Saturday, December 29, 2018

Detroit's Numbers Racket



Today's state run lotteries are first cousins to the illegal policy rackets of the early twentieth century--known by players as the numbers game. Curious how things once illegal become legal when the government gets involved. The grass-roots game had much better odds but much lower payouts than today's state-run lotteries. To win, a player needed to match only three numbers rather than the six or seven used today with astronomical odds against winning. Then as now, some of the most avid players were the people who could least afford it.

Beginning in the 1920s, the Purple Gang-controlled numbers game in Detroit was a profitable money machine for the Bernstein Brothers and their associates who were many. Numbers runners, bag men, and accountants kept the money flowing. There was a fortune to be made from the pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars of working-class immigrants--particularly Italians, Jews, and the Irish. Members of Detroit's black community developed into major players in the innercity numbers racket where the game was popular.

Many people made tax-free extra bucks running numbers. Seemed like everybody had a favorite number or several numbers they played daily if they had some small change. Playing was convenient, bets could be taken over the phone. People could also place more costly combination bets of any permutation of their three numbers. For example, 127 could win with 127, 172, 217, 271, 712, and 721. Every place where liquor or soda pop was consumed became a numbers drop. Every grocery store, barber shop, beauty shop, candy store, and virtually every business within a runners assigned territory was a potential numbers drop. The more money a numbers runner collected, the more money he or she made. 

The numbers game appealed to people who were not habitues of the “high-class” gambling establishments of Detroit’s high rollers, social climbers, and underworld figures that mingled nightly with unsettling familiarity. The urge to gamble was not limited to the well-heeled public and wealthy industrialists. Everyday people wanted to place bets. If they couldn’t afford to chase Dame Fortune, they were content to wink at Lady Luck.

Spare change and small bills made up the bulk of the daily take. The game was easy to play—pick three numbers ranging from 000 to 999 and wait for the daily winning number. Players placed bets with a numbers runner who collected the money and recorded the bets in a handbook with the bettor’s name and date written in. A receipt with a serial number printed at the bottom was given to the bettor to prove he or she placed the bet in the event they won. A more sophisticated version of the game we known as Keno had greater payouts but greater odds.

The odds for the basic game were one in a thousand. If you were the only person to hit that number that day, your payoff could be 600 to 1, otherwise the jackpot was split among the winners. Bagmen collected the money from the runners and took it to a central location called a numbers bank where a group of accountants processed the bets, counted the money, and passed it on to a central drop at a secret location.

At first, the numbers were drawn from numbered balls in a ball cage or three spins of a wheel of fortune. These methods could be manipulated and soon fell out of favor. Players wanted three numbers that were certified random. Bernstein’s game used the last three numbers of the United States Treasury Department balance which was printed daily in the business section of newspapers. When the Treasury Department began to round off their numbers—so they wouldn’t be a party to illegal gambling schemes—the three last digits of the number of shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange became the daily winning number. That number was found conveniently in the daily papers. Choosing today's lotto number picks have gone back to the numbered-ball drops which are televised to prevent fraud.


Accounting books seized by treasury agents in a 1940 raid of a Paradise Valley numbers drop revealed as many as 6,000 men and women were employed by Detroit numbers operators. The average payout was 16% of the take divided among the winners. The number runners who took the bets filled out the betting slips and got 25% of their daily take. The bagmen who collected the money and betting slips from the bookies took them to a secret central location. They made 10% of what they brought in. Finally, the promoters took 49% for themselves and their overhead. All of those accountants needed to be paid—not to mention the occasional bail bondsman.

Because of the large territories where the game was played, the profits were huge. But this scheme was not without its dark side. Anyone skimming money off the top, holding out on winners, compromising the operation, or attracting unwanted attention from the authorities would be quickly eliminated.

Link to the wine brick rackethttps://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=7073297057923413840#editor/target=post;postID=2979020335839039617;onPublishedMenu=postsstats;onClosedMenu=postsstats;postNum=5;src=postname

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Coca-Cola Santa Story


Santa's origin can be traced back to ancient Germanic folklore and the Norse god Odin. The modern character of Santa was embraced by America with the 1823 publication of Clement Clarke Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas"--better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas." In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast created the first Santa images based on Clement's fifty-six line poem.


