June 17, 2013
Along the Los Angeles beach between Venice and Ocean Park, a small group of mourners wandered aimlessly, occasionally dropping to the sand to pray—unable to stop their tears. “Aimee is with Jesus; pray for her,” they chanted. A Coast Guard cutter patrolled just offshore as deep-sea divers plunged into the water. Aimee Semple McPherson, evangelist, faith-healer, founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church and builder of the Angelus Temple, was believed to have disappeared during a swim on May 18, 1926. In the hours that followed, rescuers were sparing no effort to find her.
“God wouldn’t let her die,” one of her believers told a reporter. “She was too noble. Her work was too great. Her mission was not ended. She can’t be dead.”
Already, one young church member had drowned herself in her grief. Soon after that, a diver died while trying to find McPherson’s body.
In the coming days, her followers would dynamite the waters of Santa Monica bay, hoping to raise her body from the depths. Yet the blasts surfaced only dead fish, and the passing time merely gave rise to countless rumors. She’d disappeared to have an abortion. Or plastic surgery. Or an affair. As the days turned to weeks, McPherson’s body, much to the chagrin of police and the California Fish and Game Commission, remained missing. Soon, witnesses were coming forward to contradict the report, given by McPherson’s secretary, Emma Shaeffer, that the evangelist had vanished shortly after entering the water.
There were accounts from a detective in San Francisco that McPherson was spotted at a railway station there. “I know her well by sight,” the detective said, “and I know that I am not mistaken.” A ransom note delivered to McPherson’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, demanded $50,000 for the safe return of her daughter and warned, “Mum’s the word—keep police away.” Meanwhile, some faithful church members, convinced that the evangelist was dead, clung to the belief that she would be resurrected by supernatural powers.
Newspaper headlines trumpeted alleged McPherson sightings in cities across the United States. Another ransom letter surfaced—this one promising to sell the evangelist into “white slavery” unless a half-million dollars was paid in cash. Convinced her daughter was already dead, Minnie Kennedy threw away the letter. By the summer of 1926, no woman in America commanded more headlines than the vanished “Sister Aimee.”
The woman at the center of this media storm was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890 to a religious family on a farm in Ontario, Canada. But unlike her Methodist parents, she questioned her faith at a young age and began to rebel against her “tambourine-thumping Salvation Army” mother by reading novels and attending movies.
Yet when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution made its way into Canadian schools, Aimee rebelled again—this time, against evolution. (In 1925, she would support the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial.) Before her 18th birthday, she married an Irish Pentecostal missionary named Robert Semple, became pregnant, and set off for Asia on an evangelical tour. But the young couple contracted malaria, and Robert succumbed to the disease in August 1910. Aimee gave birth one month later to Roberta Star Semple and returned to the United States.
In 1912, she married an accountant, Harold Steward McPherson, but after giving birth to a son, Rolf McPherson, and trying to settle into a life as a housewife in Providence, Rhode Island, Aimee felt a sudden calling to preach the Gospel. In 1915, she ran out on her husband, taking the children, and hit the road in a Packard touring car (“Jesus is Coming Soon—Get Ready” painted on the side), preaching in tent revivals and churches across the country.
As a female preacher and something of a Pentecostal novelty, Aimee Semple McPherson learned to whip up crowds by speaking in tongues and delivering faith-healing demonstrations in which crutches were tossed aside and the blind were made to see. By 1922, she was breaking attendance records set by the biggest evangelical names at the time, such as Billy Sunday, the former baseball star. In San Diego, more than 30,000 people turned out for one of her events, and the Marines had to be called in for crowd control. There, McPherson laid hands on a supposedly paralyzed woman who rose from her chair and walked. The audience reached a frenzy.
The constant travel began to take its toll, and McPherson decided to settle down in Los Angeles, where she raised funds to build the Angelus Temple in Echo Park. She packed the 5,300-capacity building in services held seven days a week. Her style was light-hearted and whimsical at times, yet she spoke and sang with power and passion.
By the spring of 1926, McPherson had become a phenomenon—a household name across America. So it came as a surprise to the faithful on May 18, 1926, when McPherson did not arrive at the temple to preach the scheduled sermon and her mother stood in. By the next day, the entire nation was in shock at the news that Sister Aimee had disappeared and likely drowned.
But the prayers of many were soon to be answered: After a month of mourning and unending rumor, McPherson turned up in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a small Mexican town just south of Douglas, Arizona. She claimed to have walked across the “burning sands” of the desert to flee kidnappers and then collapsed. She was taken to a hospital, and in a phone call with the staff, Minnie Kennedy confirmed her daughter’s identity by telling them of the location of a scar on her finger and of her daughter’s ability to provide the name of her pet pigeon.
Once she’d recovered from her “state of collapse,” McPherson gave a bedside interview, saying she’d been lured to a car after swimming and taken across the border by three Americans, including a man named Steve and a woman named Rose. She’d been drugged and held in a Mexican shack for weeks, she said, and her captors had planned on keeping her until they’d received a ransom of half a million dollars. But she foiled the plan, she claimed, when she sawed through the ropes that were restraining her and staggered 20 miles through the desert to Agua Prieta.
Minnie Kennedy rushed to Arizona to reunite with her daughter. “My God, Sister McPherson is alive,” she told followers. “Run up the flag on the temple and send out the word broadcast. The Lord has returned his own.”
When McPherson came home, a throng of more than 50,000 showed up at the train station to welcome her. In a massive parade featuring airplanes that dropped roses from the skies, the evangelist made a grand re-entrance. But despite the attendance of Los Angeles officials and dignitaries, not everyone was thrilled. The Chamber of Commerce viewed the event as “gaudy display,” and Los Angeles District Attorney Asa Keyes called for an investigation into the evangelist’s account of a kidnapping.
Within two weeks, McPherson voluntarily appeared before a grand jury as newspapers continued to trumpet accusations of fraud, accompanied by witness “spottings” in Northern California. Gaining the most traction was a story that centered on the fact that Kenneth Ormiston, a married engineer at the Christian radio station KFSG (owned by McPherson’s church) disappeared just when McPherson did. The two worked together on McPherson’s regular broadcasts. Police were dispatched to a cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Ormiston had been seen with an unidentified woman during McPherson’s disappearance. (Ormiston admitted to having an adulterous affair at the time of McPherson’s disappearance, but denied that the stranger known as “Mrs. X” was her.) After dusting the cottage for fingerprints, however, police found none that matched the evangelist’s.
