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The great raid
June 10, 2009
Sometime after midnight on the morning of Wednesday, February 11, 1931, Ann Arbor police observed an Oldsmobile stopping at a series of houses in the residential blocks east of the campus. At each, the driver would stay behind the wheel while a second figure, carrying an indeterminate burden, would approach the house and go inside. A few minutes later the figure would emerge from the house free of his load and reenter the car, which would move on to the next stop.
Concluding that this behavior suggested activity in violation of the constitutional prohibition of the sale and distribution of alcoholic spirits, the police pulled the car over. The driver, a teenage boy, identified himself as Shirley O'Toole, of 215 N. State. Under questioning, young O'Toole admitted that his passenger, Joseph Looney, of 104 N. Fourth, had been delivering supplies of liquor to fraternities.
It was the end of the winter exam period. Many students, done with exams, had run home for a couple of days. At week's end they would stream back to town for the biggest social event of the year—J-Hop, the three-day shindig of dances and parties. The reason for Looney's deliveries was pretty obvious.
Moving quickly, the police woke up Bert Fry, justice of the peace, who signed search warrants. Between 4 and 4:30 a.m., a raiding party of Ann Arbor police convened east of Washtenaw Avenue and began to pound on doors.
In the card room of Phi Kappa Sigma, 1443 Washtenaw, a handful of fellows were playing a late hand of poker when the telephone rang. The only pledge in the group, Edmund Love, of Flint, was told to answer it.
The voice on the line was desperate: "For God's sake, if you've got any liquor in the house, get rid of it! …They're raiding the fraternities!"
The caller was a freshman pledge at Delta Kappa Epsilon. Trapped in the house kitchen when the raiders burst in, he had leaped into a laundry hamper while the cops searched the house and sent his brothers to police headquarters. Left alone in the dark, he was moved by a burst of interfraternity concern to spread the word.
Most of the Phi Kappa Sigmas had gone home, leaving their rooms locked. Ed Love and the others had to break in to rifle through closets and desks. By Love's astounding recollection, reported 40 years later in his memoir, Hanging On, they found 37 quarts of whiskey and gin, five bottles of champagne, two cases of beer, four quarts of wine and one jug of hard cider. Apparently Joe Looney had been doing a regular business with the brothers.
As fast as they could, they poured everything down the drains. Love was told to get rid of the empties. He found space in the trash cans behind the neighboring sorority, Gamma Phi Beta.
The doorbell rang just after 7 a.m. Six policemen crowded in and searched every room. They left empty-handed. How many other houses got the word has been lost to history.
The police raiders hauled the contraband to headquarters in handsome leather suitcases confiscated from the fraternities. Police Chief Thomas O'Brien reported the total haul as roughly 75 quarts of "expensive liquors, including Scotch and rye whiskey, gin, wines, bottled cocktails, imported vermouth and rare cordials." Seventy-nine members of five houses—DKE, Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Theta Delta Chi and Kappa Sigma—were booked on charges of disorderly conduct. According to the Detroit News, "the raid was the most extensive ever staged on the campus."
U-M President Alexander Ruthven commended the police and referred the question of punishment to the University Senate Committee on Student Affairs—a committee of professors and administrators—which promptly ordered the five fraternities closed and padlocked for the rest of the year and placed on social probation for the following year. Prosecuting attorney Albert J. Rapp said that was good enough for him and dropped all charges against the arrested students, though Joe Looney, the bootlegger, landed in jail.
The sanctions against the fraternities set off a storm. Student groups howled. Nearly 200 fraternity members were forced to walk the streets in search of housing for the rest of the year, and a number of cooks and dishwashers lost their jobs—no small matter in that depression year. "Wets" in the state legislature decried the penalty as too harsh, as did a host of local leaders, including Ann Arbor Mayor Edward W. Staebler, the general secretary of the YMCA, and the president of the State Savings Bank, all of whom remarked that the current crop of students seemed better behaved than any in memory. Gilbert W. Fletcher, owner of the Calkins-Fletcher Drug Co., said it seemed unfair for five fraternities to be singled out when bootleg liquor could almost certainly be found in every fraternity on the campus or "for that matter, in almost any private home."
The penalties stood. Had it not been for the telephoned warnings of that frightened DKE freshman, the Great Raid of 1931 might have closed down a good deal more than five fraternities. In any case, J-Hop 1931 was a notably sober affair.
Sources included the Michigan Daily, the Ann Arbor News, The Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, and Edmund G. Love, Hanging On: Or How to Get Through a Depression and Enjoy Life (William Morrow & Co., 1972).
is an author and historian. His new book, The Man He Became: How Franklin Roosevelt Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, will be published by Simon & Schuster in November.