The law is a crazy business: The story of Detroit’s ‘greatest fighting judge’

In today’s world, conservative pundits routinely deny racial profiling, defend “stop and frisk,” inveigh against “activist judges,” or declare the existence of a “war on cops.” But it’s really nothing new: Almost as long as there have been judges and constables, there have been complaints that they’d be better able to do their job if meddling social reformers and well-meaning liberals would stop “shackling the police.” It’s all part of an established perspective founded on the belief that there’s more justice in the end of a beat cop’s nightstick than in all the courts in the land. And it has its share of adherents.

You have to wonder what those folks would have to say about a man like Judge Edward J. Jeffries Sr., who served on the bench in Detroit for a third of a century. Chances are they’d revile him — that is, if you could get them to believe his record at all.

Though he’s little known today — his fame was eclipsed by that of his son, 1940s Detroit Mayor Edward J. Jeffries Jr. — the maverick judge was widely known in his heyday. When he died of a heart attack in 1939, his eventual obscurity was inconceivable: In an obituary, a Detroit newspaper predicted he would be “remembered as the city’s greatest fighting judge”

Physically, Judge Jeffries was a fierce-looking man. More than one writer noted his strong jaw, his piercing gaze and “beetling brows.” He was also a great public speaker who needed no amplification. Longtime Detroit newspaper editor Malcolm Bingay (more on him later) once said, “No man could bellow so loud in Detroit. … He knew every trick. One of these was slapping his hands together so that the repercussion sounded like an explosion. Nobody could ever sleep in a Jeffries audience. They called him the Knight of the Open Mouth … [and] used to discuss his vocal cords as a baseball expert might a pitcher’s arm.”

Politically, Jeffries was a vestige of the radical Midwestern American left around the turn of the last century, a cohort that ranged from businessmen-turned-reformers such as Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree to progressives like Wisconsin’s “Fighting” Bob La Follete and Toledo Mayor Samuel Milton "Golden Rule" Jones.

But if he’s recalled at all today, it’s often for one singular fact. As a commentator of his day put it: “He gloried in embarrassing police officers in the presentation of their evidence.”

Edward J. Jeffries was born in Detroit in 1864, son of John and Mary Jeffries, and he grew up in small-town Carleton, where his father was a horse doctor. His family seems to have had problems making ends meet. Luckily, young Jeffries had an appetite for work and study, learning the trade of a typesetter while laboring at a newspaper — all while still in public school. In 1885, he began studying law at the University of Michigan, working as a typesetter on his “vacations.”

In those years, typesetters were well-read, skilled workmen, the information workers of their day, and many of them were activists who helped unionize typesetting decades before other trades.

If Jeffries wasn’t swayed by these prevailing radical sensibilities, then he was very much cut from the same political cloth. After he was admitted to the Michigan Bar in 1889, Jeffries galloped out to the Pacific Northwest to work as a typesetter and union organizer. Five years later, in 1894, he became an officer in “Coxey’s Army,” a nationwide protest march on Washington, D.C., demanding the government use public works to create jobs during the dire financial depression of the 1890s. Jeffries organized a group of about 500 unemployed laborers and distressed farmers, and led them east across the continent.

Jeffries’ involvement with the protest odyssey would later be called “an episode in his life that he tried hard to forget,” and whatever disillusionment he may have experienced doesn’t appear on the record. But shortly after his Washington-bound contingent landed in Detroit, in a schooner anchored near the foot of Bates Street on July 21, 1894, Jeffries left the ship. Newspaperman Bingay wrote: “There was a local argument at campaign times as to whether Jeff fell off the boat or was pushed. His enemies said he was pushed, the defenders said he fell, and neutrals guessed he just jumped.”

Whatever the truth, the 30-year-old Jeffries stomped over to Campus Martius, mounted a soap box, and delivered a scorching denunciation of gold, trusts, the government, and the status quo. In those days, soap-box speaking didn’t carry the stigma it does today, and Jeffries had plenty of company in front of City Hall, including the early leaders of the Salvation Army, single-tax ranter Tom Bawden, and a trivia-whiz tramp named Railroad Jack.

