In perhaps the most disturbing research I've done lately, I was reading an Arcadia Publishing book called Detroit's Historic Hotels and Restaurants (which has been a good source of both for my new book).
Until I came to this: Under a picture of the Hotel Yorba, a transient hotel within spittin' distance of the Ambassador Bridge, still a Detroit fixture, the narration says this:
"'The Yorba' was the title of a song by the White Stripes, a British music group, in 2001."
Okay. That's not even the right name for the song. She should have stuck with the name of the hotel.
But the White Stripes? A British music group? Wow, now there's some research gone terribly wrong. Jack and Meg are as Detroit as the Tigers, Ford Motors, and crack. Of course, I could be the only person who listens to the White Stripes to ever read this book. (But if you are interested in old Detroit, there's some pretty cool stuff in it.)
July 25th, 2012 will be a major anniversary for Detroit.
July 25th marks the centennial anniversary of the arrests of nine Detroit aldermen and the secretary of the council committee in a fascinating, yet oh, so familiar, bribery "sting."
It seems the Wabash Railway Company wanted to have part of a street vacated so they could expand their freight warehouses. The City Council was opposed to this and delayed the action. Mayor William Thompson suspected the council was stalling in the hopes of obtaining bribes, so he enlisted the William Burns Detective Agency to investigate.
Burns was already considered "America's Sherlock Holmes" because he had, over the past few years, cracked a number of cases involving dynamiters, corrupt politicians, grifters, thieves, and murderers, seemingly with no useful clues. By 1912, the public had been made aware that Burns' incredible success came from his secret use of the dictograph, a device originally designed as a business intercom.
Dictographs had become so popular for eavesdropping that a model called a "Detective Dictograph" was being manufactured. The whole works fit into a case no larger than what people used to carry their "Pocket Kodaks" (cameras). Inside the case were a microphone, a long pair of wires, and a small amplifier connected to a telephone receiver. The microphone would be planted in a room and wired back to the amplifier in another room. With a detective dictograph, one of Burns' men would monitor and transcribe any incriminating conversations.
By 1912, Burns had moved, whenever possible, from a dictation-style dictograph to a "telegraphone," a high-quality recording device most often used for office dictation, which made convictions a snap. The best telegraphone at the time recorded with electromagnets onto wires that ran from one reel to another, similar to more recent tape recorders. The sound quality was good enough that voices were immediately recognizable, and made it impossible for defense attorneys to claim that someone was impersonating their client. The telegraphone would also record up to thirty minutes on a wire, which was much longer than could be accomplished on a record or cylinder recorder.
Burns had one of his detectives play the role of a Wabash representative, and he did an excellent job, forcing the aldermen to each come to his office and make their demands, which ranged from $200 to $1,000. Burns himself was there to arrest Thomas Glinnan, the president of the council, as he walked out of the "Wabash" office with $1,000 in his pocket. Faced with the telegraphonic evidence, Glinnan confessed, and the sting concluded as a complete success.
This is a case in which the mayor of Detroit concocted a sting operation detailed enough to use as a plot line in a movie. In doing so, he removed ten criminals from City Hall. Huzzah! (as they might have said at the time.)
Though I have no evidence of any scheme on Thompson's part, I wonder just how pure his motives were.
"Honest Tom" Glinnan, the president of the council who was caught with his hand in the cookie jar, was in the midst of campaigning for a higher political office, which would be decided in the November election.
Glinnan was running against Thompson, for mayor.
In the early part of the 20th Century, Vito Adamo controlled much of the crime in Detroit. In The Detroit Electric Scheme, my protagonist, Will Anderson, runs afoul (as we say in historical mysteries) of Adamo, and pays a high cost for that. The sequel, Motor City Shakedown, puts Will into the middle of the first recorded mob war in Detroit history—a bloody campaign of shotgun murders on the streets of Little Italy, fought between the Adamo and Gianolla gangs.
People often think of this time period as a golden age, with family values and proper manners and all that good stuff, but the reality was pretty ugly—unless you were one of the few “Haves.”
Vito Adamo wanted to be one of them. He came over from Sicily in the early 1900’s and moved to Ford City, downriver of Detroit (now part of Wyandotte). He and his brother Salvatore opened a grocery in Ford City and branched out into Black Hand work—the protection racket—as well as importation of various items from untaxed liquor to illegal aliens. Adamo was known as the “White Hand.” Once the Black Hand had gone in to collect protection money from a business owner, the White Hand would visit and demand money to protect the business from the Black Hand.
In both cases, they were Adamo’s men. (He was a creative entrepreneur. Don’t we respect that in this country?)
