Showing posts with label Daniel Waugh. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Daniel Waugh. Show all posts

02 October 2019

The Assassination of Sam Giannola

Detroit Mafia boss Sam Giannola

One hundred years ago today, Detroit Mafia boss Salvatore (Sam) Giannola was assassinated as he stepped from the American State Bank branch at the corner of Monroe and Russell streets in Detroit, Michigan. Giannola and his two brothers, Vito and Antonino (Tony), were natives of Terrasini, Sicily and had led the city's Mafia family since the spring of 1914, when they seized control of the burgàta after winning a gang war against incumbent boss Pietro Mirabile. 

Based in the southern Detroit suburb of Ford City, the Giannolas had gained untold wealth and power from their newfound positions at the head of the city's Mafia family. Unfortunately, they had also accumulated a host of enemies both inside and outside of their organization. Sam's brother Tony had been murdered in January 1919 and Sam led his faction in a blood feud against his enemies, a faction headed by Giovanni (John) Vitale. After a peace treaty had been enacted in late May, things seemed to have calmed on the surface, but the bad blood between Giannola and Vitale seemed set to erupt at any time.

On October 2, 1919, Sam spent a good chunk of the day at his Little Sicily headquarters, the Viviano Macaroni Manufacturing Company, at 277 Monroe Street. Around 2 o'clock that afternoon. Giannola went to the American State Bank to cash a $200 check (Sam was looking to place a bet on the upcoming Game 2 of the ongoing baseball World Series). After finishing his business, Giannola was confronted by three assassins who shot him multiple times. Sam staggered back inside the bank and collapsed to the floor, quickly dying of his wounds. His three assassins ran in opposite directions on Russell Street. Sam's funeral in Wyandotte four days later was a elegant and well-attended affair. His widow Rosa swore an oath of vengeance against his killers at his gravesite.

Detroit Free Press

One of Sam Giannola's accused killers, Calogero Arena, was actually found guilty of the crime in March 1920 and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, Arena's conviction was reversed on appeal, and he was acquitted at his second trial.

If you'd like to read more about Sam Giannola's life and career, I invite you to check out my book Vìnnitta: The Birth of the Detroit Mafia


The October 3-6, 1919 issues of the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, and Detroit Times

Sam Giannola, Michigan Department of Health, Certificate of Death, No. 9756 (1919).

Recorder's Court of the City of Detroit, The People of the State of Michigan vs. Cologero Arena for murder, 1919, Case # 30216.

Daniel Waugh. Vìnnitta: The Birth of the Detroit Mafia. Lulu Publishing Services, 2019. ISBN 9781483496276.

16 July 2019

New York gangster Johnny Spanish: A Retrospective (1 of 2)

Go To Part 2

One hundred years ago this month, New York City gangster Johnny Spanish was dramatically gunned down in front of a Second Avenue restaurant in Lower Manhattan. The shooting, witnessed by at least a hundred people, was the final act of a criminal career that wound through the mean streets of the Lower East Side and the foreboding cells of Sing Sing Prison. Although not a household name, Spanish's name is familiar to most crime buffs mainly because of Herbert Asbury's 1927 gangster classic Gangs of New York. Known primarily for his violent feud with fellow gangster Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan, Johnny Spanish's life is little known outside of what Asbury sketched of him. It has been variously said that he was a Spanish Jew; that he was related to the notorious "Butcher" Weyler, the Spanish general who ruled over Cuba with an iron fist; that he shot a pregnant ex-girlfriend in the stomach, among other things. In addition to examining his violent demise, the author hopes to separate fact from fiction and provide a more accurate picture of who Johnny Spanish really was.

He was born Giovanni Mistretta in 1889, most probably in Lower Manhattan, to an Italian father and a Spanish mother. Giovanni had at least two older siblings (Antonietta and Antonio) and a younger brother (Giuseppe). Virtually nothing else is known of his childhood, about how he progressed through adolescence and found his way into the street gangs of the neighborhood. Giovanni seems to have been relatively intelligent,  able to read and write well. As an adult, it was noted that he spoke fluent Italian, Spanish, and English. Sometime during Giovanni's youth, his family anglicized their surname to Mestrett. Thus, Giovanni Mistretta became John Mestrett. While young John may have naturally bright, he showed little inclination for academics and soon found his way into the streets. Almost certainly fueled by the hair-trigger temper that would plague him all his life, John quickly began getting into street fights. Sometime in his teens, if the standard accounts are accurate, John Mestrett found his way into the lower rungs of the notorious Five Points Gang.

One of the more storied street gangs in New York City's history, the Five Points bunch got their name from the convergence of four Lower East Side streets; Anthony (present-day Worth), Cross (present-day Mosco), Orange (present-day Baxter), and Little Water (defunct). The five points of this intersection were home to a large gang consisting mostly of Irish immigrants around the mid-nineteenth century. By the turn of the century, the Five Points Gang had grown so much that satellite branch gangs had popped up in other areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn. As the demographics changed on the old Five Points turf, so did the ethnic make-up of its ranks; by 1900, the Five Pointers were now composed mostly of Italians, with quite a few Jews and Irish sprinkled into the mob. They were led by Paul Kelly (Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli), a former boxer turned refined gang boss. The brilliant Kelly was able to forge an alliance with the corrupt Tammany Hall city government. In exchange for committing numerous instances of Election Day political terrorism and voter fraud on Tammany's behalf, the powers-that-be turned a blind eye while the Five Pointers made their living stealing and operating brothels and dance halls.

