Friday, August 9, 2013

Michigan in Radio History Part IV: The death of a crusading broadcaster

If you think political campaigns are nasty today, this story might make you think again. On July 23, 1930, Detroit radio broadcaster Gerald "Jerry" Buckley was murdered for reasons that are officially unknown, but that many suspect relate to Buckley's successful effort to oust Detroit's mayor from office.

Jerry Buckley

Buckley had previously used the airwaves to champion various humanitarian causes, but hit his stride after the 1929 mayoral campaign, during which candidate Charles Bowles gained the support of voters by running on a "dry" platform (meaning he supported the restriction of alcohol). When Bowles won the race and became mayor on January 14, 1930, he immediately broke his promise and turned a blind eye to the speakeasies and gambling dens that covered Detroit despite the fact that the country was in the midst of Prohibition. Bowles also surrounded himself with similarly suspect cronies, including Joseph Gillespie, who was appointed commissioner of public works even though he had previously been ousted from his position as police commissioner because of the fact that, under Gillespie's tenure, vice in Detroit was the worst the city had ever seen.

Charles Bowles
Under Bowles' leadership, city officials who didn't toe the unspoken "pro-vice" line met predictable fates. Harold Emmons, police commissioner under Bowles, grew tired of the beating Detroit's law enforcement took in the media because of his boss's laissez-faire attitude toward booze, so he orchestrated a raid of the city's gambling dens while Bowles was out of town. Bowles' response upon his return was not to congratulate Emmons on his attempt to uphold law and order, but to remove the lawman from his position as commissioner.

Detroit seemed to be embroiled in enough corruption to keep Buckley on the air for a lifetime. The radio man knew what his next steps would be. He used his program to advocate a recall election that would oust Bowles from office. Not surprisingly, this effort earned Buckley few fans among Bowles and his associates, some of whom included gangsters and members of the Ku Klux Klan. However, it found a welcome ear among Detroit residents, who, during the July 22 recall election, voted out Bowles from office, slightly more than six months after he had assumed it.

Buckley broadcast the election returns at about 11:30 that night from his studio at the LaSalle Hotel, then went to dinner with his secretary. Upon his return to the LaSalle, where he kept a room, Buckley bought a newspaper and settled into the lobby to wait for a woman who had phoned him with a potential lead.

At about 1:40 the morning of July 23, the LaSalle's door opened, but a woman didn't enter. Instead, three men strode into the lobby, one of whom stood near the door, and two of whom approached Buckley. The latter men pulled out guns and fired eleven shots into Buckley's chest, killing him instantly. The men left as quickly as they had entered.
The LaSalle Hotel, Woodward Avenue and Adelaide Street in Detroit

Detroiters were aghast at Buckley's murder, and immediately pressed for answers. Police commissioner Thomas C. Wilcox painted Buckley as a hypocrite, a crusader who railed against corruption while himself associating with underworld types. Wilcox produced an affidavit signed by a bootlegger who claimed that Buckley had extorted "protection" money from him. Wilcox theorized that Buckley's alleged connections to seedy types led to his demise. That theory lost some water when investigators discovered that Wilcox obtained his affidavit under false pretenses, and that the man who had signed the document could neither read nor speak English.

Wilcox's theory may have contained an element of truth, however, despite the bumbling way he presented it. After Buckley's death, newspapers printed stories about the radio man's alleged underworld dealings, which involved extorting money from racketeers who didn't want their activities mentioned on Buckley's show. Buckley's brother, Paul, a former assistant prosecutor, countered by insisting that Buckley's death stemmed from his involvement in the recall effort, and was likely committed by the former mayor's underworld connections.

Though several seedy types were arrested for their alleged roles in the Buckley murder, no one was ever convicted of the crime. However, Buckley's death did establish one firm fact: he was beloved by his fellow Detroiters, more than 100,000 of whom attended his funeral. Buckley's death also incited a massive cleanup of the speakeasies and gambling dens that the radio man had railed against--and that Bowles had ignored--for so many months before the recall.

The LaSalle Hotel no longer stands, having undergone a series of name changes before being demolished in 1996 to make way for a condominium complex. However, those who are so inclined can pay their respects to Buckley by visiting his grave in Detroit's Mount Olivet Cemetery.

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