The Gianolla brothers, Tony, Sam, and Gaetano, owned a grocery store across the street from the Adamo brothers’ store, but competed with them in more ways than groceries. They wanted what the Adamo brothers had. To gain the upper hand in the beer business, the Gianollas lowered their prices. The Adamos retaliated by matching the price and throwing in ice.
This was followed by the murder of two Gianolla associates, William Catalono and John Jervaso. Vito Adamo and another man were accused of the killings, and eventually they turned themselves in to face trial. It’s unclear why they did that, but I’d guess it was one of two things: either the Gianollas were getting too close and Adamo thought he’d be safer in jail, or he had arranged things so that he was certain of being acquitted. Since they were acquitted, I’m leaning toward the second idea.
When Adamo was released from custody, all hell broke loose. In 1913, over a period of about ten months, nine men were killed in a three block by five block section of Detroit’s Little Italy, and numerous others in the same area were shot or stabbed but lived. The weapon of choice was the shotgun.
The Detroit newspapers made this a front page story all year, and city residents were horrified enough that the police department put together a gang squad to make the city safe again. (How’d that work out?)
By the end of 1913 the gang war was over, and the victors went on to rule Detroit crime until nearly the end of the decade. I’d tell you who it was, but that would compromise Motor City Shakedown for you. You can find out in the book. If you don’t want to wait, it’s easy enough to find out on your own.
Detroit--Where Life is Worth Living - Part 3CommerceIn 1915, the Detroit Convention and Tourists' Bureau put out a lovely brochure touting the many highlights of the city. Part of the brochure covered industry. Did you know that in 1915, Detroit was #1 in the United States in the production of:
Other interesting business facts of Detroit in 1914: (Interesting to me anyway)
- Automobiles (okay, you knew that one)
- Automotive accessories
- Adding machines
- Pharmaceutical supplies
- Aluminum castings
- Pins! (Take that, other cities with pin production!)
Okay, enough with the stats—suffice it to say that Detroit was a city on the move!
- Thirty different manufacturers in the city had annual production of over $1,000,000
- Forty different businesses in Detroit employed more than 1,000 people, eight of them had more than 3,000 employees, and two had more than 15,000 employees
- 85,376,705 tons of freight with a value of $927,191,061 was shipped on the Detroit River—more than that of New York, London, and Hong Kong combined
- $28,000,000 was spent on new building construction
- Industrial employees in Detroit increased from 46,372 in 1900 to 156,687 in 1914
“Detroit—Where Life’s Worth Living” (Part 2) The People of Detroit In 1915, the Detroit Convention and Tourists' Bureau put out a lovely brochure touting the many highlights of the city. At the time, Detroit was the seventh-largest city in the country. The population was estimated at 645,000, up from 465,000 in 1910. (A 39% increase in 5 years!) As a point of comparison, the 2010 census puts Detroit at 713,000 today--a 25% decrease from 2000 and the lowest number of any official census since 1910. In 1915 Detroit:
1915 Detroit was a happening place, and a city where a man (and only a man, well, only a white man) with moxie and talent could go from rags to riches. Immigrants from other parts of the U.S. and all around the world made up the vast majority of the population. The southern migration had begun with Ford’s “Five-dollar day” in 1914. (Up to this point, most unskilled laborers made a little over a dollar a day.) The five-dollar day sparked the growth of the middle-class, creating for the first time a large group of people who could afford to buy cars and eventually move out of the city centers where they worked. In that way, Ford first was responsible for a large part of Detroit’s growth and then for the decline of the city as those who could afford to leave did.
- There were more parks per capita than any other major city in the U.S.
- Per capita debt was the lowest of the 22 leading U.S. cities.
- The cost of living was the lowest of the 28-largest U.S. cities.
- 41% of the homes in the city were owned by their residents. (An extraordinarily high number for the day)
- Over 100,000 people were employed in the automobile industry.
- There were 447 miles of paved roads.
- About 5,000,000 tourists per year came to town, many of them “auto tourists.”
- The steamers on the Detroit River carried more than 11,000,000 passengers per year. You could ride one all day, listening to the orchestra, for ten cents.
- Navin Field, home of the Tigers, had a seating capacity of 25,000 and was the only centrally-located park in the big leagues.
- There were 110 public schools in the city with an annual budget of $1,600,000.
- There were more than 150 “moving picture houses” and 32 theatres for vaudeville, burlesque, and traditional theatre.
"Detroit--Where Life is Worth Living"
I've been perusing the Detroit Convention and Tourists' Bureau's 1915 brochure. They used the above slogan for the city, which was taken from this poem:
by Edgar A. Guest, Poet Laureate of Detroit
In Detroit, life's worth living.