Haddon Sundblom at work.
Michigan artist Haddon Sundblom painted the iconic image we now recognize as Santa Claus--for the Coca-Cola company from 1931 until 1964. These images appeared in Coke's print advertising, store displays, billboards, posters, calendars, and on television commercials. Sundblom helped make Santa the most recognizable and successful pitchman in advertising history.

The Coca-Cola Santa story: http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-santa-claus/

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Elusive Purple Gang

Purple Gang lineup in 13th Precinct--the Canfield Street station.

Since May 2018, I've been researching Detroit's Prohibition-era kingpins--the Purple Gang--for an untitled book I'm writing. As helpful as the Midtown Detroit Public Library Burton Historical Collection and the Walter Reuther Library were to my early research, a couple of trips to the Windsor, Ontario Library, Biblioasis bookstore, and landmarks where the liquor trade flourished were information-rich finds. Seems like the Canadians have done a better job documenting their Prohibition history than Americans have.

One thing I've learned is that Al Capone had more to do with smuggling on both sides of the international border than most people realize. He was the larger than life figure who defined the Big City gang boss. Capone ruled from Chicago and his organization financed affiliates in Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Cleveland.

Rather than muscle in on the Purple Gang's Detroit territory, Capone cut a fat deal with the gang to take all the uncut liquor they could hijack or smuggle across the Detroit River. The Purples were not the only gang in the liquor acquisition business. They competed with the Italian Dago Mob to the east and the Italian Moustache Pete's to the west for control of the illegal booze business. The Jewish Purple Gang worked with anybody who could help them make money. They worked with members of both gangs and acted as a buffer between them until the 1931s.


Some background reading.
In addition to reading books on the various aspects of the liquor trade and scouring the Internet for information, my most fertile area for details on the gang is coming from Newspapers.com. The site carries Detroit Free Press archives dating to the nineteenth-century. Patient navigating brings up the original headlines and articles. The gang's bloody history reported on by the yellow press of the time is well-known--their arrest records, acquittals, convictions, murders, and assaults. What isn't known is much about their personal lives.

Tommy's Bar 1928 Purple Gang roundup at the height of their power.

I'm struggling to find out some factual information about gang members families. Obtaining death certificates should be routine, but these are proving difficult to get. Purple Gang members I'd like to know more about are the Bernstein brothers Abe, Ray, Joe, and Isadore; the Keywells Harry and Phil; Harry Millman; Irving Milberg; Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher. If any of these wise guys have relatives with some basic information, contact me at www.gregoryafournier@gmail.com. I want to portray them as accurately as possible.

Right now, I'm most interested in Joe Bernstein's wife. One source says she was Marguerite Ball--a dancer with the George White Follies based in Chicago. Ancestry.com disputes this. She may be the Yoko Ono of this story. After her husband took a slug in the spleen in 1930, she gave him an ultimatum, "Either the gang or me." I know there is more to that story than is readily apparent.

The Purple Gang members were real people beyond the headlines but little documentation is available. I have two theories why so little personal information is available about these "well-known" underworld figures. The first and most obvious reason is they fiercely protected their wives and kids and kept them out of the public eye. Reporters who harassed or threatened the security of family members soon felt the wrath of a gang inspired beating. My other theory is that their Jewish families were ashamed and embarrassed by their hoodlum sons. Photos and other memorabilia must exist, but they are surely closely guarded family artifacts. After eighty years, it would be wonderful if some of that history were preserved and shared.


Tough street kids with a rifle.
Many immigrant children from Detroit's lower east side worked as hard as their parents to rise above poverty and squalor to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, rabbis, priests, policemen, firemen, and tradesmen. But others were too smart for that. These boys saw how tough life was for their struggling immigrant parents. They wanted to short-circuit the system and snatch the American Dream rather than work a real job. The Purple Gang developed into one of the most feared, wealthy, and successful crime organizations in the country. They were the only Jewish gang in the country who dominated a large American city. But in time, most of the gang members pushed their luck and ended up in either prison or the cemetery. By the mid-thirties--after a bloody Italian mob war--the Mafia consolidated and took over the Detroit underworld. The Purple Gang was finished as an organization.

