October 6, 2021

The Witch of Delray

by Not Past It

Background show artwork for Not Past It

Depression-era Detroit is known for many things: baseball, bootlegging, and the booming auto industry. But what about a witch? On October 5, 1931, a Wayne County jury reached a verdict in the trial of an immigrant woman accused of murder and of being...The Witch of Delray.

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Simone: Welcome, Not Past It listeners. You feel that? That chill in the air? October is here, and that means spooky season is in full swing. All month long, we’re bringing you true scary stories, ripped right from the pages of history. Because sometimes, hauntings are just histories unresolved. 

Simone: And for our first stop in this spooky tour, we’re traveling to Detroit, Michigan in the early 1930s.

Simone: Picture this: you’re walking down the street on Detroit’s southwest side, in a neighborhood called Delray. The streets are bustling with people—going to work, doing their shopping. And among the crowd, you notice one woman in particular. She’s rather short, a little over five feet tall, dressed all in black. Her dark hair is tucked into a white crocheted cap. As she walks by, you notice people jump to get out of her way. They avert their gaze. And then whisper to each other as she passes by. 

Simone: You continue to watch her as she walks up the porch steps of an old boarding house. And before she disappears behind the front door, you catch a glimpse of her face…her hollowed cheeks, the deep lines around her mouth, and her eyes. Man, those eyes. Light grey and piercing.  

Simone: You ask one of the locals, “Hey, what’s up with that woman? The one at the boarding house?”

Simone: “Oh, her? That’s Rose Veres. She’s bad luck. You know what they call her, don’t you?” 

Simone: “The Witch of Delray.”


Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history—and this month we’re telling you the stories that still haunt our world. I'm Simone Polanen. 


Simone: Rose Veres, aka “The Witch of Delray,” took over newspaper headlines in 1931 when she went on trial for murder. And on October 5 of that year—90 years ago this week—the verdict in that murder trial was reached. 

Simone: Today on the show, we investigate Rose’s story, the allegations launched against her, and how she came to be known as The Witch of Delray.

Simone: So hang on to those broomsticks! We’re taking to the skies, after the break.

Simone: In the early 1900s, the Delray neighborhood on the southwest side of Detroit was a bustling place. Brimming with the energy of the booming automobile industry and nearby manufacturing facilities.

Karen Dybis: It was a very densely populated, business-rich community. Whether it be banking, funeral homes, bakeries, grocery stores, little corner bars, candy stores for the kids, florists, you name it.

Simone: That’s Karen Dybis. She’s a Detroit-based reporter and local historian. She says, back then, Delray was a home to newcomers from all over—immigrants from across Europe, Southerners migrating north. And in Delray, they built a tight-knit, thriving community. 

Karen: You could have these very rich social connections with your neighbors, and neighbors were very well connected to one another via, like, porches, outdoor activities. So they spend a lot of time straightening up their, their area around their home, you know, sweeping the sidewalk, planting flowers. So extremely warm, welcoming. It evokes strong feelings in the people who live there, very loyal to it and define themselves by that Delray neighborhood.

Simone: And in 1911, the protagonist of our story, a woman named Rose, landed in this neighborhood. She’d come over to the States from Hungary—looking for her husband who had left her behind in the old country.  

Karen: And he had come to the United States with the promise of settling and then bringing her to join him. And he disappeared in a way, didn't follow up on that promise. 

Simone: Her first husband never reentered her life, and Karen says that Rose tried her best once she got to Detroit to build something new. But it was hard. She found herself alone in a new country, in a new city, without a job, barely knowing how to speak English. 

Simone: Things started looking up for her, though, when she met Gabor Veres, a local laborer, and like Rose, a Hungarian immigrant living in Delray. They married in 1916 and had three sons together. And around 1920, Rose and Gabor opened up a boarding house on Delray’s Medina Street.

Karen: In this time in Detroit, boarding houses are extremely common. They serve as a way for immigrant families to either support incoming immigrants, like single men who might be coming to work in the automotive factories, or larger family households that would combine so that they could support one another in this kind of like beginning times in the United States.

Simone: Rose and Gabor’s guests were mostly men in transition—like widowers—or recent immigrants from Hungary working low wage jobs. They’d sleep in the basement, on cots. Whatever money they didn’t send back home would go towards supporting their modest accommodations.

Simone: For several years, with Gabor and the boarding house, things seemed to be looking up for Rose. But then...tragedy struck.

