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History of the Western District of Michigan


          The Bicentennial Program Committee wishes to thank Meijer, Inc. and their special employees, and especially Rob Newton, who donated many hours of personal time. The donation of time, equipment and skills of these employees ensured the success of this project.

          Many individuals and institutions helped by being resources for the History of Grand Rapids, the Western District of Michigan and the United States Attorney's Office sections of this publication. To name the most prominent ones: Thanks to Gordon Olson, Grand Rapids Historian; The Grand Rapids Press; The Grand Rapids Public Library; the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce; the Grand Rapids Public Museum; the Grand Rapids Historical Commission; the General Services Administration; the Gerald R. Ford Museum; the Grand Rapids Art Museum; the National Institute of Information; the National Archives; the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Library; Judge Wendell Miles; the Executive Office for United States Attorneys; and especially the scrapbooks and memory of Emily Zelenka, a vast resource in and of itself.


          The State of Michigan has many names and hosts an abundance of natural resources. Known better as the "Wolverine State," and the "Great Lakes State," Michigan's motto is "If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you." That is exactly what Michigan is, two pleasant peninsulas surrounded by Lakes Michigan, Erie, Huron and Superior. The state also boasts the robin, white pine, Petoskey stone, Royal Isle gemstone, brook trout and the apple blossom as state symbols. Another symbol has been the establishment of federal law enforcement in Michigan. With the continuing growth of the United States, so too has grown the federal law enforcement system. The increasing population has transcended a greater need for resources. Michigan is no exception to the rule, expanding over the years to meet the federal law enforcement needs of an ever-growing society. Although Michigan became split into Districts in 1863, it is interesting to note that federal law enforcement became established around 1800. The United States Attorney's Office in the Western District of Michigan carries on the policies and legacies established in the early federal law enforcement measures.

          In early United States history, federal law enforcement power was vested in territorial governors. Governors were appointed by the President and were the primary lawmakers for their territory. After the departure of British officials in 1796, what is now present day Michigan was part of the Northwest Territory and officially under the control of Governor Arthur St. Clair and the other Northwest Territory officials until 1800.

          Independence brought expansion and an increase in population took place in areas where individuals felt they could prosper. This was largely through the purchase of available lands. Area boundaries were becoming more distinct. The Northwest Territory became the Michigan Territory, which included what is now Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and part of North Dakota.

          In 1805, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Yale lawyer William Hull as Governor of the Michigan Territory. Jefferson also appointed three territorial judges to interpret the laws. The laws were enforced by Justices located in Detroit and Mackinac, and were enacted by the governor and the three judges centered in Cincinnati. Much like the Office of Attorney General, finding quality individuals to fill judicial positions was difficult because the pay was low and the position often necessitated moving their practice and families. One of the first judges appointed by Jefferson was Brevoort Woodard.

          Woodard attended Columbia University but withdrew after his first year. He then moved to Rockbridge City, Virginia where he "read for the law" and began practice in 1799. The other two judges appointed in Michigan were Frederick Bates and Samuel Huntington. Huntington soon resigned from the position because it was an "inconvenience." The justices were two "proper persons" taken from the military garrisons at Detroit and Mackinac to keep the peace.

          Since the governor made policy and answered only to the President, he also defined the crimes and punishments. This included commanding the strict observance of Sunday as a day of rest, prohibiting cursing and drunkenness and regulating marriages. Murder and treason were the only capital crimes. Flogging, fines, and standing in the stocks were prescribed as punishments for lesser infractions. A courthouse and a jail were to be provided for every district with separate compartments for debtors and women.

          One of the biggest problems during this time period concerned land titles. It was not unusual to have the courts tied up over land disputes. The primary economic resource was fur trading and Michigan's waterways provided transportation between settlements. These nomadic movements often saw fur traders settle on lands for brief periods of time, sometimes where a claim had already been filed. Record keeping inefficiencies, lack of boundary measurements and little enforcement created more problems, not to mention the fact that the French wanted a majority of the Michigan territory. The government was critical of the land situation and torn by internal conflict because of the boundary squabbles.

