Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Witch of Delray


To say that Rose Veres was not revered in the small Hungarian enclave of Delray on Detroit's south side in the 1930s would be an understatement. The fact that she was considered a witch by her neighbors on Medina Street was less a testament to her affability than her disregard for human souls. Not that she wasn't eager to help her fellow man--taking many of the area downtrodden into her house as boarders--but that her motives were spun from animus and self-serving greed cancelled out any exhibited perception of goodwill. So when she was arrested for the murder of Steve Mak, a tenant in her "house of funerals", who was reported to have accidentally fallen while doing home repairs, witnesses came forward in droves to accuse her of much worse than simple manslaughter.

Detroit of the 1930s was a cauldron of mass immigration (black migration included), industrial bloom in wilt and riches to rags stories. With the Depression in its early churning and unemployment skyrocketing the working man was sent into a spiral of hopeless searching for unattainable answers. As was the norm in many immigrant neighborhoods already, boarding tenants in extra rooms was one of the ways to sustain financial stability on the home front as jobless men and lower wage earners flocked to ramshackle rooms in unkempt boarding houses. Mrs. Veres's home was one such dosshouse in the grimy industrial part of the city.

Rose Veres had first come to the Detroit Police Department's attention in 1925 when two boarders died of acute alcohol poisoning. She was questioned, arrested for suspicion of murder and then released without charges being filed due to insufficient evidence. Two years later her husband, Gabor Veres, and a tenant named John Toth (another source states his name as Louis) died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Also contributing to her malfeasance was the fact that the neighbors were terrified of the so-called witch and refused to testify against her, "We are afraid to catch her eye. She can make our children sick and our husbands lose their jobs. She knows all kinds of magic." So that when it came time to give depositions the Hungarians would cringe and proclaim in feigned ignorance, "I don't verstek" or "me no talk." However, with the changing demographics of the neighborhood--five black families had settled there--her luck was about to expire.

On August 25, 1931, Steve Mak 68, fell off a ladder while working near the 3rd floor attic window. A witness named George Halasz claimed that Mak was pushed by a "pair of arms" and then moments later Veres peered from the window. The incident had followed loud quarreling from the attic area Halasz added. Furthering the claim was the testimony of a "negro" named John Walker who claimed to have also seen the fall. He told police that Veres had admitted to killing Mak but under completely different circumstances than were first suspected. Walker said that Veres, her son William and another tenant had beaten and poisoned Mak and when he failed to succumb to death they tossed him from the attic window, where a ladder had been stationed outside to dress up the appearance of an accidental fall. Giving credence to Walker's claims were medical examiner's finds of skull fractures which pointed to multiple injuries not consistent with trauma from a simple fall as well as the discovery of a blood-stained gas pipe found in the cellar of the home. Walker added that Veres had promised him $500 if he kept quiet about the incident.

The other black families living in the neighborhood also gave depositions as did a little girl named Marie Chevalia. She lived directly across the street from the Veres home and on the morning of the incident she sat making mud pies in her front yard. She had heard stories about the witch prowling the alleys in the middle of the night in long flowing garments and a cape, in search of "victims." So when Veres appeared at the front door and descended down the steps she commanded the 11-year-old's full attention. Marie recalled that Veres had stopped to give instructions to John Walker, a tenant at her house of horrors as well as a handyman, who was watering the lawn to cease his operation. He did so, retiring to the basement to switch off the spigot.

Detroit Free Press, August 27, 1931 (enlarge)
It was then that Veres placed a ladder against the window where Mak would begin his sojourn towards death. Soon he ambled from the house carrying a small box of nails and a hammer. He shakily ascended the ladder and when reaching the window, opened it and sat on the sill for a moment. A minute or so later George Halasz appeared at the house calling on another boarder named Mike Ladd. With no reply seemingly forthcoming, he leaned against a tree and began rolling a smoke. John Walker was also returning to the scene nearly simultaneously. As he approached the area where Mak was sitting suddenly the box of nails, followed shortly thereafter by the hammer, thudded to the ground. Walker drew his hands upward to cover himself, stepped back and then glanced towards the window and witnessed Mak hurtling to the ground where he lay mortally wounded but still alive. Walker immediately scampered to the back of the house to gather Veres, Halasz stared dumbfounded at the spectacle before him and Marie Chevalia ran screaming into her home.
The piercing screams of the little girl aroused the neighbors and a crowd began to assemble. The clanging sound of the approaching ambulance's gong stirred in the din of voices. Mak was whisked off to Receiving Hospital and Veres gave her report to the unsuspecting officers who had no reason to suspect foul play at the time since the legends of Medina Street were largely a self-confined phenomenon. Eventually though, the talk turned to foul play as the witnesses came forward en masse and Veres was arrested.