Karen: Gabor and his friend were repairing a car in a closed garage in January in Detroit. They were likely repairing the car, got cold, they closed the garage door. And, unaware that carbon monoxide was, it was poisonous and would kill them, succumbed to that gas within the garage.

Simone: When Rose lost her beloved Gabor, Karen says she didn't hide her devastation. Rose started wearing all black and kept up the dark wardrobe for years, long after he died. She was left to raise their three sons, all under the age of 14, on her own. And she was also left to run the boarding house by herself—as owner and landlady. Reports say she cared for, at times, up to 16 men. It was not easy work.

Karen: She would work herself from very early in the morning. So like, if you picture a four or 5:00 AM wake up time to prepare these men for their jobs, get up early, fix them a meal, get her sons ready for school, get them off.

Simone: With the men off at work and her boys at school, Rose would spend the rest of her day doing chores around the house—tending to the linens, cleaning the constant stream of soot and dust coming from the nearby factories. Then, it was dinnertime. More washing, more cleaning. Putting the kids to bed. The next day, she’d do it all over again.

Karen: She probably was working 12 to 14-hour days. And Rose definitely, as a person, shows the wear and tear of that kind of existence. The stress that she probably feels is visible in any photograph that you look of her, where she is a youngish woman, but because of probably the weight of, not only her circumstance, but the, the heaviness of the work that she's doing, really makes her look much older. 

Simone: That stress seemed to manifest in other ways, too. Rose had a reputation for being very direct. Quick to shout. If her boarders didn’t help her out around the house, or fell behind on payments, she was sure to make her anger known.

Simone: This reputation seeped outside of the house, into the neighborhood. Apparently, Rose was a bit of a busybody—couldn't resist commenting on other people's lives and businesses. Let's just say, within the tight-knit community of Delray, Rose was not the most loved individual.

Simone: And then, more tragedy. But this time, it hit the whole country. In the fall of 1929, the stock market crashed, sending Detroiters—and the rest of America—into deeply uncertain times. The unemployment rate skyrocketed, the economy was crashing, bread lines snaked around street corners and down sidewalks. People were hurting, and looking for something—or someone—to be held accountable.   

Karen: There's a lot of hard time to be had in Detroit, in this era. But if you had some kind of, like, person that you could blame it on. I think people found comfort in that.

Simone: And in Delray, well, the person that people began to blame their troubles on was Rose.

Karen: If a woman's husband left her, it's because of Rose. Rose is to blame for Harry losing his job. They connect her in these ways to the bad tidings of a neighborhood.

Simone: A lot of Rose's neighbors were immigrants from Hungary like her. They had certain Old Country superstitions. They started calling Rose a witch.

Karen: It was probably kind of one of those, “oh, that old, witch,” kind of things that they might've said in just common conversation. “That old witch, you see how she’s in all black?”

Simone: The name stuck. She fit the part in many ways: with her shaky reputation; her dour appearance; plus those striking, pale, blue-grey eyes...

Simone: People believed she possessed what they called “strange powers,” and that she would cast an evil eye that could cause illness or unemployment.

Simone: Soon, Rose Veres’s reputation as the Witch of Delray was cemented.

Pam Grossman: When one is calling you a witch, it is meant to cast you as less than human, to cast you as threatening, and to potentially imply that you are a threat that needs to be snuffed out

Simone: That’s Pam Grossman. She’s the host of The Witch Wave podcast and self-identifies as a witch. And she says that the concept of “the witch” is consistently present throughout history and around the world. 

Pam: Virtually every culture in their own language has a word for witch, or some variation thereof. You know, a threatening, often malevolent, being who uses magic or supernatural powers to influence others for their own personal gain

Simone: Across cultures, women who get labeled ‘witches’ tend to share some common characteristics.

Pam: Sometimes it was a woman who was a widow and had land that other people wanted access to. They were often women who were what we would now consider middle aged, um, in their forties. They are usually on the fringes of society, they are usually a subversive being of some sort.

Simone: Ok so let me get this straight. Widow who owns property. In her 40s, not conventionally attractive. And abhorred by her community. That sure sounds a lot like Rose from the old boarding house on Medina Street.

Simone: But in her case, the witch label was more than just a nickname. It was something more malicious. Like when her husband, Gabor, died, the neighbors whispered that maybe, that wasn’t an accident at all. Maybe Rose herself shut that garage door on purpose. Maybe, she was truly...evil.

