3. Murder in the Middle West
Of the myriad fascist organizations that mushroomed in the United States during the 1930s, none practised greater violence or perpetrated more appalling crimes than the Black Legion. A secret society, whose night-riding members wore black robes with slitted hoods adorned with skull and crossbones, the Black Legion maintained a reign of terror from 1932 to 1936 in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and other mid western states. In its wake, the Legion left a grisly trail of bumed-down homes, bombed union halls, fearstricken communities, and dead and crippled human beings.
“What gave it [the Black Legion] significance,” record A. B. Magil and Henry Stevens in their book The Peril of Fascism, “was the peculiarly violent character of its activities, its penetration into police departments and high places in city, county and state government, its connections with the Republican Party, and the fact that it was interwoven with the espionage systems and company unions of the automobile corporations.”
The conspiratorial apparatus of the Black Legion was organized’ along military lines. Its members, most of whom were required to possess firearms, were grouped into “divisions” which operated under the direction of “colonels” and “captains.” For performing such tasks as breaking up labor meetings, dynamiting or burning down buildings, flogging or killing trade unionists, there were special “anti-Communist squads” or “arson squads”, “bombing squads”, and “punishment” or “execution squads.” Members were sworn to blind obedience and utter secrecy. The penalty for insubordination or failure to perform an assignment was torture or death.
Initiation ceremonies were conducted at night in the macabre atmosphere of unlighted cellars or dark, secluded woods. Each new recruit was commanded to kneel within a circle of black-robed Legionnaires. With a loaded pistol pressed against his chest, he repeated the Black Legion oath of allegiance. Among the Black Legion “secrets” then revealed to the new recruits was this one:
We regard as enemies of ourselves and our country all aliens, Negroes, Jews and cults and creeds believing in racial equality and owing allegiance to any foreign potentate.
Once initiated, new members were given a .38 calibre bullet. They were told that should they ever betray the Legion’s secret, they would receive “another bullet”. . .
The Black Legion’s stronghold was in Michigan, where the percentage of unemployment was at a national peak during the depression years and every industrial center was simmering with social unrest. By 1935 Legion members in Michigan numbered in the tens of thousands, and its secret apparatus reached like a hidden cancerous growth throughout the industrial and political life of the state.
Factories were honeycombed with Black Legion terrorist cells. The upper echelons of the Black Legion included city councilmen and state legislators, judges and police chiefs, prominent businessmen, sheriffs, mayors and officers of the National Guard. As Will Lissner of the New York Times later reported:
An important section of the membership consisted of substantial citizens. Campaign funds were raised at meetings in at least two churches in Detroit. Scores of politicians joined the organization, hoping to win its votes.
To accomplish some of its aims, particularly in the field of politics, the Legion operated through various front organizations. One of these was called the Wolverine Republican League. The League, whose leadership was composed largely of Black Legionnaires, was used to muster votes for Legion members and sympathizers running for poUtical office.
The headquarters of the Wolverine Republican League were located at Room 2120 in the Union Guardian Building in Detroit. This room also served as the office of the Republican attorney, Harry Z. Marx, former head of the Americanization Committee of the American Legion and counsel for Detroit’s Chief of Police, Heinrich Pickert. Marx himself was one of the directors of the Wolverine Republican League and Chairman of its Delegate Committee.
An indication of the political influence of the Wolverine Republican League was the fact that when former Governor Wilbur M. Brucker was running as a candidate for the United States Senate in May 1936, he delivered his opening campaign address at a meeting sponsored by the League.
On the night after ex-Governor Brucker had delivered this speech, five of the leading members of the Wolverine RepubUcan League, who were also Black Legionnaires, participated in the murder of a WPA worker named Charles Poole*. . .
* When Charles Poole’s murderers were arrested and brought to trial, their defense attorney was Harry Z. Marx. For further details on Poole’s murder
The anti-labor terrorist activities of the Black Legion, like those of other fascist organizations in America, were generally carried on in the name of combatting the “Communist menace.” After investigating Black Legion operations in Oakland County, Michigan, a Grand Jury reported:
Communist activities had engaged the Oakland County members from the first . . . A member spy was directed to join the Communist Party in Pontiac and report to Col. Pierce (Police Sergeant) relative to the activities of this group . . . Anti-Communist prejudice was constantly inflamed by the superiors …
For the purpose of more direct “anti-Communist” action, Black Legion leaders compiled an “execution list” of “Reds” and “Party sympathizers.”
