Detroit was full of stark contrasts in 1931. Political scandals, rumrunners and mobs lurked in the shadows of the city's soaring architecture and industrious population. As the Great Depression began to take hold, tensions grew, spilling over into the investigation of a mysterious murder at the boardinghouse of Hungarian immigrant Rose Veres. Amid accusations of witchcraft, Rose and her son Bill were convicted of the brutal killing and suspected in a dozen more. Their cries of innocence went unheededuntil one lawyer, determined to seek justice, took on the case. Author Karen Dybis follows the twists and turns of this shocking story, revealing the truth of Detroit's own Hex Woman.
About the Author
Karen Dybis, a former Detroit News reporter and longtime Metro Detroit freelance writer, is the author of The Ford-Wyoming Drive-In: Cars, Candy and Canoodling in the Motor City and Better Made in Michigan: The Salty Story of Detroit's Best Chip.
Read an Excerpt
Detective John Whitman's eyes narrowed against the August sun as he traced the body's fall to the Detroit dirt, imagining it ricocheting from the attic window to the neighbor's clapboard siding to its final resting place on the muddy ground.
Whitman took an inventory of the alley before him. Two rundown bungalows. An open window. A ladder leaning against one of the houses. Tools and a toolbox scattered in the wet soil.
It was clear that Steve Mak's body had hit the ground with force. An ambulance took Mak to Receiving Hospital, but Whitman would be surprised if the poor soul survived the night.
Whitman, conscious of his polished oxfords sinking into the turf, moved to the sidewalk. Nothing else seemed out of place in this typical Delray neighborhood, where each building was so close you could whisper in one room and someone next door would hear it.
He pulled a white handkerchief from his suit and swept the sweat from his broad forehead. The street was quiet — for now. That gave Whitman time to think.
Some in the homicide department might question why he brought the busy squad to what looked like a handyman's clumsy tumble. But the veteran lawman sensed this wasn't just another case. When the call came in, Whitman knew the Witch of Delray was at it again.
Someone, perhaps a neighbor, had been watching and waiting for this opportunity. A mysterious voice alerted police to another incident at 7894 Medina Street. How many deaths had there been? Seven? Ten? Whitman lost count.
Whitman scanned the approaching crowd. His gaze found Rose Veres, wearing a shapeless black dress and her customary knit cap. Her eyes met his, and he was once again struck by how their blue-gray color looked right through you. Some believed she had the power to hypnotize. Frightened neighbors gave Rose the nickname "The Witch of Delray," and it stuck.
In his seventeen years on the force, Whitman had worked some of Detroit's worst crimes. Domestic battles where lovers turned killers. Murderous arguments between territorial bootleggers. Gang warfare that left dozens dead. Whitman could walk away unaffected.
The cases that bothered him were the unsolved ones, like the Witch. Rumors about her had circulated in Delray for years. Neighbors claimed the Witch of Delray controlled the neighborhood, terrorizing men, women and children. Mak might be the latest victim, which meant Whitman had to secure the scene and fast.
Detroit Police had made their share of runs to the Veres boardinghouse over the years. Sometimes, it was to drag her sons home or to calm an angry drunk. More often, it was to handle a death. There always was an answer as to why man after man expired unexpectedly. Pneumonia, suicide, heart attack, alcoholism. Boarders walked in but left in pine boxes.
Rose and her husband, Gabor, had opened their home to boarders years before as a way to make ends meet. Men, eager for good-paying factory jobs, had flooded Detroit. Running a burdoshazak was honorable — if a man needed a bed and a family needed extra income, it makes sense to put him up. Going on the dole to pay your bills was shameful, even in Detroit's Great Depression.
The Witch had been arrested once in 1925 after two boarders died under suspicious circumstances. No evidence was found, and no accusation could stick. Apprehensive neighbors claimed they were too afraid of the Witch to speak against her. She left police headquarters a free woman.
Gabor died in 1927, leaving Rose to run the boardinghouse alone. One cold January night, Gabor had closed himself in the garage to fix the family car, hoping to save the family a few dollars. He had succumbed to monoxide poisoning along with one of his friends. Neighbors whispered it was no accident, suspecting Rose had silently shuttered the door.
As a widow, Rose wore black as she went about her daily chores. She was a mother with three mouths to feed, clothe and get to school when they weren't skipping it. She also was a business owner, getting up at 4:00 a.m. to get the men to work, washing clothes all day, fixing meals and cleaning until late at night.
Police kept tabs on Rose as well as her oldest son. Bill Veres, who had just turned eighteen, had been caught recently stealing from a neighborhood store. He was a skinny kid, standing only a few inches taller than his mother. He hovered around Rose like a dog, staying close to her elbow. Her other sons, ages fifteen and twelve, followed Bill's lead. Bill, being the man of the house, may know more than he would like to admit, Whitman thought. Bill might need an alibi, and Whitman knew the sooner the police separated the brothers from their mother, the better.
