion.
Twenty-two-year-old Urban Lipps had come to Michigan from Mississippi a year earlier. Feeling lonesome, he had accepted an invitation to a party, hoping to meet friends and build a social life outside his job at Hudson Motor Company. Instead, he was inducted into the legion. Thousands of men were tricked into joining. The ritual, conducted in the dark by robed men with guns, petrified Lipps. The only former members were dead members, he was told.
“A fellow hardly knows how he gets into these things,” he would say.
Poole must have thought his life was finally taking a turn for the better with the possibility of a decent job and a spot on a factory team. He may have wondered, though, if he had heard Col. Harvey Davis correctly, for Poole and two pals went to three beer gardens that evening looking for his baseball ride. They started out at Hayes Chop House around the corner from his flat. They walked next to the Blue Ribbon Café, a mile up Fort, and then proceeded to Joe’s Pavilion, a dancing spot across from Ternstedt Manufacturing.
At each place, Poole let the bartender know where he could be found if someone came looking. He wasn’t taking chances with his wardrobe, either. He looked smart, dressed in a second-hand, dark-brown suit, red tie, stylish pin-striped red-and-purple shirt, gray socks and black Oxfords. He was sitting in Joe’s Pavilion when blonde-haired Urban Lipps walked up to the table.
“Are you going to the baseball party?” Lipps asked.
“Sure,” Poole said.
The proposition sounded so good that all three men wanted to go. But there was room for only Charley Poole. They left the bar, and Lipps led Poole to a car. Poole slid into the backseat beside Dayton Dean. The nighttime caravan of four cars headed out of Detroit along Fort Street.
Poole was excited about the baseball meeting. Dean and Lipps kept up the charade by talking about the Tigers. Ever since the October World Series, baseball had been a topic of choice around town. Earlier in the day, the Tigers had shut out Boston. It was their second straight win.
Two cars made it over the Rouge River before the drawbridge lifted. The others waited for a ship to pass. The industrial skyline at nighttime was eerie, ominous and menacing. Floodlights — white, red, amber — dotted land and sky, spreading orbs over looming cranes and smokestacks and throwing shadows across hard, hostile structures. Flames flared from narrow pipes, and massive, forbidding buildings stood silhouetted against the sky. Ghostly clouds of illuminated smoke hovered around them.
Charley Poole noticed the moon. It shone large, a scuffed cue ball against a blue-felt sky. Poole commented to Dayton Dean about it as they drove. They were heading to Dearborn, holding close to the Rouge River where possible. Poole talked about his wife and two young daughters. Dean began feeling there was “something fishy” about Col. Harvey Davis’ tale of the beating. But he had his orders, and he knew he could be killed for disobeying them.
It was a long ride before they stopped along Gulley Road. A golf course lay 300 yards away. Lipps and Poole stayed in the car near a one-lane bridge. Dean and Ervin Lee got out to confer with Col. Davis and the other men. A bottle of liquor passed between them. Lee went back to the car and offered Lipps and Poole a drink. Poole declined.
He had begun to doubt the baseball meeting.
“What is this going to be, a party out under the stars?” Poole asked.
Lee laughed and said yes.
Col. Davis directed Dean to get Poole. Dean pulled out his .38 and .45. Poole didn’t fight as Dean ushered him to a spot near a ditch. He stood six feet from him. Lee was to Dean’s left. Col. Davis stayed behind both of them, armed with a revolver.
Poole asked why they had pulled guns. He said he hadn’t done anything.
“You’re a dirty liar,” replied Col. Davis. “You know what you’ve done and what you have been brought out here for. You know you beat up your wife — ”
“Boys, there must be some mistake,” he said. “I never — ”
Col. Davis swore at him. “You’ll never live to do it again,” he said.
Dean looked around. There wasn’t much light, and he couldn’t see Poole’s face. In the brief, quiet pause, Dean figured it was time to act. He fired at Poole. So did Lee, but off to the side. Dean shot eight times from the hip, unloading with both hands. Poole collapsed into the ditch. He had been struck six times. They waited to make certain he was dead. The pop of the gun awoke farmer Fred Shettleman, who figured it must be a backfiring car. He fell back asleep.
Col. Davis scolded Dean for shooting too early; he had wanted to lecture Poole some more. Col. Davis told the men to keep their mouths shut about the killing. They drove back to Fort Street. A few of them went to a German inn, where they sat amid cigar and cigarette smoke in the tawny light of a half-curtained barroom and chatted over beers.
Col. Davis walked home. The fresh air might clear his mind.
Adapted from “Terror in the City of Champions” by Tom Stanton. Copyright ©2016 by Tom Stanton. Reprinted by permission of Lyons Press.
Poole slaying helped expose Black Legion
Meet the author
Tom Stanton is scheduled to appear at following locations to sign and discuss “Terror in the City of Champions:”
■Friday, June 3, 7 p.m., Barnes and Noble, 14165 Hall Road, Shelby Township. (Signing only.)
■Sunday, June 5, 3 p.m., The Book Beat, 26010 Greenfield, Oak Park.
■Monday, June 6, 7 p.m., Nicola’s Books, 2513 Jackson Ave., Ann Arbor.
■Tuesday, June 7, 6:30 p.m., MacDonald Public Library, New Baltimore.
For details, go to tomstanton.com.