I’ve chosen a place and time period that is recent and populous enough to have a strong historical record, which makes my research easier than it might otherwise be. Detroit in the 1910’s had three very popular newspapers, and the archives still exist for all three, with each on microfilm. In addition, I’ve written a lot about the early electric car industry, and, as you might expect, there are some great sources for automotive history in the Detroit area, my favorite being the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
My first novel, The Detroit Electric Scheme, was set against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the early electric car industry. I chose Detroit Electric to be my “sample” company. The real Detroit Electric was the most successful electric car manufacturer in United States history and made cars from 1907 to 1939. (Unfortunately, their greatest successes all came prior to World War I.)
The Benson Ford has a wealth of information on Detroit Electric, helped by the fact that Henry Ford bought three of them, two for his wife Clara and the other for his son Edsel. (Edsel quickly grew out of the DE. It simply wasn’t fast enough for him.) I was able to get copies of detailed sales brochures, owner’s and operating manuals, pictures, and correspondence, including original letters from Thomas Edison to William C. Anderson, the owner of Detroit Electric. That was pretty exciting for a history nerd like me.
I also have to mention the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library. This is another great source of information, though they are not as well-funded as the Benson Ford, and it takes a little more work to get the information you need.
So, automotive history is easy. Still, there are challenges. My second book, Motor City Shakedown, is set during Detroit’s first mob war in 1912 and 1913. I decided to write this book for two reasons—I, like most people, am interested in organized crime history, and I could find almost no mention of this war in history books, which really surprised me. New York and Chicago mafia history is well-documented, but little is known about the gangsters who ruled Detroit prior to Prohibition.
In this case it was two Sicilian gangs—the Adamos and the Gianollas—who were battling for control of the Detroit rackets. Vito Adamo had taken over leadership of a very loosely-organized group of gangs in Detroit’s Little Italy and downriver areas, and Tony Gianolla and his brothers wanted what Vito had. By the time the issue was settled, dozens of men had been shotgunned in the streets of Detroit, all in about a nine-block area.
Fortunately for me, the newspapers were filled with stories of this war every day for months. Detroiters followed the sensational news with rapture—this kind of thing didn’t happen in the “Paris of the West.” The war was finally settled in November 1913, when two of the brothers were murdered. (I’ll leave out which brothers, as it is in the climax of Motor City Shakedown. You can easily Google it if you’re curious.)
Newspapers have many other benefits as well. Weather can be helpful. For the closing night in The Detroit Electric Scheme, it had really been so foggy you could barely see your hand in front of your face. Nice detail for a book. Advertisements are excellent for seeing what was popular and the kind of prices the products commanded. And, of course, news and editorial gives great insight as to what people were thinking about, an absolute necessity in getting into their heads well enough to presume I can write from the perspective of one of theirs.
I can’t leave out the internet (though sometimes I’d like to). This needs to be approached with caution, because there is a lot of crap out there, but a wealth of information has been made available online. My third book, Detroit Breakdown, is set largely in Eloise Hospital, the Detroit-area insane asylum. A Google e-book entitled History of Eloise was originally published in 1913 (my book is set in 1912) and shows a (very one-sided) history of the institution and, best of all, contained detailed descriptions of the buildings and the classifications of the residents. (For an institution that at one time had seventy-five buildings on over 900 acres, serving 10,000 patients at a time, it would have been challenging to construct something approaching the 1912 reality without that book.)
Of course, printed books are often a good source of information about places and time periods as well. Of particular interest to me are books about the social and cultural issues and norms of the time period. The greatest challenge in writing a historical novel is being able to put oneself in the head of a person inhabiting that time and place. While understanding the “who’s,” “what’s,” and “where’s” is critical in creating a credible historical novel, nothing is more important than understanding the “why’s.”
by D.E. Johnson
Detroit has been overshadowed by New York and Chicago when it comes to organized crime, but it has plenty of history of its own. One of the reasons I chose the time period I did for my series (1910 – 1913) was that it coincided with the city’s first mob war.
Vito Adamo was a Sicilian immigrant who came to America around 1900. He was a grocer in a little town called Ford City, which is now a part of Wyandotte, in the general area described by most Detroiters as “downriver.” He was, of course, more than a grocer, but I mention it because he had some competition across the street—the Gianolla brothers, who opened a grocery a few years after he did.
Vito and his brother, Salvatore, had systematically gained control over the Sicilian and Italian crime of the time, both in Ford City, which had a large Italian population, and in Detroit’s Little Italy. That crime included the Black Hand (the protection racket), illegal immigration (Canada is right across the river from the city), importation of duty-free goods (the U.S. was very protectionist at the time, and duties could as much as double the sale prices of foreign goods), and, of course, the “numbers,” or Italian lottery. It was beer sales, however, that started things with the Gianollas.
