Organized crime: Then and now in metro area
Cement shoes. Swimming with the fishes. Code of silence. Going to the mattresses. Shakedown. Rat, mobster, soldier, made man, don. Garbage business, waste management business. Hit. Whack. Golden Age. Rico.
Whether we learned these terms from numerous viewings of “The Godfather” or binge-watching “The Sopranos,” we all think we're experts on the mob, the Mafia, or organized crime. Yet, despite the prevalence of popular culture, the reality of organized crime in America is much more nuanced than a Mario Puza novel or an HBO series, with a rich and distinct history. That history has evolved and morphed as additional crime entities have developed, leaving organized crime to remain as powerful entities today, just in different manifestations, representing a variety of different ethnicities and cultures.
Since its beginnings in this country, Detroit has been a major hub of organized crime activity, which is defined as transnational, national, or local groupings of highly centralized enterprises run by criminals who engage in illegal activity for money or profit. While the Mafia falls into the category of organized crime, they are not the only group, and are not synonymous with organized crime, as the Mafia are Italian organized crime families. There are others. Situated on the border of Canada, between New York City and Chicago, the Mafia, coupled with a group of Jewish thugs who became known as the Purple Gang, helped Detroit become one of the strongholds of organized crime in this country.
In the 1920s, when Prohibition was the law of the land, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the country, with a population of over 1.5 million people. Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 until 1933, was a nationwide constitutional ban, via the Eighteenth Amendment, on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. However, in Michigan, liquor became illegal three years earlier than the rest of the country – in 1917. The reason? Henry Ford, who owned the River Rouge plant in Dearborn, wanted a sober workforce and backed the 1916 Damon Act, which prohibited the use of alcohol beginning in 1917. By 1919, the Damon Act was declared unconstitutional, mostly because judges wouldn't support it, taking a lenient view of offenders – just in time for the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to take effect, which, along with the separate Volstead Act – which provided the methods for enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment and defined which “intoxicating liquors” were prohibited – and which were excluded, such as for medicinal or religious purposes.
For bootleggers, the Damon Act and the Eighteenth Amendment were heaven sent, and the prohibition of alcohol, combined with a large and prosperous workforce in Detroit from a growing automobile industry, helped create the rise of the Mafia and other organized crime groups. After all, just because liquor was forbidden didn't mean people didn't want it just as much – or even more. Speakeasies, blind pigs and gin joints burgeoned, with those who could afford to flocking to them. They became glamorous and exciting places to be seen at, and as the Gilda Lehrman Institute of American History noted, while pre-Prohibition saloons rarely were welcome places for women, “the new world of nightclubs invited both the bob-haired 'flapper' and her 'sheik' to drink cocktails, smoke, and dance to jazz.”
In 1918, with Michigan having enacted the Damon Act, Detroit was the first city in the country with a population over 250,000 to go dry. At the time, there were approximately 1,800 licensed saloons. By 1925, in the depths of Prohibition, it's estimated there were about 25,000 blind pigs in the city.
“Ultimately, only a small percentage of liquor distributors found themselves arrested. But even this limited number of accused – there were approximately 65,000 federal criminal actions in the first two years of Prohibition – was enough to cripple the justice system. Prisons grew crowded, and judges tried to incentivize quick 'guilty' pleas by promising very small fines. And if a liquor seller did wind up on trial, juries filled with liquor drinkers were often reluctant to find the defendants guilty; only about 60 percent of cases ended with a conviction,” reported the Gilda Lehrman Institute of American History.
The exception included those who were “connected.”
“During this period both the Chicago and New York underworlds often grabbed the headlines of major newspapers with their own beer wars and gangster escapades, yet the Detroit underworld in many ways was worse,” said Detroit organized crime expert Scott Burnstein. “Detroit's proximity to Ontario, Canada, made it an opportune place for rumrunners and smugglers. By the mid-twenties, an estimated 500,000 cases of Canadian whiskey were coming across the Detroit River every month.”
