One Sunday morning some longtime Saline residents enjoying coffee at the Drowsy Parrot mentioned a murder that took place years ago on a farm just outside of town. They also mentioned wild parties with loose women out on that farm. Nobody in the cafe knew any details, but they speculated that it involved the Purple Gang, and that it had something to do with the bootlegging to which, allegedly, Saline area corn farmers were often suppliers.
I was intrigued–and when I told my wife, Kim, the story, she reminded me that we had an article about the murder at home. Kelvin and Howard Braun, the brothers who now own the farm where the murder took place, gave it to us years ago.
The article, “Back Road Crime,” appeared in the February 1942 edition of Master Detective. Credited to Washtenaw County deputy sheriff Tom Knight and one James B. Vick, it vividly elaborated on the story I’d heard at the Drowsy Parrot:
In the summer of 1921, a gray sedan pulled up in front of the Berg farm on what was then a sand road running between Saline and Milan. Two of the men approached seventy-two-year-old Lucetta Berg and asked her for water for their car. She directed them to a shed near the barn where they found her brother, George Berg, age sixty-five, and his hired man, Henry Fullmore, sixty-three. The visitors were given water and took it to their car.
A half-hour later the car returned. Lucetta saw the two men hurrying away from the shed toward the road but thought nothing of it until her brother did not respond to the dinner bell and she went to the shed.
“The lifeless bodies of George Berg and Henry Fullmore lay sprawled at her feet,” Knight and Vick wrote. “Fullmore lay crosswise and partly covering his employer.” After giving a frantic account to her two sisters in the house, Lucetta ran to the road screaming for help.
The magazine story differed from the coffee-shop talk in some significant details. Detroit’s ruthless Purple Gang was primarily made up of recent Jewish immigrants, but according to the article the two men convicted of the killing, Tony Spino and Sam Moceri, were of Italian descent. It seemed to me very unlikely that George Berg and his three elderly sisters were having any wild parties. And according to “Back Road Crime,” bootlegging had nothing to do with the murders.
Knight had interviewed one of the Bergs’ neighbors, who reported that George Berg had inherited “something like $38,000 in cash money” when his father died. Moceri, who ran a legitimate fruit business that took him into the Saline area, had heard about it and planned to steal it. A length of new rope found at the scene suggested that the perpetrators planned to tie Berg up, not to kill him. And the article concludes with Spino and Moceri confessing “to the robbery that had been planned with such tragic results.”
But if robbery was the motive, why was a “considerable amount of cash” found in Berg’s pockets? And rereading the magazine story, I noticed novelistic details no one could have known about, such as this description of Berg’s sister as she unknowingly directed the killers toward her brother: “Relieved, she brushed the moist hair from her eyes and indicated a low-roofed shed adjoining the barns.” And a few minutes later, when the men reappeared: “‘It’s those same men again!’ she exclaimed with a puzzled frown.” How could the authors have seen that gesture or that puzzled frown?
Kim and I got to know the Braun brothers a few years ago when, after reading about their selling a conservation easement to preserve their land from future development, Kim baked them a pie. We decided to get their version of what happened in what is now their barn.
We met the Brauns, now in their mid-seventies, outside the barn on their immaculate farm just southeast of Saline on the Saline-Milan Road. They had acquired the farm from the Burg family (they told me “Burg,” not “Berg,” was the correct spelling) in a complicated series of transactions. After the death of George Burg, who had no children, the farm made its way into the hands of another George Burg, nephew of the deceased, who owned Burg’s Bar on Michigan Avenue. (It later became Big Daddy’s, then Kelly’s, and is now Mangiamo Italian Grill.) When that George Burg developed cancer, the farm passed on to the Ann Arbor Trust Company. Burg’s son, Saline character “Bicycle Charlie,” lived there with what the Brauns describe as twelve hippies who wrecked the place. I figured that was the source of the wild-party, loose-women stories I’d heard at the Drowsy Parrot. Eventually the Brauns acquired the property when Charlie failed to pay his taxes.
The Brauns had their own version of the murder story, which they said they heard from their father, a neighboring farmer at the time. First, they were certain that the killers were members of the Mafia, perhaps because of their Italian names. And second, they had George Burg grabbing a pitchfork and saying, “You ain’t getting my money!” before getting shot. There were no witnesses, of course, and no mention of a pitchfork in Master Detectives. It seemed the version handed down to the brothers had undergone the same kind of creative elaboration I’d seen in Modern Detective–the kind that makes a story much more compelling but makes figuring out what really happened much harder.
Hoping to learn what actually happened in the Burg barn, without all the speculation, I visited the Saline Area Historical Society, whose offices are located in the stone basement of the Rentschler farmhouse on Michigan Avenue. There I met with Agnes Dikeman, who had put together files that confirmed, for one thing, that Master Detectives had misspelled both victims’ last names: It was “Burg,” not “Berg,” and Folmer, not Fullmore.