The headlines, gossip and innuendo continued throughout the fall, until a judge determined that there was enough evidence to proceed with the charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice against McPherson. A jury trial was scheduled for January the following year. However, Keyes had begun to determine that some of his witnesses were unreliable, and he decided to drop the charges.
The kidnapping remained unsolved, and the controversy over a possible hoax went unresolved. Critics and supporters alike thought McPherson should have insisted on a trial to clear her name; instead, she gave her account of the kidnapping in her 1927 book, In the Service of the King: The Story of My Life. She would be mocked in the media for years, but the scandal did not diminish her popularity.
McPherson continued to build her church right up until her death in Oakland, California, in 1944, from what the coroner described as most likely an accidental overdose (Seconol was found in the hotel room where she died) “compounded by kidney failure.” The Foursquare Gospel Church was worth millions at the time, and today claims nearly 9 million members worldwide. But when Aimee Semple McPherson’s estate was sorted out, the evangelist had just $10,000 to her name.
Articles: “Divers Seek Body of Woman Preacher,” New York Times, May 21, 1926. “No Trace Found of Woman Pastor,” Atlanta Constitution, May 29, 1926. “Cast Doubt on Evangelist’s Death in Sea,” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1926. “Bay Dynamited to Locate Body of Woman Pastor,” Atlanta Constitution, June 3, 1926. “Faithful Cling to Waning Hope,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1926. “$25,000 Reward for Evangelist’s Return,” Boston Globe, May 29, 1926. “Kidnap Hoax Exposed,” The Baltimore News, July 26, 1926. “Los Angeles Hails Aimee McPherson,” New York Times, June 27, 1926. “Evangelist Found: Tells Story of Kidnapping,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 24, 1926. “Missing Woman Pastor Found in Douglas, Arizona,” Boston Globe, June 23, 1926. “Aimee Semple McPherson,” Wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aimee_Semple_McPherson. “Aimee’s Life,” “Aimee’s Message,” “Aimee’s Religion,” by Anna Robertson, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug00/robertson/asm/background.html. “Sister Aimee,” The American Experience,” PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/sister/filmmore/index.html
June 13, 2013
In the early evening of January 30, 1857, a middle-aged dentist named Harvey Burdell left his townhouse at 31 Bond Street, a respectable if not truly chic section of Manhattan, and set out for a local hotel. Burdell had recently been taking his dinners there, even though he had a cook on his household staff. His relationship with one of his tenants (and a regular at his table), Emma Cunningham, had become strained. Burdell had accused Cunningham, a
34-year-old widow with four children, of stealing a promissory note from his office safe. She in turn had had Burdell arrested for breach of promise to marry, which was then a criminal offense.
Cunningham had become increasingly suspicious of Burdell’s relations with his female patients and with his attractive young cousin, also a resident of 31 Bond Street. Earlier that day, she had grilled one of the housemaids:
“Who was that woman, Hannah, you were showing through the house to-day?”
“That was the lady who is going to take the house.”
“Then the doctor is going to leave it, is he?”
“And when does she take possession?”
“The first of May.”
“He better be careful; he may not live to sign the papers!”
This conversation, which Hannah repeated to police and in a courtroom, would come back to haunt Emma Cunningham. On the morning of January 31, Harvey Burdell was found in his home, stabbed 15 times and strangled for good measure.
She was born Emma Augusta Hempstead in the mid-1810s in Brooklyn. When she was 19, she met and married George Cunningham, a businessman some 20 years her senior, and the two lived in relative style in a rented house near Union Square in Manhattan. But he proved to be less than adept at handling money, and by the time their fourth child was born they had moved back to Brooklyn to live
among relatives. When he died, Emma Cunningham inherited his property (meager), accounts (empty) and a life-insurance policy worth $10,000. She knew that wouldn’t be enough to support her family indefinitely, especially not if she wanted to move back to Manhattan and live as a proper lady.
Using a portion of the money to outfit herself in the latest fashions, the widow Cunningham set about finding a new husband—one who would ensure that she and her children could remain among the ranks of New York’s upwardly mobile middle class. At that time, love, legitimacy and security were difficult to come by for any woman not born into privilege. Emma Cunningham’s search would prove to be more desperate than most.
How and where her path crossed Harvey Burdell’s is unclear, but in the summer of 1855 the pair jaunted to the resort of Saratoga Springs to promenade. By that autumn Cunningham was pregnant and expecting a proposal of marriage; she instead had an abortion, almost certainly at Burdell’s urging, and possibly performed by the dentist himself. She moved her children into 31 Bond Street not as lady of the house but as a tenant,
paying rent to Burdell.
Still, she behaved as though she and Burdell were man and wife—ordering the food, hiring the maids, dining at his table. The breach-of-promise suit, brought in 1856, was a final attempt to get Burdell to legitimize their relationship, which Cunningham had become increasingly anxious to do as she noticed the attentions he paid to other women. The two fought constantly, with neighbors reporting later that shouts and crashes came from 31 Bond almost nightly. Burdell refused her demands for marriage, telling a friend that he would not marry “the best woman living.”
Found among Burdell’s papers after his death was a document that read:
In consequence of the settling of the suit now pending between Emma Augusta Cunningham and myself I agree as follows:
1.1 I extend to herself and family my friendship through life.
1.2 I agree never to do or act in any manner to the disadvantage of Mrs. Emma A. Cunningham.
His associates took this declaration to mean that he and Cunningham had reached some kind of agreement, and so were shocked to learn that Cunningham, two days after Burdell’s body was discovered, presented to the coroner’s office a marriage certificate. Not only was she Burdell’s grieving widow, devastated by his death and horrified that anyone could have such animosity toward her beloved, she announced, she was also the sole heir of his $100,000 fortune and the Bond Street townhouse. She was soon indicted on charges of murdering him.
The press painted Cunningham as a money-hungry schemer. She was sleeping with at least one of the other boarders, it was alleged, and allowing one of her lovers to engage in immoral acts with her 18-year-old daughter. Household staff and neighbors came forward with stories of lurid sexual escapades and elaborate plots to ruin the good name of the dentist who had worked so hard to rise to the ranks of the professional class.