But this energetic speaker rose to even greater heights than that august company. He was backed for alderman in 1902, and triumphed; on the basis of his fighting record in office, Jeffries won the post of police judge in 1907, and began running the “early sessions” of court, when most of the defendants came in on charges of public drunkenness, vagrancy, and petty crime. Based on his reading of the law, he began dispensing an unusual brand of justice — one that promptly drove many Detroit Police berserk.

For one thing, police were upset by the way Jeffries dismissed charges of vagrancy. One account at the time observed:

“Hoboes” had been treated pretty summarily under the previous regime, and when Jeffries commenced releasing tramps who were brought in by the police, there was a howl from many quarters, press, policemen, and citizens joining in the clamor. Fears were expressed that swarms of tramps and bums would start for Detroit the minute they heard of the situation, and great jubilation was reported among the floating population already here.

Cops “argued that they were doing just what they always had done, and that milk-and-water measures would never do if the town were to be kept free of riff-raff.”

But Jeffries held the police to a higher standard of law. He spoke to the press about one case in particular, which involved an elderly man, a pensioner and former soldier, who had walked to Detroit all the way from the county house at Eloise. “When he reached the city, he was tired and sat down on a curbstone to rest,” Jeffries said. “A policeman came along, arrested him and brought him before me at the early session next day, charged with vagrancy. I released him as soon as I heard the particulars. There was nothing to indicate that the man was a vagrant. Walking 20 miles and sitting down to rest doesn’t constitute vagrancy, to my mind.”

In fact, the judge began to demand police obtain warrants before arresting alleged vagrants, which made arresting the homeless almost impossible.

As Bingay later put it: “Every bum got a break.”

Also, many of the cases brought before Jeffries were of common people, often blacks, Italians, or other minorities, who’d been found to possess a weapon. Jeffries would often release them without a fine, angering the police. When an African-American was brought before him for going after somebody with “a pen-knife whose gentle proportions suggested that he might be looking for a grizzly bear,” he was released by Jeffries.

Another man charged with carrying concealed weapons had reportedly drawn a revolver and snapped the trigger three times at a fireman, the weapon failing to fire. When he was brought before Judge Jeffries, he was let go.

Before long, an ironic column appeared in a Detroit publication that portrayed Jeffries’ court in the style of a society column, with the judge seldom levying a fine or sentence. The pieces often made fun of minorities, especially blacks and Irish. Some typical items:

Fred Johnson, colored, was in a humorous mood last night, and drawing a jackknife of the dimensions of a meat cleaver, he invited another colored gentleman to come and have his head cut off. As this was not a pleasing prospect to the invited, he appealed to the police.
“We wasn’t fussin’, we was jus’ jokin’,” said Fred. He was given another chance.

Frank Allen was alleged to have gathered a brick that was hard all the way through and thoroughly baked. With this he proposed to reduce the police force by one, but the officer prevented him. Several residents of the neighborhood were present as witnesses to the amateur riot and some corroborated the officer. Frank denied the story in toto, and the judge told him to go home.

Katie Bushy, an Irish lady about four feet tall, was arrested for being drunk by a policeman well over six feet.
“Did she give you much trouble?” asked the court.
“Not much,” said the officer.
“Ever been here before?” asked the judge.
“Yis, sor. Oi’ve been here befure — siveril toimes,” replied the lady. She was let go on her promise to stay away for six months.

But while these cases gobbled up the limelight, any observer of Jeffries’ court could see he did dispense justice, levying fines and sentencing people to jail. Jeffries threw the proverbial book at Harlow Green, charged with cruelly beating his adopted daughter, Mabel, and leaving her bound and naked for two days. Green was sentenced to the limit, 90 days at the Detroit House of Corrections, not to be substituted by paying a fine. The record also shows Jeffries held Charles Sponenburgh, head of the police department signal service, on $1,000 bail for trial on a charge of disposing of city property in an illegal manner.

In fact, one suspects that it wasn’t so much the mercy he showed the poor and immigrants that raised ire as his habit of dealing summarily with the city’s high and mighty. In a review of Jeffries’ first few months as a police judge, Detroit Saturday Night offered a comment from a member of Detroit’s old guard, who opined: “‘Jeff’ would make a cracking good judge for some town out in Montana or Oklahoma, or of some semi-socialistic community, but in a city like Detroit, where all classes of society, up to the richest and bluest-blooded, are represented, I’m afraid he won’t do.”