The Adamos had a stranglehold on beer sales in the area they controlled, which was virtually all the territory available to a Sicilian gang at the time. Tony Gianolla saw opportunity and went to the Adamo’s customers with a significant cut in beer prices. When faced with the lost business, Vito Adamo decided to match the prices and throw in ice, a necessity at the time. The Gianollas took umbrage at this and beat up a few delivery drivers. This led to retaliation by the Adamos and, finally, to a shotgun war on the streets of Detroit.
Prior to this, the Adamos were unknown to the Detroit police, and the Gianollas had only recently become suspects in the gruesome murder of a former associate. The Ford City police had raided the Gianolla’s store and confiscated about $2,000 in illegal olive oil. ($2,000 was about a year-and-a-half’s wages for a laborer in 1913—a lot of money.) Tony Gianolla suspected a man named Sam Buendo of ratting them out to the police. Buendo’s mutilated and burned body was found shortly thereafter in a nearby field.
As the war between the gangs ramped up, the police were still unclear as to the identity of the factions. The close-range shotgun executions, which was really what these murders amounted to, occurred throughout 1913, and were plastered across the front page of the Detroit newspapers for the better part of a year. Both sides lost soldiers until November, when members of the Gianolla gang caught Vito and Salvatore Adamo unawares and gunned them down. The remaining members of the Adamo gang scattered to the wind, and the Gianollas became the bosses—until they were brutally murdered six years later by an associate named John Vitale, who was next in line to run things.
An interesting side note is that after Vito Adamo was killed, the police searched his home and found a notebook with pages full of Italian writing and drawings of murder scenes, such as stilettos plunging into men’s backs. The newspapers reported that this might be the break the police had been looking for—a detailed description of the events of the war as well as the players involved. When they had it translated, they found that Vito Adamo was an aspiring author. The notebook was his attempt at a dime novel and was the story of a poor Sicilian boy who resorted to murder only as revenge when persecuted beyond all reason.
Perhaps Vito Adamo felt that he was that boy. History remembers him differently.
(Reprinted from Michigan History Magazine)
Are electric cars in Detroit a new concept? Not hardly. The first such vehicles debuted on the streets of the Motor City more than 100 years ago. With names like Century, Detroit Electric, Flanders, Grinnell, and Hupp-Yeats, these no-crank automobiles (and some trucks) appealed to doctors and delivery men because of their quick and easy startups. Women were another strong customer category; the absence of the crank as well as a lack of noise and noxious fumes were viewed as very appealing features to the distaff side.
Detroit dominated the gasoline-powered automobile business in the early 1900s, but many people don’t know about the city’s simultaneous foray into electrics, which included the most successful electric car company in U.S. history. The manufacturers of electrics had a heady 20 years or so during which their possibilities looked endless. But a number of factors combined to seal their fate, and they had all but disappeared from the Michigan landscape by the end of World War I.
The first electric car was built in Scotland in 1837, although it wasn’t until 1896 that the first American-made production electrics were offered by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Boston, Massachusetts and the American Electric Vehicle Company (later Waverly Electric) of Chicago, Illinois. By the turn of the century, 38 percent of all the automobiles on American roads were electrics. (Forty percent were steam-powered and the remaining 22 percent used gasoline.) The first car to go more than a mile a minute was an electric, as were the winners of the first track race and the first hill-climbing contest.
In 1900, there were 75 electric car companies in the U.S. (although many folded before producing anything more than a prototype). By the end of the decade, that number had been whittled down to 46, almost all of them different from the ones that existed 10 years earlier. Every month, more came in and just as quickly went out.
By 1910, electric cars were marketed toward three distinct customers: rich women, city doctors, and urban delivery companies. For doctors and delivery companies, the benefit was obvious. They made frequent stops throughout their day, and using the manual “crank” starter on a gasoline-powered vehicle was inconvenient and sometimes dangerous. (Some people were even killed when the engine kicked back and the crank spun unexpectedly.) Further, electrics had plenty of range—50 to 100 miles per charge, depending on the model—to cover the necessary distances without worry.
Women were also concerned about the starter. The process of bending down, grabbing hold of the crank, and giving it a spin was considered unladylike. Women who drove were already at the edge of what might be considered socially acceptable, and that additional bit of manual labor was too much for many modern women to stomach.
The price of batteries (of the lead-acid variety, as you would find today) drove the cost of electric cars to exceed the price of comparable gas automobiles by at least 50 percent. But the ease of starting, combined with the lack of noise and noxious fumes, earned a place for the electric in American society.