I'm surprised how many Detroiters have never heard of the Purple Gang. There are some people who maintain there never was a Purple Gang--that they were only a media creation of the yellow press looking for headlines. Back in the day, whenever alleged Purples were questioned by police about the gang, their answer was always the same, "The Purple Gang? Never heard of them." One thing is for certain, every one of them broke their mother's heart.


The Las Vegas Mob Museumhttps://fornology.blogspot.com/2018/11/las-vegas-mob-museum.html

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Ypsilanti's Hutchinson House Built with S&H Green Stamp Fortune

In 1896, Thomas A. Sperry and Shelley Byron Hutchinson went into the S&H Green Stamp business together. The New York Times business section described this newly formed company "the first independent trading stamp company to distribute stamps and books to merchants."

Not much is known about Mr. Sperry. He was an Easterner. His home was destroyed by fire in 1912, with damages estimated to be $150,000. He was an avid art collector and a number of valuable paintings went up in flames. A year later, Sperry contracted ptomaine poisoning on a return ocean cruise from Europe. When he returned to the United States, he was so ill he couldn't travel to his home in Cranford, New Jersey. He was forty-nine years old when he died.

Sperry's brother, William Miller Sperry, inherited his brother's business interests and gained control of the company. In 1921, Shelley Hutchinson sued the estate of Thomas A. Sperry alleging that Sperry defrauded him of his full share of dividends to the tune of $5,000,000. Secret funds were diverted from company funds to Sperry. Hutchinson won the suit. The founders' family successors sold the franchise in 1981.


Much more in known about Shelley Hutchinson. His grandparents were among the first settlers in Ypsilanti, Michigan, still little more than a frontier outpost. Shelley's father Stephen Hutchinson married Loretta Jaycox on November 26, 1862. Shelley was born two years later in a log cabin in Superior Township on October 19, 1864. From 1874 until 1894, the Hutchinsons lived in a four room wood frame house at 509 N. River Street, across the street from the Champlain mansion. As a kid, he attended the Union School through the eighth grade--a typical education for a nineteenth-century boy.

Shelley was ambitious and intelligent. While working at a family shoe business with his father and brother in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the 1880s, he conjured up the idea for a trading stamp business he could promote to merchants as a customer retention program. On a small scale, the idea was promising, so a regional headquarters was established in Jackson, Michigan, chosen for its central location between the state's eastern and western borders.

Three years later, Hutchinson met Sperry in New York--an Easterner with money and business connections. Soon after they went into business, stamp redemption centers sprung up in many of Michigan's major cities. With early success, the promotion was expanded eventually growing into a nationwide coast-to-coast business concern. Sperry and Hutchinson made money hand over fist.

Shelley Hutchinson met Clara Unsinger, who was a stenographer in the company. Clara was the granddaughter of an Ypsilanti deacon. They were married on April 27, 1894. By the turn of the century, Hutchinson had amassed enough money to build his dream house. He considered building in New York, but his father urged him to build in Ypsilanti to be reunited with family and friends.

Feeling a boyhood affinity for the area, Hutchinson decided to build his thirty-room Richardsonian Revival mansion across the street from where he grew up--the site of the deteriorating Champlain mansion on the corner of North River and East Forest streets. Construction began in 1902 and was completed in 1904. Hutchinson called his mansion Casa Loma--Spanish for house on the hill. The site was believed to be Ypsilanti's highest point--on the east side anyway. He moved in with his wife, three children, parents, and brothers and sisters.

See the link below for more views of the house.

Building his mansion on Ypsilanti's east side was a social mistake for the wealthy millionaire. The Huron River was the town's dividing line. The east side was the working class neighborhood, and the west side was primarily for the wealthy and social elite. Hutchinson was never accepted into Ypsilanti high society because he was "new money" and shunned the "old money" denizens. He and his wife Clara rode around town in a fine phaeton carriage with matching horses. The newly rich pair wore only the finest clothes, and the "Stamp King" wore a silk top hat. During the height of his success, Hutchinson bought diamonds by the pocketful from Tiffany's in New York.

In an early undated Ypsilanti Daily Press article, the reporter wrote a "rags to riches" story about Hutchinson. Quoting merchant A.A. Bedell, "Hutchinson was always immaculate in dress, dark haired and handsome. One day, he stood in (my shoe store in Depot Town) and a shaft of light struck his diamonds, a glittering array. He had half-caret diamonds in each cuff link and wore two diamond rings, one of three carets and one between seven and eight. His shirt stud had a three and a half-caret stone." People said when Hutchinson walked in the sunshine, he sparkled.