Among the names on the Legion execution list was that of the well-known labor attorney, Maurice Sugar, who in the spring of 1935 was a candidate for the office of Recorders Judge. A Black Legion member named Dayton Dean was given the assignment of bombing Sugar’s apartment. Dean rented an apartment in the building where Sugar lived, but failed to go through with the assignment. “I got cold feet,” Dean explained later, “because too many people would have been killed.”
Ordinarily, such qualms did not hinder the work of the Legion’s “bombing squads.” In one town after another, homes of trade unionists were dynamited or burned down by the black Legionnaires. During a strike at the Motor Products Company, Legion members dynamited the union headquarters and the homes of a number of the strike leaders. On other occasions. Legionnaires in Detroit bombed the Hall of the Ukrainian Educational Society, the Workers’ Bookshop and the offices of the Communist Party , . .
A typical Black Legion note, delivered to a small businessman who had allowed his shop to be used as a meeting place for union organizers, read as follows:
One more meeting of the Communist Party in this joint and out of business you go and you won’t be on earth to know what business means.
Such threats were not infrequently followed by death.
One of the first murder victims of the Black Legion was George Marchuk, a Communist who was Secretary of the Auto Workers Union in Lincoln Park, Wayne County, Michigan. Marchuk had received several warnings from the Black Legion to cease his “Red” activities in organizing workers at the Ford plant or “suffer the consequences.” When Marchuk continued his trade union work, he was visited by a one-legged Black Legionnaire and former policeman named Isaac, or “Peg-Leg,” White. White gave the Auto Workers’ Secretary a final warning. On December 22, 1933, Marchuk was found dead in an empty lot with a bullet through his head.
A few weeks later, on March 15, 1934, the body of John Bielak, who had been an A.F.L. organizer in the Hudson plant, was found riddled with bullets beside a lonely country road on the outskirts of Monroe, Michigan. Like Marchuk, Bielak had been “visited” shortly before his death by the Black Legionnaire, “Peg-Leg” White.*
* In 1932, the ex-policeman “Peg-Leg” White had been a member of a vigilante “Citizens Committee”, which was established with the aid of Harry Bennett’s Service Department at the Ford plant. White also worked closely with the labor espionage departments of other auto factories. Describing how he had drawn up lists of “Communist” labor organizers for the auto companies, White told a Detroit News reporter in June, 1936: “… I called on all the plants of Detroit. Once or twice I turned in a bunch of names to the Hudson Motor Car Company. How many I don’t remember but there were several typewritten sheets … I took some to Ford’s, some to Budd Wheel, in fact to all the plants that had strikes or threats of strikes . . . the personnel departments of the plants v/ere always glad to get information about the Communists and they thanked us. It was merely a courtesy proposition.”
The interview with the News reporter was published at a time when some of the shocking facts about the Black Legion were finally being brought to light; and there was widespread demand that White be questioned by the police authorities in connection with the Marchuk and Bielak murders and other outrages perpetrated by the Black Legion.
Not long after his indiscreet remarks to the News reporter, White was arrested. Five days after his arrest, he was reported to have died of “pneumonia.”
Sometimes, Black Legion members committed murder for the sheer “thrill” of killing. Describing one such murder which took place in May 1935, Black Legionnaire Dayton Dean later related:
. . . Harvey Davis [a Black Legion leader] came in one day and we were talking and he wanted to know if I could get a colored guy for him. He said they were going to have a party out to the lake and they wanted to have a little excitment. They wanted to have a colored fellow, didn’t make any difference where he came from so long as he was black. They wanted to take him out and kill him. Colonel Davis said he wanted to know what it felt like to shoot a Negro. So I got hold of Charlie Rouse and Charlie said he had just the right man, he had one working for him, so we made arrangements with Davis . . .