In Detroit, we are giving,
In Detroit, it is true,
That our skies are always blue,
There's a smile for me and you,
Blithe and gay.
In Detroit, life is cheerful,
All the while,
For our people soothe the tearful,
With a smile,
We've a helping hand to lend,
To a stranger, foe or friend,
And our resting time we spend,
On Belle Isle.
In Detroit, we have pleasures
By the score;
And the rarest of our treasures,
Yes, and more,
Is our river, Oh! so bright,
Cool and restful, day and night,
Source of infinite delight,
O'er and o'er.
In Detroit, life's worth living,
Folks are gentle and forgiving,
If you stray,
In Detroit may I be,
When God's angel beckons me,
O'er the silent unknown sea,
I've spent a lot of the last three years trying to imagine Detroit as it was in 1910-1913. Walking the streets, studying photos, reading about the culture, entertainment, everyday life, and commerce, I thought I could just about see it. Now I wonder.
I can see the buildings and parks, the river steamers and mansions, but I don't think I can feel what the city was like back then. I don't know that any city in the twenty-first century could have the power and vibrancy of Detroit a hundred years ago. Now, I don't think people have changed much, and the have-nots always outnumbered the haves by a gigantic margin, but I think even they had a hope that is not evident in the city today, except in a few individuals who believe Detroit can rise again. My hat is off to those folks (who include my daughter Nicole).
In future posts I'll share some of the interesting info in the 1915 brochure, which is what I had intended to do with this post until I read "In Detroit." Will anyone--ever again--look at Detroit as Eddie Guest did once upon a time?
Killed in the press
The Detroit Electric Machining Room circa 1910
I had no idea how often something like the scene at the beginning of The Detroit Electric Scheme happened in real life. (Not the murder part, just the press "accident" part).
Two men at one talk this winter told me about their experiences, one at a Chrysler plant, the other at a Buick plant. One of the men had to clean out the press after a repairman had been working on the press from the inside and it stamped him. He was completely pulverized. Nothing left but liquids. The other knew a machine operator who had been leaning inside the press and put his hands up on the side of it to lever himself out. His head was still inside when one of his hands hit the switch.
Last night at the Cromaine Public Library, one of the men in attendance said he used to work at Fisher Body, and he told me about the evolution of these press accidents and the attempted solutions by management. He had to clean up after one man was crushed in a press and paid close attention to it from then on.
Initially there was one man at the control (single switch) while four other men would put the metal in the press, align it, and remove it when it had been stamped. When the man at the switch got distracted or hit the button accidentally , any of the four could lose a hand, arm, or head, depending on what they had in the machine at the time.
They went to a two switch system, so the button couldn't be pushed accidentally, but they still had the problem with the distracted operator. Also, machine operators for whom pushing two buttons was too much effort would push in one button and wedge it in place with a toothpick, so he'd just have to push one button to start the press. Additionally, men were losing legs because they would put their leg up to stretch at just the wrong time.
Next came all four men having to stand on certain spots or all hold onto a bar outside the press in order for it to work.
In the meantime, hundreds (thousands?) of men were maimed or killed by these machines. Think of the outcry today if something like that was happening (in this country. I'm sure there are similar problems in sweatshops around the world, but we don't hear about those.)
Life was cheap in the U.S. in those days, particularly when the men were easily replaceable and there wouldn't be publicity problems for the company. It was just the cost of doing business. Of course, the families of those men wouldn't feel the same way.
Did you ever wonder why we call one of the rooms in our homes a "Living Room?" It always seemed strange to me. The room's not alive. Yes, we live in it, but we live in all the other rooms as well. The story behind the name is an interesting one:
Traditionally, when a family member died the family would display the body in the parlor for services. In Detroit in the early Twentieth Century, if you were rich enough or well-connected enough, you could get the Detroit United Railways Funeral Train, via the streetcar rails, to pick up the body at your house to transport it to the cemetery. If you were like most of us, you would have your mortician provide a wagon or carriage to do the job.
But on to the Living Room.
"Professional Mourners" had been around for a long time, but they really became popular in the early 1900's. By 1910, the year in which The Detroit Electric Scheme is set, these "Funeral Parlors" were popping up all over the place. People wanted the bodies out of the house. As the funeral parlors grew in popularity, the word "parlor" became associated with funerals. Since "parlor" was associated with death, a new name caught on for the parlor that was everything "parlor" was not. It was . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . the "Living Room." (This one turned on a light bulb over my head.)