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Authors: Paul R. Kavieff

The Violent Years

THE VIOLENT
YEARS

Prohibition and the
Detroit Mobs

THE VIOLENT
YEARS

Prohibition and the
Detroit Mobs

Paul R. Kavieff

Fort Lee, New Jersey
www.barricadebooks.com

Published by Barricade Books Inc.

2037 Lemoine Ave.

Suite 362

Fort Lee, NJ 07024

www.barricadebooks.com

 

New Introduction © 2013 by Paul R. Kavieff

Copyright © 2001 by Paul R. Kavieff

All Rights Reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, including mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Kavieff, Paul R.

The Violent Years: Prohibition and the Detroit Mobs/Paul R. Kavieff

      pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

1. Organized Crime—Michigan — Detroit—History—20th Century

2. Mafia—Michigan — Detroit—History—20th Century

3. Prohibition—Michigan — Detroit

HV6452.M5 K38 2001

364.1/06/097743

Hardcover: ISBN 978-1-56980-210-6

Paperback: ISBN 978-1-56980-496-4

2001043067

First paperback printing

Printed in USA

Dedication

I would like to dedicate this book to the loving memory of my mother, Blanche M. Perlove Kavieff.

Preface

T
he Violent Years
was first published in 2001 and to this day, remains the only historical source on the Prohibition era Detroit underworld. I am now pleased to present this paperback edition.

Detroit truly roared in the ‘20s. The black market opportunities that resulted from national Prohibition created a gold rush atmosphere in the city. Blind pigs, opium dens, gambling, prostitution, and every imaginable form of vice were readily available to the many thousands of manufacturing workers. Banks flush with money legally and illegally made seemed to spring up on every block in the city.

The city was a breeding ground for violent underworld gangs. During the mid-’20s, the Purple Gang began to climb to the top of Detroit’s underworld pecking order due as much to a very good police and city official protection as to their high-profile, strong-arm methods of operation. The River Gang, as it came to be known, controlled most of the large scale rum running north and south of the city. The Jaworski Gang, working out of Hamtramck (a town within the Detroit city limits), specialized in high-profile bank and payroll robberies. The Carson/Kozak Mob, also working out of Hamtramck, robbed filling stations, local banks, and stuck up pedestrians.

Over the years, I have met with the relatives of some of the underworld characters presented in this work. One of the most interesting people I have spoken to was the son of Detroit’s kidnapping gang leader, Joseph “Legs” Laman. Laman’s gang of predominantly Irish hoods made a very successful business out of kidnapping other Detroit underworld characters during the late twenties. The victims were usually wealthy gambling house operators or bootleggers. “Legs” was finally shot by the police in 1929 and after he recovered, became a State witness against his own gang in return for a shorter prison sentence. Laman’s son was able to give me some background information on his notorious father after he was released from a Michigan prison in 1935. “Legs” went to work for the Ford Motor Company’s infamous Service Department as a hired thug. The Service Department was mainly engaged in union busting. After a short time he quit, picked up his two sons who had been placed in an orphanage, and moved to Chicago. In Chicago, “Legs” Lamam worked as a numbers runner, a moving van driver, and at other physical jobs. The mobster’s son became a Chicago police officer and eventually retired from the force. I asked him what his father had thought about his law enforcement career and his son told me, “Not much.” Laman and his two sons had a strained and difficult relationship over the years.

“Legs” Laman died in Chicago in 1974. His son told me that growing up he had known his father was a Detroit gangster during Prohibition, but knew little about his activities until he read
The Violent Years.
He described “Legs” Laman in his later years as a laborer by day and an old time wise guy on Friday and Saturday night. He always wore an out-of-date suit and carried a revolver to his favorite neighborhood bar.

The Violent Years
is the first and only true crime history to look in detail at the birth and early growth of the Detroit Mafia. From rum running on the Detroit River to becoming the primary force in the Detroit underworld after 1935, the gang wars and internal strife of the Mafia are carefully analyzed.

So sit back and take a journey into the dark side of Detroit history during this country’s most tumultuous era, Prohibition.

