Peter Amann, the historian who spent years researching the Black Legion, stated:
“Even though intravigilante violence, arson, political ‘contracts,’ and murder-for-fun had expanded the range of nightriding activities beyond the modest ambitions of Dr. Shepard, the Black Legion never forgot its original commitment to monitor community mores” (p. 520).
This “monitoring community mores” was allegedly what brought them to Charles Poole, but it may have been more than that. Poole was an unemployed auto worker and a Catholic, married to a Protestant who was pregnant with their second child. She was also related by marriage to one of the “boys” of “Colonel” Harvey Davis in the Black Legion. A rumor started that Poole had been beating her, and May 12, 1936, he was abducted and shot five times. May 27, 12 members of the Black Legion were brought into court accused of Poole’s execution. The Black Legion was already under investigation for reported arson, floggings, and death threats. Eight members had already been suspended from state or city jobs for “racial propaganda” (Dozen are Quizzed in Poole Case, May 27, 1936, The Windsor Star, p. 13) and at least six deaths were under investigation for possible connection. Dayton Dean, the Black Legion member who confessed to the planning and killing of Poole stated:
“I was just following orders from my superiors. At a meeting (when the slaying was planned) we were all told that Poole had kicked and beaten his wife. We were told that Mrs. Poole’s baby, which was soon expected, would not be born alive because of the brutality of her husband. It was just a pack of lies to get us to take drastic action.” (Dozen are Quizzed)
By June, Ray Sprigle of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had written an account of his interview with the Black Legion “General” V. H. Effinger.
“What and why is the Black Legion. Thousands of newspaper readers throughout the country have been wondering about the answer to the question since the startling disclosures in Detroit where Charles Poole, a WPA worker, was slain ostensibly because he beat his wife. The actual killer declares that he killed at the command of leaders of the Detroit organization of the Black Legion.
What is the philosophy of leaders of an organization such as this, admittedly based upon religious prejudice? What type of men rise to leadership in such an oath-bound secret order?”
Sprigle continued that the interview was conducted and printed “as a matter of information only, with no attempt to either condemn or palliate” (June 9, 1936, p. 13). Effinger’s comments included:
- “The charge that the Black Legion had anything to do with the murder of Charles A. Poole in Detroit is a dirty lie.”
- “I know Dayton Dean, the man who did the shooting and he’s a dirty rat.”
- “Duncan McCrea [Detroit prosecutor] was not only a member of the Black Legion, but he was a recruiting officer of the legion. He was one of the organizers in Michigan. He was a good one, too. He turned in a good many members. Now he’s trying to connect the Black Legion with a drunken killing.”
- “The organization deplores anything of this nature. It stands wholly for law and order based on justice.”
- “The Black Legion plays no favorites among parties. We support candidates favorable to the principles of the legion…we make no distinction between Democrats and Republicans…we are unalterably opposed to the other parties. Communists are pledged to overthrow this Government if elected. And if ever the Communist party should rise to power in this country, then the Black Legion will march.”
Sprigle concluded with the story of being stopped by a leading citizen of Lima, Ohio, introduced to him by the Lima newspaperman as he walked back to the train station to return to Pittsburgh.
“So you are from the Post-Gazette and are investigating the Black Legion?” the prominent citizen whispered. “Well, I want to tip you off to something. All of the leaders of this Black Legion are high-ranking Communists. It is being financed from Moscow.”
Sprigle finished by writing: You paid your 3 cents for this, so take your choice.
The grand jury report from Circuit Judge George B. Hartrick of Pontiac on September 1 named 86 state, county and city employees as members of the hooded order, but also added they found no evidence the Black Legion was a Fascist organization, nor any evidence of foreign money financing them.
“Hysterical or unthinking action will not cure the curse of bigotry, prejudice, and ‘playboy’ antics which lead adult men under the moon at night, in hood and robe, to tinker with the constitutional safeguards which our forefathers vouchsafed nearly 150 years ago. It has taken the world nineteen centuries to learn the golden rule of tolerance” (Brains not a clan mark: Judge reports on investigation of Black Legion. (Sept. 1, 1936). The Kansas City Star, p. 3)
Judge Hartrick, conducting hearings for several weeks, said that the Black Legion in Oakland County was disrupted by the bickering of politicians who sought to gain votes. The grand jury returned indictments charging Effinger and 21 others with criminal syndicalism in an alleged plot to seize the federal government. Named were a state representative, branch manager of the state liquor control commission, division manager of the state sales tax administration, supervisor of a state hospital, a prosecutor and 2 assistant prosecutors, six deputy sheriffs, county drain commissioner, city treasurer, 2 city assessors, and 2 police chiefs. The grand jury also released the names of 86 members who were public officials, state officers, and state employees, including a member of the police and fire trial board, director of law, police sergeants, detectives, and patrolmen, and fire department captain and firemen in addition to others . The Judge stated the Black Legion’s grip was broken and it was up to the public to finish the clean-up (The Detroit Free Press, Sept. 2, 1936, p. 10).
The one question the grand jury nor the judge could answer was
“With the flashing of the national callword ‘Lixto’ the Black Legion awaited the pre-determined date, Sept. 16, 1936, for what reason? Was there to be a rebellion against the Government? Or was that the date of a contemplated Communist revolution in America which the Black Legion would be mobilized to combat? It is certain that the ‘Iron Guard’ of the inner unit which was recruited from members of the Black Legion for duty in some extraordinary capacity, perhaps, as it is claimed, to take over Government arsenals and powder magazines when the spark of revolution would inflame the land.”
While the judge concluded the failure of the Black Legion was because of politics and low intelligence, Amann concluded that although the Black Legion was nativist, and shared “typical fascist hatreds” (p. 522) such as racism and xenophobia, the movement failed because the American nativism did not encompass the sanction for revolution while still professing country loyalty as did the European model. To be a patriot in America meant there was no revolution other than The Revolution of 1776: “vigilante nativism and revolutionary fascism were fundamentally incompatible” (p. 524).
I cannot predict, of course, how true that may be in the year 2020. Certainly there are concerning issues raised daily about the threat to democracy, the efforts to reject any sense of social and economic equality, equity, inclusion, and justice, and the re-defining of patriotism as one in which fundamental rights that have enabled us to protest unjust action by government at all levels would give way to a totalitarian authoritarian regime cloaked in “law and order” language that musters the appointed and elected servants of the people to act in their own interest, and not in the interests of the people who are thusly “governed.”
I can only hope and believe that the “consent of the governed” will remain in full view and that when the consent is revoked as evidenced by the marches and demonstrations, the challenges in courts and at the voting booth, that we will indeed be able to stand together and acknowledge that there are just some outcomes that are good for all of us, and when some of us do not have the right to liberty, peace, justice and the pursuit of happiness because others usurp that through power grabs and their own selfish interests, we must indeed say it out loud: the foxes guarding the henhouse must be named, and must be voted out of power. Not saying or doing anything through means such as legal, political, and social action will allow it to continue. While there may never be another Black Legion, we know that nativism is alive and thriving in the US.
We must abide no hatred nor allow it to flourish in our communities, or as Judge Hartrick put it: “it is up to the public to clean it up.”