The Canadian government, which had temporarily banned the use of alcoholic beverages, had still approved and licensed distilleries and breweries to manufacture and export alcohol. The port of Windsor, directly across the Detroit River from Detroit, was an easy boat ride for smugglers going back and forth, evading authorities. According to Shannon Saksewski, author of “Awesome Mitten,” “By some accounts, around 75 percent of the alcohol distributed in the United States during Prohibition came through Detroit. Detroit was nicknamed 'Whiskeytown.'”
In addition, beginning in 1917 with the Damon Act, with Detroit's closeness to Ohio, bootleggers imported whiskey from – and to – Toledo, which then found itself traveling south.
Mark Gribben noted that part of what allowed the rise of many bootleggers is that like other major cities at the beginning of the 20th century, Detroit's immigrant neighborhoods were impoverished, leading some to become breeding grounds for crime and violence. The most notorious organized crime members of the early 20th century started off not as high end smugglers, but as petty thieves and shakedown artists, whether in the Hastings Street neighborhood known as Paradise Valley in Detroit's lower east side, where most of the Purple Gang's central members arose from as the children of Jewish immigrants, or in the Eastern Market neighborhood and Wyandotte area, where the first Sicilian Italian criminals moved to and gained their foothold.
“During the great wave of immigration between 1880 and 1920, many Italian and Sicilian people left their homelands for U.S. shores,” Burnstein said. “Along with many hardworking and law-abiding new Americans came Old World criminals. These Italian and Sicilian gangsters were either looking for greener pastures or were forced to leave their homeland because they were wanted by the authorities.”
He said that prior to Prohibition, these criminals caught police attention due to an extortion racket which was very popular among small time criminals as well as members of the Mafia and the Camorra, a similar gang out of Naples. Their scheme was to write an anonymous letter to a prosperous member of the community threatening to murder him or his wife, kidnap their children, or to destroy their place of business if certain extortion demands were not met. Since most of these local targets not only didn't trust local police, they were superstitious – there were lots of examples in the Italian community of what happened to people who ignored these letters, and it wasn't pretty. Burnstein noted that the extortion racket become so widespread in most large U.S. cities that they had special squads in their police departments to deal with these crimes in their Italian communities.
This racket was sometimes used, Burnstein noted, by Salvatore and Vito Adamo, Sicilian immigrant brothers who arrived in Detroit around 1900.
“Starting around 1905, the Adamo brothers were leaders of a Mafia gang on Detroit's lower east side that preyed on the Italian community, and that most likely constituted the first semblance of modern day organized crime in the Motor City,” Burnstein said. “The Adamo mob was involved in the typical ethnic underworld rackets of the time, which included making beer and wine, extorting protection money from local citizens, and the Italian lottery.”
Vito lived in Wyandotte, while Salvatore, who was known as Sam, headquartered his operations out of Eastern Market.
The first threat to their authority came around 1910 with the arrival of three other Sicilian brothers, Antonino, Salvatore and Gaetano Gianolla. Burnstein said there was a brief shaky peace between the two Mafia factions, but the Gianolla brothers, who he said became known in local underworld circles as the Triumvirate of Terror, began chafing under the Adamos' rule. The Gianollas' controlled all the rackets downriver from their produce business, the Wyandotte Fruit Company, and by 1911, expanded their empire into the Eastern Market empire and other east side neighborhoods the Adamos' had been controlling.
“It was not long before open warfare broke out,” Burnstein said. “The gang war lasted approximately two-and-a-half years, from 1911 to 1913, and left dozens of bodies in its wake from both sides of the conflict. The Gianollas eventually claimed victory in the vicious street battle by murdering both Adamo brothers as they walked together at the corner of Mullett and Russell streets in Eastern Market in November 1913.”
Peace, such as it was, lasted amongst the mafiosos, until 1917, when there was another all-out street war for supremacy between the Gianollas and one of their enforcers, Giovanni “Bloody John” Vitale.
