Rookie cop John Henry was handsome, 24 years old, and a former World War II army paratrooper in 1956.
His good looks were a godsend to the Detroit Police Department vice squad. They assigned him in his third month of duty to entrap local preacher and radio/TV personality Prophet Jones (born James Francis Jones; 1908 – 1971).
Jones was suspected of being part of a numbers operation and rumored to be a spiritual Liberace. He also had press media savvy and knew how to conjure up sequined publicity.
(As a teenager I spoke to Prophet Jones at the old Madison Theater in downtown Detroit. He was standing alone, watching the movie. He was cordial, gracious, conservatively dressed. He invited me to call his secretary to make an appointment. I never did.)
Jones’s flamboyant lifestyle was both praised and damned in Time, Newsweek, The Saturday Evening Post, Ebony, The Pittsburgh Courier, and Detroit mainstream and African-American newspapers.
Although he received birthday greetings from Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams and had been an invited guest at Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential inauguration, many African-American civil and religious leaders called him a con artist, and perhaps rightly so.
Jones wore one gold earring (God whispered into his right ear), ruled from an ornate throne that cost his congregation $5,300, and wore a full-length mink coat — price tag $13,500 — a gift from Chicago schoolteacher sisters whose mother he had healed.
He owned a 54-room Arden Park mansion that he had painted bright colors as the spirit moved him, and held court with his flock of lords, ladies, princesses and princes (and presumably queens) at the Oriole Theater, a renovated movie house.
Doors were locked to keep drowsy royalty and commoners from sneaking away during the midnight telecast services. He preached that Mary was black, that she was turned away from the inn because of racial discrimination, and that Jesus was not crucified but lynched.
Jones’s followers couldn’t join social clubs, drink coffee or alcohol, or bear children out of wedlock. They could, however, be patriotic. (They purchased over $12,000 in Victory Bonds during the war effort.)
Henry’s undercover assignment was to infiltrate Jones’s fiefdom: the Universal Triumph, the Dominion of God, Inc., named after three Great Lakes freighters Jones saw during a chauffeured drive to take in Belle Isle’s flora and fauna.
The novice vice cop uncovered little evidence of numbers involvement by Jones, other than giving out three-digit Bible verses for donations of $5, $10, and $20. Unfortunately, Jones blessed Henry’s exposed ripcord when they were alone during a private healing service, or so the paratrooper-turned-vice-cop alleged.
“Prophet Jones Jailed on Morals Charge” blared the February 21, 1956 banner Free Press headline, with other papers gleefully tooting in. The media circus was scheduled for March, but the ever-resourceful Jones conveniently came down with a “virus” and gained a five-week sackcloth-and-ashes reprieve.
Thanks to a smart lawyer, the jury found Prophet Jones not guilty. It was a case of entrapment, pure (but not so simple). As Jones left the courtroom in dark glasses his followers chanted, “All is well, prophet. All is well!” But they were wrong.
No matter who you bailout with, you can’t walk on water without sinking. (Especially in high heels.)
Kind thanks to Tim Retzloff for Prophet Jones research.