At her trial, the prosecution relied on physical evidence: The murderer was almost certainly left-handed; Emma Cunningham was left-handed. What more was there to debate?
Cunningham’s attorney, Henry
Clinton Lauren Clinton, pointed out that while his client (whom he discouraged from taking the witness stand) did indeed lead with her left hand, so did who knows how many others across the city. What’s more, he said, Cunningham, by this point in her mid-30s, was an aging woman suffering from rheumatism. Burdell had 12 inches of height and a hundred pounds on her—even if she’d wanted to, how could such a delicate creature commit such a physically demanding act?
Clinton’s portrait of Burdell and his relationship with Cunningham was much darker than the initial press accounts. It was confirmed that Burdell had been engaged once before and, on the day of the wedding, demanded a check for $20,000 from the bride’s father, whereupon the marriage was called off. He regularly engaged in sexual activity with his dental patients, preferring girls in their late teens. He owed gambling debts and was parsimonious to the point of cruelty, almost starving his servants. He’d been especially abusive, the defense claimed, to Mrs. Cunningham. Court papers alluded to a variety of sexual assaults, verbal abuse and humiliation. The abortion she’d been convinced to undergo in the fall of 1855 was not her last—several others had occurred in the dentist’s chair. One newspaper claimed to have obtained, from a secret cabinet in Burdell’s office, a jarred fetus—a result of Cunningham and Burdell’s relations.
Whether persuaded by Clinton’s presentation or the fact that there was no physical evidence linking Cunningham to the murder, the jury acquitted her in less than two hours. The wicked woman, the press exclaimed, had gotten away with murder.
There was still, though, the matter of Cunningham’s marriage to Burdell. More than one member of Burdell’s inner circle had challenged the marriage certificate as a fake, and the Surrogate Court was investigating Cunningham’s activities in the months leading up to the murder trial.
Not believing her assertion that Burdell had sworn her to keep their marriage a secret, especially from his own attorneys,
court-appointed State’s Attorney Samuel J. Tilden (future governor of New York and presidential candidate, who was representing the Burdell family) presented to the court a seemingly outlandish scenario: Cunningham was having an affair with another of Burdell’s tenants, John J. Eckel; she had hired a minister who knew neither Eckel nor Burdell and disguised Eckel in a fake beard to match Burdell’s real one, and then she had married Eckel, who forged Burdell’s signature on the marriage certificate. The press took the idea to its logical conclusion: Eckel and Cunningham, drunk on lust and greed, had conspired to murder Burdell and live together ever after on the dead dentist’s dime. (Eckel was never charged with murder, but his case was dismissed.)
Cunningham’s every move was publicly scrutinized—the New-York Daily Times spoke to neighbors who claimed she “constantly had several women in her house; that she would sit in the front parlor, in company with one or more of them, with the blinds and windows open; and thus exposed to the gaze of the over-curious public, would talk to them in the most violent and boisterous manner, gesticulating and preforming various fantastic feats, laughing in triumph, shaking her fist, &c.”
Men of all ages were reported to be entering the house at all hours of the night. Anyone living in New York at the time would have caught the insinuation—the area around Bond Street, being next to some of the city’s most notorious theaters, was widely recognized as a center of prostitution. While there is no evidence Cunningham ever engaged in prostitution, the newspaper coverage had inclined the obsessed public to believe she was that kind of woman.
With a Surrogate Court decision expected in late August, eyebrows were raised as Cunningham began to appear in court looking noticeably fuller around her midsection. Yes, she said, she was pregnant with her late husband’s child. No, she demurred, she would not submit to an examination by any physician but her own.
From her initial pregnancy announcement, whispers grew to the effect that Cunningham was padding her gowns with pillows and faking exhaustion and other symptoms of the condition. In early August, she appeared in public with an infant, hoping to silence the rumors that she’d been anything other than a devoted wife and mother.
Alas, it was not to be, and Cunningham found herself once more in the Tombs and on the front page of every newspaper in the city. While she swore the baby was the product of her marriage to Burdell, she had in fact purchased the baby for $1,000 from an indigent woman, in a plot engineered by District Attorney Abraham Oakley Hall, who had been skeptical of her pregnancy from the start. The would-be mother went so far as to stage a birth scene at her home: “About half past ten o’clock both physicians entered, and in due form Mrs. Cunningham was ‘brought to bed,’ ” reported the New-York Daily Times. “A fictitious afterbirth had been prepared, and a large pailful of lamb’s blood. The bloody sheets of Mrs. Cunningham’s bed and the placenta, stowed away in a cupboard, completed this mock confinement, which had also been systematically accompanied with imaginary pains of labor.”
After Cunningham presented the baby as her own, Hall produced the baby’s mother, and noted a series of small marks that had been made on the infant in the foundling hospital where it had been born. With that, Cunningham’s quest to get what she thought Harvey Burdell owed her was finally put to rest, though baby’s mother did find a way to capitalize on the situation—cutting a deal with showman P.T. Barnum to exhibit the child at his downtown Manhattan museum, where visitors could pay 25 cents a head to gaze upon the infamous infant.
Disgraced and virtually penniless, Cunningham fled to California—where she eventually wed and placed her daughters in respectable marriages. She returned to New York in 1887 to live with a cousin but died that year, an event marked by a small notice in the New York Times. The murder of Harvey Burdell was never officially solved, though modern scholars agree Cunningham was likely involved.
What she wanted from Harvey Burdell was not just his wealth, but also his attention. And in a small way, she has it—in 2007 Benjamin Feldman, a lawyer and historian researching the case, partnered with
persuaded Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn to erect two stone markers, one for Cunningham and one for Burdell, to stand side by side for eternity, just as Cunningham, throwing herself onto Burdell’s coffin before at his packed funeral, exclaimed she wanted.
That she got it wouldn’t have come as a surprise to Harvey Burdell. One of his last conversations about Cunningham was with a cousin, who recounted it on the witness stand:
Q: Did he speak very highly of her?
Q: Did he tell you that she was a rich widow?
A: Yes. He said she was lady-like. He said that to have a public outbreak with her, he feared, would injure his business; he said she was a cunning, intriguing woman, and that she would resort to anything to carry out her plans.
