In 1931, a mob threatened to avenge a quadruple murder.
This 1931 Ann Arbor lynch mob photo –“iconic,” if ever there was an “iconic” photo of an Ann Arbor historical event–has suddenly turned up for sale on eBay, posted on a “Buy it Now” page, priced at $53.00. Unseen by local eyes for eighty-three years, it would be a pity if it were lost to us now.
~ Email from Wystan Stevens, December 2014.
The Observer bought the photo and a slightly different image that Stevens spotted on the auction site a few days later. Another recipient of the local historian’s email, Linda Walker, bought several others. Typed labels on the back of the eight-by-ten black-and-white prints identified them as having been taken for the Detroit Mirror.
The first photo that caught Stevens’ eye is labeled, “Part of mob of 20,000 that kept milling around jail during [the] trial of three confessed torch murderers. The crowd became unmanageable immediately after the arrival of prisoners from Ypsilanti, and National Guard was called out to guard against lynching.”
The second shows Michigan State Police officers and National Guardsmen standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the courthouse steps, rifles in hand.
A third depicts another crowd at a funeral of two young women in Cleveland.
The fourth shows “Fred Smith, 22, ex-convict, and confessed murderer.” His nose bloody, lip swollen, and shirt torn and bloody, the young man stares dazedly; he’s surrounded by state police officers and the members of Ford Motor Company’s private security force who captured him.
The final photo shows Smith with his parents at Jackson Prison. The caption says, “Smith’s mother, who is totally blind, refused to believe him guilty of the terrible crimes, even though he made a full confession to her of his part in the murder orgy.”
Though Stevens found the photos, he didn’t have time to research their history. He died in July 2015, leaving the gruesome story behind his eBay find to be told by others.
Throughout the long hot and humid afternoon of August 14, 1931, a mob of enraged men descended on the jails in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, then surged over to the Washtenaw County courthouse, calling for the lynching of three men who on that day had been apprehended, tried, and convicted of what were, to that date, Michigan’s most horrific murders.
Most lynchings in America took place in the South, and most victims were African American. A tally maintained by Tuskegee University counted 4,743 mob killings between 1882 and 1968, with “Negroes” accounting for 3,446 of the victims. Even in Michigan–the first English-speaking government in the world to bar capital punishment for murder–Tuskegee’s researchers counted eight extralegal killings: seven white men and one “mulatto laborer.” In 1931, the cries for blood outside the Washtenaw County courthouse were fired by the news that one of the men on trial for the murder of four local teenagers, David Blackstone, was African American. One of his white accomplices testified that Blackstone had raped one of the young women twice–before and after he killed her.
Newspapers nationwide avidly followed the case that began early in the morning of August 11. Blackstone, thirty-one; Smith, twenty-one; and nineteen-year-old Frank Oliver had been drinking whiskey at an Ypsilanti speakeasy when they decided to rob someone. By the time their spree ended, robbery was the least of their crimes, and local residents were calling for their blood.
The growing crowd milling outside the courthouse knew that the men were accused of robbing, raping, beating, and burning the bodies of four teenagers. What they didn’t know was the role that Harry Bennett, Henry Ford’s violent and highly controversial director of security, had played in the drama.
In 1998, the late Judge Edward D. Deake published his memories of the murders in Gleanings, the official publication of the Ypsilanti Historical Society. “The date, August 11, 1931, is forever etched into my memory,” wrote Deake, who was ten years old at the time. “A catastrophic event changed my perception [of] the outside world … Ypsilanti was a quiet college town … struggling with the problems of the Great Depression when it was faced with four shocking murders known to us as the Torch Murders.”
The victims were fifteen-year-old Thomas Wheatley and Henry Lore of Ypsilanti, and two girls from Cleveland: Anna Harrison, seventeen; and Lore’s cousin, Vivian Gold, sixteen.
“We will never know all of the tragic events of this evening,” the late judge wrote. Wheatley had informed his parents that “he was going to attend a De Molay [youth group] meeting in Ypsilanti. There was no meeting scheduled … The two girls announced they intended to attend a motion picture show.” Instead, the four teenagers met and drove to a dance in Willis, then ate a late-night meal at Grandma’s Pantry in Milan. The two couples ended up parking in Peninsular Grove near Ypsilanti, a spot known to locals as Lovers’ Lane.
Tragically, three armed men met them there.
According to court records reported in newspapers around the country, Blackstone confessed, “On Monday night we thought we would go and rob a gambling game over at Milan. We … went over there and it didn’t look good to us. We said we would go down Lovers’ Lane and knock off some of these here petters. They always is easy. We went down and saw this car.”
The three men robbed the teenagers of all they had: two dollars and a watch. Unfortunately, Deake writes, Smith realized that Lore and Wheatley had recognized him. Smith convinced Blackstone and Oliver to drive the teens to Tuttle Hill outside Ypsilanti and leave them there, giving the robbers more time to get away.
At Tuttle Hill, the teens pleaded to be let go, promising not to report the men. But Blackstone growled, “Yes, and then we land in the jug.”
“It was a horrifying scenario,” Deake writes. According to Frank Oliver’s testimony, Blackstone raped Anna Harrison, then reached for Vivian Gold, who told him “she would rather die.” Blackstone shot her, then the other teenagers. When Lore tried to get up and fight, the boys’ heads were beaten with stones and Blackstone beat Anna Harrison with a wrench.
The three men then loaded the corpses into the car and drove through Ypsilanti, passing the Wheatley house before turning down US-23 to a country road south of Willis. They stopped near the Washtenaw-Wayne county line, where, Oliver testified, Blackstone again assaulted one of the dead girls, then doused the car and bodies with gasoline and lit them on fire.