Simone: ‘Cause oh yeah, did I not mention? There were all these other deaths, too.

Simone: See, people who lived in Rose’s boarding house kept turning up dead. And the deaths fanned the flames of the superstitions into something more potent. Something even more like a witch hunt.

Simone: That’s after the break. 

Simone: Welcome back.

Simone: Before the break, we introduced you to Rose Veres, a widowed Hungarian immigrant, a boarding house owner, and—if her neighbors in the Delray section of Detroit are to be believed—a witch. 

Simone: Strange things seemed to happen in her boarding house on Medina Street. 

Simone: Even before her husband Gabor’s death in 1927, neighbours were suspicious of what was going down at Rose’s place. 

Simone: In October of 1925, police showed up at the house after one of Rose’s boarders died. According to his death certificate, he died of heart failure due to alcoholism. Earlier that year, three other boarders, all of them men, had also died at the house, “officially” of cancer, a fatal injury, and pneumonia. 

Simone: Newspapers soon caught wind of these mysterious deaths, and they latched on to the story of the old witch and her suspicious boarding house. A newspaper headline at the time blared: “Four Boarders Die, Landlady is Held.”

Simone: Rose was held..for questioning, but released when an autopsy of the man in question didn’t find any evidence of foul play. 

Simone:  But neighbors still thought the situation was sketchy. The newspaper article reported:

[VO: Information supplied by a neighbor led police to question the woman, who said she contracted with all of her boarders to carry life insurance in her favor. In return she said she agreed to provide the boardage with care when he was sick and food and shelter when out of work.]

Simone: Rumor was, that she often married and then took out life insurance policies for her boarders, and was apparently flush with cash after they died. Detroit historian Karen Dybis says, word on the street was, Rose was using the money to help pay for lavish funerals.

Karen: She would, say, spend it on flowers or a small band to play, if you picture like a New Orleans kind of funeral procession. And these are Hungarian traditions that Rose was upholding, but in the context of what was happening in her neighborhood, in the Great Depression, time was not on her side.

Simone: Holding flashy events while her neighbors were struggling to make ends meet—not a good look. And after the funeral expenses, neighbors said the leftover money went straight into Rose’s pockets. There was also speculation that she was hawking the wares of the deceased at local pawn shops, and spending the money on luxuries for herself. 

Simone: By 1931, at least nine men had died in the boarding house on Medina Street. The neighbors were convinced: dark forces had to be at play, especially with all this money involved.

Karen: These neighbors, they see it as, she's done something that requires maybe an outside intervention, like magic, or that she's uniquely talented or that she got it through ill means.

Simone: All this neighborhood drama came to a head late in the summer of 1931. 

Simone: On August 23, one of Rose’s boarders—a man named Steve Mak—fell off a ladder connected to an upper-story window. Rose said that Mak was working on repairs to the boarding house. But neighbors whispered a different story: he was pushed. It was rumored that Mak owed Rose money, and with Rose’s temper…   

Karen: The whole neighborhood had gathered there to see what happened when the police and the media start showing up. So it's very much a, almost looks like a street party is happening in front of a crime scene, where you can still see the ladder where supposedly the, the gentleman who died, Steve Mak had fallen from.

Simone: Steve Mak died from his injuries two days later, at which point Rose and her 18 year-old son, Bill, were taken into custody. Then, on September 1st, Rose and Bill Veres were officially charged with Steve Mak’s murder. 

Simone: When newspaper reporters started interviewing Rose’s neighbors, they heard the many stories about the mysterious old "witch" living in Delray. They printed the spookiest photos of Rose that they could find, and the headlines that ran all across the country stirred the proverbial cauldron even more... 

Simone: Great Falls Tribune... 

[VO: “Witch  of Delray is Under Arrest!”]

[VO: “Detroit Police Are Investigating 10 Deaths In Her Home.”]

Simone: New York Daily News…

[VO: “‘Witch’ Charged In Warrant With Slaying Boarder!”]

[VO: “How a Woman’s Evil Eye Spread Terror and Death for Many Years”]

Karen: Newspapers of that era had a tabloid interest in exaggerating these stories. So, to over-exaggerate a case for your own financial gain was something newspaper owners of the era were very interested in. That's why I always try to take some of the newspaper coverage of that era with a grain of salt.