Books: Clinton, Henry Lauren. Celebrated Trials (Harper & brothers, 1897); Feldman, Benjamin. Butchery on Bond Street: Sexual Politics and the Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-bellum New York (Green-wood Cemetery Historic Fund, 2007); Sutton, Charles. The New-York Tombs: Its Secrets and Mysteries (A. Roman & Company, 1874)
Articles: “The Bond Street Murder: Indictment of Eckel and Mrs. Cunningham,” New-York Daily Tribune, February 23, 1857; “The Widow Burdell Before the Surrogate,” New York Daily Times, March 13, 1857; “Mrs. Cunningham: Is the House Haunted,” New York Daily Times, August 8, 1857; “The Burdell Murder!!: The Burdell Estate Before the Surrogate Again,” New York Daily Times, August 5, 1857; “The Burdell Murder: Scenes in Court. Eckel Discharged,” New York Daily Tribune, May 11, 1857; “A Lurid Tale Revived in Granite,” New York Times, September 19, 2007.
May 29, 2013
It was a Saturday, market day in Port-au-Prince, and the chance to meet friends, gossip and shop had drawn large crowds to the Haitian capital. Sophisticated, French-educated members of the urban ruling class crammed into the market square beside illiterate farmers, a generation removed from slavery, who had walked in from the surrounding villages for a rare day out.
The whole of the country had assembled, and it was for this reason that Fabre Geffrard had chosen February 13, 1864, as the date for eight high-profile executions. Haiti’s reformist president wished to make an example of these four men and four women: because they had been found guilty of a hideous crime—abducting, murdering and cannibalizing a 12-year-old girl. And also because they represented everything Geffrard hoped to leave behind him as he molded his country into a modern nation: the backwardness of its hinterlands, its African past and, above all, its folk religion.
Call that religion what you will—voodoo, vaudaux, vandaux, vodou (the last of these is generally preferred today)—Haiti’s history had long been intertwined with it. It had arrived in slave ships centuries earlier and flourished in backwoods maroon villages and in plantations that Christian priests never visited. In 1791, it was generally believed, a secret vodou ceremony had provided the spark for the violent uprising that liberated the country from its French masters: the single example of a successful slave rebellion in the history of the New World.
Outside Haiti, though, vodou was perceived as primitive and sanguinary. It was nothing but “West African superstition [and] serpent worship,” wrote the British traveler Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard, who walked across the Haitian interior in 1899, and believers indulged in “their rites and their orgies with practical impunity.” For visiting Westerners of this sort, vodou’s popularity, in itself, was proof that the “black republic” could not claim to be civilized.
It was hard to conceive of a case more likely to bring vodou, and Haiti, into greater disrepute than the murder that was being punished that Saturday in 1864. The killing had taken place in the village of Bizoton, just outside the gates of Port-au-Prince, and—at least according to the newspaper stories that fizzed over the world’s telegraph wires that spring—it was the work of a wastrel by the name of Congo Pelé, who had sacrificed his own niece in the hope of winning favor from the vodou gods.
Little is known for certain of the affaire de Bizoton. No trial transcripts survive, and the truth (as Kate Ramsey observes in her study of vodou and Haitian law) was long ago lost in a miasma of prejudice and misreporting. The most detailed account of the murder came from the pen of Sir Spenser St John, who was the British charge d’affaires in Port-au-Prince at the time—and St John’s account helped define Haiti as a place where ritual murder and cannibalism were commonplace, and usually went unpunished. The charge proved so influential that, as recently as 2010, the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that leveled much of the capital could still be blamed on a supposed “pact with the devil” that the country had signed by turning to vodou.
For St John, who said he had “made the most careful inquiries” into the murder, the affaire seemed straightforward and hideous. Pelé, the diplomat reported, had been “a labourer, a gentleman’s servant [and] an idler” who had grown resentful at his poverty and was “anxious to improve his position without exertion on his part.” Since he was the brother of a noted vodou priestess, the solution appeared obvious. The gods and spirits could provide for him.
Sometime in December 1863, Jeanne Pelé agreed to help her brother. ”It was settled between them,” St John wrote, “that about the new year some sacrifice should be offered to propitiate the serpent.” The only difficulty was the scale of Congo’s ambition. While “a more modest man would have been satisfied with a white cock or a white goat…on this solemn occasion it was thought better to offer a more important sacrifice.” Two vodou priests were consulted, and it was they who recommended that the Pelés offer up the “goat without horns”—that is, a human sacrifice.
Jeanne Pelé did not have to look far for a suitable victim. She chose her sister’s child, a girl named Claircine, who St John says was 12 years old at the time. On December 27, 1863, Jeanne invited her sister to visit Port-au-Prince with her, and, in their absence, Congo Pelé and the two priests seized Claircine. They bound and gagged her and hid her beneath the altar of a nearby temple. The girl stayed there for four full days and nights. Finally, after dark on New Year’s Eve, an elaborate vodou ceremony was held. At its climax—St John says—Claircine was strangled, flayed, decapitated and dismembered. Her body was cooked, and her blood caught and kept in a jar.
Writing a quarter of a century later, the diplomat spared his readers none of the unpleasant details of the bloody feast that followed; perhaps he calculated that they would not wish to be spared. He also set out the evidence that had been assembled against the Pelés and their associates, together with details of other cases that proved, he thought, that the murder was not an isolated incident.
Before asking whether Claircine really was sacrificed to African gods—let alone whether cannibalism was a normal part of vodou—it may help to know a little more about the place that the religion held in old Haiti. Vodou was, to begin with, the faith of most Haitians. As late as 1860, the country was only nominally Christian; the urban elite may have been more or less Catholic, but the mass of people in the countryside were not. Bible teachings posed awkward questions in a slaveholding society; thus, while the old French colony’s hated “Negro Code” had made it compulsory to baptize new slaves within eight days of their arrival, most plantation owners made no real attempt to Christianize them. Nor was it easy for any religion to take root in the brutal conditions in which most blacks worked. The climate, back-breaking labor and fever killed 10 percent of Haiti’s half-million-strong population every year and severely curtailed fertility. This meant, as Laurent Dubois notes, that fully two-thirds of the slaves in Haiti on the eve of the revolt of 1791 had been born in Africa. They brought with them their African religions, and scholars of vodou believe that its Catholic trappings were implanted not in Haiti, but in the coastal regions of the Congo, where local rulers converted to Christianity as early as the 15th century.