          During the early 1800s, Michigan government underwent many changes. In 1805 Michigan became a separate territory. In 1823, Congress changed the territorial government from a governor and judges to a government and a legislative counsel. The first legislative council met in 1824, consisting of nine members appointed by the president. Then in 1827, a territorial council replaced the governor and judges as the lawmaking body. Soon after, a law was passed giving townships more responsibilities and power.

          Land disputes continued to haunt Michigan. In 1836, an argument over whom would have the Toledo property, either Michigan or Ohio, resulted in a battle between the two. It also kept Michigan from becoming a state. The dispute was finally settled and the boundary between Michigan and Ohio was resolved. Michigan became the twenty-sixth state admitted to the union in 1837. That same year, counties were established..

United States Attorney for the Territory of Michigan

          The United States Attorney's Office mission was to prosecute each case with the same purpose, to obtain justice. Such dedication has characterized the office since the appointment of the first United States Attorney for the Territory of Michigan, Solomon Sibley, in 1815. Born in Massachusetts, Sibley was elected a member of the General Assembly of the Northwest Territory in 1799. As a member of that body, he was instrumental in the establishment and incorporation of Detroit in 1802, becoming the city's first mayor four years later. After Sibley's service as United States Attorney, he was elected to the United States Congress from the Territory of Michigan, and in 1823, was named to the Supreme Court of Michigan. Years later, his son became the first governor of the State of Minnesota.

          John Norvell also served as United States Attorney during the early days of Michigan. He was a personal friend of Thomas Jefferson and a close advisor of President James Madison. Norvell also was a friend of Andrew Jackson, who named him Postmaster of Detroit in 1832. Norvell became a leading member of Michigan's Constitution Convention in 1835 and later served as United States Senator from the Territory. As Senator, he was partly responsible for securing the Upper Peninsula as part of the boundary settlement for Michigan's admission into the Union. Elected as a state legislator in 1842, Norvell was commissioned as United States Attorney in 1845.

          William L. Stoughton was appointed United States Attorney by President Lincoln in 1861. Stoughton soon resigned to join the Army, where he eventually attained the rank of Major General. He was badly wounded in Atlanta and was said to have fired the last gun at the battle of Chickamauga. Stoughton became Michigan's Attorney General in 1866 and its representative to Congress for two terms beginning in 1868.

          John W. Stone was a distinguished jurist who served on the bench for 32 years. He served in Congress from 1877 to 1881 before being named United States Attorney for the Western District of Michigan in 1882 by President Arthur. In 1909, Stone was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court, becoming it's Chief Justice in 1916.

          It was about this time that "Michigan Fever" hit the Midwest. Michigan's population rose from 31,640 in 1830 to 212,267 in 1840. Thirteen percent of the population lived in Wayne County. The state's many natural resources began to open opportunities to new settlers. The Michigan white pine made lumbering a major industry. In 1840, there were 500 sawmills in Michigan. By 1880 Michigan reached its peak, producing one fourth of the nation's lumber. Copper, gypsum and iron ore mining also became major industries. Mining, along with farming and lumbering, became the major attractions that drew new settlers to the state in the 19th century. In the case of iron and copper mining, it attracted a higher percentage of foreign born than any of the other economic opportunities that developed in that century. For some time, Cornishmen from southwestern England were the backbone of mine work forces. Cornishmen had been mining tin and copper in their homeland for centuries and because of their traditional skills they were in great demand by those involved in mining ventures in America. The underground mining operations that would be required to extract most of Michigan's copper and iron ore were particularly suited to the Cornishmen who had faced similar problems in Cornwall, England and had become recognized as the best hard rock miners in the world.

          The 1860's brought the split of our nation over the issue of slavery. The Civil War saw Michigan becoming more dependent on industry. It provided the means to manufacture the hardware needed for the Union Army. The lower part of the state expanded rapidly because of the growth of the railroad system and manufacturing plants in the larger metropolitan areas. The waterways that also went east and west provided transportation and a continuous supply line. However, the northern part of the state suffered a depression. Mining as well as lumbering dramatically decreased causing wide-scale unemployment.