Whitman turned his eyes back to Rose's small bungalow. The question was how Mak, a well-known neighborhood figure, could end up face-first in the mud. Stepping carefully across the cracked pavement, Whitman knew the next step was rounding up witnesses. That was easier said than done — Delray wasn't the kind of neighborhood where people willingly talked to police.
People kept to themselves in Hunkytown, Detroit's nickname for the area and its huge Hungarian population. Located a few miles from the city center, Delray's riverfront location, salt mines and strong backs attracted factories and families of all kinds. It was a blue-collar neighborhood, the kind of place that worked hard and played harder.
Men rose early to work at Solvay, American Brass or Detroit Edison. They came home physically exhausted, only to do it all over again after a few hours' sleep. Women kept house, swept the walks, watched the children and managed to get food on the table. Weekends centered on the church or the synagogue, passing bottles of homemade wine and taking pleasure in small diversions.
Delray was their home away from home. They came from the Old Country, and they took comfort in living next to like-minded people. There was solidarity within their comfortable isolation. In Delray, no one cared if you spoke only your native language. You could make do.
But life was changing. Armenians, Poles, Italians and blacks were moving into Delray just as fast as the old families moved out. People who were Rose's trusted neighbors headed north of Fort Street, leaving the colony behind. Life was moving faster than a Ford assembly line. And, like Henry Ford, people wanted immigrants to assimilate: they had to learn English, dress like Americans and become part of the city's melting pot.
As news of Mak's fall spread, witnesses were clamoring to tell how Mak came crashing from on high, flailing as he fell like a flightless dodo. It wasn't natural, they said. They met in small groups, talking quietly among themselves while they waited on Whitman.
A respected supervisor on the detective's squad, Whitman's name came up frequently on the radio and in newspapers. The lieutenant's combination of common sense and intuition made him an asset to the force and to the local newspapers. With a voice like a grinding cement mixer, Whitman always had a minute for waiting reporters, giving them an insight or a witty phrase to please any demanding editor. For the public, his word became law. Seeing Whitman in his flattened hat squarely on his head raised the community's confidence in a city struggling with crime.
At this moment, however, Whitman held his hat in his hand, hoping for a cool breeze to pass through. He stepped into what little shade he could find. The warmth mixed with the horde outside the Witch's home didn't sit right with him. The potent chemistry of Medina Street, Mak's mysterious fall and suspicious murmurs made the air seem heavy. For a moment, Whitman indulged himself, closing his eyes to picture that same Sunday afternoon at home. His wife and daughter were likely in the garden. Maybe they were watering the flowers, tending to his gladiolas in this heat. How he longed to be with them.
His job pulled him away time and again. More than halfway through 1931, and Whitman felt like he still didn't have his bearings. How could you, when you patrolled a city of contrasts, pitting society's haves against the have-nots? The Crosstown Mob Wars had unleashed the Eastside and the Westside, leaving bodies in its wake. Auto barons hired and fired at will, dominating their workforces like an angry father swinging a belt. Factory layoffs put thousands of desperate men on the street. Illegal gambling was widespread. Despite Prohibition, drinking and importing alcohol was so rampant Detroit became known as Whiskeytown.
Whitman, happy for his job, felt the cold shame of hungry men. Relief agencies were pushed beyond their capacity. Everyone was worried. Full-page ads in the newspapers talked about life insurance as "a necessary form of protection. No man can afford to neglect it."
The police department was struggling as well. Detroit mayor Charles Bowles, already controversial for having the support of the Ku Klux Klan, had turned a blind eye to underworld killing sprees. "Perhaps it is just as well to let these [gangsters] kill each other off, if they are so minded," the mayor had said. Voters finally recalled Bowles, a relief to officers like Whitman who tried to keep their nose clean.
The bloodshed that tarnished his birthplace grieved Whitman, and he felt powerless to stop it. Whitman was raised in Detroit, the eighth of nine children born to German immigrants. He had wooed his wife, Carrie, while strolling Belle Isle and boating on the Detroit River. Together, they were raising her daughter Aurelia, now eleven years old and sweeter than a rose. He tried to shelter them from the city's sense of lawlessness.
In his years on the force, Whitman watched Detroit grow from a minor port to a metropolis. It was the fourth-largest city in the United States with a population topping 1.5 million. And it had the crime, corruption and disenfranchised population to show for it. It was a city of strangers; it seemed every other person was an immigrant with a family to feed. Racial tensions were growing with the influx of southern workers into neighborhoods like Delray, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Rather than fix the mess, the city's mayors were weak, beset by illness or greed, taking advantage of new investment to line their own pockets. The police were considered powerless, incompetent or corrupt. And the newspapers had grown fat off the public's interest in stories of self-indulgence and delinquency.