Simone: On October 1, 1931, the trial of Rose Veres and her son, Bill, officially began. But thanks to the papers, she was already guilty in the court of public opinion. At the trial, a string of neighbors and former residents at her boarding house took the stand to speak out against the infamous Witch of Delray.

Karen: One of the boarders that was in her home testified against her, that she had even said this was her intent, that she wanted to kill him for the insurance money. He heard Rose say, you know, in a conversation with her son, but also directly to him, that she had done this on purpose. Um, and if he would remain quiet about what he knew, she would give him some of that money to help offset his silence.

Simone: Two other witnesses testified that Rose had previously attempted to poison Mak, but that it was taking too long to kill him. Even an 11-year-old neighborhood girl took the stand.

Karen: A little girl who said she was out playing in the mud, saw this all go down. So to have this little girl testify, really kind of caught the jurors' eyes.

Simone: Another witness—a neighbor named Bessie Hill who lived across the street—testified that Rose had come to her home on the day of Steve Mak’s fall in a disheveled state, and asked for a towel to wash her face and hands. The prosecution argued that this was evidence that Rose and her son had beaten Steve Mak before throwing him out the attic window.

Simone: Rose did not testify. Instead she sat by—silent and stone-faced.

Simone: On October 5, 1931, after a four day trial, Rose and Bill Veres were officially found guilty of murder. They were sentenced to life in prison. The Wicked Witch of Southwest Detroit was forced to hand in her broomstick.

Simone: Rose was incarcerated for over a decade. The whole time, she and her sons maintained her innocence. 

Simone: But no one paid them much attention until a woman named Alean B. Clutts came along. Clutts was one of very few women attorneys in Michigan in the 1930s. And she was something of a badass.

Karen: She was kind of known as the patron saint of lost causes. Men who felt they were innocent and were serving time in prison would save money to write her letters, in hopes she would take their case. ​​And so she was well-known within the Detroit legal community as taking on these cases that no one else would try, and winning. 

Simone: Karen thinks it’s likely that in 1943, one of Rose’s other sons reached out to Alean, pleading with her to take on his mom’s case.

Karen: We have evidence, we think, in this case that she is an innocent and is serving time. Can you help us?

Simone: There were a few ways this case fit into Alean’s legal portfolio. While the media had painted a salacious picture during Rose’s trial—of murderous intentions and insurance scams— there were actually some pretty reasonable explanations from the original trial that suggested a very different story. 

Karen: One of the coroners from the time actually does testify saying this is not unusual. Boarding house deaths are common because of, not only the health of the individuals—so they were probably not eating exactly cholesterol-free diets, they weren't exercising regularly, they also were drinking alcohol during prohibition, let's say that might not have been of the best quality and that could have negatively affected their health

Simone: And what about those scandalous rumors that she’d married her boarders and taken out big life insurance policies?

Karen: I've never been able to find any documentation that indicates that she married any of her boarders. 

Simone: Karen says it’s highly possible that boarders took out these insurance policies on their own. They’d name Rose their beneficiary because if they died in her house, she’d be the one making the funeral arrangements. 

Karen: A lot of men of the era would hold an insurance policy of a small amount, especially if they came from another country, let’s say, where, if you were to be buried without any income or money, you might end up in a pauper's grave. And that was not something anyone really wanted. You wanted someone to, you know, remember you and be buried properly. 

Simone: Plus, some pretty sketchy things had happened during the trial. For one, Karen says the jury wasn’t exactly sequestered. That meant they were likely eating up, and potentially influenced by, all of the tawdry newspaper reports, just like everyone else. 

Simone: And remember how Rose didn’t testify, and sat silent throughout the trial? The jury took her blank demeanor as evidence of her cold-blooded nature. But, actually, Rose didn’t speak much English, and the court never provided a translator. The rest of the country was reading about her in the tabloids, but Rose was sitting through a trial she couldn’t even understand.

Simone: All this left lawyer Alean Clutts intrigued, and hopeful she could break Rose's case wide open. She agreed to take it on and got right to work.

Karen: She re-interviewed every single person who testified; found new people to testify on behalf of Rose; and sought out engineers who could study Rose's home, and were able to examine whether it was even physically possible for Rose to have conducted the crime in the way that it was alleged in her first trial.

