“Death at the Hands of the Belgian”: The Oscar Collins Murder Case of 1921

Oscar Collins as he appeared on the day that he entered Marquette State Prison in May 1921.

Ellen Crowe of Alma as she appeared in a montage along with her five children that she left behind in 1921.

Brown Street neighborhood in Alma as it appears today. Both the Crowe and Collins families lived on or near this street in 1921 when Ellen Crowe was brutally murdered.

These railroad tracks that Ellen Crowe walked down on the evening of February 5, 1921, ultimately led to her doom. Oscar Collins either waited for Crowe to walk by, or he followed her home that evening.

In the end, the scratches on Oscar Collins’s face caught up with him.

  On a night in early February 1921, a young woman named Ellen Crowe was attacked and brutally strangled to death on her way home from shopping in Alma. Crowe tried to fight off her attacker, swinging and digging at his face as two strong hands choked her. The murderer then dropped the young mother’s body at a crime scene fifty yards from her home. The neighborhood was south of the area formerly known as Millerville. Ellen Crowe’s death was Alma’s second murder in four years, and both had taken place only five blocks away from each other.

In a­­ sense, the death of Ellen Crowe (sometimes spelled Crow) was the result of the burgeoning liquor trade during Prohibition. Money was to be made selling moonshine whiskey, and every Gratiot County township had its liquor law violators. With moonshine quickly selling for $20 a jug, big and small stills operated in all parts of the county. At Crowe’s murder, the Lansing State Journal reported that Gratiot County officials knew “that it (was) practically impossible to keep moonshine out of Gratiot County.” In response to this homicide, Gratiot law enforcement immediately searched for a murderer and cracked down on a liquor ring in Alma.

Ellen Crowe, age 28, was a dedicated mother with a good reputation. She and her husband, Thomas, raised five children aged nine years to sixteen months. The Crowes struggled to support their family and had moved into their home on Brown Street less than a month earlier. Thomas Crowe took a night watchman’s job at a lumber mill in the town of Alba and had only been working there for three weeks. The situation left Ellen, who previously worked for Mrs. Laurence Sinkovits as a house cleaner, to raise the children while holding a job. Ellen sometimes walked into town for groceries along a path from Brown Street, which eventually connected to the railroad tracks. She soon learned that a nearby shack contained moonshine whiskey, and a neighbor sold it. For the sake of her children and her morals during Prohibition, Crowe became concerned about  Oscar Collins, who owned the shack and was a well-known moonshine supplier in Alma.

During the holidays of 1920, Oscar Collins was brewing and supplying buyers with whiskey as part of what was known by many as “Alma’s Moonshine Ring.” Selling moonshine around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays meant a lot of money for Collins. When someone asked about buying moonshine during a haircut at an Alma barbershop, the barber spoke up and said, “Just see Oscar Collins.” An immigrant, “Oscar Callens” arrived in the United States in New York in 1913 from Conegheim, Belgium, aboard the SS Noonland. He soon went to Chicago, married, had several children, and moved to Gratiot County. He quickly became known around Alma as “The Belgian,” possibly due to his accent and rough demeanor. Collins also had relatives in the Gratiot countryside. Most of these family members were farmers, and one of them, Victor Collins, had a farm several miles south of Alma, making it an excellent location for creating and holding moonshine.

Upon arrival in her neighborhood, Ellen Crowe soon learned that Oscar Collins was dealing in moonshine,  confronted Collins about his shack, and threatened him to stop or she would turn Collins into the police. As a result of the threats, Collins moved his moonshine to the local lumber mill near the railroad tracks. Because of Ellen Crowe, Oscar Collins lost business around the holiday season, and Collins remarked more than once to others that “She (Crowe) will get what’s coming to her.” In fits of anger over lost liquor sales, Oscar Collins made comments to several men inside the whiskey ring. Collins stated that Ellen Crowe “squawked” too much, she would pay the price, and that “I will fix her” and “I will take care of her.”