Though Jeffries undoubtedly ruffled many of Detroit’s finer feathers, the way his rulings antagonized police were the main ammunition used against him. One of the things that incensed police was his habit of dismissing a weapons charge and demanding the defendant have his gun returned to him. According to a newspaper account, when a black man named Cromwell was let go after being found carrying a revolver, “Patrolman William A. Dean couldn’t withhold his disgust.”

“Now you don’t need to get mad,” Judge Jeffries said to Dean.
“Well, how can I help it?” Dean asked. “I found this man carrying a revolver and he ought to have been convicted. He had no right to be carrying a revolver, as he is not a watchman or police officer. I have had similar cases in court before and this is the first time I have been treated like this.”
“But you arrested this man without first learning whether he was a watchman or police officer.” the court shot back. “Therefore, he is discharged.”
“But I knew he wasn’t an officer or watchman,” suggested Dean.
“Makes no difference; you had no right to arrest him as you did,” the court declared.
Cromwell asked for the revolver and the court was about to hand it over to him when Dean stepped up and said:
“That gun belongs to me until the police commissioner says it shall be returned to the owner.”

A similar case ruled on by “Jeff” was retold by Bingay in one of his books. It’s a corker:

… a policeman saw a man lurking in the shadows of an alley around midnight. He went after him and was shot in the leg. After a struggle he downed the suspect and landed him in the cell block. Some weeks later he came limping into court to appear against the prisoner, another man with a long record.
“What right had you to suspect this man of anything?” demanded Jeff.
“He ran when he saw me coming.”
“Who wouldn’t run from you?” yelled Jeff. “Anybody would!”
“He was carrying a gun,” protested the policeman, “and he shot me.”
“You were chasing him, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but he had no license to carry a gun!”
“How did you know he had a gun when you chased him? This arrest is altogether illegal. The case is dismissed. Return the prisoner his gun.”

Before Jeffries had been at his perch for a year, the commissioner of the Detroit Police Department, sympathetic media, and a committee of prominent citizens were engaged in a campaign to denounce and discredit him, hoping to drive him from office. The campaign wasn’t above using racist overtones, as when this letter printed in a newspaper. It was titled: “The Policeman’s View”:

The amusing spectacle of that great exponent of law and order, Justice Jeffries, lecturing Patrolman Dean at an early session of the police court and setting forth to him what he, Jeffries, conceived to be the patrolman’s duty in the matter of arresting the Negro tough, Jim Nevels, single-handed, with 20 burly Negroes ready to pounce upon him the moment Nevels used the brick with which he was armed, is creating plenty of merriment among the officers, most of whom have but little use for Jeffries.
All are familiar with his “You can go this morning, Jim, but don’t let it happen again,” and they bring only the most aggravated cases before him, knowing that in nearly every case it means a discharge or suspended sentence and a curt look and scant courtesy for the arresting officer, and all resent any of his gratuitous advice as to what their procedure should be …

When Patrolman George H. Wilson was shot in the head twice while pursuing a gang of “Sicilian outlaws,” Police Commissioner Frederick W. Smith blamed Jeffries in The Detroit Journal, thundering that the shooting of Patrolman Wilson might have been avoided “if more severity were shown in the treatment of prisoners at the early session of the police court.” He complained to a newspaper about one Monday morning’s court docket:

The docket shows there were 70 cases before Justice Jeffries, and out of that number only four were fined. Sentence was suspended on the most of them after they had been found guilty. Some were discharged. That is a bad showing and the police department can never expect to accomplish anything in the way of preventing crimes, such as the shooting of Wilson, so long as this condition prevails.

In one newspaper, a dramatic “premonition” was attributed to Patrolman Wilson. It was alleged that, before he was fatally shot, he had said, “Some officer is going to be killed before this is over with. The town is overrun with gun men because Judge Jeffries won’t send them up. They do as they please and laugh in our faces. I’m going to try my cases on the corner with my club pretty soon if things don’t change. It’s got so all an officer gets for arresting a man is abuse. Trouble is going to come of it, mark my words.”

