WSU reporters and Duggan: the rest of the story

By Joel Thurtell

You would think from reading the August 18, 2015 Detroit Free Press article about two Wayne State University student reporters who were stonewalled by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s staff that the Free Press broke the story.

Thanks to Jack Lessenberry and Metro Times for noting the role of joelontheroad.

The story appeared here on May 22 – nearly three months before the Free Press published.

In my novel, CROSS PURPOSES, OR, IF NEWSPAPERS HAD COVERED THE CRUCIFIXION, a newshound opines that what newspapers refuse to print often is more interesting than what they publish.

I can’t explain why the Free Press chose not to report why WSU students Alexander Franzen and Timothy Carroll came to request records from the mayor. But I believe the story would have been more interesting if the newspaper had explained the background.

Why, for instance, did the students make two trips – May 12 and 14 – to the mayor’s office asking for the proposed Riverside Park land swap agreement between Duggan and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun?

Why, as the Free Press reported, did the student reporters not make their request for the agreement under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act instead of relying on a provision in the Michigan Penal Code few have heard of?

The student reporters were sent by me. I was their teacher. I am a retired Free Press reporter who has written extensively about Moroun since I left the paper eight years ago.

In May, I told the Free Press what happened to the WSU reporters. Later, I supplied their reporter the audio recording of the students’ encounter with Duggan’s staff that the Free Press published without attribution.

The Free Press noted that Duggan’s staffers told the reporters the agreement did not exist on paper and was merely “an idea.” The paper reported that the mayor’s staff lied to the students: the agreement did indeed exist and had been signed by the mayor. Those too were pieces of the story.

The Free Press chose not to explain why the students used the Penal Code instead of FOIA. And the paper didn’t mention that on May 22, the teacher – me — asked the Wayne County prosecutor to investigate this apparent violation of the Penal Code by Duggan’s staff and repeated the request on July 26. My request to the prosecutor contained a written request for an investigation written by the two reporters. The newspaper was aware that the prosecutor had declined to respond to my requests,but elected not to mention those facts. (There is still no response from the prosecutor.)

What was I thinking? Why did I send student reporters to Duggan’s office? Why use the Penal Code instead of FOIA?

Back in May, I was at Wayne State teaching a journalism class, Communications 5310. COM 5310 is unusual. Instead of having 15 weeks to study and produce, students have one week: eight-to-five Monday through Friday for 40 hours, plus five hours of homework equals 45 hours.

When your class is over in five days, May 11-15, the 15-day delay built into FOIA makes that law useless.

But there is the Michigan Penal Code. The Penal Code requires that public officials turn over records upon request during normal office hours. If the officials refuse to comply, they can be imprisoned for up to a year or fined $1,000.

The Penal Code — a disclosure law with teeth!

I have never encountered another journalist familiar with the penal code’s public record clause. But faced with five days to finish an investigation, it seemed worth trying.

When I agreed to teach COM 5310, I wondered what the class project should be. Whatever the topic, it needed to concern Wayne State or Detroit, and it needed to be compelling.

Then, on April 29, Mayor Duggan announced his land swap deal with Matty Moroun.

I first wrote about Riverside Park on September 22, 2008, when I reported Matty’s ambition of swapping land to acquire a piece of park he needs to build a replacement span for his Ambassador Bridge. Now here was Mike Duggan agreeing to make Matty’s dream real. The issue was controversial. It affects Detroit, the region and has international implications.

Thank you, Mike Duggan. We had our project.

I wrote in the COM 5310 syllabus:


This one-week intensive class will focus on techniques and tactics of investigative reporting. Part classroom, part newsroom, students will work on a real investigative project with local, state, national and international overtones.

Forty hours of class time multiplied by seven students is 280 hours of time that we can use to conduct an investigation. The focus of the course will be Mayor Duggan’s recent proposal to swap land from Detroit’s Riverside Park to Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun in return for nearby land owned by Moroun.

