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06 November, 2011

MY DAD KEN "CLIPPED" DETROIT GANGSTERS IN THE 1920s AND WAS WELL PAID FOR IT TOO

The Detroit River, representing the border between Ontario and the United States, has always been one of the busiest waterways in the world, with freighters bringing iron ore from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the bustling automobile factories of the Motor City. Timber barges from northern Michigan and Wisconsin pass through the narrow waterway which separates Windsor and Detroit, Michigan en route to Lake Erie and the East Coast and hordes of recreational boaters and weekend fishermen use the river for their pleasure.  In the winter, traffic on the narrow flow (less than a mile across in some places) comes to a halt as the river freezes over.

During Prohibition, rum runners and bootleggers used the frozen river as an easy way to get booze from Canada into the United States. From Detroit, liquor went to Chicago (where Al Capone sold it under his "Log Cabin" label), St. Louis, and points west.  It was a well-known fact that if you were bringing a load of hooch across the Detroit River that you had better show up armed to the teeth. There was no denying that in the 1920s, Detroit belonged to the Purple Gang, a group of killers and thugs as vicious and bloodthirsty as any racketeer in New York or Chicago.

The "Purples" ran the rackets in Detroit for much of the 1920s and early 30s until the Syndicate boys from back east moved in and wrested control from a gang that had seen its numbers decimated by infighting and prosecution. Detroit may not have been New York, but make no mistake: the Purple Gang was tough. They were strong enough to tell Capone to keep his mitts off eastern Michigan and managed to hold on to control of most of the state when Scarface was at his peak. Capone coveted Detroit, with its huge number of hardworking, hard-drinking laborers, but wisely decided it was better to buy booze from the Purple Gang than to fight them.
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There's no story like an old story, but what good are stories of any kind if they are not shared.  I honestly think that there is only one thing better than an old story and that's two old stories.

Here are a couple of favorite oldies that involve my father Ken in the swinging and notoriously raucous era of the 1920s.

On completing his apprenticeship in barbering in the early '20s, Ken packed his bags and left his widowed mother and the quiet, close-knit community of Dresden in favor of the bright lights of Detroit, where he had secured a job as one of four barbers at the newly-built Detroiter Hotel.  It would be the beginning of a whole new world for the laid-back, God-fearing, young writer of poetry who had hardly ever been beyond the limits of rural Kent County in all his 23 years.
The Detroiter Hotel was renamed The La Salle shortly after four murders in 1930.

The first couple of months at the Detroiter were relatively uneventful for the young Dresden barber and he quickly became comfortable in his new big city surroundings.  He was taken aback, however, when he began to notice that many of his new customers were wearing shoulder pistol harnesses under their suit coats.  No one had told him that the infamous Purple Gang had adopted the Detroiter as their headquarters shortly after its opening in 1926.

Ken did not have to be told what was good for him...The message was loud and clear:  Just cut hair and turn a deaf ear to anything that was said.  This was one venue where barbers were not the customary conversationalists. Beyond pleasantries of the day, no questions were ever asked of customers.

The good news in all of this for Ken was that Purple Gang members were very good tippers, often handing over a five-spot for a two-bit haircut and shave.  Before long gang members were waiting for his chair to be empty not only because they liked the way he cut hair but they also knew he was not a "talker" outside of the hotel.  His tips were more than enough to cover living expenses and he was able to bank all of his regular pay cheque each week.


One of Ken's new acquaintances and first customer at the hotel was a chap by the name of Jerry Buckley who was an enormously popular Detroit radio show host considered to be a champion of the common man, and he often crusaded on air against organized crime. Jerry had his studio on the mezzanine of the Detroiter. On July 23, 1930, he was gunned down in the lobby of the hotel. The murder came on the same day that voters opted to recall Mayor Charles Bowles on the grounds that he had done so little in fighting organized crime. Buckley was a vocal critic of Bowles on the air.


The bullets flew shortly after Buckley had finished a broadcast. He walked down the stairs from the mezzanine and was reading a newspaper in a lobby chair when three men entered the hotel. One stood by the door; the other two walked over to Buckley. Witnesses at the time said Buckley seemed to rise in recognition when the two men unloaded 12 shots. Only one bullet missed.

Many thought the killing was the work of none other than the Purple Gang upset by his radio attacks calling for a crackdown on mobsters. Other theories said the killing was politically motivated or the result of his rumored shady dealings in the Detroit underworld. It has since become accepted that Buckley had links to mob bosses and was killed because he was planning on going to the police. About 150,000 people attended his funeral. His murder was never solved, and the hotel carried the stigma of being a violent and shady place overrun by gangsters.

Buckley was not the only person to meet a gruesome end at the hotel around that time. A cigarette girl and manicurist either jumped or was thrown from the roof of the Detoiter, and only one week before Buckley was killed, two drug peddlers were gunned down out front.