But the domestic situation at Casa Loma was less than stellar. The Detroit News reported on July 3, 1906, that Mrs. Hutchinson deserted "the mansion on the hill" in anger taking her three children with her to live with neighbors across the street at 629 N. River Street. Clara had had it with her Hutchinson in laws and complained to the reporter that she was forced from her home penniless--except for some diamonds she left with. Hutchinson's father and sister publicly claimed they wished Clara would return to manage the place. As for her husband, Shelley retreated and went south for his health. The domestic situation was intolerable for him too.

As the story goes, Shelley had been gravely ill and entrusted his wife with his diamonds. Upon recovery, he asked for them back. Clara refused saying he gave them to her. She hid the diamonds away, but while she was sleeping one night, her husband found her hiding place. Shelley locked the diamonds in a tin box and placed them in his roll-top desk in his locked home office. Two could play at that game. Clara took her husband's key and unlocked the office door. After a brief search, she found the tin box and opened it with a can opener. Then she left the mansion taking her children.

The Ypsilanti Daily Press reported on January 14, 1910, that a divorce was granted giving Clara custody of the three children, $9,000 cash paid out over five years, and her husband's diamonds. She sold the largest one to a neighbor and the rest to a diamond broker in Detroit. In 1912, Hutchinson's mansion was sold at public auction to the Ypsilanti Savings Bank to satisfy an unpaid mortgage and back taxes. The home is now used for a commercial property and houses several businesses.

In an Ypsilanti Press interview in 1955, the ninety-one-year-old Hutchinson was living in New York. He was quoted as saying, "Some of the people (in Ypsilanti) were jealous of me because of the big house, but they had no reason to be. I was good to everybody." Shelley Hutchinson returned to Ypsilanti one last time time in 1961 for burial in a family plot at Highland Cemetery--several blocks north of his mansion. He was ninety-seven.


Most people in Ypsilanti are familiar with the outside of the Hutchinson House but have never seen the interior. Check out this link to see just how extravagant it is. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sjb4photos/sets/72157622572604360/

For more detailed information about the Hutchinson family, read Janice Anschuetz's article "River Street Neighbor's Gossip and the Hutchinson Marriage," which appeared in the Ypsilanti Historical Society's September 27, 2010, newsletter Ypsilanti Gleanings. http://ypsigleanings.aadl.org/ypsigleanings/37044

Saturday, December 1, 2018

S&H Green Stamps--Emblem of a Bygone Age

Sperry and Hutchinson Company were the originators of S&H Green Stamps--as much an American cultural icon as anything. The company began offering redemption stamps to American retailers in 1896. Stores bought the stamps and offered them as bonuses based on the dollar amount of the purchase. S&H Green Stamps was the earliest retail customer loyalty program selling and distributing stamps and books to merchants. With a unidirectional cash flow, this shoppers' incentive made its originators multi-millionaires.

Stamps were issued in denominations of 1, 10, and 50 points. Stamp pages were perforated with glue on the reverse side to mount in twenty-four page collector booklets. Each booklet contained 1,200 points. Reward gifts were based on the number of filled books required to obtain the object. Green Stamps had no real cash value.

S&H Green Stamps could be obtained at supermarkets, department stores, and gas stations. Completed booklets could be redeemed at one of 800 distribution centers located around the country. Most popular in the early 1960s, S&H boasted that its reward catalog was the largest publication in the United States. They issued three times more stamps than did the United States Postal Service.

Economic recessions in the 1970s reduced sales and decreased the value of the rewards. Shoppers began to see the stamps as not worth the trouble, and stores started to drop the program. In 1981, the founders' successors sold the business.

Green Stamps entered the realm of pop art iconography when Andy Warhol used a three step silkscreen process to print a 23"x22.75" canvas in 1962. Three years later, he used offset lithography to print the classic green stamp images on forty-nine 7'x7' panels to act as wallpaper within a gallery exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia. A single panel recently sold at auction for $6,250.


S&H Green Stamp founder https://fornology.blogspot.com/2016/12/ypsilantis-hutchinson-house-built-with.html

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