At least half a dozen electric car companies were formed in Detroit in the early 20th century: Century, Columbian, Detroit Electric, Flanders, Grinnell, and Hupp-Yeats. Columbian was short-lived and produced only a handful of automobiles, but the other manufacturers each had some measure of success. All of these companies advertised a range of up to 100 miles on a charge—more than enough distance in an era of 10-mile-per-hour speed limits and barely passable rural roads.
The primary market for electric cars after 1910 was at the high end, with models priced at $2,500 and up. Given this, some companies thought they saw an opportunity for a less expensive automobile to succeed. One such company was Century Electric, which operated from 1912 to 1915. Century made lighter-weight cars with a long, underslung chassis that was hung below the axles rather than set atop them. This last feature lowered the vehicle’s center of gravity, making it safer to round tight corners at high speeds. Century manufactured open-body roadsters (available at only $1,250 in 1912) as well as enclosed broughams, which looked similar to opera coaches. These days, Century is little more than an asterisk in the history of the electric car.
Flanders Electric debuted in 1912 and was the brainchild of Walter Flanders, Henry Ford’s former production manager and the “F” in the E-M-F automobile company. The Pontiac auto maker was successful in the gasoline-car market with its “Flanders 6,” but saw an opportunity to build electrics as well. It made plans to take over the market, pricing its electrics from $1,775 to $2,500.
The Flanders’ look was notable for the absence of a hood; the company’s brochures even ridiculed electric car companies that chose to add that needless feature. Electric-car motors were placed under the automobile—or, in the case of Flanders’ cars, in the back because they were built low to the ground—so there was no need for a traditional hood, other than for aesthetic reasons.
It’s said that Flanders spent the better part of a million dollars promoting its product line. After producing fewer than 100 electric cars and finding itself in receivership, Flanders entered the history books in 1914.
The Grinnell Electric Car Company was owned by the same family as the Grinnell Brothers Piano Company. Grinnell’s automobiles, manufactured from 1913 to 1914, were reminiscent of the products of industry leaders such as Baker—a prominent Ohio brand—both in design and in customer focus. The company aimed at the high-end market, and primarily built enclosed-body coupes and broughams that ranged from $2,800 to $3,400. Grinnell did little to differentiate itself from its competitors, though, and soon found its cars on the scrap heap.
Hupp-Yeats Electric was one of the more successful electric car companies of the era. The company was founded by Robert Hupp of Hupmobile fame and was in business from 1911 to 1919. Hupp worked for Ford and Oldsmobile prior to founding Hupmobile with his brother, Louis. After disagreements with the company’s financial backers, Robert left the business in 1910 to start the RCH Company, later changed to Hupp-Yeats Electric.
Hupp-Yeats automobiles had stylish sloping hoods, curved roofs, and underslung bodies, and were available as coupes or runabouts. In 1911, they were priced from $1,650 to $2,150 and delivered as much as 125 miles on a charge.
The brand most closely associated with Detroit and electric cars is Detroit Electric, for many more reasons than the name. The firm was originally named the Anderson Carriage Company, and moved from Port Huron to Detroit in 1895 in order to take advantage of the larger market. Anderson’s was a big carriage works, making everything from inexpensive utility wagons to beautiful opera coaches. The company put out its first automobile, the Detroit Electric Model A, in 1907. That year, it sold only 10 cars. In 1908, its first full year of manufacture, the public purchased 184 of its four models—a very respectable number, given the regional nature of business at the time and the still-small luxury automobile market. By 1910, Detroit Electric had become the best-selling brand of electrics in the country, delivering 797 automobiles and a small number of electric trucks. In the early 1910s, Detroit Electrics were priced at $2,000 for an underslung roadster to as much as $4,750 for a limousine with the Edison nickel-steel battery. (It’s worth noting that, during this time period, the average annual income was about $1,000.)
Detroit Electric wasn’t a particularly innovative company. But William C. Anderson and his team, which included chief engineer George Bacon, had great business sense and understood their clientele very well. For rich women, Anderson’s team focused on luxury. Each of the Detroit Electric coupes and broughams came with a flower vase, a case for makeup and business cards with a built-in watch, and in some cases a “gentleman’s smoking kit.” The upholstery choices included “22 ounce superfine Waterloo broadcloth or leather, blue, green, or maroon shades. Imported goatskin, fancy novelty cloth or whipcord on order.” Standard exterior paint colors were blue, Brewster green, or maroon, although they would paint a car any color a customer chose for an additional fee. (In 1909, a Mr. Capewell bought Detroit Electric’s first stretch limousine in an eye-popping shade of canary yellow.)