“The war was jumpstarted when Antonino ‘Tony’ Gionolla ordered the murder of Sam Bosco, a close friend and trusted associate of Vitale's, over a dispute,” Burnstein said. “When the Vitale faction attempted to hijack a load of liquor belonging to the Giannola brothers, the Giannola/Vitale gang war officially began.”
Over the next four years, Burnstein said, over 100 men were killed in the turf war. By October 1920, when it was over, all of the major leaders of both gangs had been killed.
A peace conference called after Thanksgiving that year led to a division of territory that appears to continue to this day – and is believed to have led to the name “La Costa Nostra” in the community, meaning, “this thing of ours,” based on the secret Mafia Sicilian organization.
“Salvatore 'Singing Sam' Cattalanotte, a respected Giannola advisor, presided over a meeting of the minds and helped forge a peace agreement,” Burnstein said. “Territory was divided among what would become known as the Eastside and Westside Mobs, with former Gianolla lieutenants Joe Zerilli and William 'Black Bill' Tocco leading the Eastsiders and Chester 'Big Chet' La Mara, a long time counsel to Cattalanotte, heading the Westsiders.”
Cattalanotte was the head of Detroit's Sicilian Mafia during Prohibition, and he organized the remaining Mafia factions in Detroit, along with friends and relatives from St. Louis, under a liquor combine that became known as the “Pascuzzi Combine,” according to records kept by Joe “Misery” Moceri.
At this same time, a bunch of Jewish street thugs grew to become one of the most notorious and vicious organized crime groups in the country before flaming out. Originally known as the Oakland Sugar House Gang, they became known as the Purple Gang, although the origins of the name are subject to debate.
Burnstein said that around 1917, the original group of 18 to 20 predominantly Jewish boys who were from the old Hastings Street section of Detroit's lower east side had become neighborhood nuisances. “They rolled drunks, beat up other youngsters, and extorted money from local merchants. This teenage street gang would eventually evolve into one of the most notorious underworld groups of the Prohibition era.”
“Perhaps the most ruthless bootleggers of their time, they may have killed over 500 members of rival bootlegging gangs during Detroit's bootleg wars,” said historian and author Kathy Weiser. “Bootlegging netted the Purple Gang millions of dollars, but the mob was also involved in extortion, hijacking and jewelry thefts. The Purple Gang also attempted to run gambling rings in Detroit, especially among the African American population.”
As for the name, legend has it that one Hasting Street shopkeeper complained to another, “These boys are not like other youngsters, they're tainted. They're like the color of bad meat, purple.”
“Yes,” said the other shopkeeper, “they're a purple gang.”
Burnstein, though, said the name most likely evolved during a period of labor strife known as the Cleaners and Dyers War, where one of the Purple Gang's terror tactics was to throw purple dye on clothing, in order to force tailor shops to join the union.
But they made their real reputation in Detroit's underworld of organized crime as hijackers who would steal whiskey from other mobs and kill everyone who was hauling the load, along with cutting themselves in on the profits that other gangsters made from gambling, prostitution and drug dealing.
“Their signature move was to hijack vehicles that were moving liquor over frozen Lake St. Clair, kill the drivers,and steal their cargo. As their business became increasingly lucrative and their violence became known, the Purple Gang approached untouchable status. No one would testify against them for fear of their wrath. At the same time, since they stole from rival outlaws, the police often turned a blind eye,” Saksewski said.
While mentored early by Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr, the leaders of the original Purple Gang were Abe, Joe, Ray and Isadore Burnstein, four brothers who played different roles – Abe as underworld diplomat and Joe and Ray enforcers. Scott Burnstein said he learned growing up they were his grandfather's uncles. “But it wasn't until I was in law school, doing an internship with the Illinois Attorney General's office looking into Chicago mob cases, that I began to wonder about the Detroit mob,” he said.