My dad always contended that the cigarette girl, who worked beside him as a part-time manicurist, was a little too friendly with her clientele and knew too much for her own good.  There was no question in his mind that she had been encouraged off the hotel's roof.

The gun smoke had barely cleared at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Adelaide Street when he very wisely gave up his lucrative barbering chair at the Detroiter, soon to be renamed the La Salle Hotel.  He had a job waiting for him at Hudson's departmental store where a certain young lady, also from Dresden, worked in the women's hosiery department.  He didn't make as much money barbering at Hudson's, but life was a lot less stressful and considerably more pleasant.

Ken had pretty good dukes too

As a young lad growing up, Ken was interested in the art of self defense, particularly boxing and jujitsu.  He sent away for as much information on martial arts as he could get his hands on and trained on his own.  He formed a small group of equally interested friends in Dresden at one time and eventually trained several boxing prospects in later years, including his son.

His time in Detroit in the 1920s and '30s coincided with a boxing surge in the Motor City.  Jack Dempsey was heavyweight champion in those days and Joe Louis was an up-and-comer.  Ken frequented the Kronk gym in Detroit to watch boxers in training and to workout on the speed and heavy bags when there was an opening.  At five-foot-ten and 165 pounds soaking wet, he had no intentions of ever stepping into the ring competitively.  He had exceptionally long, strong arms for his size though and often performed fetes of strength for admiring customers in the barbershop at The Detroiter.  He often attended Friday night prize fights at the new Olympia, later to be known as Detroit's "Old Red Barn", the home of the city's fabled National Hockey League team, the Red Wings.
Ken, ready to step into the ring?

As a preliminary exhibition feature to the Friday night fights, handlers of a rotund heavyweight known only as "The Killer" would offer anyone from the audience $20.00 if they could last two five-minute rounds with the human beast.  The Killer was reportedly undefeated in his ring career and was prowling the canvas and intimidating onlookers one particular night because there were no takers brave enough to face him for the required two rounds.

Three friends who had accompanied my dad to the Olympia that evening, began to chant "over here, over here" while pushing their unwilling Canadian buddy to ringside.  Finally relenting to the insistence of his friends, Ken parted the ropes and climbed into the ring.

Ring assistants pushed a pair of well-padded boxing gloves on to Ken's outstretched hands and laughingly wished the totally unprepared wisp of a challenger good luck.


Before he knew it, there he was in the centre of the ring staring into the eyes of an expressionless "Killer" chafing at the bit to have his way with another hapless, living-dangerously victim.  Dressed only in his street clothes and with no protection whatsoever, Ken answered the bell by warding off several wild hay maker punches thrown by the Killer. He tried to counter with a few lunging right jabs of his own, but his smooth Oxford clad feet slipped hopelessly on the ring's slick canvas surface.  Two minutes into the round, it was obvious to Ken that if he was to survive the first five minutes, he would have to fall into a defensive mode.  He bobbed, weaved, danced and frequently slipped his way through the next three minutes, much to the frustration of the Killer who could not connect with his elusive target.


Round One ended with the crowd wildly cheering the slight-of-build challenger who was surprisingly unscathed and still standing after five minutes.   Before he returned to his corner, Ken surprised everyone by making his way directly to the opposite side of the ring where he methodically and intentionally stepped into a resin box that was intended for The Killer's use only.


"Hey, what do you think you are doing?" screamed Killer's handlers.  But it was too late, Ken's mission was successful.  He had picked up enough resin on the soles of his Oxfords to give him more secure footing on the canvas.

The bell sounded for the second round and the two pugilists --  one hulking and towering and the other smaller and crouched tentatively -- met at centre ring.  The overly confident Killer's guard was carelessly and momentarily down and Ken, with his feet now planted firmly on the canvas thanks to the resin, lashed out with a stinging left to the nose of his opponent followed by a crushing right to the jaw.

The Killer dropped to one knee, blood spurting profusely from a nose that was flattened all over his face.  A few seconds later and it was game over.  A ringside doctor was unable to stop the bleeding and the round was called off.  Ken's friends stormed the ring, elevating him to their shoulders as the crowd applauded in approval.

When the excitement of the upset finally subsided, Ken was informed that he would not be awarded the promised $20.00 prize because of the medical expense that would be incurred by The Killer in having his nose put back in place.  The Killer's handlers eventually had a change of heart and handed over a $20 bill only after seducing my dad and his friends into promising that they would never again show up at the Olympia with thoughts of taking on The Killer. 


Later that evening when Ken showed up on the doorstep of his soon-to-be in-laws' house, he received the tongue lashing of his life for being so foolish and putting himself at risk.  The bouquet of flowers and box of Saunder's chocolates that he brought along with him did not have the intended impact.  Unimpressed, my mother always had a way of delivering a verbal knockout punch of her own.

I think she would have given The Killer a run for his money too.

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