The life and career of one of the great crime fighters in Detroit history, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Homer S. Ferguson, whose name and grand jury became synonymous in the 1940s, is the stuff that inspires Hollywood movies.
Ferguson came to Michigan from his home in Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century to attend medical school at the University of Michigan. He fainted at his first sight of blood and switched careers. He eventually was admitted to and graduated from the U-M Law School, and moved to Detroit — then a wide-open hotbed of public corruption. Ferguson practiced law for 16 years before he was appointed to the Wayne County Circuit Court.
In 1939, a young woman named Janet McDonald killed herself and her daughter and left behind letters detailing gambling rackets and police payoffs involving her former boyfriend. The investigation into the allegations made in the letters seemed to end when then-Wayne County Prosecutor Duncan McCrea said he didn’t have the staff to investigate the matter.
A citizen’s group, however, petitioned Wayne County Circuit Court to conduct a one-man grand jury investigation, and Ferguson was selected for the job.
Within two years, and after hearing testimony from 6,000 witnesses, he had nearly every top official in the city behind bars. McCrea, along with Wayne County Sheriff Thomas C. Wilcox and 23 others, was convicted of conspiring to protect vice and gambling enterprises. Mayor Richard Reading was nailed for protecting the numbers racket, three Detroit city councilmen were convicted, and the rest of the council members were forced out for taking bribes involving the development of the Herman Gardens public housing project on the city’s west side.
In turn, Detroit Police Superintendent Fred W. Fraham and three police officers were convicted for graft involving a baseball gambling ring, and Detroit contractor Abe Smith, under investigation by Ferguson for bribery involving city officials, killed himself in spectacular fashion by jumping from the 14th floor of a Chicago hotel in the middle of the day.
Ferguson left the bench and went from crime-buster to lawmaker when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1942. He served until 1955, when he was defeated by Patrick V. McNamara. Ferguson is credited with introducing the bill that added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
After leaving the Senate, Ferguson was appointed ambassador to the Philippines in 1955. The next year he was appointed to the Military Court of Appeals. He retired to Grosse Pointe from the military court in 1976 and died in 1982 at the age of 94, leaving behind a legacy as one of the state’s most ardent supporters of justice.