by Kathy Warnes
Death Halts Return Bid of Former Mayor
An Era Ends, and a City Mourns ‘Master’ Politician
Ecorse Advertiser Story, Wednesday, July 1, 1959
An era of turbulent, rough-and-tumble politics in Ecorse and the Downriver area ended Saturday morning June 27, 1959, with the death of William W. – Bill- Voisine two days after he had announced that he would seek to regain the office of Ecorse Mayor. He had held the office of mayor seven terms, dating back to 1933 when he was first elected village president of Ecorse.
On Wednesday, July 1, 1959, former Mayor Voisine was laid to rest after a solemn service and fitting farewell from a saddened city to which he devoted more than a quarter of a century of his life.
The body of the former mayor was in state Wednesday morning in the city hall for two hours before the casket was moved to St. Francis Xavier Church where a solemn requiem high mass was offered at 10 a.m. Ecorse police and firemen formed an honor guard in the city hall and at the funeral, which was expected to be one of the largest ever held in the Downriver area.
The funeral cortege consisting of some 100 cars moved slowly from the church to the Mt. Carmel section of Michigan Memorial Park in Flat Rock, where he was buried.
Hundreds of mourners, including scores of dignitaries, had filed before his bier in the H.F. Thon Funeral Home in Wyandotte to pay their final respects. Numerous floral tributes were banked around the room, and many friends contributed in his name to the Ecorse Memorial Educational Grant Association, which Voisine helped establish to provide scholarships for Ecorse Young people.
Flags at the city hall and other public buildings will fly at half staff during a period of official mourning. City offices were closed Wednesday morning to permit officials and municipal employees to attend the funeral services.
Typical of the political strategy that won him the title of ‘old master’ of Downriver politics, Voisine against doctor’s orders, attended a comeback rally Thursday night.
Some 75 fanatically loyal supporters, who were to form the nucleus of his political organization in this fall’s election, heard ‘the boss’ outline a typical Voisine campaign months in advance of the October primary.
After the rally he returned to his home at 4000 High, tired and exhausted, and retired about 3 a.m. About thirty minutes later his wife Helen found him stretched out on the Davenport. She called his sister, Mrs. Gertrude Neal, who lives next door.
They summoned the doctor who rushed him to the Outer Drive Hospital. He was in good spirits Friday, and was even able to walk around. Early Saturday morning he lapsed into a comma from which he never gained full consciousness. Voisine died about six hours later, at 9:10 a.m. With him were his brother, Edward, and a nephew Robert Neal, a former Ecorse councilman. Voisine’s brother is a former street commissioner and held the post of incinerator superintendent and assistant engineer for a year.
In October 1957, Voisine was stricken with the first of several diabetic attacks which required rest and checkups at hospitals here and in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida where he had a winter home for 20 years.
Voisine, 61, had been under medical care for diabetes and high blood pressure for years, but he was a man who believed in living every moment, and frequently disregarded doctors’ orders. This condition was complicated by a stroke in December, 1957.
Voisine’s colorful, controversial public career began over a quarter of a century ago during Prohibition years, when he was elected village trustee in 1930, and took over as village president the following term.
In 1936, he ran a dead heat with W. Newton Hawkins, now an Ecorse municipal judge, which led to two years of court litigation. Voisine held the office during the interim. The issue finally was decided by the state supreme court, which awarded the office to Hawkins.
After losing to Hawkins in 1936, Voisine retaliated with a resounding victory over his political foe in the 1940 election. He later played a leading role in Ecorses’ battle for incorporation as a home rule city.
(Ecorse was incorporated as a city in 1942 and the mayor-council form of government was created then.
After winning the incorporation fight, Voisine was disappointed in the contest to select the new city’s first mayor. Hawkins won.
Voisine bounced back in 1945, but was again defeated by Hawkins in 1947 in another dead heat. Rather than dragging the issue through two years of litigation as before, the matter was settled in a straw-drawing contest held by the local officials. Hawkins drew the long straw and became mayor.
Voisine returned in 1949, but three days after the filing deadline for candidates had passed, Voisine withdrew, leaving Hawkins unopposed.
Less than a year later, Voisine was convicted of perjury by a federal jury and served eight months in prison. He had resigned the mayor’s post in 1951 after he was cited for contempt by a congressional committee probing gray steel market activities.