Now that we had our focus, how would we get records? In the syllabus, I continued:

In a five-day class, there is no time to file Freedom of information Act requests that allow government officials 15 days to respond. Instead, our tools will be the Michigan Constitution, which requires that officials disclose financial records on demand; and the Michigan Penal Code, which makes it a crime for public officials to refuse to disclose public records.

Given that the Penal Code was largely unknown to journalists, our use of that law would test a novel use of a little-known law meant to help citizens get access to public records.

This is how I explained the class in an email to the Free Press’s Joe Guillen:

I envisioned the class use of the Penal Code as an experiment that would run parallel to our investigation of the park agreement. What would happen if we requested information through the Penal Code rather than through FOIA? If this were truly an experiment, we could not confuse matters by using two request formats. We needed to stick to the Penal Code alone if we wanted uncontaminated results.

Had we filed FOIA requests while invoking the Penal Code, we might not know which technique led to success or failure. Moreover, FOIA would give officials an escape route away from the threat of criminal action contained in the Penal Code.

It appears that Duggan’s people are retroactively trying to use that escape hatch by saying that no FOIA request was made. My response: no FOIA request was necessary. The students made their request under a different law, the Penal Code.

The results so far of this experiment have been fascinating. We have detected Duggan’s staff blowing off student reporters with the lie that the documents did not exist. Now the officials say the students should have filed a FOIA request for what were claimed to be non-existent records.

The Penal Code is a law separate from the Freedom of Information Act. It does not mention written requests. It does not mention deadlines and reasons why officials might procrastinate or stonewall. It simply says, turn the records over upon request, or face criminal action.

So far, the prosecutor has ignored my request for her to investigate. Her behavior shows the weakness of the Penal Code as a tool for obtaining documents. While FOIA provides document requesters a way to challenge officials in court, the Penal Code provides only criminal sanctions and thus relies on the good will of a county prosecutor to challenge a denial.

I told Joe Guillen:

The experiment continues: Does a state law requiring immediate disclosure of public records with criminal penalties for refusal have any meaning?

Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)











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Waiting for Worthy

By Joel Thurtell

More than two months ago, I mailed a letter asking Kym Worthy, the Wayne County prosecuting attorney, to investigate Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office for refusing to disclose his deal with Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun for a land swap at the city’s Riverside Park.

Two students from a Wayne State University investigative reporting class taught by me in mid-May were twice told by staffers in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office that the agreement Duggan announced April 29 between the city and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun was only “an idea” and did not exist as a record.

I mailed my request to Worthy because it reports criminal behavior — the refusal of the mayor’s staffers to provide records is a violation of the Michigan Penal Code, which makes it a crime for officials to withhold public records when requested by citizens during normal business hours. The punishment for violations is up to a year in prison or up to a $1,000 fine.

Reporters asked for the document on May 12 and again on May 14. When I finally received it — not from Duggan — the agreement turned out to be a lengthy document dated April 29 and notarized May 4. A mere “idea” indeed.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press has reported the mayor and his minions have been using private email accounts exempt from public disclosure to deal with Moroun.

The law requires that officials release public records on request, not just when they feel like it.






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The Matty warranty

By Joel Thurtell

Detroit’s City Council is getting lots of pressure to approve Mayor Duggan’s deal to dice up Riverside Park for the billionaire Matty Moroun.

People with no stake in the outcome of this issue are urging council to trust Mayor Mike and Matty.

Council should trust their own judgment.

It is easy to say with the mayor and journalists that it doesn’t matter what Detroit does, because Canada will never allow Matty to build a new span.

Would those who make that prediction be willing to bet, say, their salary, or their house, or their pension that Matty will never get his way?

I have an idea. I call it the “Matty Warranty.”

According to the Matty Warranty, those politicians and journalists who predict that Matty will never build a new bridge would place the deed to their house in escrow. They would forfeit their home to the city if a second Moroun bridge is built.

