In the 1920s, Detroit was really the city where the action was.
Vivian Welsh was a Detroit beat cop back when police still walked a beat and it was OK for men to be named Vivian. He was also a dirty cop who didn’t understand until it was too late just how tough the gangsters he was shaking down were and paid for his ignorance with his life.
Married less than a year, and on the force for just two years, Welsh worked a beat on Detroit’s west side where he came in contact with many of the city’s countless blind pig operators, bootleggers and racketeers.
A beat cop wasn’t making much jack back then, and it must have been frustrating for a guy like Welsh to be pounding the pavement all day long for $10 a week only to see those mugs sitting back all day long raking in the dough by breaking the law.
Finally, Officer Welsh decided to do something about that and he ended up as front page news in a city where murder was an every day occurrence.
It was February 1927 and Detroit was a war zone between state and federal lawmen and gangsters of all types and sizes. Chicago has the reputation of being the action capital of the Roaring 20s, but that’s only because the Windy City had Al Capone, a gangster who liked publicity and wasn’t shy about getting his mug in the paper.
Detroit was really the place where things were happening. The city was the gatekeeper for the importation of illegal booze from Canada and there were so many speakeasies and private stills in the city that finding a drink in the Motor City was easier than finding a cab. In the pre-Syndicate days, everyone wanted to control Detroit — at the time a 20th century boomtown — but no single outsider was tough enough to establish much of a beachhead. Egan’s Rats out of St. Louis tried, Capone did too, but the local Italian and Jewish mobsters were too tough to back down. As a result, Capone forged an alliance with the Purple Gang who had managed to scramble their way to the top of Detroit’s underworld.
U.S. 131, which cuts the gut of Michigan from Traverse City to the state line with Indiana was the divider. Anything east of the highway was Purple Gang territory, while the west side belonged to Capone’s gang.
Vivian Welsh must have thought the bars he was shaking down wouldn’t have any place to turn. After all, he must have reasoned, they can’t go to the cops. What he didn’t realize was that he was muscling in on one of the Purples’ best rackets — extorting protection money from independent bootleggers and speakeasies.
Like Jake Lingle, the Chicago newshawk who was bumped off by the mob and whose story started out as a heroic reporter taking on the mob only to be revealed to be on the take, Welsh’s assassination on February 1, 1927 began as a tragic story of a good cop gunned down by evil mobsters. As the story unfolded, however, Welsh’s true colors began to show through.
Each of the three newspapers reported the story in their own fashion, with the staid Detroit Free Press noting in a one-column story that a police officer had been killed in a gang war-related shooting. The Detroit Times gave the story a bit more play, but the Hearst-owned Detroit Evening News screamed about the “thugs fleeing Welsh net” in an eight-column headline above the flag.
Welsh was shot nine times either in a car or shortly after he jumped out of a Chevrolet coupe. The papers differed in their descriptions (not to mention the spelling of Welsh’s last name). The initial reports expressed wonder at the senseless killing.
“Mrs. Welch (sic) said she knew no reason why her husband was murdered,” the Times reported the day of the slaying. “He had no enemies, she said…Inspector Thomas Creedon of the Bethune Station said Welch was one of the most conscientious officers in the precinct.”
But as the police extended a city-wide dragnet for the officer’s killers, the papers began hinting that something wasn’t quite right. “There are two angles to the investigation. In once instance, police are making a direct, determined search for those who killed Welsh,” the Times wrote the next day, finally getting the dead man’s name right. “The second angle has to do with the ‘shake down’ activities in which Welsh may have become entangled directly or indirectly.”
The first indication that the Purple Gang was involved in the killing came three days after the slaying when nine suspects picked up in the dragnet were released for lack of evidence and Abe Bernstein, leader of the Purple Gang was arrested. It turned out that Bernstein’s brother, Raymond, happened to own the car which Welsh was riding in when he died.
The police weren’t making it easy on the gangsters they were arresting. They were bringing them in on penny-ante charges like vagrancy, booking them under false names and shuttling them from precinct to precinct so their buddies couldn’t bail them out. As soon as they were forced to let the Purples go on writs of habeas corpus, the police would pop the gangsters and drag them back downtown.
The lawmen freely admitted to the press that they were harassing the racketeers. “Gangsters will be arrested and re-arrested as long as they stay in Detroit,” said Inspector Henry J. Garvin of the police homicide squad. “They will not run this town. We’ll have no gang rule here and we have are giving them a taste of their own medicine.”
Garvin was ultimately frustrated in his quest to find out who killed Vivian Welsh. He knew that Welsh and a partner, Max Wisman, a former cop fired for attempted extortion, had come up against the Purple Gang when they tried to get more money from a bootlegger they were blackmailing. Unfortunately for Welsh, the bootlegger turned to Abe and Ray Bernstein and the Purple Gang for help.
“(Welsh and Wisman) complained to the payoff man in this brewery they weren’t receiving enough and threatened arrest,” said Garvin’s partner, Inspector Fred Frahm. “It was then that the killers were called.
“He went to Wisman and Welsh and said: ‘I’m the head of the machine gun gang that’s protecting this joint. Who are you?’ An argument followed,” Frahm continued. “Wisman could tell us enough to clear up the matter but he has refused.”
The eponymous Wisman wisely kept his mouth shut when he saw what happened to Welsh and Garvin was ultimately forced to drop the charges and let Bernstein go.
Garvin would eventually see Ray Bernstein jailed on a first degree murder charge and would be shot by bootleggers himself (he survived), but the Welsh case formally remains unsolved almost 80 years later.
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In the 1920s, Detroit was really the city where the action was.