Jeffries said he had liked the slain cop, and alleged the “premonition” was a fabrication. He all but hollered: “The statement was a sneaking attack. The coward who stated it knew that, Wilson being dead, it could not be denied.”

In May 1908, friends of Commissioner Smith were prepared to make charges to Gov. Fred M. Warner demanding Jeffries’ removal.” He declared: “Jeffries’ course ever since he has been on the bench has tended toward demoralization of the department. … It is only human in the policemen, after they have been insulted by Justice Jeffries in court, to refuse to make further arrests, and when they find disturbers on their beats to beat them over the head with their clubs and order them off their beats.”

Jeffries blasted the campaign, saying, “It does not surprise me that these men who are driven to desperation threaten to remove me through their Republican political machine. It is altogether possible that I may be removed, but I assure you that, if I am, I shall run for re-election and place myself in the hands of the people for vindication.”

He growled: “They can talk all they want to. They will find me ready for them.”

Ultimately, it was the power of the ballot box that outgunned his opponents, early and often. Despite howls of protest, Detroiters would re-elect Jeffries for the rest of his life.

One morning, after Election Day, when it was clear that the embattled judge had easily won re-election despite the mudslinging and charges of a local newspaper, a freshly shaven, flawlessly tailored Jeffries walked into its editorial offices. He slowly walked to the rear of the newsroom, one hand behind his back, glaring all the while at editor Malcolm Bingay, who later wrote of the encounter:

When he finally reached my table, he made a sudden gesture. I was perfectly satisfied he had a gun. Instead, it was a lily, a beautiful white, fresh, calla lily. From the Turkish bath, he had stopped at Jim Hayes’ undertaking parlors and got it for me. He laid it very gently on the table as though resting it upon a grave. That done, he turned sharply and walked out again. He never said a word.

Such theatrical qualities served Jeffries well on the bench. His court was more than an office dispensing justice, it was a place where the dreary law crackled with life. People came just to watch the judge roar at people while slam-banging his glasses around, or to relish his quick, dry, and impolitic wit. (Hearing that a large amount of liquor seized as evidence had disappeared from a police precinct, he called it “A poor place to bring liquor.”)

In short, Jeffries’ court was grand theater, and it drew an avid audience. For instance, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy was just a boy, his father took him to Detroit to sit in Jeffries’ court and watch justice come to life. Jeffries’ courtroom antics even made TIME magazine. In 1932, a brief piece described what must have been one of the more outlandish scenes, even for Jeffries:

In Detroit, last week, one Wilbur Day was haled into court for carrying concealed weapons. He said he had no money to retain a lawyer.
“Never mind,” said Judge Edward J. Jeffries, “I’ll be your attorney. Prosecutor, call your witness!”
Thereupon Judge Jeffries removed his spectacles and stepped down from the bench. As Lawyer Jeffries, he examined the state’s witness, a policeman who said he had approached the defendant, searched him, found in his pocket a piece of pipe wrapped in newspaper.
“If it please the court,” Lawyer Jeffries addressed the vacant bench, “I move dismissal on grounds of illegal search and seizure.”
Then he hopped back up on the bench, put on his glasses again and as Judge Jeffries gave his ruling: “Counsel’s motion is granted. Case dismissed.” Lawyer Jeffries shook hands with Judge Jeffries.
As he left the courtroom, Wilbur Day was heard to remark: “The law sure is a crazy business.”

One writer said that, as a judge, Jeffries had a “deep tolerance for the minor sins of man” and “saw little point in jailing men for petty crimes.” But the powerful could expect a heavy sentence in his court for tendering a bribe or violating the public trust. If that seems unfair, Jeffries saw a society tilted against the poor, immigrants, and minorities, and did what he could to see they enjoyed a similar kind of mercy usually only obtained by the powerful.

For instance, in 1917, the Jewish families of Hastings Street built wooden shelters in their back yards to celebrate Sukkot for seven days. A gentile neighbor promptly complained about the fire hazard, and the matter was rushed before Jeffries. He reviewed the case and found against the Jews, ordering them to tear down the structures — in no fewer than 10 days.