Matters scarcely improved after independence. Most Haitian rulers professed Christianity—they believed it important to identify with the free nations of the west. But they also insisted on a Haitian clergy, not to mention the right to appoint bishops. That the Catholic Church would not concede, with the result that in 1804 a schism occurred between Haiti and Rome. Since there were then no more than three churches still standing amid the rubble of the revolution, and six priests in the entire country, little progress was made in converting the people of the interior in the years before this breach was healed with a concordat signed in 1860.
The handful of clergymen who did serve in Haiti during these years were mostly renegades, Dubois writes: “debauched opportunists who got rich selling sacraments to gullible Haitians.” Vodou thrived in these conditions, and it was hardly surprising that when Geffrard’s immediate predecessor, Faustin Soulouque, was nominated as president in 1847, Haiti found itself ruled by a former slave who was an open adherent of the African religion.
Knowing a little of the effects of the schism, and of Soulouque’s dubious 12-year regime, makes it easier to understand why Fabre Geffrard was so anxious to prosecute the principals of the affaire de Bizoton—and to label Claircine’s killers as vodouists. The concordat signed in March 1860 committed the president to making Catholicism Haiti’s state religion—and the executions of February 1864, which so clearly demonstrated Christian “orthodoxy,” took place just weeks before the priests of the first mission to the country arrived from Rome. The trial was followed up, moreover, by a redrafting of Haiti’s Code Pénal, which increased the fines levied for “sorcery” sevenfold and added that “all dances and other practices that…maintain the spirit of fetishism and superstition in the population will be considered spells and punished with the same penalties.” Under Geffrard, attempts were also made to curb other customs likely to upset the pope: the public nudity that was still common in the interior, and a 99 percent illegitimacy rate that was accompanied (Dubois says) by “bigamy, trigamy, all the way to septigamy.”
Geffrard was equally anxious to distance himself from Soulouque, who in 1849 had made the country something of a laughingstock by crowning himself Emperor Faustin I. He was not the first Haitian emperor—that honor belongs to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had ruled as Jacques I between 1804 and 1806—and although Murdo MacLeod argues that he was a shrewder ruler than most historians allow, he is usually portrayed as a buffoon. Lazy and poorly educated, Soulouque, it was widely believed, had been hand-picked by Haiti’s senate as the most malleable possible candidate for the presidency; unable to obtain a golden crown, he had been elevated to the throne wearing one made of cardboard. Once in power, however, the new emperor derived (MacLeod says) significant “mystical prestige” from his association with vodou. Indeed, it was widely thought he was in thrall to it, and St John noted that
during the reign of Soulouque, a priestess was arrested for having promoted a sacrifice too openly; when about to be conducted to prison, a foreign bystander remarked aloud that probably she would be shot. She laughed and said: ‘If I were to beat the sacred drum, and march through the city, [there is] not one, from the Emperor downwards, but would humbly follow me.’
What all this means, I think, is that vodou became a fault line running through the very heart of Haitian society after 1804. For most citizens, and especially for the rural blacks who had borne the brunt both of slavery and the struggle for independence, it became a potent symbol of old dignities and new freedoms: a religion that, as Dubois notes, helped “carve out a place where the enslaved could temporarily escape the order that saw them only as chattel property” during colonial times, and went on to “create communities of trust that stretched between the different plantations and into the towns.” For the local elite, who tended to be of mixed race and were often French-educated, though, vodou was holding Haiti back. It was alien and frightening to those who did not understand it; it was associated with slave rebellion; and (after Soulouque’s rise), it was also the faith of the most brutal and backward of the country’s rulers.
These considerations combined to help make Haiti a pariah state throughout the 19th century. Dessalines and his successor, Henry Christophe—who had every reason to fear that the United States, France, Britain and Spain would overthrow their revolution and re-enslave the population, given the chance—tried to isolate the country, but even after economic necessity forced them to reopen the trade in sugar and coffee, the self-governing black republic of Haiti remained a dangerous abomination in the eyes of every white state involved in the slave trade. Like Soviet Russia in the 1920s, it was feared to be almost literally “infectious”: liable to inflame other blacks with the desire for liberty. Geffrard was not the only Haitian leader to look for ways to prove that his was a nation much like the great powers—Christian, and governed by the rule of law.
With all that borne in mind, let us return to the Haiti of 1864 and the affaire de Bizoton. There is no need to assume that Spenser St John was a wholly unreliable observer; his account of the legal proceedings that took place that year chimes well with contemporary press coverage. There are a few discrepancies (Claircine is stated in newspaper sources to have been seven or eight, not 12), but the journalists’ accounts are, for the most part, more purple and more partial than the diplomat’s.
What’s most interesting about St John’s account is his admission that the trial was open to criticism. His chief concern was the use of force to beat confessions out of suspects. “All the prisoners,” the diplomat observed, “had at first refused to speak, thinking that the Vaudoux would protect them, and it required the frequent application of the club to drive this belief out of their heads.” Later, hauled up before the judge, the prisoners “were bullied, cajoled, cross-questioned in order to force avowals, in fact to make them state in open court what they were said to have confessed in their preliminary examinations.”
The beatings produced the evidence that Geffrard’s government required, but also at least one disputed confession. It came from one Roséide Sumera, who had admitted to eating “the palms of the victims hands as a favourite morsel,” and whose evidence was vital to the prosecution. Sumera, St John recalled, had “entered into every particular of the whole affair, to the evident annoyance of the others, who tried in vain to keep her silent,” and it was thanks to her testimony that “the guilt of the prisoners was thus fully established.” Yet even St John had his doubts about Sumera’s evidence: “I can never forget,” the diplomat conceded, “the manner in which the youngest female prisoner turned to the public prosecutor and said, ‘Yes, I did confess what you assert, but remember how cruelly I was beaten before I said a word.’ ”
The fact that Roséide Sumera fought for her life in court does not mean that she was innocent, of course. St John remained convinced of her guilt, not least because physical evidence was produced to back up witness testimony. A “freshly boiled” human skull had been found concealed in bushes outside the temple where the ritual had apparently occurred, and the prosecutor also produced a pile of bones and two eyewitnesses who—it was claimed—had not participated in the murder. They were a young woman and a child, who had watched from an adjoining room through chinks in the wall.