Several years ago, Ypsi historian Gregory A. Fournier added important details to Deake’s account in a blog post titled “Harry Bennett’s Role in the Ypsilanti Torch Murders of August 11, 1931.”
The lovers’ lane where the teens were accosted was not far from Bennett’s home, a fortified American castle with crenellated gun towers overlooking the Huron River on Geddes Rd. Fournier included an extended quote from the 2003 book Henry Ford: Critical Evaluations in Business and Managementthat placed Bennett at the center of the investigation:
Bennett was invited to participate in the case by a local sheriff, and he soon had his Servicemen swarming the countryside … Then he uncovered two informers who named a couple of possible suspects. Taking one of the suspects in tow, Bennett, together with Robert Taylor, the head of the Ford Sociological Department, and one of his towering Ford Servicemen, took the young man to the basement of his fortified house. There, while one of his companions created an enormous racket with an electric [weight] reducing machine, Bennett undertook to get a confession out of the suspect. [Bennett] interrupted this job occasionally to dash upstairs and pour a beer for the county sheriff who visited him inopportunely before his guest had begun to talk. He tactfully neglected to advise the sheriff what was going on below, and it was not until he had results that he turned his captive over to the police.
Deake’s account credits the police with breaking the case, after Smith’s landlord turned in one of the guns used in the crime, saying that Smith had given the weapon to him to cover his rent and told him he had to “leave town right away.” Smith was captured and led authorities to Oliver and Blackstone. Whether those authorities were the police or Bennett’s men, the photos make it plain that sometime between their apprehension and trial, all three were beaten.
Once the men were in custody, events moved very swiftly. This timeline is based on Deake’s account and court records released to the press:
5:35 p.m, April 14: Justice Jay H. Payne holds the arraignment in Ypsilanti. Deake writes that “Blackstone’s confession would not survive the Miranda test today.” Witnesses observed that his face was “bruised and swollen” and the clothes on all the three men were torn and bloody.
6:40 p.m.: The men are transported past a growing mob to the county courthouse in Ann Arbor. National Guardsmen quickly arrive to back up the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor police departments. The sheriff deputizes local World War I veterans.
8:56 p.m.: Judge George W. Sample convicts all three men and sentences each of them to four consecutive terms of life imprisonment at hard labor. “I don’t wonder that the crowd is howling for vengeance,” Deake quotes Sample as saying. “If they had listened to the testimony we have had to listen to here … I am afraid they wouldn’t be as civil as they are. But you know it is the law of civilization that we must not indulge in Mob Law or rule. The Law must take its course.” Armed policemen, state troopers, National Guardsmen, and deputies stand shoulder to shoulder on the courthouse steps during the court proceedings. After the verdict is declared, the troopers dispense tear gas into the crowd while Harry Bennett’s servicemen surround the three murderers, who, Fournier writes, are “hustled down the back stairs of the courthouse and shoved into the backseat of a souped-up Mercury, driven by Harry Bennett himself, with a three-car police escort and delivered alive to the state prison in Jackson.”
11:26 p.m.: The men are imprisoned.
The day after the trial, Governor Wilber Brucker officially thanked the officers who had solved the murders so promptly. No mention was made of Bennett’s role. The next week, the Associated Press reported, “Wholesale raids on moonshine whisky dispensaries here [Ann Arbor] and elsewhere over the state constituted the aftermath of last week’s quadruple torch murders … blaming bootleg liquor for the savage slaying[s].” Bennett’s role in the apprehension of the Torch Murderers was not publicized in his lifetime. For another fourteen years, he worked at Henry Ford’s side, harassing and threatening union representatives and Ford workers. Ford even suggested Bennett as his successor, but in 1945 control of the Ford Motor Company instead passed to his grandson, Henry Ford II–who immediately fired Bennett.
David Blackstone died in the state prison at Marquette in 1950. Ironically, the man who killed his victims by bashing in their skulls was reportedly killed while using a stone crusher at the penitentiary.
That same year, Frank Oliver sought a new trial; his attorney argued that Oliver had been “beaten up by the arresting officers and forced to confess a part in the crime,” and denied legal counsel, Deake wrote. The request was denied. Fred Smith also died in prison in Marquette on February 17, 1967. He was fifty-seven. At the time, the Detroit Free Press speculated, “The four murders might never have occurred if Smith had not feared that Lore, a boyhood playmate, might have recognized him.”
That October, Frank Oliver was paroled. “Oliver has compiled an outstanding record while serving over 36 years on his sentence,” the parole board concluded. According to Deake, he died a free man sometime in the late 1990s.
“Although the City of Ypsilanti suffered a very bad reputation as a result of this murder case,” Deake concluded, “it should be commended for enforcing the law”–and thwarting Washtenaw County’s only known lynch mob.
(update) Calls and letters, March 2017
“I think it’s great to revisit old local news, but I’m not sure you have to paint it up as some kind of a newly-revealed scoop,” Steve Amick emailed after reading our January feature “Lynch Law on Huron St.” Contrary to what we wrote, Amick pointed out, Ford Motor Co. security head Harry Bennett’s role in the “Torch Murders” case was well publicized during his lifetime: “The Ann Arbor News, along with several national newspapers, published articles the week of the events listing his involvement, including covering a flashy stunt where he used diving equipment, a few days after the trial, to attempt to retrieve a weapon from the Huron River.”
Bennett “was a tireless self-promoter,” emailed AADL librarian Debbie Gallagher, and “figures prominently in several Ann Arbor News articles from the apprehension of the murder suspects until their conviction and beyond.” The AADL’s digital collection of articles on the case is online at http://oldnews.aadl.org/taxonomy/term/10822/
In the January, 2017 issue of Ann Arbor Observer