As new features came onto the market from other manufacturers, the management team at Anderson would evaluate them and incorporate the ones that made sense for their customers. Examples include emulating the direct-shaft drive of Baker electric cars—which ensured a quieter ride—as well as a “duplex drive” feature, which allowed the driver to sit either in the front seat or the back seat. (The Ohio Electric Car Company had introduced this idea a year before Detroit Electric.)
Interestingly, enclosed automobiles of the day were designed much the same as the coaches that preceded them. Typically, a bench seat was fitted against the back wall of the automobile, allowing for two passengers to sit comfortably. In front of them was either another bench seat set against the front wall facing back, or a combination of a small bench seat set into the front left corner of the interior, facing diagonally toward the rear, and a flip-up “jump seat” on the right side, also facing back. The driver would sit in the left rear and have to look around passengers to see the road.
This feature, nonsensical as it may seem, was the way horse-drawn coaches were designed, and it was what the luxury market expected. But as the streets became more crowded, accidents occurred on a more frequent basis. This forced municipalities to enact ordinances banning the use of rear-drive automobiles. The “Detroit Duplex Drive” feature allowed for the traditional layout with rear drive, but the left front seat also could be turned to the front to allow the driver to navigate from there. Detroit Electrics, like most enclosed cars of the day, used steering “tillers,” rather than steering wheels. The tiller could be placed against the side of the interior when not in use and was swung up by the driver when he or she was ready to go.
Detroit Electric purchasers included Thomas Edison, Pierre DuPont, David Gamble, C.W. Post, Mrs. J.D. Rockefeller Jr., Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, Anna Kresge, Charles Steinmetz, Stanford White, and the Steinway family. Surprisingly, they were joined by the owners of several gasoline-automobile companies of the day, including Henry Ford—who bought two for his wife and one for his son—and the men who oversaw Packard, Stutz, Cadillac, E-M-F, Studebaker, and General Motors.
It should be noted that the Ford Motor Company took a hard look at electrics, going as far as developing a number of designs in 1914. During this period, Henry Ford’s friend, Thomas Edison, had experienced some serious financial problems, and Ford thought he would help him by building cars that used the inventor’s batteries. Unfortunately, Ford’s designers were unable to create a car that fit within their boss’ pricing parameters—namely, they couldn’t build one nearly cheaply enough.
The cost of electric cars, even at the low end, wasn’t the only thing holding most people back from making a purchase. Range was a concern, particularly as most rural areas were not yet wired for electricity. It was easy to transport gasoline out into the country, less so electricity, so drivers of electrics—for the most part—had to stay close to home. Compounding the problem, the batteries needed half a day to charge, so there was no short stop to “refuel” before getting on the road again.
The biggest problem, however, was the electric car’s identification with women. In the early 1900s, “manliness” wasn’t something most men would compromise, so the idea of driving a “woman’s car” was unthinkable. The electric car manufacturers tried to entice men with low-slung, racy-looking roadsters, but were unsuccessful at breaking out of the stereotype.
Ultimately, the self-starter developed by Charles Kettering in 1911 spelled the end of the early electric. Kettering’s starter allowed drivers of gasoline automobiles to start their cars without a crank, which made them acceptable to most female drivers.
With all of these factors working against the electrics, the market for such cars continued to shrink until the late 1910s, by which time most manufacturers had gone under.
Detroit Electric, however, remained in business until 1939, but not without some effort. At its high point, the company manufactured almost 2,000 vehicles a year. Through the 1920s, its annual output dropped to the low hundreds. Then, the stock market crash of 1929 put it into bankruptcy. Its assets were purchased and the new company struggled along for another decade, manufacturing a handful of cars each year from a combination of new and old parts and staying in business only because of the service work they performed. By 1939, there wasn’t enough of that to keep the company afloat, and it quietly folded. All told, Detroit Electric built nearly 14,000 electric vehicles—the most of any U.S. manufacturer.
In the wake of the demise of the early electric, one can’t help but wonder how Flanders Electric might have reconsidered this statement from their 1912 sales brochure:
“Is there a rule to guide one?
There is. And it is a very simple one.
If an innovation is logical it will survive. It will become permanent. On the other hand—if it is one of those so called improvements devised by [hare]-brained designers simply to create a selling argument or a talking point; if, in short, it is but the hobby of an individual it will become a fad of the moment and as fads do will soon pass into oblivion.”
D.E. Johnson is the award-winning author of the Will Anderson Historical Detroit mystery series. Those books include The Detroit Electric Scheme, Motor City Shakedown, Detroit Breakdown, and Detroit Shuffle. Thanks to the Motor Cities National Heritage Area for their assistance with this story.