I would go further: Those who claim Matty has turned over a new leaf would lose their homes if it turns out that he’s cheating on the swap deal and if he files new lawsuits aimed at killing the Gordie Howe Bridge.

How many  crystal ball gazers would stake their home on that fantasy?






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Professor mayor

By Joel Thurtell

Butch Hollowell, Mike Duggan’s mouthpiece, claims there was nothing to hide in his private emails to minions of Matty Moroun last spring as city officials cut the land swap deal involving Detroit’s Riverside Park.

If there was nothing secret about the deal, why did Mayor Duggan’s staff lie to Wayne State University journalism students who asked to see the written deal?

Class reporters Alexander Franzen and Timothy Carroll asked for the document on May 12 and again on May 14. The students were taking a Wayne State University investigative reporting class taught by me. The week-long assignment for eight students was to dig into the land deal between Mike and Matty.

Duggan staffers told the students the swap was only “an idea” and did not exist as a record.

After the WSU reporters’ departure from Duggan’s office on May 14, staff from the mayor’s office sent the agreement to City Council. The following day, a friend outside government sent me a copy of the agreement that came from a council member.

Something more than a mere “idea,” the multi-page document is dated April 29 and was notarized on May 4. It was a paper record, not just an “idea.”

The students were bamboozled by Duggan’s henchmen, presumably following Mike’s orders.

What does that make Mike?

A superb teacher.

I wanted my students to learn I.F. Stone’s maxim that reporters should assume officials are prima facie liars until they prove otherwise.

Thanks for the lesson, Mike!


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Dr. Fonde’s fund

The University of Michigan Family Medicine Department will establish a fund to honor my wife, Karen Fonde. It will be called The Karen R. Fonde, M.D. Family Medicine Underserved Populations Fund.  Checks made out to the University of Michigan are tax-deductible.

Karen R. Fonde, M.D. was a member of the University of Michigan Department of Family Medicine from 1993-2010. An assistant professor, she was instrumental in the opening of the family medicine clinic at the Ypsilanti Health Center, where she saw patients and taught both residents and medical students for many years.

Not your typical medical student, Dr. Fonde graduated from U-M’s medical school at age 40. She then completed her residency training with the Department before becoming a faculty member. She was passionate about science and helping others and family medicine was a perfect fit. Before her career in medicine, Dr. Fonde focused on education. She and her husband, Joel Thurtell, also served as Peace Corps volunteers in Togo, Africa.

Dr. Fonde died on March 1, 2015, at age 65, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Karen R. Fonde, M.D. Family Medicine Underserved Populations Fund has a goal of $100,000. The Fund will support medically underserved populations in the U.S. and the world through focused initiatives, programs and hands-on experiences.

The Fund constitutes a gift for endowment, and distributions from the Fund shall be made in accordance with the University’s then existing distribution policy. Any surplus distributions during any period may be accumulated for later use or may be added to the principal of the fund, at the University’s discretion.

Karen was passionate about science and helping others, as was evident from her work as a Peace Corps volunteer and her commitment to the success of the Ypsilanti Health Center and the Corner Health Center, which provides health care to underserved adolescents in Ypsilanti. This Fund honors Dr. Fonde’s tireless work and will carry on her dedication to helping the underserved in perpetuity.


Name:       _______________________________________                      Amount:       _______________


Address:       _______________________________________                             Fund:       Fonde Endowment

_______________________________________                    Payment:       Check (enclosed)

Telephone:       ­­­­­­­­_______________________________________                                                  Credit Card



CC Number:       _______________________________________                 Expiration:       _______________


Please return to: Amy C. St. Amour, Department of Family Medicine, University of Michigan, 1150 West Medical Center Drive, M7300 Medical Science I – SPC 5625, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109.

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Secrets of Riverside Park: my letter to prosecutor

By Joel Thurtell

What was the big secret about the deal Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan cut with billionaire trucking magnate Matty Moroun to trade pieces of land at the city’s Riverside Park? Why did Duggan staffers lie to two Wayne State University reporters who came looking for the agreement between the mayor and the owner of the Ambassador Bridge? Why not simply show the agreement to the reporters instead of claiming there was no record, only an “idea”?

