Henderson "Ben" Turpin
The first black Detroit police officer, Charles Wilson, was appointed in 1895. Shortly after, two more blacks were appointed to the department. One of those officers was George Carmichael. These men set the stage for Henderson "Ben" Turpin who was born a few years later in either 1898 or 1899. Originally from Kentucky, Turpin worked as a shoe shiner and train porter before joining the Detroit Police Department on August 1, 1927. For the next 25 years, he had a colorful career.
Many called Turpin "Mr. Ben" and he was well-known and respected. Some in Black Bottom loved him, while others despised him. Depending on who you talked to, he was either a brutal officer, who beat young black men who "sassed" him, or was a caring advocate for Detroit's black youths. To many in the black community, he was their policeman who would go out of his way to help law-abiding citizens. He once used a police paddy wagon to rescue several blacks who were trapped by an angry and violent white mob outside of a black theater.
Turpin carried two pearl-handled .45 caliber revolvers and wore a "bullet-proof vest" he fashioned out of two plates of heavy steel. His fellow officers remembered him as being fearless. There were hundreds of articles over the years covering cases and arrests that he made. In February of 1928, he was called a "city liquor sleuth, and in his sleuthing he out-Sherlocks Sherlock in disguises." In this case, Turpin claimed he had a hunch that a man was selling illegal liquor, and paid an ice delivery man one dollar to use his ice wagon. He then delivered the ice to the suspect and struck up a conversation with him. In the conversation, he told the suspect it was cold sitting on top of a few tons of ice and inquired if the suspect had something that could warm him up. The suspect said he had some moonshine that he would sell him for 15 cents. Turpin paid the man and then promptly arrested him.
The next month, Turpin shot a 35 year-old man in the right arm when he and other officers were raiding a blind pig in Black Bottom. The suspect tried to avoid arrest and was in a scuffle with officers when the shooting occurred. By August, Turpin was featured in another news story when a man he arrested for stealing his rain coat was sentenced to 30 days in jail. The story goes that when Turpin first arrested the suspect, he did not realize the suspect was wearing his stolen raincoat. When asked how he came about possessing the raincoat, the suspect stated he did not remember. Turpin then looked inside the coat and found his police badge. The suspect later admitted stealing the coat from a church pew where Turpin had been assigned for special duty on July 28th.
A year later, on August 2, 1929, Turpin was hailed as a hero for saving Mt. Zion Baptist church from a bomb plot. The church had been bombed the previous year. The church was in the middle of an Italian neighborhood and was sold to a black pastor in April of 1928. After it was sold, a group of Italians tried to buy it back and were unsuccessful. When the black congregation refused to sell the church, the pastor first received a threatening letter before the church was damaged by the first bombing. As a result, Turpin was assigned to guard the church, and on August 2nd, he found 15 sticks of dynamite placed in the entrance of the church. Turpin quickly grabbed the dynamite and took it outside where it was soaked with water to prevent its discharge. It was estimated that a blast from the dynamite would have destroyed a whole city block.
Former Mayor Coleman Young claimed Turpin had killed 20 men, but I was unable to find any evidence of that in the archival records. I did find that on October 15, 1929, Turpin shot and killed 37 year-old Louis "Kid" Bryant, a black ex-prizefighter and reputed body guard for a policy game banker. Bryant and Turpin were both in a drug store located at St. Antoine and Beacon. Turpin, working on the prohibition squad, in another one of his disguises, was dressed in old clothes. Bryant was talking to a woman and was drunk. Bryant became upset when Turpin stared at him and an argument broke out. Turpin claimed Bryant threatened him, and he shot Bryant in self-defense. Witnesses claimed Turpin shot Bryant nine times without provocation. Bryant, who was in fact armed, had a permit to carry his weapon and never fired a round before dying. Some black residents, upset over what they felt was an unprovoked shooting, demanded Turpin be reassigned to another precinct. Turpin was charged by the prosecutor and put on trial for first degree murder a month later. Despite the prosecutor putting 40 witnesses on the stand that testified Turpin was not justified in killing Bryant, it took the jury just 20 minutes to find him not guilty. Their not guilty verdict was based on the eyewitness testimony of another officer who was in the street investigating a case when Bryant fell dead at his feet. This officer testified that Bryant had his revolver drawn, thus supporting Turpin's claim of self-defense.
