The Voodoo Murders...Well, Just One...And Voodoo Had Nothing To Do With It...
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An obscure, but strange and surprisingly important murder took place at 1429 Dubois on Sunday, November 20, 1932. Robert Harris stabbed James J. Smith to death...through the heart, with a silver dagger, after tying him to a makeshift altar. Upon his arrest, Harris stated that the murder had been a sacrificial rite. Not too surprisingly, the first thing the police did was to check his fingerprints against those found at the scene of the Benny Evangelist murders, but they didn't find a match. After being taken into custody, Harris declared he was the "King of Islam", and claimed he was planning to murder several other people, including Mayor Murphy.
One of the stranger aspects of this case emerges when comparing the coverage by two major papers at the time, the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press (the only daily papers remaining in Detroit today). It is almost as if the two papers were covering different cases, disagreeing in specific details (e.g. were Harris' children present for the sacrifice?), and more importantly in tone. The News covered the case as an admittedly odd murder case, while the Free Press went into full sensationalist mode, slapping the "voodooist" label onto the cult, and frequently used terms like "bizarre" and "jungle fanaticism" to describe the crime and the cult. In essence, the News treated the murder as the act of a single unhinged individual, and ignored many of the details as a result, while the Free Press made it out to be the opening outrage in a potential outpouring of violence from the cult, and played up (or perhaps even made up) details which supported that idea.
As an example, Harris' first visit to the court was more like something out of a Marx Brothers movie than CSI. According to the Detroit News, after pleading guilty, Harris had the following exchange with Judge Boyne:
"Take off your cap," Judge Boyne ordered.
Harris made no move to comply.
"I am king here," he said.
"Oh, no, you are not," said Judge Boyne, "I'm the king here."
"No, sir, I'm the king here and everywhere," said the prisoner.
The discussion was interrupted when a court officer removed the cap.
"Did you kill James J. Smith?" Judge Boyne asked.
"Yes, I did," said Harris, replacing the cap on his head.
The cap was removed again by the court officer.
"I did kill this man at 1429 Dubois street," Harris said.
"Why did you kill him?" Judge Boyne asked.
"It was crucifixion time," said Harris. "That's why I killed him."
"What did you kill him with?" asked the court.
"With the crucifixion," Harris said. "I said 'aliker alump,' and he fell dead. He died because it's a dumb civilization. But I gave my children a break, because I'm a lover of children. Well, I've got to go now."
at which point he started to leave, and when he was stopped by officers, began stuffing his pockets with rubber bands from the clerk's desk. This incident was barely mentioned by the Free Press; hard to rev up panic with a low-rent version of Chico and Groucho's "Tootsy Fruitsy" bit.
Still, the Free Press' response wasn't entirely unreasonable. At various points they drew quotes from the "bible of Islam", a document found in the main temple, and the quotes directly advocated murder and violence toward unbelievers. In addition, the membership roster indicated that there were approximately 8000 members; it had been established that a few members of the cult was mentally unstable, and given the understanding of mental illness at the time led people to think of it as communicable, concerns about an army of Harris clones might not have been out of line.
Now, the final joker in this hand is that Harris managed to drag a few other people under the police spotlight with him, including the founder of the church, one Wallace Farad, or as he is known today, W.D. Fard, founder of the Nation of Islam, of which Harris was a barely-tolerated member. According to accounts in both papers, Fard had been charging members to replace their given names with "Turkish" names, and even requiring that they get membership cards from a printing company for which he worked as a salesman. This may be a relatively uncharitable interpretation of a typical religious "offerings" arrangement, but the Catholic Church ran bigger scams in the Middle Ages, so who's to say?
In any case, Fard wound up spending time in the "psychopathic ward" of Receiving Hospital for observation, and while he was apparently judged not insane, this was clearly a contributing factor to his departure from Detroit for Chicago, where he completely disappeared in 1934. So, Harris' act of lunacy, which does not appear to have been entirely without basis in the cult's theology, led more or less directly to the schism which still characterizes the Black Muslim movement today. Lesson learned: keep nutjobs away from your emerging religion.
The Voodoo Murders could be used many ways, with the simplest being as a backdrop element in a period story which would put both the "Negro community" and the police on edge. It could be used in greater detail as the subject of a murder investigation, whatever narrative spin is put on the facts. Of course, one could assume that the Free Press' worst case interpretation was right, and give the story the full H.P. Lovecraft treatment, casting Fard as either a madman or a dupe whose flock got away from him. And of course, there's the old chestnut that Smith's murder was induced by time-travellers attempting to cripple the Nation of Islam, which by their 21st century had become a theocratic hegemon in North America.
You can read transcripts of the coverage by two major papers at the time on our Voodoo Murders Coverage page.