Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Cockney Bandit

re-posted from my blog "Weird Detroit"


Although the self-sustaining town within the sprawling medical complex at Eloise was often perceived as merely a mental asylum, it also functioned as both an infirmary and poorhouse, as well it served as a general hospital. Many of the cemetery plots on the grounds are testament to this fact and are occupied by destitute patients who died there naturally, without proper means for burial and not, as some are prone to believe, because of ghoulish botched psychiatric experiments and maltreatment.

Of the many patients housed in the facility, a few were of notorious merit, including the aforementioned music "maestros," along with the industrial inventor, Elijah McCoy, who devised a lubricator for the steam engine, among other patents, and was the source of the phrase "the real McCoy" in the English lexicon.

Of lesser note, but newsworthy just the same, was the infamous Morris Greeson. He was better known as the "Cockney Bandit" (or Thug) and served a stint of four years in Eloise recovering from a debilitating spinal injury he sustained during a robbery that left him paralyzed from the waist down. His story delves deeper than that of a bum luck petty criminal though and involves calculated murder, familial intrigue and finally, unwarranted redemption.

Morris Greeson (He was oft referred to as Maurice -- which may be his birth name -- and perhaps due to a misspelling he was called Maurice Gresser as well. He also went by the alias Harry Lewis.) came to Detroit from London, England after being bought out of his British military service by his parents at the age of 16. Having run off to join the army he was none too pleased by their intrusion into his manhood and set off for America, landing in Detroit in 1916. When the United States became involved in World War I he enlisted once more and served honorably, having seen combat in France. His promising enterprise as an upstanding citizen and expatriate would end there and serve as the apex for the rest of his life.

His downfall began with the arrival of a brother named Michael and his new bride 19 year old Lillian Greeson. Childhood sweethearts, the couple had married in London in the spring of 1920 against the protestations of her family and later boarded a ship to Detroit, arriving sometime in June of that year. Just a few weeks later on July 19th the expectant mother was murdered in her room at the house the newlyweds were boarding. With Michael missing from the residence and supposedly tending to his brother Morris's recent "illness" across town he became the main suspect in the crime. When several witnesses placed the two brothers nearby the crime scene at the time of the murder and it became known that Michael had bought a $5,000 insurance policy on his deceased wife they were arrested on suspicion and held pending charges. Both were eventually charged with murder though a confession by Morris, which he later retracted, all but sealed Michael's fate and though his first trial ended in a hung jury, a retrial sent him to prison for life at the Marquette Prison Branch. The murder charge against Morris was dropped but his contrary testimony during the trial gave the Detroit Police cause to charge him with perjury though he was exonerated on that charge as well.


Whether because of his notoriety -- the trials were the sensation of the town -- or a downturn in his prospects he ventured into a series of robberies which would gain him the sobriquet of the "Cockney bandit" because of his distinct English accent born in the East End of London. In the next few years he robbed several drug stores in the North Woodword district and though he was fingered and tagged as the culprit, he beat the state's charges in two successive trials, which only added to his legend.

All legends great and small have their foibles and missteps and Morris Greeson's came in the form of a bullet lodged at the base of his spine from a robbery gone awry. On April 11, 1923 while climbing through a window at a drug store he intended to burglarize, a shop clerk shot him in the back rendering him paralyzed. When he was brought before the court his notoriety as much as his frail, pathetic condition allowed him a reprieve to Eloise Hospital where he was expected to die within a year from his injuries. After four years of defiant rehabilitation he regained use of his hand and arms (from the looks of his stride in the pictures above, his legs as well! though it seems that wasn't the case at all.) and this brought his old irascible tendencies to surface and he made the headlines again. This time in 1927 by "muscling" into the business of fellow inmate Gordon Stanley, who worked in the tailor shop on the hospital grounds, and in the process shooting him in the stomach, though the wound proved to be non-fatal, whereby Stanley identified Greeson as the perpetrator.

Somehow the semi-invalid managed to get bonded and during this time managed to pull off another armed robbery along with two accomplices, brothers Peter and William Arsenault. Having let Greeson out of the car before the stickup the brothers robbed Fred Gnekow at gunpoint inside the drug store at Mack and Gray avenues. When fleeing they failed to pick up the hobbled bandit and left there to flee on crutches he was easily identified by both Gnekow and a schoolgirl, 17, named Margaret Neuman.