Enough was enough.
Did she do it? Did Rose Veres push Steve Mak in hopes of killing him? Why? Had Detroit, with its big factories, big personalities and big problems, become so depraved that human life meant nothing?
Whitman took off his suit coat and rolled up his sleeves. Time to get to work.CHAPTER 2
Whitman and his partner were the first to visit Mak at Receiving Hospital. Bruised and woozy, Mak looked every bit of his forty-seven years. Whitman noticed Mak's undershirt, sodden with sweat and filth, had taken on a pinkish hue as blood dripped from the cuts on his head. At five feet, three inches tall and 155 pounds, Mak was a fireplug, powerfully built from years of factory work. Yet drink and hard living had taken its toll.
Notebook out, Whitman ran through the usual questions. In broken English, Mak mumbled about having no job but looking for work. That didn't surprise Whitman; most of Detroit was unemployed. Whitman asked Mak where he lived, and Mak gave his address as Medina Street, saying he had a bed in the house of a widow lady named Rose Veres.
Rose had asked him to fix a window that morning. Even if he hadn't felt like it, Mak agreed to do it. He owed her money, and she got angry if you didn't help out around the house. Mak heaved a sigh as his massive head slumped, as if the weight of his injuries had caught up with him.
Whitman turned to his partner.
"Now we've got a lead," Whitman said. "Maybe we've got the Witch at last." It was the last time Whitman talked to Mak, a widower who came to the United States to make money to help his three daughters. Mak died on August 25, 1931, two days after his initial injuries. He was alone when he breathed his last; his children in Hungary learned of his death months later.
All he had left was life insurance. The policies came from one of the many door-to-door insurance agents who frequented Delray. When Mak couldn't afford to pay the bill in recent years, the policy's beneficiary always had a dime or two to help him.
The beneficiary? According to neighbors, it was Rose Veres.
The insurance policies had popped up unexpectedly. Whitman had taken advantage of those precious first hours, getting as much done at the Veres house as possible. When they got the go-ahead, police searched Rose's half of the duplex from top to bottom, getting the kind of access previous visits did not allow. The family's possessions, limited as they were, drew little attention until officers reached Rose's bedroom. There, a well-used trunk revealed neat piles of paperwork that appeared to be insurance policies and a notebook full of Rose's spidery handwriting. Whitman knew these papers needed a complete review, so off they went to headquarters.
Watching police carry out handfuls of correspondence looked interesting to the seasoned newspaper reporters now gathering at the scene. Delray turned up an ink-worthy story on a regular basis, so it had its share of informants. Hanging out at the bars and restaurants that dotted the area filled a reporter's stomach and his notebook as well. And a full notebook made for a happy editor. A few questions whispered to their favorite officer got the intended result: It seemed Rose Veres had insurance policies on the men who took up residence in her house. With as many as twelve deaths at that address alone, it meant the insurance money was flowing.
The Detroit Free Press shouted the sensational story. Its headline on August 26, 1931, had a typeface larger than the ones used to announce Charles Lindbergh crossing the ocean. In fact, word of the suspected slaying of Rose's lodger trumped updates on President Herbert Hoover, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. "Woman Held for Murder," the headline read. "10 Men Missing. Fate of 3 Husbands, Others in House to Be Probed." In an era when crime news dominated the front page, the idea that a female mass murderer might be lurking in Detroit likely sold many a three-cent newspaper.
Like ants on an anthill, Medina Street soon was covered with reporters. Vera Brown was the most dogged among them. Vera stood out with her sharp features and signature felt hat. Not content to write recipes or cover the social scene, the town's best-known sob sister had a knack for finding the big story of the day. Brown knew she had to move and talk faster than her fellow male reporters. Police and public officials gave her a wide berth, worried her dangling cigarette might burn them in more ways than one.
Brown had found a home at the Detroit Times, the city's fastest-growing newspaper due to the deep pockets of owner William Randolph Hearst. Because of Hearst's wire service, newspapers across the United States carried Brown's stories about the Witch of Delray on their front pages. People from Texas, Pennsylvania and Indiana saw her byline splashed across the newspaper and absorbed every word.
"Cold blue eyes, a deeply lined face, a silent tongue!" screamed Brown's first dispatch. "Mrs. Veres is known as the 'witch lady' by the neighbors who stand in groups on the sidewalks and in the street before the house where the police say Mrs. Veres pushed Steven Mak, her tenth alleged victim, out of an attic window to his death."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Witch of Delray"
Copyright © 2017 Karen Dybis.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Fall 9
2 The Arrest 18
3 The Confession 33
4 "How Could They Do It?" 43
5 Open Fire 56
6 No One Was Safe 67
7 A Gross Miscarriage of Justice 78
8 Another Day in Court 90
9 "No, I Didn't Kill Him" 104
10 Farewell Delray 112
About the Author 127