On the early evening of Saturday, February 5, 1921, Ellen Crowe went to the post office and the  Cleveland Grocery on Bridge Street, then stopped at her employer’s home, Mrs. Laurence Sinkovits on Grafton Avenue. As Ellen prepared to leave for home, Mrs. Sinkovits urged Ellen to be careful about walking down the tracks to get home as the route could be dangerous. Ellen went that direction because there were no sidewalks, the railroad tracks were drier, and this offered a shorter route home. Crowe said goodbye to Mrs. Sinkovits, then proceeded down the steps and went her way. It was sometime after 7:00 p.m. Ellen Crowe would never be seen alive again.

Early the following day, February 6, 1921, around 10:00 a.m., two boys, Donald Blanck and Paul Ritter traveled along the path from the railroad tracks, then went past Collins’ shack and found a body. It was that of Ellen Crowe, who laid just over fifty yards from her home in the pathway. Near the body were a letter, newspaper, a bottle of ketchup, and a jar of olives. One rubber was almost off Crowe’s left shoe, and her fur collar covered her neckline. The collar covered some of the marks on her neck. Ellen’s cap was partly off, but her purse remained intact, suggesting that the killer was not after her money. The police were called and soon appeared on the scene of the crime. After a quick autopsy, which showed five finger marks on the right side of her neck and three on the left, the coroner ruled that death resulted from strangulation. When police and neighbors went to the Crowe house, they learned that the children had spent the night alone as their mother had failed to come home. Another murderer was on the loose in Alma, and the police immediately went into motion to find out who killed Ellen Crowe and why.

The police and sheriff’s department quickly controlled information about the murder and the investigation. Most of this resulted from the bungled and confusing elements surrounding the Beatrice Epler case in 1917. During the Epler murder, Alma police felt that too many people helped muddy the investigation as they went after a reward to help solve the crime. Also, the lack of arrests nearly three months after Epler’s murder contributed to a long, drawn-out trial and conviction. Many in Gratiot County felt that there remained questions about who killed Beatrice Epler and if the right person had been convicted or not. After four years, the court had not yet awarded the reward money for those who then supposedly helped solve the Epler murder. Strangely enough, the resolution of the reward money took place just after Ellen Crowe’s death and subsequent trial.

  In 1921, the Alma police and county sheriff’s department followed the strict rule not to tell anyone on the outside about the Ellen Crowe investigation. Police did allow one local newspaperman, Homer Dunham of the Alma Record, to be present while questioning suspects. Outside newspapers like the Lansing State Journal and Detroit Free Press wanted and demanded the same type of role as observers and access to information in the case that the Alma Record and Gratiot County Herald received. However, the “outside newspapers” were kept out and objected.  

Starting on the same day that Ellen Crowe’s body was found, the Alma police acted on tips and confessions from those who were  part of those who belonged to the “Alma Whiskey Ring.” The day after the murder, police brought nearly a dozen men to Alma’s City Hall for questioning in what police called a “John Doe court for investigation.” It did not take long for some of the men to talk. Herbert Rigg, Victor Collins (a cousin), Julius DeVeres, Joseph DeKeiser, William Stevenson, Stanley Baker, and Howard Griffin were suspects. Other names would also be mentioned: Joe Brennan, H.L. Thompson, Dan Duffey, and Arlie Ingraham. Herbert Rigg was among the first to break and eventually turned state’s evidence. Several men had heard Oscar Collins swear that anyone who messed with his liquor trade “would get what’s coming to them.” More than one in the group said that the threats Collins made all pertained to Ellen Crowe. These confessions pointed Police Chief Vibber and Sheriff Willert to one man: Oscar Collins.