Simone: Alean uncovered multiple inconsistencies in the initial trial. And one major misstep: the judge hadn’t been present when the verdict was read, a violation of the court’s own rules. 

Simone: Based on this technicality, Alean B. Clutts filed for a retrial in October of 1944, and 6 months later, it was granted. By November 1945—14 years after her original conviction—Rose Veres was back in court.

Simone: This time, Rose testified through an interpreter, claiming she didn’t commit the murder…and that, in fact, she wasn’t even home when the fall took place. 

Simone: While some people from the first trial offered the same testimony they had originally, there was one major reversal: Bessie Hill, the neighbor who claimed Rose had asked her for a towel to wash her face and hands, recanted her testimony. This was enough for the judge. On the basis of perjury and false accusation, he threw out Rose’s conviction, and she was acquitted.

Simone: On December 11, 1945, the Witch of Delray walked free.

Simone: We’ll never know for sure what happened at the boarding house on Medina Street all those many years ago. But I do think Rose is guilty. Not of murder, just to be clear. But of the kinds of “crimes of being” or “not being” women get chastised for. She was guilty of being not very nice. Being not very beautiful…not by society’s standards, at least. She was guilty of being too old. Too showy. Too loud. Too angry. Okay, these aren’t “real” crimes, but they attract real punishments. Exclusion, derision...dismissal at best, abuse at worst.

Simone: Today, a woman like Rose may not be subject to the label 'witch,' specifically. But obviously, women are still labeled—constantly. Pam Grossman, our IRL witch, says women who deviate from societal norms tend to be branded with a comparable title...

Pam: Certainly “bitch” is probably the most obvious, but I think any word that implies that a feminine person has power and desire and ambition, you know, these are elements of a woman that are still considered to be highly, highly dangerous, or at least highly, you know, repulsive or repellent by a lot of the people who are still in power.

Simone: But Pam says, there’s power in being a bitchy witch.

Pam: I love the archetype of the witch, because for me, it stands for someone who is subversive, who's counter to the patriarchy, and who taps into her own inherent power without shame.

Simone: Rose obviously didn’t have the privilege of reveling in the power of her label. She was fighting for her survival. But I can imagine that in a different world, Rose would be celebrated for all the things she was vilified for way back in the day. And today, when women like Pam reclaim the word “witch,” that’s what they’re trying to do.  

Simone: Owning witchiness is a rejection of expectation, of the narrow way women are allowed to be in this world. And it’s a signal to the world that says: I’m not gonna be how you want me to be. And, I’m gonna celebrate that. You don’t get to mistreat women just because you don’t like them. And if you try…you better watch out, because you never know if some dark magic might be coming your way. Just sayin’. 

Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. This episode was produced by Kinsey Clarke. 

Simone: Next week, spooky season continues! We’re going to the movies, inside the world of Candyman.

Eric Eddings: Tony fucking Todd! His voice, his presence! He's like, “uh, uh, be my victim.”

Simone: The rest of our team is producer Sarah Craig. Our associate producer is Julie Carli. Laura Newcombe is our intern. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Maura Walz, Andrea B. Scott, and Zac Stuart Pontier. Voice acting by Ben Britton and the Boll family—Erin, Jacob and Matt Boll. Fact checking by Jane Ackerman. Sound design and mixing by Matt Boll. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. This episode included super special original spooky music by Bobby Lord featuring Natalia Paruz, who is better known as the Saw Lady. It was recorded by Sam Bair at Relic Room. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka. 

Simone: If you want to read more about what happened at the old house on Medina Street, check out Karen Dybis's book,  The Witch of Delray: Rose Veres & Detroit's Infamous 1930s Murder Mystery

Simone: Special thanks to Louis Aguilar, Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey, Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat.

Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. Click the little bell next to the follow button to get notifications for new episodes.

Simone: Hey, and do you have any burning questions about the past? Maybe a story you want us to dig into? A history mystery you've always wondered about?  

[VOICEMAIL, Madison: Hey, this is Madison from Arkansas and I have a question.]

Simone: Send us an email to notpastit@zspmedia.com or leave us a voicemail at 646-504-9252.

Simone: You can follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.

Pam: Once you get beyond kind of like the stereotypes of the pointy black hat and, you know, whatever, the green skin from The Wizard of Oz, witchcraft is very attractive to people who are looking to tap into their own inner power, to define that power and that spirituality on their own terms, to be free of any kind of mediator between them and the divine.