Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. If only that were true for so many women throughout history: women accused of crimes they didn’t commit, women whose eccentric ways fomented suspicion and unease, women whose credibility was undermined. Women who were simply never believed.
Women like Rose Veres, the Witch of Delray. Or should we say “Witch”?
Detroit & The Depression
1930s Detroit. The nation barely recovering from the Great Depression, a burgeoning industrial city attracting new labor in the automobile plants, its neighborhoods expanding with working-class and immigrant communities. A wretched mayor, one of the city’s worst ever. Polish, German, Russian, and Hungarian, whose new arrivals speak a language unlike any other in the area, and cultural assimilation in to American life was fraught with difficulty.
So when a man falls from a ladder outside a house in 1931, and his landlady doesn’t speak any English, and she has a reputation for looking a little strange—even, perhaps, of exerting an unnatural influence on people—it doesn’t take long before the industrial Midwest starts to look like Salem, Massachusetts. In her book The Witch of Delray: Rose Veres & Detroit’s Infamous 1930s Murder Mystery, author Karen Dybis tells the story of how misunderstanding, suspicion, and paranoia led not just to Veres’ conviction for murder, but the decades-long saga of her family’s search for justice.
When Rose Veres—born Rozalia Sebestyen in Hungary in 1877—was convicted for murder, along with her son Bill who was named as a co-conspirator, the case seemed cut-and-dried. Based on paperwork police found at her house (a boardinghouse frequented by local auto workers), it seemed she had cooked up a tidy life insurance scam, paying the premiums for impoverished boarders who then had a habit of mysteriously dying—and whose payouts went directly to Veres.
Learn how one woman’s suicide note came to topple Detroit’s government.
Railroaded through the Detroit justice system by overzealous prosecutors, the Vereses, barely able to mount a defense, hardly stood a chance. But following their conviction, Dybis writes, Rose and Bill experienced a startling turn of events. One of the very district prosecutors who had fought so hard to lock them up, Duncan McCrea, had fallen from grace himself—caught up in a citywide graft, protection, and corruption scandal that would topple even Detroit’s mayor—and ended up at Jackson State Penitentiary as an inmate. In the same prison yard as Bill.
We’ve looked before at what happens when the justice system fails, or when corruption reaches the halls of law enforcement and the courts. Though history does not record the depth of their conversations, Dybis writes that Bill, who had always maintained his and his mother’s innocence, was able to engage McCrea enough that he could learn what he needed about the prosecutorial misconduct from years past: conflating witnesses with alleged accomplices, submitting unreliable testimony, and more. With the help of one of Michigan’s shrewdest attorneys—Alean B. Clutts, herself a trailblazer in women’s history—in 1944 Bill was able to obtain not just a new trial, but a dismissal of the charges brought against him.
Clutts’ work to free Rose would take longer, and much of it would hinge on overturning suspicions of her poor command of English. Sadly, it wasn’t sticks and stones, but words that had hurt her: first mocked as an eccentric, then maligned as an outcast and a witch, Veres had suffered repeatedly both before and during her incarceration. Even as she sought to undo this damage to Veres’ reputation, Clutts aggressively investigated the mishandling of the original case, uncovering layer after layer of inconsistencies, and culminating in her bombshell discovery: that the court had violated its own procedures by failing to have the judge present when the verdict was read. And with that one fact, fourteen years after her original conviction, Veres was granted a new trial.
To Be Continued…
What happened after that? Dybis has the full account, which we won’t spoil here. But for anyone interested in the intersection of women’s history, the power of the law, and a fight for the truth that spans generations, we can’t recommend The Witch of Delray highly enough. Though so much of the struggle of the story arises from clear injustices, it’s a riveting account of how justice can—and does—prevail.
Until then, our only regret here at Crime Capsule is that no one saw fit to turn Duncan McCrea into a newt.
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