SIDEBAR: A GLOSSARY OF EARLY CAR BODY TERMS
In 1916, the Nomenclature Division of the Society of Automobile Engineers established formal definitions for the many styles of car bodies then on the road. Among the entries listed were:
Roadster— An open-body automobile seating two or three persons. It may have additional seats on the running boards or in a tonneau (rumble seat).
Runabout—Editor’s note: This is often a synonym for “roadster.”
Touring Car—An open car seating four or more with direct entrance to the tonneau.
Coupe—An enclosed automobile seating two or three.
Sedan—A closed car seating four or more all in one compartment.
Limousine—A closed automobile seating three to five inside, with the driver’s seat outside, covered with a roof.
Brougham—A limousine seating three to five with no roof over the driver’s seat.
Source: The New York Times, August 20, 1916.
by D.E. Johnson
One of my true pleasures in writing historical novels is finding odd facts to share. My book Detroit Breakdown, sent me down a rabbit hole that I didn’t want to leave. My protagonist was stuck in an insane asylum called Eloise Hospital, which, at the time (1912) was experimenting with radium on tubercular patients.
In the early Twentieth Century, scientists discovered that most of the world’s healing hot springs were radioactive. Radon gas (the byproduct of radium deteriorating) was leaching into the water. The springs healed, they were radioactive, ipso facto radiation heals! Soon experiments commenced using radiation to cure health problems. Success was found with both tuberculosis and cancer. Radiation became a sensation on par with electricity in the late Nineteenth Century and the telegraph fifty years earlier.
As I researched the radium treatments at Eloise, I started coming across strange curatives that used radium or uranium. The more I looked, the weirder they got. Consider the following:
The Revigator (1912 – 1930’s)
A uranium-lined water jar that would irradiate water overnight. Their advertising claimed, "The millions of tiny rays that are continuously given off by this ore penetrate the water and form this great HEALTH ELEMENT—RADIO-ACTIVITY. All the next day the family is provided with two gallons of real, healthful radioactive water … nature's way to health." The Revigator Company recommended a daily minimum of six large glasses. It was a smash. They opened branches across the United States and sold tens of thousands of water jars to the public. And not only were Revigators irradiating the water, they also released large amounts of other toxic elements, such was arsenic and lead, into the water.
Radithor (1918 – 1932)
The most successful of the radioactive curatives with approximately 400,000 bottles sold, Radithor was made of distilled water with a high concentration of two different radium isotopes. Patients were to drink a bottle after a meal. It was advertised to cure stomach cancer and mental illness, as well as restore “vigor and vitality” (a common theme of radium curatives). A playboy/industrialist named Eben Byers was Radithor’s best-known victim. Byers hurt himself falling from a train berth in 1927, and his doctor recommended Radithor to help him heal. (Not coincidentally, doctors received a 17% kickback from Radithor prescriptions—and the stuff wasn’t cheap at $30 a case.) After the first bottle, Byers felt peppier. He figured that if one bottle made him feel better, three would really work. He set out on a three-bottle-a-day regimen of Radithor. When Byers died a painful death from radiation poisoning in 1932, The Wall Street Journal ran this headline over their article:
The Radium Water Worked Until His Jaw Came Off
Degnen’s Radioactive Eye Applicator (1910’s)—Created by M.L. Degnen, the inventor of the Radio-Active Solar Pad, this product, which looks like a pair of wire-rim glasses with opaque lenses, was available in three strengths, and was advertised to cure headaches and difficulty in focusing, as well as nearsight, farsight, and oldsight. It was recommended that the user close his eyes when using the Applicator.
Radione Tablets (1920’s)—“Strength of Iron—Energy of Radium.” Just what they sound like—Radium tablets. For energy! (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. See Vita Radium suppositories and Radiothor for indications.)
Radium Bread (1920’s)—Baked by the Hippman-Blach Company in what is now the Czech Republic, this bread was made with radium-enriched water.
Tho-Radia Face Cream (1930’s)—Popular in France, Tho-Radia made a full line of beauty products and perfumes containing both thorium chloride and radium. Is your skin dull, listless? Want a little shine? Try Tho-Radia! The man the company claimed invented the product line, Doctor Alfred Curie, was not a member of the famed Curie family, nor was he even likely a real person.
The Scrotal Radioendocrinator (1930’s)—My second favorite product. For a mere $150, you could purchase this gold-plated device, filled with radium, which you would place over your endocrine glands (for men they specified under the scrotum) overnight, for improved endocrine health. The inventor, William Bailey, claimed to have drunk more radioactive water than any living man. He died in 1949 of bladder cancer.
And my hands-down favorite …
Vita Radium Suppositories (1930s)
You don’t need to try too hard to read between the lines of this advertising copy to see that Vita suppositories were allegedly the answer to men’s problems in the bedroom.
“Weak Discouraged Men!