Purple gang members and their sycophants hung out at a bathhouse in northeast Detroit, the Oakland Avenue Bath House, which has always been known as The Shvitz, where they'd get a massage, eat a steak and meet to conduct business. “The Shvitz was an ideal place to meet and discuss schemes without having to worry about the people you were doing business with wearing a wire, since everyone was in towels and the humidity prevented the government from bugging the place,” Burnstein noted.
By 1925, flush with cash and egos having grown from their success in bootlegging, the Purple Gang had expanded into other illegal endeavors. They began to be hired out as hitmen, and took part in the Cleaners and Dyers War, where Abe Burnstein joined up with the president of the Detroit Federation of Labor, Francis X. Martel, to form the racketeer-controlled Wholesale Cleaners and Dyers Association, Burnstein said. Their argument was that this union would stabilize prices in the cleaning and dying industry. “Armed Purple Gangsters would attend the monthly association meetings and collect the dues.” If the dues were paid on a regular basis, no problem. However, if a plant owner refused to join, there would be big problems, such as chemicals put into clothing that would cause garments to burst into flames when pressed, truckloads of laundry hijacked, and drivers even beaten to death.
“Between 1925 and 1928, hundreds of thousands of dollars were extorted from the Detroit area cleaning industry,” Burnstein said,with at least two union business agents taken for rides and shot in the back of the head, their bodies tossed into the street.
In March 1927, a mob war blew up between Italian, Irish and Jewish bootleggers over territory, with the Purples fighting a vicious turf war with the Licavoli brothers, who led the River Gang, and were part of the Eastside Mafia gang.
“The Purple Gang was exceptionally violent, constantly at war with other gangs and each other,” said Saksewski. “Newspapers would often carry stories of gang murders on both sides of their conflicts. Too many openly violent crimes caused a string of convictions of Purple Gang members, while the intra-gang violence between different members damaged the gang's organization and its abilities to control its turf.
“The Purples ruled the Detroit underworld for approximately five years, from 1927 to 1932, and had almost complete immunity from police interference as witnesses to crimes were terrified to testify against any criminal identified as a Purple Gangster,” she continued. “However, jealousies, egos and intra-gang quarrels would cause the Purple Gang to self-destruct.”
In 1931, an intra-gang dispute ended in the murder of three Purple Gang members by other members of their own gang at the Collingwood Manor in Detroit, in what was a set-up. The three were shot to death by Harry Fleisher, Irving Milberg and Harry Keywell, who were later tried, convicted and sentenced to life terms for first degree murder.
“By 1935, most of the significant leadership of the Purple Gang was either dead or in prison after committing what police say were over 500 murders in a decade span,” Burnstein said. “A meeting was called between the Detroit area Mafia bosses and the Burnstein brothers. It was agreed at this conference that the Italian mob would take over the former Purple Gang's rackets.”
Burnstein noted it was a peaceful transition of power, with little ethnic rivalry in Detroit's underworld. Abe Burnstein remained a powerful player until his death of a heart attack in 1968, running bookmaking and loansharking operations, and often considered a de factor consigliere to mob bosses Joe Zerilli and Black Jack Tocco.
“Hotel receipts from the era that the Detroit Police recovered after his passing indicate that Zerilli and Tocco had been fitting the bill for him to reside in a penthouse suite at the Book Cadillac (hotel) since the 1940s,” said Burnstein.
The Italian mob, the Mafia, now known as the Detroit Partnership, has kept its head low and operations quiet since that period of time, but have been no less busy. The Detroit Partnership remains one of the original 24 crime families in the United States, but its organization and impact is greatly reduced.
“The mob definitely still exists. The last time the Italian Mafia made a lot of headlines was the end of Prohibition, with the crosstown mob wars of 1930-31,” Burnstein noted. “Par for the course, it's in the shadows. It operates with the mantra of, 'Make money, not headlines,' which it has for the last 80 years or so.”