The Negro selected as “just the right man” to be killed was a 42 -year old veteran and laborer named Silas Coleman. On the pretext he was to be paid some back wages he was owed by his employer, Coleman was lured at night to a summer cottage on the outskirts of Detroit, where Harvey Davis and several other Black Legionnaires were having a drinking party, together with their wives. When the unsuspecting Coleman arrived, the Legion members drove with him to a nearby swamp, parked their car and got out. Here, in Dayton’s words, is what then happened:
. . . the colored fellow came around to the rear of the car, wondering to see what we was doing around there, and just as he came around and faced up, Davis took his .38 and he shot first and then the others shot. The colored fellow went to say something and the bullet seemed to pierce his lung or something and he couldn’t talk and he made a kind of “a-h-h-h” gurgle in his throat or something kind of so. He run like a deer down there and when he started running they say “Don’t let him get away” and ran after him emptying their guns after him. We went back to our cars and drove back to the cottage. They gave Charlie Rouse and I a shot of liquor and a bottle of beer and we drove back to Detroit but they stayed there and continued the party.
Silas Coleman’s body was later found, riddled with bullets, lying in the woods . . . These were some other murders traced to the Black Legion:
Paul Avery: died April 14, 1935, as a result of a flogging he had received from Black Legion members Oliver Hiirkett: found dead in his car on April 25, 1935; he himself had close connections with the Black Legion and was said to have been killed as a “disciplinary measure” Rudolph Anderson: found dead on a street in Detroit on December 16, 1935, with a bullet wound in his chest from a high-powered rifle Charles A. Poole: found shot to death, his body lying in a ditch beside a road on the outskirts of Detroit, on May 13, 1936 Roy V. Pidcock: found hanging on Fighting Island, Detroit River, on May 29, 1936; an active trade unionist, he had been previously flogged by Black Legion members.
Most of the killings carried out by the Black Legion, however, were never oflicially blamed on the secret terrorist society. The murders were listed in police records simply as “unsolved” crimes. According to subsequent testimony by Captain Ira H. Marmon of the Michigan State Police, at least fifty unexplained “suicides” in Michigan during the years 1933-1936 were the work of the Black Legion . . .
In the summer of 1936, after a series of particularly bloodcurdling and brazen Black Legion crimes, public clamor forced Michigan state and municipal authorities to initiate investigations of the Legion’s activities. Eleven Legionnaires were arrested in connection with the murder of Charles Poole, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Some fifty other Black Legion members were rounded up and indicted on charges of murder, kidnapping, arson and other crimes.
Trade unions, civic organizations and other public-spirited groups urged that the Department of Justice conduct a thorough probe of Black Legion operations throughout the Middle West. “It is only a Federal investigating Bureau that can coordinate the clues from all these areas . . . ,” a group of Michigan citizens stated in a report submitted to the Justice Department. “Local authorities are hampered by fears of witnesses . . . Detroit newspapers have indicated how the Black Legion dominates even upper circles of officialdom.”
In Washington, Senator Elmer A. Benson of Minnesota introduced a resolution in the Senate calling for a Federal investigation of the Black Legion.
On May 28, 1936, Attorney General Homer S. Cummings stated that the Justice Department had “known of the Black Legion for about a year,” but that action by the Department was impossible because “no federal law had been violated.”
The local investigations of the Black Legion concealed many more facts than they revealed.
Few disclosures ever got beyond the court-room of the one-man grand jury. Judge E. Chenot. “I have control of the proceedings in this court,” said Judge Chenot, at the opening session of the hearing. “Anyone who violates the secrecy of the grand jury will go to jail.”
A Detroit lawyer, Duncan McCrea, was the Wayne County Prosecutor in charge of investigating Black Legion activities. McCrea’s Chief Investigator was a man named Charles Spare. Unknown to the public. Spare was himself a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan, the Michigan branch of which he had helped to incorporate.
At the height of the Wayne County investigation, the Detroit Times published a photograph of a Black Legion application card bearing the name of Prosecutor Duncan McCrea. McCrea did not deny that the signature was his. It was possible, he said, that he “might have signed the card”— after all, like other politicians, he was “a joiner” . . .
Commenting at the time on the criminal conspiratorial activities of the Black Legion, Governor George H. Earle of Pennsylvania declared:
I charge that this organization is the direct result of the campaign of subversive propaganda subsidized by the Grand Dukes of the Duchy of Delaware, the du Ponts, and the munition princes of the American Liberty League. I was United States Minister to Austria in 1933-34. I saw for myself how fascism and Nazism are born furtively, in the dark; how they develop through just such organizations as the Black Legion … I say to you that the money changers and the great industrialists behind the Republican Party leadership cannot escape responsibility for this creature . . . The Black Legion is the first fruit of their campaign for fascism.