(Editor’s note: For this 26th installment of our “Story Behind the Story” series, we welcome to The Rap Sheet D.E. “Dan” Johnson, a southern Michigan resident who manages real-estate offices when he’s not penning fiction. A longtime history enthusiast, with a particular interest in Detroit’s early 20th-century past, Johnson is the grandson of a former vice president of Checker Motors Corporation. His first novel, The Detroit Electric Scheme , introduced readers to Will Anderson, the trouble-attracting heir to the Detroit Electric Company, an early maker of electric automobiles. Motor City Shakedown, its recently released sequel, picks up Anderson’s story seven months later.)
Motor City Shakedown is the second mystery in the Will Anderson series, set in 1911-1912 Detroit. The city was amazing back then. It was growing at an exponential rate, as were local businesses, particularly in the manufacturing sector. Immigrants were flooding in to fill these factory jobs, and Detroit became a city of ethnic enclaves along the lines of New York (though, of course, much smaller). At the same time, poverty and crime were rampant. Gangs of young toughs roamed the streets, and it could be worth your life to wander too far from the lights of downtown at night. Detroit was a great combination of success and crime--and the worst people weren’t always the ones on the criminal side of the ledger.
It was a fascinating time. The car industry was exploding for both gasoline and electric automobiles, until the downfall of the electric began in 1911. (But that’s a different story, covered in The Detroit Electric Scheme, Book 1 of the Will Anderson series.) However, one of the major reasons I set the series in this period was because it provided the surroundings for Detroit’s first mob war.
Vito Adamo and his gang controlled the rackets, and the Gianolla brothers wanted what he had. They actually operated grocery stores across the street from each other in Ford City, downriver of Detroit (now part of Wyandotte). Adamo controlled downriver crime as well as a big chunk of the criminal activity in Detroit. He was known as the “White Hand.” Most Sicilian gangs at that time were Black Hand gangs, and they thrived using the protection racket. They would visit businesses, usually those run by fellow Sicilians, and offer to protect them from the criminal elements of the neighborhood--for a fee. If the businessman didn’t pay up, he would generally find his store burned down or his employees beaten or killed.
After the Black Hand went in, Vito Adamo’s White Hand people would go to the business and offer to protect them from the Black Hand--again, for a fee. The kicker is that both the Black Hand gang and the White Hand gang were Adamo’s men. Quite the entrepreneur, huh? He was also involved in illegal importation of virtually anything that paid--immigrants, booze, narcotics, etc. One of his biggest moneymakers was beer. And that was what ignited the mob war.
(Left) Early 20th-century Detroit gang leader Vito Adamo
The Gianolla gang, run by Antonio (Tony) Gianolla, was in the importation business as well. In fact, the first time that gang came into the public eye was when the police confiscated $2,000 worth (a fortune in 1912 money) of illegal olive oil. Shortly after that, the body of a Gianolla associate named Sam Buendo was found in a vacant field, most of his bones broken and his corpse burned. It was assumed the Gianolla brothers thought Buendo was a rat, though proof was never found.
In 1912, the Gianollas cut their prices on beer and started taking the Adamos’ business. The Adamos countered by matching their prices and throwing in ice (a necessary commodity in the days before refrigeration). The Gianollas responded with beatings. In no time this escalated into a shotgun war in the streets of Detroit’s Little Italy. Nine men were killed and dozens were wounded, almost all of them in shootouts on the street. The newspapers followed the story with front-page articles virtually every day until the war was over and a single gang ran Detroit. (I’m not going to tell you who won, because it would give away part of the end of Motor City Shakedown. If you can’t wait or--horrors!--aren’t going to read the book, you can find the answer easily enough by Googling it.)
The arc of the plot of Motor City Shakedown follows the general line of the mob war. The Gianollas want Will to get the Teamsters Union into his father’s company, Detroit Electric. It’s impossible, but these guys won’t listen to reason. Moreover, they want Will to help them kill Vito Adamo, something he’d be happy to do if he could just figure out how to accomplish it and stay alive himself. He and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Hume, end up getting stuck in the middle of this war and have to play both sides off the middle in order to live through it.
Because the book involves the Detroit mob, I’ve also got a major tip of the hat to the Purple Gang. At this time, the Bernstein brothers (eventual leaders of the gang that ran Detroit during much of Prohibition) were kids running a street gang and doing odd jobs for Sicilian mobsters. Will enlists their help in finding Vito Adamo and gets a bit more than he bargained for.
I learned a number of interesting things while researching this book, some big and some small. Often the little bits of information are the best part for me. For example, at the end of the mob war, police found a notebook at Vito Adamo’s home. Inside the book was writing in Italian and graphic pictures of stilettos plunging into backs. The police were certain they had found a major clue--perhaps even a “tell-all” that would give them the inside information they needed to prosecute the murderers. They immediately paraded the notebook in front of the city’s newspaper reporters.
Unfortunately, the police had serious egg on their faces when the translation showed that the book was an unpublished “dime novel”--Vito Adamo’s attempt at becoming a fiction writer. The plot of the story followed a young Sicilian boy who had been wronged at every turn and avenges himself with his enemies. People wondered if that was how Adamo saw himself. If so, given the nature of the crimes he committed, he was likely the only person who felt that way.
I originally planned for Motor City Shakedown to be the third in the Will Anderson series. I envisioned the second book being set partially in Detroit but primarily in Panama, using the construction of the Panama Canal as the historical backdrop. The third book’s action would return to Detroit, with this mob war as the focus.
Wrong. Publisher St. Martin’s Minotaur bought two Detroit-set books, Nos. 1 and 3. A series is supposed to be set in a single location. Who knew? (Rhetorical question--you probably did.)
The best news for me is that I have been contracted by St. Martin’s to write two more novels in the Will Anderson series. The next will be titled Detroit Breakdown, set to a great extent at Eloise Hospital, the massive insane asylum that served Wayne County for well over a century. Will finds reason to commit himself in order to help Elizabeth, and you can probably imagine the fun I’m having running him through the gauntlet of mental health care in 1912. Detroit Breakdown will be available next fall.