“Now Bubble Over with Joyous Vitality Through the Use of Glands and Radium
". . . properly functioning glands make themselves known in a quick, brisk step, mental alertness and the ability to live and love in the fullest sense of the word . . . A man must be in a bad way indeed to sit back and be satisfied without the pleasures that are his birthright! . . . Try them and see what good results you get!" (Vita Radium Suppositories are shipped in a plain wrapper for confidentiality.)”
These companies had the cure for what ailed you. Unfortunately, no one had a cure for the cure. It’s easy today, a hundred years later, to laugh at the idea of these curatives. But I guarantee you that people in the 1910’s laughed at the ridiculous products that were used a hundred years earlier. What scares me is that a hundred years from now people will be laughing at the harmful products you and I use today.
Which ones, do you think?
I had a wild morning today--something I never thought would happen. Henry Rollins (yes, that Henry Rollins) interviewed me for his History Channel show, 10 Things you don't know about (subject).
This episode is on Edison, Tesla, and the War of the Currents, and it ought to be fascinating (for many more reasons than me being on it). The show will air Fall 2014, exact date TBD. But set your DVRs for all the episodes of this show. It promises to be very interesting!
Scott Hunter froom Asylum Entertainment asked me a few weeks back if I would be interested in appearing on this program, and asked if I knew anyone with an electric car that might have had Edison's nickel-iron batteries. I immediately thought of my pal Jack Beatty, seen here with Henry. Jack has helped me out with some of my events in the past and owns two of the maybe eighty running vintage Detroit Electrics in the U.S.
Jack is a real gentleman and was also tickled at the idea of being on a History Channel program, so no persuasion was needed. They set us up for today at 8:00 AM. It's an almost two-hour drive to Jack's place for me, so I hit the road a little before I woke up. Fortunately, I didn't kill anyone. Henry interviewed me on camera for about an hour, and then they went on to the cars with Jack.
While they were getting ready to film, Henry and I chatted about music and hi fi. He's an audiophile with six stereos in his house, including what has to be one of the best sounding systems anywhere - Wilson speakers, VTL amp and preamp, etc. He is a music fanatic and when he talks about recorded music, he means music on vinyl. No MP3s for this man!
He's coming back to Michigan for a spoken word concert in October and said he'd hook me up on his guest list. Pretty sweet. It's amazing what opportunities come along when you're not paying attention!
The following essay appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Mystery Readers Journal.
When I began researching early Twentieth Century Detroit for my historical mystery series, I came across all kinds of information about electric cars. I had some vague notion that electrics existed back in the day, but I really had no idea how significant a part they played in automotive history. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, there were almost twice as many electrics on the road as there were gasoline cars, but twenty years later, the quieter, cleaner-running vehicles had all but disappeared. The electric car was a superior design, simpler and more reliable. Yet during an age when gasoline-powered vehicles broke down so often they came from the factory with a repair kit, electrics were wiped out.
That smelled like a conspiracy.
After watching Who Killed the Electric Car?, my mind filled with possibilities. As an unpublished author, I needed a conspiracy. At the top of my wish list—a cabal led by Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller conspiring to wipe out electrics. Imagine a conference room at the Standard Oil Company, with Ford and Rockefeller and their henchmen. Rockefeller closes the blinds, strolls to the head of the table, and says, “Gentlemen, we have a problem.” Then, though a series of shady business dealings, they work behind the scenes, manipulating the industry like a pair of puppet masters, probably ordering the murders of a few men along the way, until they squeeze the electric car companies (the good guys) out of business. For the book, I’d need a hero—some dashing electric car whiz kid who’s out to save the world, until he’s crushed by the nefarious forces of evil, led by Big Oil.
Can you say “bestseller?”
I started digging in with Henry Ford. It wasn’t until late 1908 that he hit on his first successful vehicle—the Model T. Prior to that, he had little to gain with the death of the electric. Okay, so how about later? Turns out Ford wasn’t against his company producing electrics. He and Thomas Edison, who were close friends, discussed the possibility of Ford Motor Company manufacturing electric cars on numerous occasions, but Ford’s engineers were never able to design one they could build cheaply enough for his taste. Further, while Ford had his share of faults (and a few other people’s shares as well), he was a loyal friend. Edison was building batteries for electrics, and it’s hard to imagine Ford cutting him off at the knees like that. I kept digging, but I wasn’t able to come up with any evidence of Ford’s involvement in the conspiracy.
So on to Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Talk about a guy with a motive—in the early 1900s he controlled more than 90% of the United States’ oil production and only a little lower percentage of the sales of refined oil products. He had a lot to lose if electrics supplanted gasoline-powered cars. So what did he do?