          The caseload of the federal district court in Detroit began increasing at an alarming rate and on December 24, 1863, an Act of Congress split the State of Michigan into two federal districts. A line split the state so those counties on the east side of the lower peninsula were deemed the Eastern District of Michigan while the counties on the west side and the Upper Peninsula were named the Western District of Michigan. Grand Rapids became the judicial center for the newly created district. Business increased so rapidly that by an Act of Congress on June 19, 1878, the Western District was subdivided into Northern and Southern divisions, Grand Rapids continuing to be the seat of the Southern division and Marquette the site of the Northern division headquarters.

          In the 1860's Federal District Judges were appointed for life, or during good behavior, with a salary of $3,000. The first federal judges were Solomon L. Withey in Grand Rapids, appointed on March 11, 1863, and Henry F. Severens in Kalamazoo, appointed on May 25, 1886.

          Grand Rapids was chosen as the center of the Western District since it was the largest city, and was at the center of the new district. The city, built on the rapids of the Grand River, was first formed because the rapids forced traders to stop their travel. The Grand River was such an important transportation source that other settlements rose along the river, through Grand Rapids continued to thrive. The city grew along with the lumber industry of the 1800's and eventually became an important focal point in the country's manufacturing of furniture.

          A few facts about the Western District of Michigan include: The Western District of Michigan extends more than 700 miles, from its well-populated southern extremity to the beautiful wide open stretches of its northern border, making it one of the nation's longest federal law enforcement districts. The Western District of Michigan covers 35,229 square miles and encompasses forty-nine counties, thirty-four of them in the Lower Peninsula.

          Soon after the Congressional Act of 1863, Michigan Senators and Congressmen began making efforts to construct a federal building in Grand Rapids. They were concerned that the post office was a moveable institution and they hoped to solidify a permanent distribution point for the city's mail. The post office was one of the chief centers of community life. In smaller settlements the post office was generally situated in a store where citizens gathered to talk and gossip while waiting for the arrival and distribution of the mail. The postmaster was awarded his job by political appointment from the party in power in Washington, and was often a leading citizen -- doctor, lawyer, newspaper publisher or local merchant.

          The position of postmaster was a prestigious one, as was the profession of law. President Van Buren combined the two when he named Attorney Alfred D. Rathbone as the first postmaster of Kent (later known as Grand Rapids) in 1838. Rathbone was Grand Rapids' first attorney and the first prosecutor of Kent County. He died in 1856 and merited the accolade: "A typical gentleman of the old school . . . a man who believed that honesty in the everyday affairs of life and promptness in meeting obligations are the cardinal virtues."

          As for the federal building, it was not until after the Civil War in 1872 that efforts to begin construction were successful. Early in 1873 a Commission of nine individuals was appointed to select a site. These Commissioners advertised for proposals for a site and received ten; the bids were opened May 2, 1873. The commissioners examined the proposals and narrowed their preference to three; without recommending them in any order. The Treasury Department rejected them all and sent an architect of their own to survey the area. The architect recommended three parcels of land and condemnation proceedings were initiated. Jurors were drawn and appraisals were made: $68,064.85 for the first lot; $76,020 for the second; and $50,501 for the third. The Treasury Department selected the first lot in April. Anyone who had filed a claim against the property received monetary compensation, dividing up the $68,064.85. Congress, before adjourning in June, appropriated $70,000 for the site.

          Preparations were made for construction. The grounds required a great deal of filling because the construction site was a singing frog pond. Complications continued because the site was partially in a ravine, sunken and swampy. It wasn't until the spring of 1876 that excavation for the foundation was finally completed.

          The Federal Building was completed in 1879 at a final appropriated cost of $212,000. The entire block was encircled with imported stone on which sat an iron fence. The building was occupied by the Internal Revenue Service and the United States Court Offices on September 1, and the first court session was held on October 7. The Post Office did not move in until mid-November and occupied the entire first floor. The principal government offices filled the second floor, including the IRS, United States Marshal and the United States Attorney's Office. The third floor hosted the federal courts and the jury rooms.

          The government took great pride in buildings they erected. In that era, many federal buildings were built in a traditional and uniform manner. Desks, tables, chairs and other furniture were made with the finest oak or walnut. The door trimmings were of solid bronze while the gas fixtures were in ornamental designs made of nickel and copper. The government employed the finest architects and kept the grounds handsomely groomed.

