In 1932, according to an AP wire story which ran in several newspapers, including places as far afield as Sarasota, Florida and Spokane, Washington, Robert Harris, a negro and leader of a religious order with a membership of “about 100 negroes in Detroit” confessed to the brutal murder of James Smith, also a negro. Harris admitted that “he crushed Smith’s head with the rear axle of an automobile, then stabbed him through the heart.” Robert Harris apparently dragged Smith to “an improvised altar” in his home to finished him off.
Detroit in the late 1920s and early 1930s had a problem with religious cults.
Three years earlier, on a July 4th weekend, not far from where Harris killed Smith, Paul “Benny” Evangelista, known as a “Divine Prophet” was murdered along with his wife and four children. With an axe. Few axe murders are not gruesome, but this one was particularly so. The entire Evangelista family was hacked to pieces. The bodies in bedclothes. The divine prophet’s head was severed from his torso and placed on a chair in the family living room.
Also “cruelly hacked” was Santina, the prophet’s wife and Jeanne (eight years old) Angelia (nine) Margaret (ten) and the three-year old son Mario. One account puts Mario’s age at eighteen months. In addition to the prophet’s head, one of the girl’s arms was severed. Police suspected that wound was the result of a “miscalculated blow” intended for Santina’s neck, as it too had been hacked but the head was left hanging by a thread. Leaving the house on St. Aubin avenue, in the Italian district of depression era Detroit, the fiend and pervert left a bloody trail for police which went nowhere.
Benny was downstairs in pieces when found by a neighbor, real estate broker Vincent Elias. A friend of the family, just a day earlier Elias had completed arrangements for the purchase of a farm near Marine City, MI for the Evangelistas. Elias opened the unlocked door, saw the head and without looking further ran for the police. The children and wife were found by authorities upstairs.
In an understatement, Wayne county coroner James Burgess called the murder “an unusual case.”
A week later the entire family was wheeled down rain-slicked Woodward Avenue, parade-style, each in a coffin of appropriate size. The public funeral was an opportunity for police to look for the killer in the crowd, but to no avail.
A relative of the Evangelista family living in Coraopolis told police they must have been murdered by members of a “Black Hand” organization.
Benny was Benjamino Evangelista, a Neapolitan immigrant who claimed to be an herb doctor and faith healer. In other words, a criminal and fraud using religious superstition and jargon to steal. Like all “faith healers” he bilked rubes out of savings like a carnival barker, but his tools were voodoo, false claims of health, black magic and superstition rather than sideshow swindles. He overcharged desperate people for “love potions” and promises of cures. He provided “readings” for ten dollars. For these things, it appears, he and his entire family were sent to a violent and blood-sticky end. Benny pissed off a client with an axe.
Prior to being murdered, Evangelista wrote an enormous, self-published book of religious ravings based loosely on the bible. It took him 20 years. “The Oldest History of the World: Discovered by Occult Science” It is unreadable, useless and no one bought it. In the fictional account three prophets travel to “Afra” in order to “see what the colored people were doing…” but all they were doing was eating their food uncooked.
The book has been hand-typed from one of the few existing copies and digitally reproduced by the extraordinary Jarett Kobek. http://kobek.com/
Kobek is a brilliant scholar and is most certainly, despite the extraordinary story of Divine Prophet, himself a better story than the people and events he writes about. He also provides the most complete bibliography of period articles about the crime, and details such as the characters in the book existed also as puppets in a shrine in the Evangelista basement.
The gruesome crime was still unsolved three years later when the “rear axle murderer” above, Robert Harris confessed. Briefly, The police thought the crime solved. So did the press. “Confession by King of Weird Cult clears up Detroit Murder” read one headline, but it was not to be. Harris didn’t do it.
Neither did Angelo Depoli, arrested the day of the murder with a blood covered curved knife used for chopping bananas in his barn. A year later the family dog was still being sought as a witness. Detroit police were so desperate to solve the crime they tried to pin it on a man who escaped from a lunatic asylum and was presumed killed by a freight train two years BEFORE the crime. They didn’t have much, but they did have a pair of bloody fingerprints from the door latch. They were figured prominently in the bulletin from Superintendent of Police James Sprott along with the reward of one thousand dollars which was distributed far and wide to no avail.
The case is as cold as wind from Windsor blowing across the Detroit River in December.
by Jim Linderman
Jim Linderman uses photographs and ephemera from his personal collection to tell true stories. He is author of the Grammy-nominated book / CD Take Me to the Water and the forthcoming Heroes of Vintage Sleaze. His daily blogs are DULL TOOL DIM BULB, VINTAGE SLEAZE, and old-time-religion. He has also self-published a number of books which are available from Blurb.com.