The answer doesn’t matter. What matters is that the secretive behavior end. I’m hoping that an outside authority — Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy — will instruct the mayor and his staff that they  need to serve the public and not themselves.

Here is the letter I sent May 20, 2015 to Worthy asking her to investigate the mayor’s office for possible violations of the Michigan Penal Code, which makes it a crime for public officials to withhold public records when requested by citizens during normal business hours. The punishment for violations is up to a year in prison or up to a $1,000 fine.

May 20, 2015

Dear Ms. Worthy:

I am requesting that you investigate violations of the Michigan Penal Code by staff in Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan’s office on May 12 and May 14, 2015. In violation of the Penal Code provision that public records must be disclosed upon request during normal business hours of a governmental office, staff in Mayor Duggan’s office not only refused to disclose the April 29, 2015 agreement between Mayor Duggan and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun regarding a proposed swap of land at the city-owned Riverside Park. Mayor’s staff insisted the agreement did not exist as a document at all, but only as “an idea,” even though it was announced publicly April 29 by Mayor Duggan and notarized on May 4.

The requests were made during mayor’s office business hours by Timothy Carroll, former executive editor of the Wayne State University newspaper, The South End, and by Alexander Franzen, current editor-in-chief of The South End. The requests were part of document-gathering during a Wayne State University class, Communications 5310, on investigative reporting. I was the instructor for the five-day class which ran from May11-15. Mr. Carroll and Mr. Franzen were students in the class. Because the subject of the class was the agreement between Mayor Duggan and Matty Moroun involving the land swap at Riverside Park, acquiring a copy of the agreement for analysis and further reporting was critical to the outcome of the class. It was needed early in the week. Had the class relied on Mayor Duggan’s office, we would never have seen the agreement.

Following is a letter addressed to you and written by Mr. Carroll describing the student reporters’ treatment by mayor’s staff:

Dear Ms. Worthy,

This letter is to complain about a denial to view public records from the office of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. I believe that this denial was a violation of the Michigan Penal Code. Chapter 750, 328-1931-LXXI, Section 750.492 of the MPC states that public records must be disclosed during business hours. The code is attached to this letter.

On Tuesday, May 12 and again on Thursday, May 14, my colleague Alex Franzen and I attempted to request public documents from the Mayor’s office related to a land tranfer agreement between the city and the Detroit International Bridge Company. On May 12, we asked to see the agreement. We were told by the Mayor’s executive assistant Kitty Whitfield that it was not a public record until it was submitted to the City Clerk’s office and that the agreement was “like an idea.”

On a second visit to the mayor’s office on May 14, Whitfield called Detroit communications director John Roach and spoke with him about the availability of the document. Roach told Whitfield that all the information the Mayor’s office wanted to share with the public was available online. I then read the MPC to Whitfield in another attempt to view the document but was interrupted by Whitfield, who argued that the agreement was not a public record because it had not been submitted to the City Clerk and therefore, was not available.

However, the agreement was announced in a public press conference on April 29 where details of the agreement were verbally disclosed by Mayor Mike Duggan and others. The written agreement was then notarized by the Detroit International Bridge Company on the same day. Lastly, the deal was approved and signed by the mayor and notarized by Oakland County Notary Public Amanda Elias on May 4, eight days before we requested to see this document.

I believe that this written agreement became a public document when it was verbally announced to the public on April 29. This was reinforced when the written agreement was approved by Mayor Mike Duggan on May 4 and notarized. Furthermore, the disclosure of these records are in the public interest.

The agreement existed as a public record at the time it was requested. The denial of the mayor’s office to disclose the records is a direct violation of the Michigan Penal Code.

End of reporters’ letter.