He entered the campaign in 1953, and surprised old time political foes by the unseating of incumbent mayor, Louis S. Parker (now a city councilman) who had defeated Hawkins in 1951. Carrying every precinct, he piled up 3,735 votes to Parker’s 2,908. When told of his triumph, Voisine said, “I have lived through a nightmare the last five years. All that time I have wondered what the people in Ecorse who were my friends thought. This is the answer and I am simply overwhelmed.”
In 1955 he won reelection defeating Eli Ciungan, then city assessor, by 563 votes in a bitter, hotly contested campaign. In 1957, Ciungan ended Voisine’s 27 year career as the dominant power in Ecorse politics.
The new young mayor paid high tribute to the old political warrior, stating, “Bill Voisine is the toughest man I ever ran against. I’m just glad there is only one of him.”
After hearing about the death of his political rival Saturday, Ciungan said:
“Ecorse has lost one of the most colorful public figures in its history with the death of Bill Voisine whose name was a legend even when I was a boy. He contributed a lot to the community and the Downriver area during the many years he served as chief executive, and will be greatly missed by many.”
He was a solidly built man of medium height, with a suave, debonair attitude that belied the warmhearted, protective manner in which he regarded ‘his people.’
From the beginning of his public life, no one who came to him for a job, a hand out, or help with a personal problem was ever turned away. Seated behind his huge mahogany desk he would welcome as many as 50 persons in a day, most of them asking for some kind of assistance.
During the Depression many an Ecorse family was given a helping hand by Voisine, who at first saw that food baskets were delivered to families suffering hardships. When money became scarcer during the final days of the Depression, he and Judge John Riopelle set up a food distribution center in Riopelle’s combined court and legal offices, where every Friday fish was made available to needy families.
The Ecorse Goodfellows organization stemmed from this practice and Voisine took an active part in the annual newspaper sale to raise funds for the needy at Christmas time.
One year while he was mayor, Voisine contributed his entire $1,500 salary to local churches, and another time he gave an organ to a West Side church.
Voisine could always be counted on to find a job for anyone who needed it, and to dip into his own pocket when money was sorely needed for medical expenses for a loan of coal or clothing for youngsters.
He loved children and could never turn down a request for help when he learned they were in need. They, in turn, responded to his show of affection, and hundreds of Ecorse youngsters called him “Uncle Bill.” Many still do although they now have children of their own.
The deepest sorrow of his life, from which he never fully recovered, was the death of his only son, Robert, 32, on July 3, 1953. Victim of a heart attack, he left a wife and two children.
During his 1955-1957 term as mayor, Voisine entered into what was perhaps the stormiest period of his career. The Bohn one-man grand jury charged that his administration had conspired with gamblers to permit gambling in Ecorse. In February, 1953, a circuit court jury was unable to agree on a verdict in the conspiracy case against him. A retrial was scheduled for June 15, but was postponed because of the illness of the judge. It was rescheduled for October.
Just last week Voisine said he hoped further postponements would not be necessary.
‘I am innocent of the charges and the only way I can be cleared once and for all is by a jury in court. Until this happens I can have no relief from these totally undeserved charges hanging over me like a spectre.”
Although he was facing the trial when defeated by Cuingan in 1957, most political observers believed that the grand jury indictments had little effect on the election.
The Voisine defeat was attributed to the fact that a $20 million urban renewal program, which he sponsored in hopes of “making Ecorse a garden spot with fine, clean homes for everyone,” had met with disapproval.
Voisine envisioned whole new areas of new business places, homes and play areas in Ecorse. His campaign workers however, blamed misunderstanding and erroneous information spread throughout the west side as reasons for his defeat.
Word of Voisine’s death spread through the city like wildfire and many of Old Bill’s friends, stunned by the news, gathered at city hall as though expecting, somehow, to find him there.
Everywhere Voisine’s political foes and supporters were already discussing “the good old days” of hectic, exciting campaigns that reached their heyday during Voisine’s political career.
A general election in Ecorse was tantamount to a July Fourth celebration in other communities with practically the entire adult population taking some part in the campaign – if only to post political placards on their homes and in their car windows, and distribute campaign literature.
As election days neared, rallies and block parties were held every night and sound cars blared forth, urging the election of someone for public office.
Also recalled were the “old days” when workers for political aspirants would “stack” the ballot boxes and anecdotes about how bedridden voters were brought to the polls on stretchers, and the historic verbal and written exchanges between candidates.
Hopes were expressed that the colorful political era of which Voisine was so much a part will not die entirely – that the pre-election parties and banquets and the victory celebrations will continue with their decorated cars, free lunches and liquid refreshments and milling crowds congratulating the winners, and second guessing about how the unsuccessful candidates lot.