The child’s evidence was especially compelling. It was probably at least as important as Sumera’s in securing convictions, not least because it appeared that she had been intended as a second victim. The girl had been found, according to St John’s account, tied up under the same altar that had concealed Claircine; had Pelé not been stopped, he wrote, the intention was to sacrifice her on Twelfth Night (January 5), the most sacred date in the vodou calendar. Even so, the child’s statement was not complete:
She told her story in all its horrible details; but her nerves gave way so completely, that she had to to be taken out of court, and could not be again produced to answer some questions the jury wished to ask.
As for the young woman who had, for obscure reasons, accompanied the girl to the ceremony, her testimony was at best equivocal. She confirmed that the feast had taken place, but according to at least one account, also confessed to eating leftovers from the cannibals’ meal the next morning. The public prosecutor admitted to St John that “we have not thought proper to press the inquiry too closely” in this woman’s case, adding: “If full justice were done, there would be fifty on those benches instead of eight.”
If much oral testimony was debatable, then, what of the physical evidence? That a human skull and several bones were produced in court seems undisputed; that they were Claircine’s, though, appears less certain.
Ramsey suggests that they may have been the remains of some other person—who may have died of natural causes—prepared for some other ritual. (see editors’ note below) And some accounts of the trial are curious in other ways. St John states that the other bones were “calcined” (burned) but still intact, whereas New Zealand’s Otago Witness—in a typical example of the contemporary news coverage—reported that they had been “reduced to ashes.”
As for the allegation, made by St John, that cannibalism was a normal feature of life in 19th century Haiti: the evidence here is thin in the extreme. Writing in The Catholic Encyclopedia in 1909, John T. Driscoll charged—without providing details—that ”authentic records are procurable of midnight meetings held in Hayti, as late as 1888, at which human beings, especially children, were killed and eaten at the secret feasts.” Close reading, though, shows that there are only two other “firsthand” accounts of vodou ceremonies involving cannibalism: one from a French priest during the 1870s, and the other from a white Dominican a decade later. Both are unsupported; both are suspect, not least for the claim that both supposed eyewitnesses penetrated a secret religious ceremony undetected, wearing blackface. Unfortunately, both were also widely disseminated. Added to St John’s accounts–which included the charge that “people are killed and their flesh sold at the market” in Haiti, they profoundly influenced Victorian scribblers who had never visited the island. In 1891, observes Dubois, “one writer admitted that he had never actually seen a Vodou ritual, but he nevertheless described [one] in vivid detail–complete with practitioners ‘throwing themselves on the victims, tearing them apart with their teeth and avidly sucking the blood that boils from their veins.’ Each day, he wrote, forty Haitians were eaten, and almost every citizen of the country had tasted human flesh.”
This matters. Ramsey and Dubois, to name only two of the historians who see Claircine’s case as central to Haiti’s history, both argue that it helped to create perceptions that have lingered to the present day. The idea that Haiti was uncivilized and inherently unstable was used to justify an American military occupation that began in 1915 and ran for 20 years; many even today remain convinced that the depressing aspects of the country’s history were products of its innate “backwardness” and not, as scholars of Haiti argue, the real problems that the country faced during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Much, certainly, can be attributed to the crushing burden of debt imposed by France in 1825 as a condition of recognizing independence. This indemnity, which amounted to 150 million francs (about $3 billion today), plus interest, compensated slaveholders for their losses—so, as the Haitian writer Louis-Joseph Janvier furiously observed, his people had paid for their country three times over: in “tears and sweat,” as captive labor; in blood, during the revolution, and then in cash, to the very men who had enslaved them. As late as 1914, Dubois notes, 80 percent of the Haitian budget was swallowed up by interest payments on this debt.
All of which does make the executions of February 1864 a transforming moment in Haitian history–so much so that it was perhaps appropriate that they were botched. Wrote Spenser St John:
The prisoners, tied in pairs, were placed in a line, and faced by five soldiers to each pair. They fired with such inaccuracy that only six fell wounded on the first discharge. It took these untrained men fully half an hour to complete their work… [and] the horror at the prisoners’ crimes was almost turned into pity at witnessing their unnecessary sufferings…. They were seen beckoning the soldiers to approach, and Roseíde held the muzzle of a musket to her bosom and called on the man to fire.
Editors’ note, June 12, 2013: The sentence above referring to Kate Ramsey and physical evidence at the trial has been stricken-through because it is incorrect. She made no such suggestion.
Anon. “Horrible superstition of the Vandoux heretics.” Otago Witness, 29 October 1864; John E. Baur. “The Presidency of Nicolas Geffrard of Haiti.” In The Americas 10 (1954); Jean Comhaire. “The Haitian Schism, 1804-1860.” In Anthropological Quarterly 29 (1956); Leslie Desmangles. “The Maroon Republics and Religious Diversity in Colonial Haiti.” In Anthropos 85 (1990); Leslie Desmangles. The Faces of the Gods. Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992; John T. Driscoll. “Fetishism.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia vol.6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909; Laurent Dubois. “Vodou and History.” In Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (2001); Laurent Dubois. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013; François Eldin. Haïti: 13 Ans de Séjour aux Antilles. Toulouse: Société des Livres Religieux, 1878; Alfred N. Hunt. Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988; Michael Laguerre. “The place of voodoo in the social structure of Haiti.” In Caribbean Quarterly 19 (1973); Murdo J. MacLeod. “The Soulouque Regime in Haiti, 1847-1859: A Re-evaluation.” In Caribbean Studies 10 (1970); Albert Métraux. Voodoo in Haiti. London: Andre Deutsch 1959; Nathaniel Samuel Murrell. Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural and Sacred Traditions. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010; William W. Newell. “Myths of Voodoo Worship and Child Sacrifice in Hayti.” In Journal of American Folk-Lore 1 (1888): Pierre Pluchon. Vaudou, Sorciers, Empoisonneurs: De Saint-Domingue á Haiti. Paris: Editions Karthala, 1987; Kate Ramsey. “Legislating ‘Civilization’ in Post-Revolutionary Haiti.” In Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister (eds), Race, Nation and Religion in the Americas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004; Kate Ramsey. The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Spenser Buckingham St John. Hayti, or the Black Republic. London: Smith, Elder, 1889; Bettina Schmidt. “The interpretation of violent worldviews: cannibalism and other violent images of the Caribbean.” In Schmidt and Ingo Schröder (eds). Anthropology of Violence and Conflict. London: Routledge: Routledge, 2001.