          The building stood for twenty years before growth the of the district and increased resource need affected the agencies and they supplemented their staffs to accommodate society's needs. As the agency staffs grew so did the demand for more workplace. In 1909, the old building was demolished and construction of a new, larger federal building was begun. That building has since become the Grand Rapids Art Museum. But for many years is was referred to locally as "Noah's Ark," because the agencies housed in it discovered that the continuing growth of the Western District of Michigan again resulted in crowded space among the federal agencies.

          Judge Fox gave one of the reasons for the need of a new courthouse, "We needed better restrooms for jurors." When laughter followed his remark, he insisted that it was true that restrooms figured in the need for the new building. Judge Fox explained that in long-drawn-out modern cases, the lack of special relief stations for jurors locked in deliberation is a hindrance to justice.

          In 1972, the current federal courthouse, the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building, was opened as the new home of the of the Federal Courts, United States Attorney, United States Marshal, Probation, Internal Revenue Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Senators and Representative, the General Services Administration, and a number of other agencies. Yet, like those buildings of the past, expansion has witnessed another coming of the "Ark". Several agencies have moved from the building because of cramped work quarters. Among them is the Office of the United States Attorney, which now occupies three floors of its present location, the Law Building. Eventually, the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building will house only the District and Bankruptcy Courts.

          Although physical structures and accommodations are concerns, crime suppression has always been the goal of the United States Attorney. The 1920's started a difficult crusade for the United States Attorney's, both ethically and morally. The passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution brought the era of prohibition. A jingle that went through the United States for the passage of the 18th Amendment went:

Rig-a-jigga, Rig-a-jigga, Zip-boom-bah;

I can't vote and neither can ma.

If the state goes dry, we'll thank pa.

Rig-a-jigga, Rig-a-jigga, Zip-boom-bah.

          The passing of prohibition started a nationwide effort in the United States to prohibit people by law from drinking alcoholic beverages. It forbade the manufacture, distribution or consumption of anything containing .5 percent of alcohol. Enacted nationally on January 16, 1920 prohibitionists believed that drinking was evil because it often led to drunkenness, especially in the working class, and that saloons, where men could squander money their families needed, were the very core of evil.

          When prohibition began, many people believed the public would accept it. The question became: "Who would risk a $1,000 fine or a six-month jail term just for a drink?" Nevertheless, gangsters saw prohibition as a promising business opportunity. Because of prohibition, liquor was on everyone's mind. People were curious and drinking became even more appealing now that it was illegal. Saloons began re-opening as speakeasies, supplied with liquor from underworld dealers and protected by corrupt policies and other officials. Bootlegging became a vast enterprise controlled by murderous gangsters. In Michigan, Detroit was the first major metropolitan city in America to "dry up." On the other hand, by the time the amendment became law in 1920, over 50,000 men and women were involved in bootlegging liquor. The Western District also encountered "withdrawal" symptoms and problems with moonshine deliveries from as far away as Chicago.

          There were bright spots in this era. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the United States Attorney General in charge of liquor law prosecution, sent many of these gangsters to prison, but she resigned in 1929. Ironically, she went into private practice as an attorney for the wine industry. Prohibition ended in 1933 because the nation's most influential people, as well as the public, acknowledged that it had failed.

          The "Roaring 20's" was an era of prosperity where people traveled and enjoyed their lives. Money became a commodity that many people took for granted. From 1925 to 1929, stocks became an important vehicle for a happy-go-lucky society. The average price of common stocks nearly doubled. People bought stocks with hopes of turning a profit. Then, on Tuesday, October 29, 1929, also known as "Black Tuesday," stockholders panicked about the market and sold a record 16,410,030 shares of stock. Thousands of people lost huge sums of money as stock values dropped far below prices paid for the stock. Banks and businesses had also purchased stock and were either severely crippled or closed. The stock market served as a stepping stone to the Great Depression.

          The Western District of Michigan was severely hit by the Depression. Although larger metropolitan centers like Lansing, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo found business to be prosperous during the 1920's, the farm community suffered. The region hit hardest was the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Lacking industry and significant employment opportunities, the Upper Peninsula relied on agriculture and lumbering as important economic sources. Prices on farm products fell forty percent and many farmers could not pay the mortgages on their homes. Some farmers refused to ship their products to market. They hoped a reduced number of products on the market would help raise the prices of goods.