Collins was brought in that Sunday night after the murder, and police invited Homer Dunham of the Alma Record to witness what was called “the grilling.” Others in the whiskey ring had received this same procedure that consisted of repeated, rapid-fire, endless questioning that lasted most of Sunday night and into Monday morning – all in an attempt to find out who killed Ellen Crowe. As soon as Collins appeared at City Hall, the police and Homer Dunham first noticed a series of deep scratches on Oscar Collins’ face. When asked why he had such marks, Collins repeatedly stated that he received them from playing with his fourteen-month-old child earlier that weekend. Collins confessed to having been at a nearby grocery store that Saturday evening of the murder, purchased some potatoes, and walked home. While Collins admitted to dealing in moonshine whiskey, he also stated that he had been outside Alma for much of that Saturday at his cousin’s farm. Collins never admitted to killing Ellen Crowe, saying that his only encounter with Crowe occurred when she picked berries near his shack the previous summer. At that time, the Crowes lived in another house in the neighborhood. Finally, when pressed to confess to the murder, Oscar Collins stared at the police, then bluntly said, “Prove it.” He was let go that night.

However, after weighing the information gleaned from the rest of the “Alma Whiskey Ring,”  the threats by Oscar Collins, and most of all, the appearance of scratches on Collins’ face, the police arrested him five days later for the murder of Ellen Crowe. Investigators believed that  Collins had followed Ellen Crowe home that evening (he said he had been at a grocery store), or Collins waited for Ellen to pass on the trail while he hid behind his shack. Collins then attacked Crowe and proceeded to choke her to death. In her defense, Ellen Crowe swung wildly and tried to fend off the attacker by scratching his face. Unfortunately, Crowe could not defend herself against a stronger foe, but she clawed the attacker repeatedly in the face before she died. A photographer from Alma, Willard E. Baker, took pictures of the murder scene and at least one photo of Oscar Collins in the days following the murder because it showed the scratches. Over the next few months, several photographs of Collins appeared in county and state newspapers, with profiles that featured his face’s right side. Pictures of Ellen Crowe with her young children also appeared in the newspapers.

Oscar Collins was quietly arraigned later that week by the sheriff’s department, and almost no one in Ithaca knew that Collins was appearing before a judge. He then sat in jail for weeks before his arraignment while others in the Alma Whiskey Ring faced the quick judgment of the county court. Judge Moinet immediately sentenced most of the men within two weeks of the murder. Several of them received six months to one year in the Ionia Reformatory. When Dan Duffey, one of the ring members, came up for arraignment, he tried to bail himself out. When he did provide bail for $1,000, additional charges were placed against him, and Duffey was forced to raise another $1,000. When he met that bail, prosecutors submitted another charge against him and asked for still larger bail. This time, Duffey, out of money and friends to bail him out, went to jail until his sentencing. As the arraignments and sentencings came down on the whiskey ring, county newspapers reminded readers that every citizen needed to cooperate with law enforcement to stop selling and distributing illegal liquor.

  In March, prosecutors showed the court cause for a case against Oscar Collins by only revealing enough evidence to warrant a trial and to avoid thus tipping their hand to the defense. This procedure left the defense attorney, Romaine Clark, guessing what precisely the prosecution had on Oscar Collins. One of the problems Clark had was dealing with those from the ring which turned against Collins to save themselves. A key witness was Herbert Rigg, who claimed that he twice heard Collins threaten to kill Crowe on New Year’s Day, saying, “I’ll fix her (Ellen Crowe) before she ever squawks on me again.” Rigg noted that he was with Collins on that day when they retrieved whiskey, which Collins hid by a nearby bridge. Rigg also stated that he believed that Ellen Crowe was murdered because of what she knew and that she was going to the police. After reviewing the motions by the prosecution, the court granted a trial for Oscar Collins, who remained in the Gratiot County jail for two more months. When Collins was allowed a visit with his wife and children, the entire Collins family was observed and told they could only talk to each other in English.