Just last week in announcing he would ran for mayor in the October primary election, Voisine cited a number of civic improvements and improved municipal operations instituted during his administrations. Among these he listed the Voisine Terraces, a $1,106,340 project of 20 buildings containing 100 low rent units; construction of the Wet Side Community Center; installation of the artificial ice skating rink at municipal field; garage addition to the public works building for storage of city equipment.
Other improvements listed by the former mayor included a fluorescent street lighting program and paving and resurfacing of most of the city’s streets, alleys and sidewalks.
A slum clearance program designed to eradicate slum and blight conditions throughout the city was also instituted during his last term in office.
The municipal building, incinerator, public library, number two fire station and several other municipal buildings were erected during his administrations.
Born November 20, 1897, in Bay City, Voisine was the son of a Great Lakes ship captain, whose name appears in several books about the history of lakes shipping.
Although as a youngster he had sailed many times with his father, Voisine decided against sailing as a career and took a job as stenographer for a railroad company.
He married the former Helen Friebe in Bay City 41 years ago and they moved to the Downriver area when Voisine was hired as a car salesman for a Wyandotte automobile dealer.
The young couple lived in Ecorse, and in 1931, Voisine opened his own auto agency in the community he was later to term many times, “the greatest little town in the world.”
For two years during World War II, Voisine owned and operated a tool and die factory on McKinstry Street in Detroit. After the war he formed the Voisine Steel Company, and the Wayne Sheet Steel Company, both in Detroit. None of the three companies are in existence today.
Both Voisine and his wife enjoyed their winter holidays in Florida and the summer weekends they would spend at their 40 acre farm in Howell. Besides the many years she shared with him as a loving wife, she was always one of his staunchest supporters.
Pallbearers were City Treasurer Paul Vollmar, Giles Reeve, Police Inspector Alvin Gillman, Edward L. McGee, Morris Blakeman, Robert Young and Earl Montie.
Surviving besides his wife, sister Gertrude and brother, Edward, are three other sisters, Mrs. Eva Moshier and Mrs. Beatrice Southerland, of Ecorse and sister Mary Bertille, mother superior at Immaculate Heart of Mary Convent in Detroit; and two grandchildren, Pamela8 and Diane, 10.
Voisine’s Brother-in-law Dies Same Day
Tragedy struck the Voisine family twice within a 12 hour period Saturday, with the death of George W. Neal, 61, brother-in-law of former Ecorse Mayor William W. Voisine, who also died Saturday.
Neal, husband of Voisine’s sister Gertrude, died of a heart attack at 7:10 p.m.. He was found unconscious in the bathtub of his home, 4002 High, which is adjacent to the Voisine residence. He was rushed to Delray General Hospital where he was pronounced dead on admittance.
The two families were very close, and were neighbors for 18 years.
Funeral services for Neal, a retired engineer for the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad, will be conducted today at 2:30 p.m. at the H.F. Thon Funeral Home, in Wyandotte. Both Neal and Voisine will be buried in the Mt. Carmel section of Michigan Memorial Park.
The Political Graveyard.
Entry for Major Wilfred William Voisine of Ecorse
Voisine William W. (1897-1959) — also known as Wilfred William Voisine — of Ecorse, Wayne County, Mich. Born in Michigan, November 20, 1897. Son of Abel Voisine (1859-1930) and Eugenia Jennie (Blais) Voisine (1870-1909); married, August 1, 1918, to Helen Pearl O’Brien. Steel executive; village president of Ecorse, Michigan,1936-37; members of a steelworker terrorist group, the Black Legion, repeatedly attempted to kill him in 1936; Jesse Pettijohn and Lawrence Madden were later convicted of conspiracy to commit murder; mayor of Ecorse, Mich.,1948-49, 1954-57. French Canadian ancestry. Convicted in April, 1950, of falsely testifying to a Congressional committee in 1948 that he had received only the regular price for steel; sentenced to two years in federal prison. In October, 1956, a warrant was issued for his arrest, along with several members of the city council, for knowingly permitting illegal gambling in Ecorse, in return for bribes and gratuities; Gov. G. Mennen Williams initiated removal proceedings against the officials. Died in 1959 (age about 61 years.) Burial location unknown.
The Maritime History of the Great Lakes has an extensive entry for Mayor Voisine’s father, Captain Abel Voisine.
Some other references to Mayor Voisine