Damn it. I could see that number one spot on the New York Times list going up in smoke. Still, I wanted to know. Was it the pope? That would work. How about Teddy Roosevelt? Not quite as sexy, but still good. Andrew Carnegie? J.P. Morgan?
It was me. And you.
The consumer killed the early electric. Aided by Charles Kettering.
Early electric cars were expensive. The cost of batteries, the technology of which has changed little to this day, was extremely high, putting the price of electrics at a serious premium to gasoline-powered cars. The good news was that automobile owners were rich, because most gasoline cars cost about two year’s wages for the average worker, and most electrics were 50% higher than that. The folks who bought these things were the upper-class, and they could afford any car they wanted. So, if the manufacturers of electrics stuck to the high end, they would have been okay, right?
There were other problems, such as charging. First of all, you had to be somewhere that had an electric grid, not a given in the early Twentieth Century. Next, you had to leave your car all night to charge it. No quick stop at the gas station and off you go!
Range complicated the problem. Most of the early electrics were rated at around fifty miles per charge. That was enough for most uses, but not all, and very few people owned more than one car. By the 1910s, the range of electrics had doubled to 100 miles or more per charge, but still; after 100 miles—if you dared try to take it that far—you were stuck for eight hours or so while your batteries charged. And again, that’s assuming you were somewhere that had electricity.
So, electric cars were expensive, took a long time to charge, and had limited range. Sound familiar?
But they had one thing going for them—women dug electrics. Why? Because of the reasons you might think: they were quiet and didn’t spew noxious fumes. There was a bigger reason, though. They could be started with the flip of a switch. To start a gasoline-powered car, you had to bend down in front of it, grab hold of the crank, and give it a spin. Talk about unladylike. Woman drivers at this point in history were already progressive, really on the cusp of impropriety. To perform a task such as starting a gas car was unthinkable.
The electric car manufacturers focused on their primary demographic—rich women. By doing so, they made electrics de facto women’s cars. It’s not like the men of the early Twentieth Century cornered the market on machismo—men have always wanted to be “manly,” but this was the period in which Teddy Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life” was the model. Men were men, and by George, they weren’t going to be driving a woman’s automobile.
Then, in 1911, Charles Kettering went and designed a self-starter for gasoline cars that allowed drivers to start them by flipping a switch. That was the beginning of the end. Women began choosing their automobiles for reasons other than how they started, and a much wider array of gasoline-powered vehicles offered many tempting choices. By the time World War One wrapped up, electrics were all but gone from the American landscape. Only a few electric car manufacturers survived into the Twenties, and only one that I’ve found (Detroit Electric) made it past the Great Depression, and they scraped along by the skin of their collective teeth until 1939, when they finally gave up.
Conspiracy? Unfortunately, no.… Sigh. Bye bye NYT #1.
It wasn’t Ford or Rockefeller or Roosevelt or Carnegie or Morgan. Or even Kettering.
As the great philosopher Pogo so famously said, “We have met the enemy … and he is us.”
Award-winning author D.E. Johnson has published four novels in his Historical Detroit mystery series: The Detroit Electric Scheme, Motor City Shakedown, Detroit Breakdown, and Detroit Shuffle. His interest in the automobile industry is genetic—his grandfather was the Vice President of Checker Motors. Johnson is currently working on a crime novel set in early 1900s Chicago that has absolutely nothing to do with the auto industry.
Writing a historical novel is a balancing act of the modern and the ancient, from current and past ethical boundaries to a balance of the literary styles of two different eras.
On the first topic, I have a friend, Albert A Bell, who writes ancient Roman mysteries, and his protagonist, Pliny the Younger, is a slave-owner. Part of Albert’s task is to include in Pliny the attitudes of a wealthy Roman toward those slaves, while still keeping him a sympathetic character to the reader. It’s a definite balancing act. I don’t know what Pliny really thought about his slaves or how he treated them but Albert keeps him distanced yet reasonably compassionate and makes it believable. I doubt many Roman slave-owners thought much about their slaves as people but to the modern mind it’s nearly impossible to feel sympathetic to a character who treats people as inferior. Modern readers, for the most part, want a protagonist they can see as a good guy, which sometimes blurs the line of historical accuracy.
In my novels, set in 1910s Detroit, many people with social status would have been raised with very definite opinions regarding people of color, the poor, and the ‘insane’ – which would have included gay people, who were considered sexual deviants. My protagonist, Will Anderson, was raised in that type of household, and when an openly (or as openly as was possible) gay man tries to befriend him, Will rebuffs him again and again. He accepts the man’s help only when he has exhausted all his alternatives. I felt like I was walking the line there. I wanted to include a historical perspective on homosexuality but I also wanted this character to be significant in the book. The only way I could do that was to box Will in enough that he had no choice. From there it felt right.
