Frank Murphy

About a month ago, I spent the weekend with my sister in Harbor Beach, Michigan, a small town in on Lake Huron in the Thumb region of Michigan. Harbor Beach is a cute little beach town best known for having the largest man-made freshwater harbor. It is also famous for one other thing: being the birthplace of Frank Murphy, one of Michigan’s most accomplished politicians/lawyers. The Murphy family home was turned into a historic house museum after Frank Murphy’s death, and my sister suggested we go check it out, knowing that I can never turn down a trip to a local museum. So we stopped by on a Saturday afternoon and got a detailed tour from one of the docents. I have to say, I went in to the tour thinking I already knew all about Frank Murphy, but it turns out I had some gaps in my knowledge. It was a short but fascinating tour.

The Murphy Museum

The Murphy Museum

As an avid Michigan history nut, I already knew that Frank Murphy (1890-1949)  had been Mayor of Detroit, Governor of Michigan, and a Supreme Court Judge. Well, it turns out he also had one other important role in his life – from 1933 to 1936, he served as Governor-General and then High Commissioner of the Philippines. So while the house had all the typical historic house elements of family heirlooms, antique furniture and photographs, it also had a number of artifacts from the Philippines, which I had not expected at all!

Filipino artifacts

Like this awesome grass skirt

To explain how Murphy got to the Philippines, I’ll have to back up a bit. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a Famous Michigander Friday if I didn’t give the whole life story! After growing up in Harbor Beach, Murphy attended the University of Michigan for his undergraduate degree and then for law school. In the early years of his career, he practiced in Detroit, at different times running his own practice, teaching at the University of Detroit, and serving as a judge in the Detroit Recorder’s Court. His work as a judge earned him his first moment of national recognition when he presided over the Ossian Sweet murder trial, the famous Detroit case in which Sweet, a black man, defended his new home in a white neighborhood against an angry white mob.

In 1930, after 7 years as a judge, Murphy ran, and won, the race for Mayor of Detroit. He was faced with a difficult job, as this was the early years of the Great Depression. A Democrat, Murphy faced the crisis with welfare programs, including the formation of the Unemployment Committee, which sought to identify those in need of help who were not already receiving it and provide them with aid through fundraising and charity drives. He also provided housing to thousands through emergency shelters. Murphy was also a great supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and his proposed New Deal. Murphy’s support helped Roosevelt win Michigan, which then led to the Roosevelt administration paying him back with an appointment as Governor-General of the American-controlled Philippines.

As Governor-General of the Philippines, Murphy was committed to social justice and sympathetic to the plight of the poor. He also promoted independence for the Philippines, which was granted in 1935 (although WWII prevented the nation from becoming fully independent until 1946). Murphy stayed in the country for one more year as High Commissioner during the beginning of the transitional period. One of the interesting facts I learned on the museum tour was that because Murphy was unmarried, his sister (along with her husband) came along with him to his posting in the Philippines to serve as his hostess for formal gatherings.  Some of my favorite items on display at the museum were the dresses she wore while they were overseas.

I thought this was a wedding dress at first, but no, just a normal formal dress

I thought this was a wedding dress at first, but no, just a normal formal dress

More dresses

More dresses

In 1936, Roosevelt urged Murphy to return to Michigan and run for Governor, which he did. He only served as Governor for two years, but his impact was large, especially in terms of social services and labor relations. His administration saw the start of unemployment compensation and improved mental health programs. He is also well known for his reaction to the Flint Sit-Down Strike, in which he refused to order National Guard troops to suppress and expel the strikers and instead mediated an agreement that required General Motors recognize the UAW as a valid bargaining agent. Murphy’s liberal actions cost him the next election however, and he was defeated by his predecessor Frank Fitzgerald.

As if his resume was not already impressive enough, in 1940 Roosevelt nominated him to the Supreme Court, where he served until his death in 1949. Murphy played a liberal role on the court, receiving both praise as a champion of the common man and criticism for relying on his heart over his head. His most famous opinion was his dissent in the Korematsu vs. the US case, which upheld the legality of Japanese internment camps during WWII. Murphy called the decision “legalization of racism.” A plaque discussing his dissent stands outside the museum.

Plaque outside the museum

Plaque outside the museum

Murphy’s health declined rapidly in his 50s, and he passed away at the age of 59 at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. He has been remembered in many ways, the Murphy Museum in Harbor Beach being only one of the many memorials to his life. The Frank Murphy Hall of Justice houses part of Michigan’s Third Judicial Court (originally home to Detroit’s Recorder’s Court), and includes a plaque in his honor. The UAW commissioned the “Hand of God” statue by Carl Milles that currently stands outside the Hall of Justice in honor of Murphy. Featuring a nude figure emerging from the hand of God, the controversial statue was stored out of site for many years before being brought back out in 1970. There is also a Frank Murphy Seminar  Room at the University of Michigan, and the Bentley Historical Library at U of M houses his personal and official files. Frank Murphy’s legacy will not be forgotten.

I’m going to leave you with one last random picture from the museum – a picture the awesome fireplace in at the Murphy Museum, made from stones from Lake Huron:

I want this in my house

I want this in my house


Bak, Richard, “(Frank) Murphey’s Law,” The Hour Detroit, September 2008
Maveal, Gary, “Michigan Lawyers in History-Justice Frank Murphy, Michigan’s Leading Citizen,” Michigan Bar Journal, March 2000
Murphy, Frank, 1890-1949,” Bentley Historical Library


2 thoughts on “Frank Murphy

  1. Pingback: 2014: The Year of Museums | Mitten History

  2. I wanted to thank you for this lovely post. I am the great grand niece of Justice Murphy. His brother, Judge George Murphy was my grandfather. Our family lived in the house until 1993, it was a wonderful place for children to grow up. I have often heard that my grandfather and uncle Frank referred to the house as ” home sweet home”, as they came to the home to escape their busy lives. Did you know a phone was not even installed until the mid 1950s? If someone needed to get ahold of Uncle Frank, it was either telegram or they had to call the garage across the street. One famous morning, president Roosevelt called uncle Frank at the garage, he was located at his home, and he ran across the street in his underwear!
    Thank you for the pictures. I played dress up in Auntie Marguerite’s dresses and have thousands of memories playing in front of the fireplace.
    Many people only dream of living in a house like this. I got to live that dream. I miss it more than I can say.

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