Paul R. Kavieff

Huntington Woods, Michigan

May 2013

Introduction:

The Origins of the Mafia and
the Tradition of Old World
Organized Crime

T
o appreciate the dual roles of benefactor and malefactor that organized crime leaders have always played within their community it is necessary to understand how this pattern of social relationships evolved. No better example can be found than in 19th-century Sicily. The Sicilian term “Mafia” had originally meant a place of refuge. Later the word was used to describe admirable qualities, such as individualism, beauty, and strength, in a man. The term was not used in reference to crime or criminal brotherhoods until some time after the annexation of Sicily to Italy by popular vote in 1860. After the annexation, the term came into frequent use—especially among northern Italian officials—in reference to the cattle rustling, vendetta feuds, and general lawlessness in certain parts of Sicily

The Mafia became powerful in Sicily as the result of the abolition of feudalism in the early 19th century. With the disappearance of the centuries-old feudal system, the rural land barons who owned the large country estates became disinterested in the day-to-day operation of their lands. Many took up residence in the cities and leased their land to a new class of entrepreneurs called “gabellotti.”

The “gabellotti”—meaning “tax collectors” or “excise men” in Sicilian—paid these landowners a yearly fee and were responsible for the daily operation of the leased estates. Like the barons that had preceded them, they hired a class of armed guards known as “campieri,” to protect the estates from bandit gangs and rustlers. These guards were generally recruited from the ranks of the peasants who worked the land on the large estates. Because they had to be familiar with the use of violence, the campieri were often composed of a disproportionate number of men who were outlaws themselves.

Over the years, the gabellotti began using their armed guards for much more than the protection of the property under their charge. The campieri often became a private armed force that was used to keep the peasants who farmed the large country estates in line. They extorted money from local property owners and businessmen, and imposed the will of the local gabellotti, or boss, upon that region’s people.

Sometimes the gabellotti would use their armed guards to terrorize the baron from whom they leased the estate. They would threaten his life by shooting in his direction as he traveled through the countryside. The terrified landowner would then run to the gabellotti, who would promise him protection and sometimes suggest to the baron that he put his estate up for auction. When the estate was put on the market, the gabellotti who leased it would conveniently be the only bidder. By the latter part of the 19th century, these methods allowed the gabellotti to consolidate their power in the rural areas of Sicily and become power brokers in their own right. It was during this time that the gabellotti and their guards began to be referred to as the Mafia.

The peasants who worked the land on the large country estates in Sicily were completely dependent upon the local gabellotti bosses for their livelihood. These Mafia groups became entrenched in the rural areas of Sicily as the local authorities. The peasants often viewed the power of the local Mafia chief to be more legitimate than that of the central Italian-controlled government, which they considered disinterested in local matters—especially when they were the problems of Sicilians.

Eventually the campieri who had once policed the estates took control of the countryside of Sicily and engaged in both legal and illegal occupations with impunity.

After universal suffrage was expanded in Sicily in 1882, the gabellotti’s position as local bosses became even more secure as they could then guarantee the local politician of his district’s vote. In this way, the local minister could be assured of retaining his seat in the Italian government when election time arrived. In return for bringing in the vote, the local Mafia boss was allowed a free hand in his locality to rule as he saw fit with little to fear from the law-enforcement authorities of the central government.

The authority of rural Mafia groups was further insulated by the Sicilian code of “Omerta.” Omerta is often defined as the Mafia code of silence, but in reality it was much more. In Sicily, this form of social behavior had developed over the course of centuries of being ruled and exploited by various foreign powers. The code of Omerta stressed that a man must resolve his own problems without recourse to the authorities. By acting in this manner, a man confirmed his “manliness.” The power of the central government was distrusted and held to be illegitimate.

As the result of these complex social relationships, the Sicilian peasants began to rely on the local Mafia boss to provide some of the services that the central government would not furnish. These services included the borrowing of money, help in settling a legal dispute, the rendering of justice on the local level, or help with a personal or legal problem. Although the local Mafia boss could be cruel, he could also be paternalistic. The peasants both feared and admired these local bosses upon whom their lives were so dependent.

In this respect, the old-time Sicilian underworld leader or mafioso brought with him when he immigrated to America an aura of authority among the people in his ethnic community. These men often looked out for the welfare of the immigrant communities upon which they preyed. As European immigrants established close-knit communities in the United States, they maintained their tradition. In the case of Sicilian immigrants, they maintained the code of Omerta, and chose to live and die by the tyranny of local Mafia leaders rather than rely on the help of the local government. But as you read this text, you will notice that virtually all of the crime groups discussed—be it the predominantly Jewish Purple Gang or the predominantly Irish “Legs” Laman Gang—have a strong connection to their ethnic roots and developed their power base within their communities.

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