Following the second request by Mr. Carroll and Mr. Franzen on May 14, officials in the mayor’s office sent the agreement to the city clerk. The following day, May 15, I received a copy of the agreement from someone outside government who in turn received it from a city council member. No effort was made by the mayor’s office to notify the reporters that the agreement was available. Thanks only to luck and good will by a non-official person, students were able to consider the agreement in the last hours of the class.

By law, the WSU reporters had a right to inspect that agreement on Tuesday, May 12, when they first asked for it. Due to deceit by staff in the mayor’s office, the reporters were prevented from considering the agreement in a timely way.

I am attaching this letter to an email along with a second attachment – an audio recording made by Mr. Carroll and Mr. Franzen when they requested the agreement on May 14.

The two WSU reporters were told by Mayor Duggan’s staff that “all the information the mayor’s office wanted to share with the public was available online.” It is important for public officials, including Mayor Duggan, to understand that the law does not permit them to cherry-pick what information they disclose and what information they withhold from the public. Rather, the law requires that public officials, as part of their public duties, disclose all public records impartially, without obstructing citizens who make legitimate requests.

Please investigate the illegal withholding of a public record from citizens who made not one, but two good-faith efforts to request disclosure.

Yours truly,

Joel Thurtell

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Probe demanded in Riverside Park record denial

By Joel Thurtell

Two students from a Wayne State University investigative reporting class taught by me last week were told by staffers in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office that the agreement Duggan announced April 29 between the city and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun was only “an idea” and did not exist as a record.

The reporters were students whose one-week investigative project was the proposed swap of land between the city and Moroun at the Detroit’s Riverside Park.

Reporters Alexander Franzen and Timothy Carroll asked for the document on May 12 and again on May 14. After the WSU reporters’ departure from Duggan’s office on May 14, staff from the mayor’s office sent the agreement to City Council. The following day, a friend outside government sent me a copy of the agreement that came from a council member.

Something more than a mere “idea,” the multi-page document document is dated April 29 and was notarized on May 4.

Today, May 20, 2015, I asked Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy for an investigation into possible violations of the Michigan Penal Code, which makes it a crime for public officials to withhold public records when requested by citizens during normal business hours. The punishment for violations is up to a year in prison or up to a $1,000 fine.

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Watch for news about Matty & MIke

By Joel Thurtell

As we say in radio, I’ve been off the air for a while. But I’ll be back — soon.

And I’ll have news about the latest circus in Detroit — the Matty & Mike Show.

Stay tuned.


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Isabella Swan — ‘The Deep Roots’

By Joel Thurtell

How often would I get a chance to write about a female historian who made a case based on evidence that slaves lived and worked in her Michigan community?

Score one for women’s history.

Score another for black history.

I have reservations about assigning months for recognizing the accomplishments of women and minorities. There are so many good stories, why wait a year to publish them? So, even though the appropriate months have passed, I’m posting this article I wrote seven years ago for the Detroit Free Press .

Swan’s book prompted me to look more deeply into the use of slaves on Grosse Ile by the island’s first white owners, Alexander and William Macomb.

That Grosse Ile’s latter-day historians chose to deny Swan’s account of slavery in their community in the 18th and 19th centuries does not erase the fact that it happened.

Rather, it demonstrates the power of history, and the fear many have that a true rendition of their past will embarrass and detract from their community’s luster.

In other words, by omitting, by censoring, historians lie.

Isabella Swan was about telling her town’s story, warts and all.

Here is my story about Isabella Swan. published with permission of the Detroit Free Press:





Pub-Date: 3/11/2007



Text: Isabella Swan loved books. She always wanted to write one. In

retirement, she got her chance.

Warming up, she wrote a little book about a woman who was born a slave

and won her freedom. She paid to have the book printed and then, even

though she was an atheist, she took on the unlikely task of writing

the history of the Grosse Ile church that was built thanks partly to

the largesse of that same ex-slave.

Finally, she wrote her big work – a long history of the first century

of her beloved Grosse Ile. She paid $10,000 to have it printed and

called it “The Deep Roots.”