During the trial that followed he wasn't shown the same compassion or leniency by the jury or the judge and was sentenced to 20 to 40 years at Jackson Prison. While he was settling into his long sentence his brother Michael received a reprieve in 1930 when his lawyer finagled a deal that would get his client released, pending deportation back to England, having served 10 years of hard labor.

The same deal would come for Morris some 6 years later aided by the international urging of politicians, celebrities and his beloved sister Dora, who had moved to Detroit during the murder trial in 1920 and had testified to their character and given support to her brothers during their legal ordeals. When it was time for Morris to be transported back to England along with fellow deportees George Owen (England) and Frank Filip (Italy), it was billed by the state as both a cost saving measure and a means of dignity granted to a dying man, though there is no evidence that Greeson was at death's door despite his decrepit state. In fact, in an op-ed piece in the May 29, 1936 edition of The Herald-Journal concerning differences in the American-British psyche concerning crime and capital punishment, his case was mentioned and he was quoted as saying (as Maurice Gresser!) that "he would live." In the meantime he elated just to be going home, exclaiming, "Blimey, but it's great to be 'omeward bound and it 'ardly seems possible I'll be in London in a fortnight." But so it was on March 27, 1936 as he waited in the deportation office for his next connection en route to his freedom.

Though it's uncertain just how long he did live afterwards, Greeson was surprisingly given an almost heroes welcome back in his homeland, being granted a personal reporter by Lord Rothermere that greeted his ship some 300 miles away at its docking in Ireland. A throng of reporters also monitored the occasion and were shocked and dismayed with the treatment the former bandit was given. From special ship privileges to a private gangplank at departure so that he could leave the ship incognito, it was an alarming spectacle usually reserved for only royalty and high celebrity. Of which he seemingly now belonged despite the ignominious hair-shirt he shouldered along with that elevated title.


FURTHER READING


1920

To Face Charge Of Slaying Bride; The Border Cities Star, July 23, 1920

Bride Slain By Husband; Charge; The Pittsburgh Press, July 24, 1920

'Not Guilty' On Charge Of Murdering His Wife; The Ludington Daily News, July 26, 1920

Greeson Tells Of Early Courtship; Abused In Cells; The Border Cities Star, November 19, 1920

Greeson Charges Ill-Treatment By Police Officials; The Border Cities Star, November 20, 1920

Surgeons Disagree At Greeson Trial; The Border Cities Star, November 25, 1920

Jury Fail To Reach Verdict In Greeson Trial In Detroit; The Boder Cities Star, November 29, 1920


1921

Greeson Trial Draws Crowd; The Border Cities Star, February 8, 1921

Claims Hearing Death Threat By Greeson; The Border Cities Star, February 11, 1921

Raps Police; Break In Greeson Trial; The Border Cities Star, February 25, 1921

Morris Greeson Pleads Not Guilty; The Border Cities Star, March 16, 1921

Judge Reserves Decision; The Border Cities Star, May 4, 1921


1923

Alibi Supported; The Border Cities Star, January 5, 1923

Jurors Fail To Agree On Greeson Case; The Border Cities Star, January 8, 1923

Panel Exhausted; The Border Cities Star, January 22, 1923


1928

'Cockney Bandit' Is In Toils Again; The Border Cities Star, March 20, 1928

Greeson Denies He Made Confession; The Border Cities Star, March 20, 1928

One Brother Freed; The Border Cities Star, March 28, 1928

Untitled; The Owosso Argus-Press, March 28, 1928

Pal Of Greeson Is To Give State Aid; The Border Cities Star, May 3, 1928

Witnesses Assail  Alibi Of Greeson; The Border Cities Star, May 10, 1928


1930

Pleas For Inmates Come Before Green; The Owosso Argus-Press, December 26, 1930


1935

Gandhi Aide In Mercy Plea; The Border Cities Star, August 7, 1935


1936

Greeson To Be Deported; The Border Cities Star, March 3, 1936

Oust Bandit; The Border Cities Star, March 25, 1936

'Cockney Bandit' Waits Trip Home; The Rochester Journal, March 27, 1936

Has Paid For His Crimes; The Border Cities Star, March 27, 1936

The 'Cockney Bandit,' His Crime Career Over, Goes Back To Homeland To Die; The Milwaukee Journal, April 6, 1936

Execution Of Hauptmann Brought Scathing Blasts From Critics In England; The Herald-Journal, May 29, 1936


1952

Case Of The Honeymoon Slaying; The Binghamton Press, June 15, 1952

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