May 20, 2013
When the great minds of science gathered at the U.S. National Museum (now known as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History) on April 26, 1920, the universe was at stake. Or at least the size of it, anyway. In scientific circles, it was known as the Great Debate, and although they didn’t know it at the time, the astronomy giants Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis—the two men who came to Washington, D.C., to present their theories—were about to have their life’s work eclipsed by Edwin Hubble, a young man who would soon become known as the greatest astronomer since Galileo Galilei.
Harlow Shapley arrived from the Mount Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena, home of the world’s most powerful observational device—the 100-inch Hooker Telescope. A Californian who had studied at Princeton, Shapley came to the Great Debate to advance his belief that all observable spiral nebulae (now recognized as galaxies) were simply distant gas clouds—and contained within one great galaxy, the Milky Way.
On the other hand, Curtis, a researcher at the Lick Observatory near San Jose and then director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, believed that the spiral nebulae existed far outside the Milky Way. In fact, he referred to them as “island universes,” and he estimated that they were much like the Milky Way in size and shape.
After presenting their respective ideas to each other in advance, the two astronomers entered the auditorium that evening and engaged in a lively, formal debate over “The Scale of the Universe.” In essence, they disagreed on “at least 14 astronomical issues,” with Curtis arguing that the sun was at the center of what he believed was a relatively small Milky Way galaxy in a sea of galaxies. Shapley maintained his position that the universe comprised one galaxy, the Milky Way, but that it was much larger than Curtis or anyone else had supposed, and that the sun was not near its center.
Each man believed his argument had carried the day. While there was no doubt that Curtis was the more experienced and dynamic lecturer, the Harvard College Observatory would soon hire Shapley as its new director, replacing the recently deceased Edward Charles Pickering. Both men, it would turn out, had gotten their theories correct—partially.
Back in California, a 30-year-old research astronomer, Edwin Hubble, had recently taken a staff position at the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he worked beside Shapley. Hubble was born in Missouri in 1889, the son of an insurance agent, but at the end of the century his family moved to Chicago, where he studied at the University of Chicago. A star in several sports, Hubble won a Rhodes scholarship and studied at Oxford. Though he promised his father he’d become a lawyer, he returned to Indiana to teach high school Spanish and physics (and coach basketball). But he remained fascinated by astronomy, and when his father died, in 1913, the young scholar decided to pursue a doctorate in the study of stars at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory.
He completed his dissertation (“Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae) and received his PhD in 1917, shortly before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War I. It would be said that while he was in France, he taught soldiers to march at night, navigating by the stars. When he returned to the United States, Hubble was hired by George Ellery Hale, the director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he set about observing and photographing stars that were thought to be located in the Andromeda nebula within the Milky Way.
In October 1923, Hubble was examining photographs he had taken of the Andromeda nebula with the Hooker Telescope when he realized that he might have identified a Cepheid variable—an extremely luminous star. Hubble thought he might be able, over time, to calculate its brightness. And in doing so, he might accurately measure its distance.
For months, Hubble focused on the star he labeled “VAR!” on the now-famous photograph. He could determine by the star’s varying, intrinsic brightness that it was 7,000 times brighter than the sun, and according to his calculations, it would have to be 900,000 light-years away. Such a distance obliterated even Shapley’s theory on the size of the universe, which he estimated at 300,000 light-years in diameter. (Curtis believed it was ten times smaller than that.)
The implications of a star nearly a million light-years away were obvious, yet Shapley quickly dismissed his former colleague’s work as “junk science.” But Hubble continued to photograph hundreds of nebulae, demonstrating a method of classifying them by shape, light and distance, which he later presented to the International Astronomical Union.
In essence, he was credited with being the first astronomer to show that the nebulae he had observed were neither gas clouds nor distant stars in the Milky Way. He demonstrated that they were galaxies, and that there were countless numbers of them beyond the Milky Way.
Hubble wrote Shapley a letter and presented his findings in detail. After reading it, Shapley turned to a graduate student and delivered the remark for which he would become famous: “Here is the letter that has destroyed my universe.”
Edwin Hubble would continue measuring the distance and velocity of objects in deep space, and in 1929, he published his findings, which led to “Hubble’s Law” and the widely accepted realization that the universe is expanding. Albert Einstein, in his theory of general relativity, produced equations that showed that the universe was either expanding or contracting, yet he second-guessed those conclusions and amended them to match the widely accepted scientific thinking of the time—that of a stationary universe. (He later called the decision to amend the equation “the biggest blunder” of his life.) Einstein ultimately paid a visit to Hubble and thanked him for the support his findings at Mount Wilson gave to his relativity theory.
Edwin Hubble continued to work at the Mount Wilson Observatory right up until he died of a blood clot in his brain in 1953. He was 63. Forty years later, NASA paid tribute to the astronomer by naming the Hubble Space Telescope in his honor, which has produced countless images of distant galaxies in an expanding universe, just as he had discovered.
Articles: “Star that Changed the Universe Shines in Hubble Photo,” by Clara Moskowitz, Space.com, May 23, 2011, http://www.space.com/11761-historic-star-variable-hubble-telescope-photo-aas218.html. “The 1920 Shapley-Curtis Discussion: Background, Issues, and Aftermath,” by Virginia Trimble, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, v. 107, December, 1995. http://adsbit.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-iarticle_query?1995PASP%2E%2E107%2E1133T “The ‘Great Debate’: What Really Happened,” by Michael A. Hoskin, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 7, 169-182, 1976, http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/cs_real.html “The Great Debate: Obituary of Harlow Shapley,” by Z. Kopal, Nature, Vol. 240, 1972, http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/shapley_obit.html. “Why the ‘Great Debate’ Was Important,” http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/cs_why.html. “1929: Edwin Hubble Discovers the Universe is Expanding,” Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, http://cosmology.carnegiescience.edu/timeline/1929. “The Great Debate Over the Size of the Universe,” Ideas of Cosmology, http://www.aip.org/history/cosmology/ideas/great-debate.htm.