On the second topic, writing style has obviously changed a great deal over the years. Even though my books take place only a hundred years ago, if I wrote in the style of the early 20th century most readers would yawn and put down the book halfway through the first chapter. (That’s not strictly true. If I wrote a book in the style of the day no publisher would touch it, so no one would read it at all.)
Our goal as historical fiction writers needs to be to create the impression of the historical style. Our books are not written in the verbiage, syntax or particularly the style of the time period we write but are instead our approximation of that language – to create the feeling of authenticity to the reader while keeping the book moving along.
The most common method employed is to use loftier language for the well-to-do. With most historical novels set in the US, I tend to read with an English accent. There is a definite reality to that. Depending on time and place, it wasn’t unusual to hear educated Americans speaking much more like Brits.
However, poor people did not speak that way – in America or anywhere else. They used terrible grammar and had horrible vocabularies, and many of them swore like stevedores. (How’s that for a historical word?) I personally get suspicious when I’m reading a book in which the peasants speak like nobility. Okay, there probably were a few – somewhere – but the other millions of poor folks didn’t even know anyone who talked like that. They didn’t go to school. They didn’t read. Heck, they didn’t bathe. When survival is the rule of the day language tends to be left behind.
I imagine this is a somewhat contentious issue, so what do you think? Should historical writers strive for absolute historical accuracy or should they write in a way that readers will find more accessible? You’ve seen which side I come down on. How about you?
July 25th, 2012 will be a major anniversary for Detroit.
July 25th marks the centennial anniversary of the arrests of seventeen Detroit aldermen and the secretary of the council committee in a fascinating, yet oh, so familiar, bribery "sting."
It seems one mayoral candidate, Andrew Green, wanted to discredit another mayoral candidate, "Honest Tom" Glinnan, and concocted an elaborate sting with the help of William Burns, the man called "America's Sherlock Holmes." They told City Council that the Wabash Railway Company wanted to have part of a street vacated so they could expand their freight warehouses. The Council was opposed to this and delayed the action. Mayor William Thompson and his hand-picked successor, Andrew Green, suspected the council was stalling in the hopes of obtaining bribes, so they enlisted the William Burns Detective Agency to investigate. (Green footed the eventual $10,000 bill.)
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, a man named Walter Brennan, 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 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--and offered a job by Green if he confessed--Glinnan did, and the sting concluded as a complete success.
Or did it? The District Attorney dropped the cases against all but nine of the aldermen, those against whom he had the most airtight cases. The most solid of all, that of "Honest Tom," was bound over for the first trial. Glinnan's defense delayed for two years before the case finally went to trial. The defense claimed entrapment, Burns and Brennan were excoriated on the stand, and the jury was out all of 45 minutes before they came back with a not-guilty verdict. The DA dropped all the rest of the cases.
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 ended the political careers of a number of corrupt men, including Tom Glinnan. Huzzah! (as they might have said at the time.) In the end, Andrew Green decided not to run for mayor, but he kept his rival out of office and (sort of) cleaned up city hall. Yay?
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.
Drug Abuse at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
The things I find most fascinating about researching turn-of-the-century America are the parallels between life then and life now. Drug abuse is an interesting comparison. You may be shocked to discover that a higher percentage of Americans were drug addicts in 1900 than in 2010. As much as 5% of the adult population of the U.S. was addicted to drugs (versus about 5% of the adult population using illegal drugs today, which includes the use of non-addictive drugs.)
Why? One reason is the use of morphine. Going back for decades, it was the standard painkiller for virtually all medical procedures. In fact, by the 1880’s morphine addiction was known as the “soldier’s disease,” because of its prevalent use by Union doctors in the Civil War. (Since the South didn’t have the money to purchase morphine, Confederate veterans didn’t have the problem.)
Secondly, drugs were legal. All of them. You could go into a pharmacy and order up yourself some heroin, morphine, cocaine, etc., and so long as you didn’t look like an addict, they would sell it to you over the counter.
So who was your typical drug addict? Today we think of young males, right? In 1900 the typical drug addicts were older women, often living in rural areas. Why? Patent medicines. The companies producing these medicines were not required to disclose their contents until 1906, which is when the tide began to turn in the battle against addiction.
The names of a few of the many patent medicines containing opium (as much as 50% of the mix!) were:
Mother’s Helper – A few slugs of that stuff would no doubt calm both mother and child. And that’s why people got hooked. Most addiction in those days was accidental. The users didn’t even know they were taking opium—or morphine—or heroin—or cocaine—or some combination of them. What they did know was that when they took the medicine they felt better. (Probably a lot better.)