          Shortly, even the larger cities felt the strain of the Depression. In addition to the farmers, workers in the coal, railroad, and textile industries became victims. Industrial production increased almost fifty percent between 1920 and 1925, but the wages paid to industrial workers rose far more slowly. As a result, these workers could not buy goods as fast as industry produced them. Many people were forced to buy on credit. After a while, workers reduced their spending to hold down their debts. This, in turn, caused a decrease in the amount of money in circulation and affected businesses. Counterfeiting flourished during this era.

          It was during the Depression's early days that the government's reputation took a beating. Many blamed the government for the Depression, while others felt that the government did not react quickly enough to the needs of society. News of corrupt officials living on lavish salaries spread through the country.

          Criminals were treated as folk heroes and cooperation from citizens was scarce. Even the films of the day portrayed criminals as "good mobsters." Viewers could identify with film characters like Tommy Powers, played by James Cagney in the 1931 film, "Public Enemy," because he was driven to crime through injustice in society. The country was filled with "Pretty Boy" Floyd, "Baby Face" Nelson, John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker and the like. Folk songs and poems were written in their honor. People treated them as modern day "Robin Hoods." Federal prosecutors could not bring charges against some of the gangsters, but could prosecute many who aided these criminals. As explained later, Dillinger visited Sault Ste. Marie and was helped by one of his gang members' sister. Twenty individuals were prosecuted in Texas for assisting Bonnie and Clyde.

          Imagery and respect for the government improved when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Dubbed "A day that will live in infamy" by President Roosevelt in his request for a declaration of war, Pearl Harbor resulted in the United States entry into World War II. The government took over Grand Rapids' Pantlind Hotel and turned it into an officers' training school. The home front dictated a great deal of change. The economy began to prosper with job availability and the demand for war materials. Litigation of all kinds multiplied the duties and responsibilities of the Department of Justice and federal courts under the Second War Powers Act. There was a vast increase in the number of criminal and civil cases filed during the war. The United States Attorney's Office in Grand Rapids was faced with problems of internal security, selective service cases, enemy alien responsibilities, and numerous other wartime litigation. The office handled a significant amount of land condemnation cases. The War Department acquired 225,739 acres of land in the Western District for training sites or related services.

          Other cases that required attention involved "draft dodgers." The Western District, in 1943, reported a remarkably low total of 133 cases, as contrasted with a state total of 3,284.

          After the war, government statistics in 1948 showed that the United States, with only 6% of the earth's population, was producing one-half of the world's manufactured goods; 80% of all new automobiles, 62% of the oil, 57% of the steel and 43% of the electricity. Unemployment was declining, the nation's gross national product, which had doubled during the war years, rose to heights previously thought unimaginable.

          Under the Truman Administration, the new danger was not the nation's economy but the Soviet Union. Fears that Russia's leader, Joseph Stalin, had plans to expand Communist domain into Eastern and Central Europe worried the Administration. This would be a fear that would follow the two superpowers through much of the twentieth century. Fears were confirmed when Stalin gave a speech suggesting war between the two powers was inevitable. Soon after, George F. Kennan, serving as Ambassador in Moscow, wrote his famous "X" telegrams. He emphasized that Russia feared "capitalist encirclement" due to "traditional and instinctive insecurity," and the manifestation of that insecurity posed a threat to the United States. Thus began the Cold War and constant insecurity in the United States.

          One of those fears came to life in "McCarthyism." Joseph P. McCarthy, Senator of Wisconsin, sent the country into a frenzy when he accused two hundred individuals in the State Department with being communists. The FBI investigated many people believed to be communists. A second "red scare" (the first following World War I) swept the country. H. Chandlre Davis, 28 year-old mathematics teacher at the University of Michigan, was indicted before a grand jury in Grand Rapids in February, 1955, for contempt of Congress. Davis was charged with 26 counts, based on his refusal to answer questions about his possible Communist Party affiliations. He was questioned in Lansing by a subcommittee on Un-American Activities. In June, 1957, Federal Judge W. Wallace Kent found Davis guilty, fining him $250 and six-month in jail.

