A photo from the Library of Congress shows the city of Detroit celebrating its bicentennial during an event organized by then-Mayor William Cotter Maybury.

A photo from the Library of Congress shows the city of Detroit celebrating its bicentennial during an event organized by then-Mayor William Cotter Maybury.

Photo provided by Mickey Lyons

New book highlights less heroic tales of Detroit’s creation

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published September 18, 2018

 A monument to Maybury still sits in the city’s Grand Circus Park.

A monument to Maybury still sits in the city’s Grand Circus Park.

Photo provided by Mickey Lyons

METRO DETROIT — "I think we have such a deep history, in Detroit in particular, that can be told better through our missteps than our triumphs,” said local historian Mickey Lyons. “In this case, it’s the history of Detroit as told through bad guy biographies.”

Lyons, a blogger at the helm of ProhibitionDetroit.com, recently released her latest foray into the city’s past with “Wicked Detroit,” a collection of stories detailing the more amusing and questionable efforts of infamous Detroit historical figures.

Finding fodder for the book took time, but it certainly wasn’t a difficult task, the author said.

“I had to do some picking and choosing, and I stopped right around Prohibition,” Lyons explained. “I looked at individual biographies I felt hadn’t been studied enough.”

What she found while drudging through the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library and the archives of the Detroit Free Press surprised even her, a dedicated city history savant.

“William Cotter Maybury might’ve been the most misunderstood,” Lyons said of Detroit’s late mayor, first elected in 1897. “That’s in part because there was a (columnist) ... back in the day who was pretty sure Maybury was gay and seemed to have a vendetta against him for that. (Maybury) wasn’t a particularly forceful mayor — he didn’t do a whole lot of good like his predecessor (Hazen Pingree), but he wasn’t all that bad.”

But if you’re looking for some juicy details in “Wicked Detroit,” just like in anyone’s past, you’ll find them.

“Charles Bowles. He is the only mayor of Detroit to be recalled, and it took less than nine months for him to be recalled,” she said. “He was put into power by the Ku Klux Klan, and he never denied they supported him. They had burning cross rallies for him. I couldn’t find one redeeming trait for him.”

Familiar names make appearances in Lyons’ book: Joseph Campau, a corrupt businessman so unruly he was excommunicated by the Catholic church, and Augustus Woodward, an eccentric judge known for his reputation as a lush. And there are some lesser-known figures, like Lyons’ personal favorite, the bartenders.

“Barkeeps were corrupt, occasionally violent, and occasionally cheated and stole and hung out with criminals. But they were just so charming,” she said. “Like Al Capone was kind of a hero among Chicagoans because he provided soup kitchens during the Depression, bars were the first place many immigrants turned to to find their community after they arrived. The bar was your bank, your post office, your special gathering hall all rolled up into one.”

Many of the findings in Lyons’ book are more official records, like newspaper articles or public documents. And those types of treasures aren’t as hard to access as you might think, according to Mark Bowden, coordinator of special collections at the Burton Historical Collection.

“Types of materials (in the collection) include nearly 300,000 historic photographs and postcards; 500,000 books, 700 newspaper titles, maps, yearbooks, telephone books, city directories and manuscripts — which are the personal papers of individuals or the recordings of businesses, government agencies, churches and organizations,” he explained in an email.

Much of the collection, which was founded in 1915, is available digitally on the Detroit Public Library’s website. 

And while the official records are fun to sift through, if you ask Birmingham Historical Museum Director Leslie Pielack, the really good stuff lies in the obscure.

“I think the general public is surprised that there is not one good source they can go to for all questions. There is no equivalent to Google at this point in the archives world, but the more records are digitized and shared, the closer we are getting,” 

But archivists like those available at libraries and museums are always in the mood for a challenge, and Pielack said they help researchers get started.

“My hat’s off to researchers (like Lyons) who are determined to look at local collections and archives until they get the story they’re looking for,” she said.

The release of Lyons’ book, filled with tales of mischief, coincides well with the arrival of fall, she said. 

“As it gets colder, we sit by the campfire and tell stories. And these are some good stories to tell,” she said.