Even though she was a Democrat on an overwhelmingly Republican island,

Grosse Ile’s government conferred the title of official historian on

her. In fact, those deep roots – referring to the early white settlers

on the island – about which she wrote belonged as much to her and her

family as to anyone else on this big island.

With National Women’s History Month being celebrated this month, I

thought it was a good time to tell the story of Isabella Swan, the

librarian, historian and writer, and her Grosse Ile roots.

To family and old friends, Isabella was known as “Icky.” The nickname

was accidentally bestowed on her by a niece who, as a child, found

pronouncing “Isabella” impossible.

That niece, Pat Lafayette, 76, gave me a tour of the island places

that were important to Isabella, who died in 1993 at the age of 93.

I was shown the huge dining room, one of 16 rooms in the family’s 1875

farmhouse at West River and Groh. In another family house, part of

which dates to the 1830s, I looked out the window at the choppy

Trenton Channel – the same view Isabella enjoyed as she wrote her


But mostly, Pat and her son, Marc, told me about the colorful past of

this woman who was a tough cookie to those who knew her and those who

did not.

“My mother and Isabella were very much alike,” Marc said. He’s

Isabella’s  great-nephew. “Very, very stubborn. Isabella was a force

of nature. Until the day she died, she would correct my grammar. She

would tell me how to lead my life.”

Pat is a tough cookie herself.

“My mother fills the same role as Isabella,” Marc  told me. Pat is,

according to her son, the only woman he knows with a master’s degree

who can trap a muskrat, gut it and stretch its hide.

“Pretty much all the women in my mother’s family are almost forces of

nature,” he said. “My mother always said if you want Isabella to turn

left, you should tell her to turn right.”

Isabella’s grandfather was Louis (originally Ludwig) Groh, a German

who came to the United States to get away from Prussian conscription

and to be in a country where he could be an atheist. He married a

neighbor, Emeline Peck, who also was an atheist.

“Her mother gave her, as well as my mother, George Bernard Shaw’s ëA

Woman’s Guide to Socialism.’ They learned early about self-sufficiency

from any man and any deity,” Marc said.

Living large – for a while

Louis Groh was supervisor of Grosse Ile Township in the late 1800s and

he amassed 650 acres of land at the southern end of the island.

The family was upper crust. Isabella’s father was wealthy attorney

James Swan, founder of the Scarab Club. She went to Detroit public

schools, where she learned to speak French at Central High School. She

went to the University of Michigan, where she majored in physics and

mathematics and graduated in 1922.

Her family owned homes in Tucson, Ariz., and Biloxi, Miss. The family

traveled and lived the high life.

The family owned Snake Island alongside Grosse Ile and renamed it Swan

Island in hopes of selling home lots. They bought part of the original

Belle Isle bridge, and used it to connect Grosse Ile to Swan Island.

They developed the island and received a construction bill for

$650,000, the equivalent in 2006 of $7.4 million.

About that time, 1929, the stock market crashed. All but three of the

lot buyers defaulted. They could not pay the construction bill. The

family lost all but 3.5 acres.  The easy life came to an end.

Head of the household

Isabella’s older brother, Donald Swan, who played football at the

University of Michigan under legendary coach Fielding Yost, began

bottling water from the family’s artesian well. He called it the

Wonder Well.

Isabella got a job as a librarian for Wayne County. She had the only

paying job in the family. “She became head of the household,” said Pat

Lafayette. “She ran everything. She was the only one with a real job.”

They cooked wild mushrooms. Pat ran her trapline, earning money by

selling muskrat hides.

When Isabella retired, she was second-in-command at the Wayne County

Library. While she worked there, she did research and wrote articles

about the history of names on Grosse Ile and how to make elderflower

fritters, and she delved into Great Lakes maritime history.

In a speech on Grosse Ile at St. James Episcopal Church in 1965, she

explained her interest in history: “It was, I think, a native

childhood curiosity to begin with.” But a teacher was thrilled with a

report she gave on Buffalo Bill Cody. She got a cum laude grade in


She retired in the early 1960s, traveled for six months, then began

work on “Lisette,” the first of her books about Grosse Ile history.