On May 9, 1921, the Oscar Collins murder case began and lasted ten days. Almost all of the jurors save one were either farmers or retired farmers in Gratiot County. Collins appeared relaxed,  happy, and smiling at his table during the first two days of the trial, believing that the prosecution would fail to convict him. Collins’ wife and children also saw him for a few minutes in court daily. Things for Oscar Collins began to change on the third day of the trial. One of the points of the trial dealt with the marks on Ellen Crowe’s neck and the size of Collins’ hands. Prosecutors argued that the bruises and marks on Crowe’s neck were a match, even though the defense questioned this throughout the trial. Regardless, the brutality of Ellen Crowe’s death kept being brought in front of the jury. In another twist, the sheriff testified that he examined the child Collins claimed scratched him. However, the sheriff remained unconvinced that a young child could have caused large and deep scratches just a day or hours before police had first questioned Oscar Collins.

Three men also testified to the threats Collins made against Crowe, including Arthur Easley, a tailor who bought moonshine from Collins several times and had been inside the Collins shack. He was another man to testify to Collins’ threat: “By God, I’ll get her (Ellen Crowe). I do not dare to keep liquor at the house.”   Neighbors also testified that Oscar Collins was one of two men they saw outside, looking and pointing toward the scene of the murder the following morning. Another problem for Oscar Collins was his alibi for the evening of the murder, which he changed since his arrest. Although Collins confessed to dealing in illegal liquor and implicated his cousin Victor Collins in the process, Oscar Collins had concocted his alibi about being out of town during most of the day of the murder and that Collins was out at his cousin’s house. Now Oscar Collins said he could not have been in Alma when the murder occurred. This explanation did not match earlier testimony and conflicted with the story that Collins had been at a grocery store that Saturday night. When he took the witness stand in his defense, Collins confessed to selling moonshine, but he was adamant about being innocent of the murder of Ellen Crowe. Although prosecutors pressed him about changing his story, Collins remained firm that he was now telling the truth. Still, there remained inconsistencies from defense witnesses about where Oscar Collins was and what he did on the day of the murder. Also, there was conflicting testimony about when some defense witnesses saw the scratches on Collins’ face. As the trial wound down,  some defense testimony did not agree or sound convincing.

On the last day of the trial, a Saturday, the court met, and the jury adjourned at 11:00 a.m. The verdict came back in three hours: Oscar Collins was guilty of first-degree murder, and he would receive a life sentence in Marquette, Michigan. On the afternoon of May 27, 1921, Oscar Collins, accompanied by deputies Ray Willert and Sydney Williams, arrived at Marquette State Prison to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Before the start of the trial, Ellen Crowe’s funeral took place on February 10, 1921, and she was placed in Alma’s Riverside Cemetery vault. During coverage of the murder, some newspapers referred to her by her former name, Mamie Ellen Stull. Soon, Ellen’s husband and children picked up and moved to the Grand Rapids area, where Thomas Stull later remarried.

Collins immediately tried to appeal his case to the State Supreme Court. A group of people made up of family members and a Belgian newspaper in Detroit solicited and raised $2000 for the appeal. The appeal was denied in 1923, and Collins continued his prison time at Marquette. As another consequence of his crime, Oscar Collins’ wife divorced him.

However, Collins got a break in August 1935 when Michigan Governor Fitzgerald made him eligible for immediate parole. Judge Moinet, who oversaw the trial in 1921 and now served as a judge in the Eastern Michigan District Federal Court of Detroit, refused to recommend Collins for any early out. On the other hand, Gratiot County Judge Kelly Searl, who had been the assistant prosecutor in 1921, wrote for a pardon and said that” while the jury found Collins guilty, there always has been doubt in my mind.”  Collins’ prison records show that he worked as a janitor and had been noted for good behavior.

After he got out of prison, “The Belgian” became a naturalized citizen in 1942,  later lived at Jackson’s Trailer Camp in Van Dyke, Michigan, and died in 1973. Collins was buried in Bay County, where his marker read “Father.”

Strangely, however, in all of the years since the 1921 trial of Oscar Collins, no other person was ever arrested or tried for the murder of Ellen Crowe. She was simply an Alma woman concerned about her children and the liquor traffic in Gratiot County during Prohibition and who met her fate at the hands of “The Belgian.”

Copyright 2022 James M. Goodspeed

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