Michigan has many legends involving witches – there’s Garden City’s wiccan expert Gundella, the Ada Witch who haunts Findley Cemetery wearing white and Allegan County’s wandering witch, who brought a mysterious illness to a quiet village in the 1880s before disappearing.
It should be no surprise Detroit has its own witch story. But her witchy nickname was something of a misnomer, and her story is one that hasn’t fully been known until recently. Her name was Rose Veres, and she was better known to the residents of Detroit’s Delray neighborhood as “The Witch of Delray.”
I spent two years researching “The Witch of Delray,” looking to the murder mystery that turned this Hungarian immigrant into a household name in 1931. That is when Rose Veres and her son, Bill, were accused of murdering their boardinghouse roomer on a hot August morning. According to witnesses, Steve Mak was thrown from a second-story window to the ground below. He died of his injuries at Detroit’s Receiving Hospital, alone and largely forgotten.
The city watched in fascination as the “Witch of Delray” went on trial for his death. Several questions have always hung over this case: Did Rose Veres push her roomer out of an attic window to his eventual death? Or did she receive an unfair trial that resulted in her spending 14 years in jail for a crime she always said she did not commit?
That was the question I set out to answer in “The Witch of Delray,” a book I wrote for The History Press. It was a crazy story – full of twists and turns, murder and surprise, political scandal and legal thrills. It introduced me to some of Detroit’s biggest personalities: Prosecutor Duncan C. McCrea. Attorney George M. Stutz, a legend in the Jewish community. Brash yet benevolent Judge Edward Jeffries Sr. And, my favorite among them, a crusading female attorney named Alean B. Clutts, one of the Penobscot Building’s most famous tenants.
All of their stories came together in this one book. It all started when a friend of mine heard about a cemetery tour that takes place at Woodmere, the epic Detroit burial ground where Rose Veres is buried. Rose is on the tour as a suspected serial killer. My friend, hearing those words, contacted me and said: “Here’s your next book. Did you know there was a female serial killer in Detroit?”
It seemed hard to believe – women aren’t typically serial killers, and Rose seemed an unlikely candidate for such a title. She was a petite, 50something immigrant who was barely making ends meet. She wasn’t the most popular woman in her Delray neighborhood – I suspect they found her a bit troublesome before giving her the nickname of “The Witch.”
Some believed she cursed them with her evil eye, causing all of the neighborhood’s troubles – and there were a lot of troubles in Detroit during the Great Depression. On the surface, it looked like Rose enjoyed a good life with regular roomers in her boardinghouse and their insurance money when they died. Neighbors began to believe she took out extra insurance on those roomers, using the funds to benefit herself and her three sons.
A jury believed these neighbors, and they found her and Bill guilty of killing Steve Mak. Bill went to Jackson prison; Rose went to the Detroit House of Corrections. They sat there for more than a decade until Detroit’s biggest political scandal broke – sending the city’s mayor, chief lawyer and dozens of police officers to prison themselves. Thanks to the intersession of the city’s disgraced Prosecutor, Rose and Bill both got new trials, and they were found not guilty in 1944 and 1945, respectively.
The story of “The Witch of Delray” is a very Detroit one. The Delray neighborhood changed after Rose’s trial – people started moving out, the city changed its zoning and more factories moved in. Delray is now a shadow of itself, and the addition of a new international bridge is forcing many of its longtime residents to leave the neighborhood they love. It is tragic to see how the beautiful place Rose and Bill called home has changed, and it reflects how this case tore a neighborhood apart.
It also is a look at how Detroit looked its immigrant population. At a time when people were flocking to Detroit from the South and from many parts of Europe to escape religious and political persecution, the city struggled to find adequate housing and representation for these newcomers. Officials also expected immigrants to assimilate, blending into America’s “melting pot” without acknowledging how their diversity could be an asset to the city, state and nation in many ways.
Most of all, the book is a story about how the legal system affects all of us, for good and for ill. In an age when wrongful convictions are across the news and immigration issues are making headlines on a daily basis, the story of Rose and Bill Veres has never been so relevant.
It is a story I am proud to tell, and one that I hope you will want to read.
Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer and author of two other local history books: “The Ford-Wyoming Drive-In: Cars, Candy and Canoodling in the Motor City” and “Better Made in Michigan: The Salty Story of Detroit’s Best Chip.”