She spent each day in research at the Burton Historical Collection of

the Detroit Public Library. That’s where many records of early Grosse

Ile are kept.

In 1965, she published “Lisette,” a biography of Elizabeth Denison

Forth, the onetime slave who invested in steamboats and real estate

and left an endowment for founding St. James Episcopal, which is now

the church’s chapel.

“The Deep Roots” was a study of the first 100 years of Grosse Ile

history. Few copies remain from its printing in 1976 in time for the

bicentennial – not only of the United States, but of Grosse Ile, if

you count from July 6, 1776, when the brothers William and Alexander

Macomb bought the island from American Indians.

No reprint?

Marc Lafayette doubts the book will be reprinted.

“There are factual errors – Isabella always talked about how there was

never any evidence of native habitation on Grosse Ile, but  we know

that is not true. Early maps from France mention native habitation on

Grosse Ile and there were actual longhouses on the north end of the

island.” Longhouses were communal Indian dwellings.

“That would drive Isabella crazy,” said Marc. “She wanted it to be the

definitive history of Grosse Ile, and the idea of making a mistake in

her book drove her crazy.”

Personally, I think they’re making too much of the errors.

Yes, mistakes drive writers nuts. But Swan didn’t make many, and they

could be corrected in a second edition.

I’ve had a copy of “The Deep Roots” for about 20 years, and I use it

as a basic reference for Grosse Ile history. When I was first told

there’d been slaves on Grosse Ile, I turned to the book’s index and

found the references. Isabella did not shy away from that sensitive


I can’t think of any other town in suburban Detroit that has been the

subject of serious research by a serious historian. Grosse Ile has had

two strokes of good fortune. First, it had Elizabeth Denison Forth.

Then it had Isabella Swan.

Caption: Grosse Ile historian Isabella Swan, in a photo on display at

St. James Episcopal Church. Swan died in 1993 at age 93.

MADALYN RUGGIERO / Special to the Free Press

Historian Isabella Swan’s niece, Pat Lafayette, 76, of Grosse Ile once

lived in this house at 10529 Groh in Grosse Ile.  The house was built

in 1875 by Swan’s great-grandfather.


Photos by MADALYN RUGGIERO / Special to the Free Press

Asher Peck, the father of Emeline Peck, Isabella Swan’s grandmother,

lived for many years in this house at 25909 West River Road.


Full front view of the house at 10529 Groh, Grosse Ile that was built

in 1875 by Asher Peck, Isabella Swan’s great-grandfather.


Illustration:  PHOTO






Page: 7CV


Keywords: history




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Tomatoes & Eggs III — Slavery on Grosse Ile: Colonel Brodhead’s ‘contraband’

By Joel Thurtell

A weird thing happened in 2007 while I was covering Downriver for the Detroit Free Press. It was a time when the newspaper was courting suburban readers, and my job was to put my little journalist’s microscope on small towns to see what the local media might be missing.

Because I was trained as a historian, I liked nothing better than to dig up fascinating facts about local history. One such little-discussed fact was that there were slaves on Grosse Ile during colonial and early national times, as there were in Detroit and the territory and later state of Michigan.

The astonishing thing that happened in 2007? Historians at the Grosse Ile Historical Society first agreed with me that the existence of slavery on the Big Island was a story they should include in the picture history book of Grosse Ile they were producing. But when it came time time to publish the book, they reneged.

They became slavery deniers.

Nothing to it. No slaves on Grosse Ile. After I panned their book for its neglect of the “peculiar institution” in their history, some members of the historical society promised that next time I visited their museum they would greet me “with tomatoes and rotten eggs.”

Shortly after this threat, I retired from the Free Press. I haven’t returned to Grosse Ile to test whether the guardians of historical knowledge in their insular township keep a supply of over-ripe tomatoes and eggs handy in case I darken their door.