Books: Marianne J. Dyson, Space and Astronomy: Decade by Decade, Facts on File, 2007. Chris Impey, How it Began: A Time-Traveler’s Guide to the Universe, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
April 30, 2013
In 1937, Walter Reuther and his United Autoworkers Union had brought General Motors and Chrysler to their knees by staging massive sit-down strikes in pursuit of higher pay, shorter hours and other improvements in workers’ lives. But when Reuther and the UAW set their sights on the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, Henry Ford made it clear that he’d never give in to the union.
On the morning of May 26, 1937, Detroit News photographer James “Scotty” Kilpatrick was among a crowd waiting for the shift change at River Rouge, which employed 90,000 workers. About 2 p.m. that May 26, Reuther arrived at the Miller Road Overpass at Gate 4 with an entourage of clergymen, representatives from the Senate Committee on Civil Liberties and dozens of women from UAW Local 174, where Reuther was president. The woman wore green berets and carried leaflets reading, “Unionism, not Fordism,” which they intended to hand out to departing workers. At the direction of “Scotty” Kilpatrick, Reuther posed for photographs with UAW organizational director Richard Frankensteen and a few other organizers atop the overpass—public property—with the Ford Motor Company sign in the background.
Then Harry Bennett showed up with his entourage. Bennett, one of Henry Ford’s right-hand men, led the notorious Ford Service Department, a private police force composed of ex-convicts, ex-athletes, ex-cops and gang members.
“You will have to get off here,” one of Bennett’s men told the unionists.
“We’re not doing anything,” Reuther replied.
Like that, what would become infamous as the Battle of the Overpass was on. Forty of Bennett’s men charged the union organizers. Kilpatrick called out a warning, but the security men pounced, beating the union leaders while reporters and clergy looked on. Kilpatrick and the other photographers began snapping away. Reporters accompanying them took notes on what they were seeing.
Reuther was kicked, stomped, lifted into the air, thrown to the ground repeatedly, and tossed down two flights of stairs. Frankensteen, a 30-year-old, hulking former football player, go it worse because he tried to fight back. Bennett’s men swarmed him, pulled his jacket over his head and beat him senseless.
“It was the worst licking I’ve ever taken,” he later told reporters. “They bounced us down the concrete steps of an overpass we had climbed. Then they would knock us down, stand us up, and knock us down again.” Another union leader was tossed off the overpass; his fall 30 feet to the pavement below broke his back. The security men even roughed up some of the women.
The battle, such as it was, ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. But then there was the matter of witnesses—especially the journalists on the scene. Some of Bennett’s security men began to tear notebooks from reporters’ hands. Others went after the photographers, confiscating film and smashing cameras to the ground. They chased one fleeing photographer for five miles, until he ducked into a police station for safety.
Scotty Kilpatrick fled, too—and made it to his car in just enough time to hide the glass-plate negatives from his Speed Graphic under the back seat. When some Bennett men stopped him and demanded that he surrender his negatives, he handed them unexposed plates.
Once Reuther, Frankensteen and witnesses began to tell reporters what they had seen in front of the Ford plant, Harry Bennett issued a statement. “The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials,” it said. “They feel, with or without justification, the [Senator] La Follette Civil Liberties Committee sympathizes with their aims and they simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality that they could take down to Washington and flaunt before the senatorial committee.
“I know definitely no Ford service men or plant police were involved in any way in the fight,” Bennett continued. “As a matter of fact, the service men had issued instructions the union people could come and distribute their pamphlets at the gates so long as they didn’t interfere with employees at work.” The unionists, he said, “were beaten by regular Ford employees who were on their way to work on the afternoon shift. The union men called them scabs and cursed and taunted them.”
Dearborn Police later said the Ford Service Department was “defending public property.”
Meanwhile, Scotty Kilpatrick developed his negatives, and other photographers, after the event, captured on film the injuries to the bloodied Reuther and Frankensteen. “If Mr. Ford thinks this will stop us, he’s got another thing coming,” Frankensteen said. “We’ll go back there with enough men to lick him at his own game.”
Reuther was more composed: “Before the UAW gets through with Harry Bennett and Ford’s Service Department, Dearborn will be a part of the United States and the workers will be able to enjoy their constitutional rights.”
Bennett did his best to put his version into news accounts of the Battle of the Overpass, but once Kilpatrick’s photographs were published, it was obvious that the beatings were far more violent than Bennett had described. And they showed Ford security men surrounding and beating UAW men and grabbing UAW women. In all, 16 unionists were injured in the attack, including seven women. Reuther was pictured bloodied and with a swollen skull, and Frankensteen was even worse—his face cut and his shirt torn and bloodstained. Kilpatrick’s photographs quickly turned public opinion toward the notion that the Ford Service Department was a gang of hired thugs.
In a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board in 1937, the Ford Motor Company was called to defend itself from charges that the company was engaging in unfair labor practices in violation of the 1935 Wagner Act, which prohibited employers from interfering with workers’ efforts to organize into unions. During the hearing, Ford workers testified that if their superiors suspected them of showing interest in the UAW, Ford Service Department men would pull them from the assembly lines and escort them to the gate as they were fired on the spot, often without explanation.
The publicity from the Battle of the Overpass and the ensuing labor-board hearing proved to be too much for Henry Ford. He had tried to raise his workers’ pay soon after the incident in Dearborn, but his efforts came too late, and ultimately, like Detroit’s other automotive giants, he had no choice but to sign a contract with the UAW.
The power of Scotty Kilpatrick’s photographs eventually vaulted Walter Reuther into national prominence as a labor leader and prompted the administrators of the Pulitzer Prizes to institute an award for photography. The first Pulitzer for photography would be awarded to Milton Brooks of the Detroit News in 1942—for his image of UAW strikers savagely beating a strikebreaker.
“Union Acts to Prosecute Ford in Beating of Two Organizers,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1937. “C.I.O. Leaders Slugged, Driven Off in Attempt to Spread Handbills,” Washington Post, May 27, 1937. “Ford Men Beat and Rout Lewis Union Organizers,” New York Times, May 27, 1937. “The Battle of the Overpass, at 75,” by Bryce Hoffman, The Detroit News, May 24, 2012. “Ford Motor Company Chronology,” The Henry Ford, http://www.hfmgv.org/exhibits/fmc/battle.asp
Books: Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Basic Books, 1995.