          Espionage, treason and various crimes were often blamed on communists. However, other crimes were also reflected in the district. A "sharp" increase in the number of criminal cases rose from 77 in 1952 to 121 in 1955. Stolen cars that were transported across state lines, or "Dyer Act" cases, also increased from 25 in 1952 to 39 in 1955. The late fifties started a crackdown on obscenity in the postal system. Grand Rapids' Postmaster H.Wayne Parker, in cooperation with the United States Attorney's Office viewed public opinion as the district's best defense against obscene materials.

          The election of 1960 changed the complexion of the country as well as priorities for federal law enforcement officials. The Kennedy Administration was popularly referred to as "Camelot" and the leader, John F. Kennedy, King Arthur. It was the dawning of a progressive age, a "new frontier" of American idealism. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy challenged Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you; but what you can do for your country." To affirm the aspirations of blacks, he held out the promise of presidential leadership in the struggle for equal rights. To win the intelligentsia of the American public, he brought in the "Whiz Kids" or, as David Halberstam called them, "the best and the brightest." Little did anyone realize what a tumultuous effort tackling civil rights, organized crime, a liberalizing public opinion, and a far off country called Vietnam would cost.

          The black civil rights issue posed more than a moral challenge to officials and its existing order; it also represented a thorny political issue that required delicate handling. Under the direction of the President's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the Justice Department consistently backed black efforts to break down segregation barriers. Even following his tenure as Attorney General, Robert Kennedy strived to be an advocate for the civil rights movement. After President Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson finally signed many of President Kennedy's proposed landmark civil rights legislation after four black schoolgirls were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama when the Klu Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church.

          The pressing civil rights issues were not new. In fact, they had become an inherit problem in American society. Poverty, lack of opportunity, second-class citizenship and little hope for a better future were but a few of the other concerns. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inflamed emotions across the country. Riots broke out nationwide and violence filled the streets. On July 24, 1967, a young boy ran down Division and Delaware Streets in Grand Rapids. Police chased him and he was eventually arrested. An allegation of police abuse erupted into race riots throughout the city. The violence lasted a few days and resulted in 44 persons hurt - several by sniper fire, 213 were arrested and damage ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars. One youth emphasized: "We can't go into white areas so we don't want them here," he snapped. "I was driving in East Grand Rapids last week and got arrested for nothing. I ended up downtown and didn't do anything."

          A small Southeast Asian country, Vietnam, fragmented the U.S. even more. The Kennedy and Johnson Administrations feared the threat of communism spreading. Demonstrations against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam became commonplace. The assassination of Robert Kennedy, a critic of the continued escalation in Vietnam and the decision by President Johnson not to seek re-election, contributed to a climate of political dissent. In 1968, a protest at the Democratic National Convention resulted in the trial of the "Chicago 8." A subsequent U.S. Attorney's report characterized the crowd as a "blend of young and old, Yuppie's, Hippies, straights, newsmen and cameramen." White Lake, on a 600-acre fairy farm outside of Bethel, New York became the site of an event in August 1969 know as "Woodstock." It was a four day protest concert of "sex, drugs and rock n' roll." The phrase became the metaphor for a generation. Most importantly, it displayed a generation gap that would segregate the country.

          Student demonstrations became a difficult problem for the government. Campuses like Harvard, Yale and Stanford protested the war. Bitterness was displayed to members of ROTC programs. In 1970, Kent State University was the site of an anti-war demonstration where four students were killed. Word spread to other college campuses and walkouts by students and professors resulted.

          Besides the fragmentation and turmoil that troubled officials and American society, the Justice Department mobilized a major effort against organized crime. Warned many years earlier that organized crime would only escalate, the Justice Department found itself in the middle of a war with organized crime. In the early fifties, Attorney General Howard McGrath placed Western District U.S. Attorney Joseph Deeb in charge of a special grand jury to travel the country and suppress organized crime. The move was a valiant effort but fell short of its goal because crime syndicates became so large. A significant row that proved the government meant business involved the "blood feud" between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and James Hoffa, President of the Teamsters Union.