Now I’m going to issue my own threat: Watch your door, oh historians of the Fat Isle. I could show up any time. And when I do, I will ask want to know how well your little society has done at suppressing the facts — plural — of slavery in your community.

First, there was the 1796 inventory of property owned by the late William Macomb, whose house on Grosse Ile was managed by a slave woman named Charlotte, valued at — New York pounds. Charlotte’s husband was Scipio, valued at — New York Pounds. Their children were –, — pounds, and –, == pounds. See Isabella Swan’s “The Deep Roots: Grosse Ile 1796-1896,” p. 26.

Before I get ahead of the story, I’ll post my February 18, 2007 article about the slave who returned to Grosse Ile with the body of a onetime Detroit Free Press editor and Union general.

With permission of the Detroit Free Press, here is another part of the history of Grosse Ile that has been censored by the history police on Grosse Ile:




Pub-Date: 2/18/2007



Text: Last month, at the end of my article about the history of

slavery on Grosse Ile, I asked readers: “Can somebody tell me the

story of those fugitive slaves, Ben and Dan?”

The index of a book on island history hinted of a dramatic story

about two slaves.

“Ben and Dan escape,” the note said at the back of Isabella Swan’s

book, “The Deep Roots.” Turn to pages 37 and 38. But I went to those

pages and couldn’t find any mention of slaves. Nothing on Ben or Dan.

Zilch on any escape.

Marc Lafayette read my kicker and reached for his great aunt Isabella

Swan’s personal, annotated copy of “The Deep Roots.” It had her list

of errors to be corrected if the 1976 book were to be republished.

Lafayette dialed my number. The next day, I received his voice-mail

message: Go to pages 137 and 138 for the story about Ben and Dan.

I talked to his mother, Pat Lafayette, Isabella Swan’s niece. Swan

died in 1993 at age 93. She and the Lafayettes have really deep roots

into Grosse Ile history. Their common ancestor was Louis Groh, an

early settler who owned 650 acres on Grosse Ile.

Speaking of “The Deep Roots,” Pat Lafayette said that Swan indexed the

book herself.  “I call it the most wonderful index. She was not one to

make errors. I was astounded to see that there actually was an error,”

Pat said.

My Jan. 21 story focused on a list of 26 slaves whose names appeared

in a 1796 “Estimation of the Slaves of the Late William Macomb.”

William Macomb and his brother, Alexander Macomb, bought Grosse Ile

from American Indians on July 6, 1776. William Macomb probably owned

more slaves than anyone else in Michigan.

It was in my research that I came across Ben and Dan.

They were slaves who were brought to Grosse Ile in 1828 by a deputy

Wayne County sheriff, J.M. Wilson, whose assignment was to guard the

slaves for a Kentucky man, E. K. Hudnell, who planned to take Ben and

Dan to Sandusky, Ohio, over Lake Erie. Apparently they were being

taken back to slave country. They were brought to Grosse Ile to elude

“free and armed Negroes on the Canadian side (who) planned to board

the vessel and rescue them,” according to Swan.

Deputy Wilson left the slaves with Hudnell.

According to Territorial Papers quoted by Swan, Hudnell unwittingly

gave Ben and Dan a golden chance to escape.

They disappeared “while Hudnell & others were preparing for gaming.”

Pat Lafayette aimed me at another section of her great-aunt’s book

that deals with slavery. It’s about Col. Thornton Fleming Brodhead, a

former editor of the Detroit Free Press from Grosse Ile who fought and

died in the Union army.

According to Swan’s book, “Joseph Lockman, a young colored boy who had

attended upon Colonel Brodhead, accompanied the body home and stayed

on with the Brodheads for many years. He was probably ‘contraband,’ a

term designating slaves who escaped to and were retained by the Union


The book has a photo of Lockman, who for years gave people rides to

Catholic worship services at the Brodhead house.

Contact JOEL THURTELL at 248-351-3296 or  joelthurtell(at)





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