Dikeman’s files included a story from the Saline Observer, dated July 21, 1921. It contained the same information that Master Detectives retold some twenty-one years later–without the made-up details. “There are various theories as to the cause of the crime,” the paper reported. “It is the general belief that theft was first in mind. During the past few years Mr. Burg has employed at different times foreigners, who knew his place well and that no telephone was there. This may be the basis for a theory that some one or more of the gang may have been former employees, and if so, that Burg recognized them whereupon, in order to escape the result of his detection, Burg was shot.”
By “foreigners” the reporter evidently meant Italians, though the only suspect named at that early date was the getaway driver, Peter Orlando. Orlando was subsequently released because he claimed to have been forced to drive the murderers, and because he cooperated with the police in identifying them.
The article concluded that because there was no evidence of a struggle, the crime can be looked upon “as only a cold-blooded, deliberate murder, possibly because of fear of detection, as their leaving so suddenly after the shooting without further search for money would indicate that they were frightened away before they had accomplished their purpose.” The article didn’t mention the rope, so important to Deputy Knight’s tie-up-and-rob theory, but that is not surprising–Knight’s story went on to emphasize the detective work that led to catching the murderers, and that detail was not likely to emerge just days after the crime.
Dikeman also showed me her own typewritten notes about the crime, titled “Double Murder in the Burg Barn.” She could not recall her source–possibly one of the Detroit papers–but she had revised the text in her own handwriting and added an account of her 2005 meeting with the victim’s grandson, John F. Burg. The account referred to the Saline Observer story and added a few details: “Burg, with a bullet hole lodged near the base of the skull, still had the hoof knife [they had been trimming the hooves of their sheep] in his hand. Folmer, too, had been shot at such close range that his flesh and hair were badly burned. Both men had fallen right where they were working.” Whatever the source, these realistic details suggest an execution rather than a robbery.
Dikeman’s notes go on to ask, “What drew the men to the Burg farmstead in the first place and what was the cause of this cold-blooded murder? There were several theories–a botched theft, jealousy, disgruntled former employee, a hit for another reason–who knows what evil lurks in the mind of man.”
My last stop was the Ann Arbor District Library, where I dug through microfilm of The Ann Arbor Times News until I located a July 22, 1921, story about the murders. There I found, in mind-numbing prose with many misspellings, this explanation of the killers’ motives:
“Spano [sic] is alleged to have admitted to county officers that when the four men went to the barn there was no thought of murdering the farmers. Guns were leveled at the hands of the men and they were told to throw up their hands. Burg and Fulmer [sic] granted this request but when the bandits started to bind the men Burg is said to have refused to consent and started to resist. It was at this juncture that one of the bandits is said to have shot Burg through the head and this was immediately followed by the shooting of Fulmer. The bandits jumped into their car as soon as the shooting was concluded and hastened toward Detroit.”
Through the haze of “is alleged to have” and “is said to have” language, I felt I was finally getting a glimpse of what happened in that barn. There was no Mafia or Purple Gang, no farmers involved in bootlegging. No wild parties, no pitchfork. Burg and Folmer were set up to be robbed and killed when they resisted. Peel away the glamorous guesswork, and the murder of two good men is a sad tale of greed, incompetence, and good detective work.
I should admit at this point that I’m not above engaging in salacious speculation myself. A year ago, I wrote an article for the Community Observer about suggestions that back during Prohibition–again!–there might have been prostitution going on above a certain bar in downtown Saline. That bubble was popped when longtime residents pointed out that the lodgings in question weren’t built until the 1950s.
Warier this time, I rechecked my sources–and realized there was still one unanswered question: how many people were in the barn with the two victims? Deputy Knight in Master Detectives reports that Lucetta Burg was certain that three men hurried away from the barn to the car. The Ann Arbor Times News article reported that four men went to the barn. So, how many were there? Two men confessed and were convicted, though they pleaded not guilty and insisted, according to Knight, “that the fatal shots had been fired by ‘the tall man’ whom neither knew.” So there were at least three bad guys in the barn.
Knight continues: “Although many suspects were questioned during the next few weeks, none could be identified as among the others who had taken part in the crime. By now, though, we were satisfied that we had the guiding lights of the midday slayings in custody.” Guiding lights, yes, but not necessarily the shooter. The unnamed “tall man” might have been a fabrication, an attempt to throw the blame onto a figure nobody could find. But somebody else was in the barn! Perhaps the two men on trial were understandably reluctant to rat out a dangerous hit man–but there I go again with my salacious speculation.
Agnes Dikeman had it right: Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men?