          The Nixon Administration's Watergate crisis led to a skeptical society. The Washington Post ran the following headline "FBI Finds Nixon Aids Sabotaged Democrats." The nation watched as cabinet officials went to jail and Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. The District of Columbia United States Attorney Harold Titus conducted the original investigation. The Assistant U.S. Attorneys who handled the everyday investigation were Earl Silbert and Seymour Glanzer, head of the U.S. Attorney's Fraud Section.

          Yet, it was Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox who continued the investigation. Nixon's eventual resignation cast a black cloud over the government. The legacy from the case; however, was a society reluctant to trust their government. It was Watergate that eventually led to privacy laws. The Republican Party suffered a great deal of damage and it carried into the next election when Jimmy Carter was elected President

          The Justice Department placed a priority on white-collar crimes. This was aided by the passage of the RICO Act in 1970. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) was passed as a major crackdown on organized crime, and originally aimed at the Mafia. RICO has since become a major weapon against white-collar crime. It gives prosecutors expanded powers if they can point to a "pattern" of criminal activity.

         A short-lived panic occurred in 1976 when the Swine Flu Vaccine Act was passed. A mass immunization program was initiated August 12, 1976 to prevent an epidemic of swine flu among the adult population. Immunization began October 1, 1976 but was suspended in mid-December when an apparent association between swine flu and Guillain-Barre occurred. The government hired investigators to prove the theory statistically. However, that fact was never proven and the inoculation program was never reinstated.

         The emphasis during the Reagan years and future administrations turned toward narcotics enforcement. President Bush's "war on drugs," naming a "drug czar" and passing laws that seized assets purchased with drug funds from convicted drug dealers, were part of this effort. This "war on drugs" was a term that became common place for federal law enforcement officials. Unfortunately, laws are continually broken and Western and Northern Michigan undoubtedly reflected this crime problem in the past and it will continue in the future.

         Though priorities have changed over time, history proves to be a learning experience. Federal law enforcement continues to improve training, technology and tools to combat crime in the Western District of Michigan.

Special women in the History of the Western District of Michigan

Ella M. Backus
First Female Asstant United States Attorney
1903 - 1938

Link to picture of Ella Backus in the US Attorney's Office - Circa, early 1900s

Link to picture of Ella Backus and Staff in the US Attorney's Office - Circa, early 1900s

          The Western District of Michigan has benefitted from the leadership of those appointed to the Office of the United States Attorney, but it is also proud of one of it's Assistant United States Attorneys in particular. The Western District set a precedent when it hired Ella M. Backus as an Assistant United States Attorney in 1903. In an age when traditional values dictated gender roles and job opportunities, Ms. Backus not only became the first female Assistant United States Attorney hired in the Western District, but she also became a symbol of perseverance and justice for 35 years. Ella Backus had passed the bar exam in the late 1800's without the benefit of law school. Her dedication was never doubted and only reinforced when she refused to go home ill the day before she passed away at the age of 76 in 1938.

Emily Zelenka
US Attorney Support Staff Employee 1928 - 1974

          Emily Zelenka was born on February 24, 1910. She received her secretarial training at the Davenport-McLaughlin Institute (a forerunner of Davenport College of Business) in Grand Rapids. She was a charter member of the National Secretaries Association and earned a Certified Professional Secretary degree.

          After a brief period of experience in the "outside" business world, she began her long and successful career in public service on November 12, 1928, as a Junior Stenographer with the United States Attorney's Office. Working through the ranks as a Chief Clerk, Administrative Clerk, and finally Administrative Assistant, Emily served 43 years, earning recognition many times for meritorious service and sustained superior performance.

          Emily made many friends in the court system and in the agencies with whom she came in daily contact. She was respected and highly regarded by her colleagues and co-workers. She was known for her accurate, exacting work, and untiring service.

          She worked for the following United States Attorneys from 1928 until her retirement from government service on June 20, 1975:

Edward J. Bowman

Fred C. Wetmore

Joseph M. Donnelly

Fred C. Wetmore

Joseph M. Donnelly

Fred C. Wetmore

Francis T. McDonald

Joseph F. Deeb

Wendell A. Miles

Robert J. Danhof

George E. Hill

Robert G. Quinn, Jr.

Harold D. Beaton

John P. Milanowski

Frank Spies

Updated April 15, 2015