From the Judge's Chambers: Bloody Valentine

By Judge William C. Whitbeck

It is a brutally cold winter’s night in early 1946 and Lev Bernstein, the fictional leader of Detroit’s infamous Purple Gang, spins out a Valentine’s Day story from long ago to Charles Cahill, the equally fictional narrator who has come to Jackson prison to kill him: 

“You’re a Catholic, aren’t you,” Bernstein said. 

“A bad one.  I don’t go to Mass very often.”  I put my hand behind me and curled my fingers around the butt of the revolver.  I was shaking slightly.  But Bernstein did not appear to notice.

“Do you take communion?”

“Sometimes,” I said.  I loosened the gun and eased the hammer back.

“Moran told me it emptied his mind.  He considered it almost blasphemous, but he told me when he took communion he had a sensation of pure release.”

“One of your imports?”  I was dragging it out on purpose.  I could not be sure that I could pull the trigger. 

Bernstein looked over his spectacles at me and there was the same flash of amusement in his eyes.  “No one imported George Clarence Moran”—he mimicked a drawling Irish brogue—“he was pure North Side Chicago.  And my, but he was a dandy.  I never saw him in anything but a three-piece suit, and as friendly and courteous a man as any I ever met.  But he was a mick like you and he had that Irish wildness to him.  Sometimes he did things without thinking, crazy things. 

That’s why Capone hired us to kill him.”

“Moran was your friend?”  I was close enough that the shots would be fatal.  All I had to do was raise the gun and pull the trigger and it would be over.  Perhaps there would be a moment of release.

Bernstein laughed.  “There’re no friends in my line of work.  Just momentary allies.  We sold whiskey to the Irish mob in Chicago for years.  We all made a very tidy profit.  But Moran irritated Capone.  And Alphonse was not a man to irritate.  He finally hired us to put an end to George Clarence Moran”—again the drawling brogue—“but we missed him.”

He paused, and methodically polished his spectacles with a white napkin from the serving tray. 

“We didn’t miss the others, though,” he said.  “It was a cold St. Valentine’s Day when we lined them up in that garage, and a dark and bloody business.  Six thugs and one little zhid for good measure.  It’s funny, I only remember the Jew.  The rest are just shadows on the wall.”

I eased back on the trigger. 

“Perhaps the act of killing is like communion,” he said.  “Perhaps it empties the mind for that moment.”  He looked at me steadily.  “When you go to church, do you pray?”

I hesitated.  “I pray for the gift of forgetting,” I said, finally.

“But not of forgiveness?  That’s an interesting answer, Charles.  Perhaps you’re deeper than I thought.”

So, were members of the Purple Gang the shooters at the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago on February 14, 1929?  My character, Lev Bernstein, is not noted for his veracity and there is no one alive today who can answer that question with certainty.  And the dead aren’t talking.  It is the stuff of urban legend, pure fantasy . . . or is it?

 Excerpted from “To Account for Murder” (The Permanent Press, 2010).
Judge William C. Whitbeck is one of 28 judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals. A Kalamazoo native, he is a graduate of the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and of the University of Michigan Law School. He served as chief judge of the Court of Appeals from January, 2002 to January, 2008. He is the past chairperson of the Michigan Historical Commission, a fellow of the Michigan and American Bar Foundations, and a member of the Michigan Law Revision Commission. In 2007, he won the State Bar of Michigan’s short-story competition with “In the Market,” a story of bootlegging and murder set in Prohibition-era Michigan. He has also completed one novel and is hard at work on a second. He and his wife Stephanie live in a completely renovated 130-year-old home in downtown Lansing. He can be reached at