From 1949
(William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit)

An interesting story from Judge Avern Cohn led Mike Smith into the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit history for this week’s “Looking Back.”

Two weeks ago, I had a very interesting conversation with Judge Avern Cohn. To be sure, a chat with Judge Cohn is always interesting. This time, he told me a story that led me into the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit history for this week’s “Looking Back.”

The front page of the Nov. 10, 1949, issue of the Jewish Chronicle has a headline that reads: “He Was Innocent: 16-Year Nightmare Ends in Justice for ‘Murderer.’” It referred to a story about Jewish Detroiter Louis Gross, who had spent 16 years in prison for killing Mortado Abraham, a member of the Syrian community in Highland Park. He was convicted after a friend of Abraham falsely stated that Gross was hired by Abraham’s estranged wife to kill him in 1932.

Although no weapon could be located and evidence was flimsy at best, Gross was tried and convicted in 1933, largely on the witness testimony. He was sent to Michigan’s Jackson State Penitentiary, and subsequently, he was refused a retrial.

Gross was a classic “fall guy,” or falsely accused victim for a crime he did not commit, but his story did not end there. Three well-known people, two from Detroit, one from California, decided to investigate: Rabbi Joshua Sperka, Earl Stanley Gardner and the JN’s own Danny Raskin.

From 1982
Rabbi Sperka in the Jewish Chronicle William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit

Rabbi Sperka was a well-known local religious figure. Born in Poland, Sperka was a rabbi at Congregation B’nai David in Detroit. He had also served at Beth Tephilath Moses in Mt. Clemens and Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, and spent his last 24 years at Young Israel. Sperka was a prolific author and educator, and pertinent to this story, a chaplain at Jackson State prison.

Erle Stanley Gardner was a lawyer turned author, creator of the famous “Perry Mason” stories and, in the 1940s, one of the most famous writers in America. In 1948, he was working with the “Court of Last Resort,” sponsored by Argosy magazine, a famous pulp magazine, 1884-1978. The “Court” sponsored private investigations into the wrongly accused or “fall guys” from 1948 to 1958.

After deciding Gross had been “railroaded,” Rabbi Sperka wrote to Gardner about his case. Gardner then came to Detroit and the “Court” began an investigation. Ballistics testing and the resulting publicity in Argosy magazine led to a Detroit Times investigation.

Danny Raskin began to follow the case in his “Listening Post” columns in the JN. In short, Danny smelled something fishy. His Aug. 9, 1949, column laid out the specious nature of the case. Danny followed the case throughout the fall of 1949. Gross was retried and acquitted in November 1949.

From 1949
Danny Raskin’s “Listening Post” column. William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit

In 1952, Gardner published a book with the same title of the Agrosy’s initiative — Court of Last Resort. One chapter focused on the Gross case. The book and the “Court’s” investigations also led to a TV show of the same name.

There was another sidelight to the case. It was Gardner’s “first experience with a Jewish rabbi.” As he said in his book, Gardner found Sperka to be “a compact bundle of energy, functioning at high speed.”

So, thanks Judge Cohn for this great story. I suppose Danny Raskin might say: “Did I tell you the one about a rabbi, a judge and a writer …”

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.