Detroit Free Press, October 28, 1931
Tight-lipped, the shrunken woman was nearly mute during her long interrogation, claiming that she didn't speak English, although when confronted with a witness against her she was reported to have said, "You keep your mouth shut." As the evidence mounted against her the stoic widow maintained that the death of Mak was an accident. The investigators even believed that the witchy woman, known to cast the evil eye and dispersions at neighbors, was trying to affect a hypnotic influence over them as she stared steadily at her interrogators while pointing her finger in a strange manner. Two of her sons, William, 18, and Gabor were also interrogated along with two former boarders Steve Gecse and Sam Denyen, with William ultimately being charged alongside his mother.

Finally, on August 31, nearly a week after the accident and countless hours of grilling, Veres broke down and admitted to pushing Mak from the window, claiming that she was hard up for money. As police would uncover in their investigation of Steve Mak's death, she had a slew of husbands and just as many insurance policies with herself as the beneficiary. The early estimates were in excess of 50 policies (court testimony would state 75) approaching $70,000 total with most naming her as the beneficiary. The investigation turned up a total of 12 suspicious deaths including Mak. The Daily News of Huntingdon, PA listed the victims as:

John Toth, carbon monoxide poisoning
Steve Fiasch, alcoholism
John Kolachi, intestinal ailment
Gabor Veres, carbon monoxide poisoning
John Norvay, undetermined
Louis Kulacs, undetermined
Alex Porczios, undetermined
John Skrivan, supposed hanging
Steve Sevastian, supposed alcoholism
(this finely researched blog states different names and gives some brief biographical information on the men along with a detailed genealogy of Rose Veres, as well as further evidence that there might be more victims, including Veres's own children.)

Added to the list after the extradition and interrogation of former tenant Sam Denyen from West Virginia, was the name of John Coccardi, who was named in letters by Denyen to have died under mysterious circumstances shortly after he moved from the Veres home.

After a short trial the following October, Veres and her son William were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, Rose at the Detroit House of Corrections and William at Jackson State Prison. In December of 1945, after many denied requests for a re-trial, Rose Veres was retried and exonerated of the murder. She fainted upon hearing the verdict.

Detroit Free Press, October 15, 1931

FURTHER READING


1931

Hurled Man To His Death; The San Jose News, August 25, 1931

To Exhume Bodies Of Nine Believed Murder Victims; The Grape Belt, August 25, 1931

Woman Is Held As Blurbeard; The Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, August 25, 1931

Woman Killed For Insurance, Is Allegation; The San Jose News, August 25, 1931

Detroit Woman Held In Mystery Deaths Of 10 Men; The North Tonawanda Evening News, August 26, 1931

Say Man's Fall Not Accidental; The Spokane Daily Chronicle, August 26, 1931

May Exhume Bodies To Reveal Murder Plot; The Indiana Evening Gazette, August 27, 1931

Police To Probe Deaths Of Nine; The Daily Times, August 27, 1931

Spectre Of 9 Strange Deaths Stalk Woman; The Daily News, August 27, 1931

May Exhume Nine Men's Bodies To Determine Deaths; The Daily News, August 28, 1931

Woman Says She Killed One Man; The Greensburg Daily Tribune, August 28, 1931

Witness May Help Clear Up Mystery Of Twelve Deaths; The Owosso Argus-Press, August 29, 1931

Alleged Witch Admits Killing Aged Roomer; The Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, August 30, 1931

Deroit Free Press, October 1, 1931
Mystery Deaths Of 12 Men Under Probe; The Montana Standard, August 30, 1931

Detroit Woman Admits Killing One of 12 Men To Collect Insurance; The Southeast Missourian, August 31, 1931

Killed Mak, Says; The North Tonawanda Evening News, August 31, 1931

Mrs. Veres Confessed To Killing Roomer; The Constitution-Tribune, August 31, 1931

Pushed Victim Out The Window; The Nevada Daily Mail, August 31, 1931

'Witch' Held; The Oelwein Daily Register, August 31, 1931

Confesses; The Washington Reporter, September 2, 1931

Widow Quizzed In 10 Deaths; The Newburgh News, September 2, 1931

Detroit 'Witch' Held In Deaths; The Daily News, September 3, 1931

Says 'Pair Of Arms' Shoved Steve Mak In Fall To Death; The Ludington Daily News, September 3, 1931

'Witch,' Son Facing Life For Murder; The Pittsburgh Press, October 6, 1931

Woman And Her Son Are Convicted Of Murder Of Roomer; The Niagara Falls Gazette, October 6, 1931

Life Sentences For Detroit Mother, Son; The Lewiston Daily Sun, October 15, 1931

Mrs. Veres And Son Sentenced To Life; The Ludington Daily News, October 15, 1931


1945

Detroit Free Press, September 16, 1944

Acquittal Follows 13 Years In Prison; The Pittsburgh Press, December 11, 1945

'Witch' Acquitted; The Middlesboro Daily News, December 17, 1945

Deroit Free Press, December 5, 1945 (enlarge)
There's also an excellent newspaper article from 1932 and a write up posted on this blog.

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