If he had a predilection for mercy for ordinary people, it was because he felt that the business end of the justice system was always aimed squarely at them. He opposed onerous sentences, especially capital punishment. He said, “I do not minimize the crime of murder. But it is an institution. It’s been going on since the crack of dawn. If there were a policeman and a guillotine on every street corner there still would be murders.”

He called those demanding tougher punishments “reactionaries” who “want to legislate and lash at men,” adding, “Cheating, stealing and robbing have been going on in high places in our state. I never would accept any capital punishment law … until I had been convinced that it would be applicable to crime committed in the highest places, not simply at the poor and humble citizens without money or any chance of obtaining a fair deal.”

He once said: “People are to be regarded as regular and decent, that 95 percent are absolutely honest, regular and obedient to the law. … I do not believe in lashing to the mast 95 percent of the American people for the faults of 5 percent. I am in favor of the merciless prosecution of the criminal, but not at the expense of the liberties and constitutional rights of the law-abiding citizen.”

Some attributed Jeffries’ nature on the bench to his early days of privation and struggling, which gave him “a natural sympathy for the underdog, but never for the criminal.” Personally, Jeffries didn’t much care for the phrase “the battle of the underdog.” Years later, his old law school roommate, Recorder's Court Judge Paul E. Krause, said Jeffries had told him, “It is a battle, not of the underdog, but of people struggling for a little higher and better plane of life.”

And though he invited controversy, he seldom harbored ill will for those who opposed him. He said:

“I’ve been hammered for 20 years, and don’t mind it much. A man in public life must expect it. And criticism is a good thing for an official, too. A friend of mine said the other day, ‘Don’t you get angry at the daily papers for the way they attack you?’
“‘Why, no,’ I told him. ‘I am rather glad they do jump on me, because when a man knows somebody with great influence is watching his every move and hoping to see him make a misstep, he is going to be pretty careful. It keeps him always on guard against errors.’”

Voters may never have endorsed any of Jeffries’ bids for higher office — he ran for mayor, governor, and more — but they returned him to Recorder’s Court year after year. In the end, what did Jeffries in was simple mortality.

His last day in court saw light business. He heard a case of a youth charged with stealing a car. Since the prisoner had already spent 45 days in jail waiting on a Supreme Court ruling, Jeffries found him guilty and suspended sentence, permitting his immediate release.

Most of the morning, he had complained of not feeling well, and he called a recess at 11:30 a.m. and retired to his chambers to lie down. His last act in office was to lend a dollar to a poor, old man who was in trouble and came to him personally for help. He was finally persuaded by his staff to go home, and dropped dead of a heart attack in the elevator at Recorder’s Court Building at 12:45 p.m., midway between the courts and street level. He was 74 years old.

His funeral was held at the Hamilton Funeral Home at Alexandrine Street and Cass Avenue, where mourners filing past the flower-banked bier included not just the poor he had pardoned but the powerful he had pestered, including lawyers, businessmen and other civic leaders.

There is no statue commemorating the career of Jeffries. A bronze bust was made in his honor, and may still exist. But at least one tribute to Jeffries the Elder can be viewed by the public: It’s in the Jeffries Family Window, installed at Old Mariners’ Church in the 1950s. One section of the window depicts Abraham, patriarch of the Old Testament, amid the swords and scales of justice, entering the land of Canaan. You get the feeling “Old Jeff,” who once led an army of American workers as far as the promised land of Detroit in 1894, may have even appreciated the reference.

But perhaps the best monument to his memory is a ragged piece of newsprint in an old box at the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Collection, an obituary of him written by his old foes at The Detroit News. It ran right under the staff box, and offered grudging respect. Though the eulogy was just five scant paragraphs, it declared:

He delighted in bold forms of liberalism when conservatives seemed to be in majority. But by this unique policy he got what he asked for in politics, for his support cut across parties. He was his own party.

To read a full account of Jeffries’ career by Detroit newspaper editor Malcolm Bingay from his book Detroit is my Own Home Town, click here. Search for the chapter “He Fell in the River”.

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About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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