In September of 1937, the Detroit Police Department formed a segregated squad of black detectives to work on black cases. The police department felt that black people would prefer discussing their problems with black officers. Turpin was placed on this special squad. Two years later, he was promoted to the rank of "Detective." One paper in discussing the promotion noted that it, "is a recognition of merit which is highly gratifying to local colored citizens." Turpin's promotion marked the first time a black officer had been promoted from the Hunt Street Station.
By 1944, Turpin was credited with being a fine detective who worked hard to prevent juvenile delinquency off duty. For example, Turpin took his own money and purchased baseball uniforms and equipment so that the neighborhood children could form a baseball team. The Turpins opened their home to Black Bottom's youths for supervised recreational game playing and reading. Over the years, Turpin took busloads of children to baseball games.
Like everyone else, former Mayor Coleman Young had mixed feelings about Turpin. Although he claimed he killed 20 people, he still saw Turpin as the model for a police officer. During a state of the city message in 1975, Young stated, "I remember a police officer called Ben Turpin. He was a patrolman, an old fashioned cop who walked the streets. He knew my mother and my grandmother and my whole family. He knew when every drunk came home late. He maintained order in that community." Turpin was Young's model for the kind of community-oriented police officer he wanted to see patrolling Detroit's neighborhoods.
On August 1, 1952, when Turpin retired, his health was failing due to diabetes. In a parting article about his retirement, a reporter wrote, "Henderson Turpin Retires. The big smiling east side detective known to the thousands of Detroiters as "Ben" Turpin has retired from the Detroit Police Department after serving over 25 years. Ben is about the last of the old school of policemen. He took his police work very seriously. He worked night and day in the thankless struggle against crime. Eastside hoodlums feared him and the little children loved him. For a number of years, Ben sponsored a baseball team as his contribution against juvenile delinquency. He spent all he could earn and borrow and purchased a bus to haul his team about the state. He even maintained a recreation room in his home where the youngsters could come and eat fried chicken and ice cream and soda pop. Believe it or not, Ben liked ice cream himself. His greatest pleasure was going to the movies. He never drank whiskey or smoked. Few people knew the real Ben Turpin. All they saw was the burly serious lookin two-gun detective going about his work and doing the best way he knew how. But underneath that big front was a heart of gold and a big smile that could melt you down to any degree. Those who knew Ben respected him for above all, he was a policeman through and through." It was for his work with Detroit's juveniles that he is featured as "unsung."
After he retired from Detroit Police Department, he continued to work as a hotel detective before dying in 1962 of a blood clot in his brain. Prior to his death, he had to have both legs amputated. Shortly after his death, his widow, Margaret, tried to sell his homemade bullet-proof vest for $100. No one wanted to buy it, and a few years later, when police officials wanted to display the vest in a police museum, they learned it and both of his pearl-handled .45s had been stolen.
Henderson "Ben" Turpin wearing his homemade bullet proof vest under his shirt.
May 20, 1939 - Detective Turpin is with Robert Willis who found three jars containing $821.25 in a Black Bottom neighborhood.
Chicago Defender - Detroit Policeman Held for Death of 'Kid' Bryant. November 23, 1929 - page 2.
Detroit Free Press - Acquits Officer in Slaying Case. November 30, 1929 - page 4.
Detroit Free Press - Highlights of the Struggle. February 24, 1999 - page 8B.
Detroit Free Press - Ice Man Puts Rum Suspect in Dry Cooler. February 12, 1928 - page 5.
Detroit Free Press - Mayor's Job is a Tough One, Young Learns in First Year. January 27, 1975 - page 8A.
Detroit Free Press - Officer Who Slew Pug Faces Trial. November 15, 1929 - page 4.
Detroit Free Press - Steals Officer's Raincoat; 30 Days. August 1, 1928 - page 15.
Detroit Free Press - Tough Mr. Ben earned respect based on fear. December 7, 1980 - page 12A.
The Detroit Tribune - Colored Detectives in Special Squad. September 11, 1937 - page 1.
The Detroit Tribune - Jumpin' Jive. December 30, 1944 - page 13.
The Detroit Tribune - Turpin, Pitts Get Promotions. January 28, 1939 - page1, 4, & 10.
The Detroit Tribune - Uly Boykin's Digest. June 28, 1952 - page 7.
The Grand Rapids Press - Saves Detroit Officer. November 30, 1929 - page 11.
The Muskegon Chronicle - Officer Foils Bomb Plot at Negro Church. August 2, 1929 - page 13.