The Five Points Gang's chief rival was a giant mob of mostly Jewish hoodlums led by a former dance-hall sheriff (bouncer) named Edward "Monk" Eastman. A legend in his own lifetime, Eastman was a ferocious street fighter who led his men into action against the hated Five Points mob regularly.  On one occasion in September 1903, they staged a pitched gun battle on Rivington Street that left three men dead and a score of others wounded. At one point, Eastman and Kelly agreed to face off against each other in bare-knuckled combat in an abandoned barn in neutral Bronx territory; the two gang bosses battered each other to a draw. After Monk Eastman was sentenced to prison in 1904 for a botched robbery, his gang began to splinter. As a result, Kelly's Five Pointers were then noted as the most powerful gang in the city.

It was most probably around 1905-1906 that the teenaged John Mestrett began moving within the Five Points Gang. He most probably started small, picking pockets on crowded streets and trolleys before moving up to burglary and armed robbery. Due to his Latin heritage, Mestrett soon became known as "Spanish John" amongst the Five Points crowd. Before long, it was inevitably transposed into "Johnny Spanish." His brother Giuseppe (Joseph) soon joined him on the streets; he would be appropriately nicknamed "Joey Spanish." Despite an undersized build, Johnny attacked an opponent with the ferocity of a wolverine. Sometime during his Five Points apprenticeship, Johnny sustained a bullet wound to the face that knocked out three teeth and left an ugly scar on his cheek near his mouth. By the mid-1900s, the monolithic Five Points Gang followed the Eastman Gang's led and began to fragment into independent crews. Two former Five Pointers, Biff Ellison and Razor Riley, attempted to kill Paul Kelly at the New Brighton hall in November 1905. Kelly was wounded in the gunplay, his life saved when bodyguard Bill Harrington took a fatal bullet meant for his boss. While Kelly survived his wounds, he began easing himself out of the day-to-day business of running the Five Points mob.

Virtually no precise information about Johnny Spanish's early criminal career has survived; he was basically one of the many faceless Five Points thugs who wreaked havoc amongst the slums of the Lower East Side. However, subsequent events show that Spanish was a cut above the usual East Side thug. Intelligent and industrious, he appears to have broken away from the Five Points mob sometime around the age of twenty. Despite his Italian/Spanish heritage, most of the hoods he attracted under his banner were Jewish. As a result, many accounts have labeled John Mestrett as a Spanish Jew. In fact, like Monk Eastman before him, Johnny Spanish was a Gentile who merely moved within the Jewish-American underworld. When he was subsequently sent to prison in 1911, Spanish declared his religion as "Protestant." Upon his 1919 murder, John Mestrett was given a Catholic burial in Queens' Calvary Cemetery. Despite his ability to captain a crew of young thugs, Spanish remained temperamental and something of a loner. Herbert Asbury described him this way; "Spanish was very taciturn and morose, and was inclined to brood over his troubles, real or imagined...Spanish never stirred abroad without two revolvers stuck in his belt, and when he was on important errands he carried two more stuffed into his coat pockets, besides the regulation equipment of blackjack and brass knuckles."

By the year 1909, Johnny Spanish was a twenty-year-old crook that bossed a group of mostly Jewish thieves on the Lower East Side. As his criminal career progressed, Johnny and his brother Joey began using the alias of Weiler (also spelled Wheiler in some contemporary sources). Like most criminals of the era, they appear to have modified their names to shield their families from shame. Herbert Asbury wrote that Johnny claimed to be related to Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, the Spanish general and colonial administrator of Cuba and the Philippines whose brutal tactics in crushing the Cuban Rebellion earned him the nickname of "Butcher Weyler." No contemporary source confirms Johnny Spanish making such a claim, and while it is uncertain if it has any merit, his mother Rose was noted as using the name "Weiler" in the 1920 Census. It's possible that this may have been a variation of her maiden name. Regardless of the Weyler connection's veracity, it is easy to imagine Johnny letting the hoods of the Lower East Side think he was kin to Butcher Weyler, as such a claim would merely add to his growing mystique. Indeed, quite a few young Jewish hoodlums hitched their wagon to Johnny Spanish Train as the decade came to a close. Some of those who rolled with him were his younger brother Joey, Hyman Benjamin, and "Lefty" Kantor. Johnny's most gifted recruit would turn out to be his eventual nemesis.

Nathan Caplin was a muscular Jewish youth the same age as Johnny Spanish. Accounts are mixed as to how Caplin came upon his nickname of "Kid Dropper." The most widely told story was that Nathan worked a scam as a Lower East Side youth where he would perform the "drop swindle," which featured Nathan dropping a wallet filled with counterfeit cash near an unsuspecting mark. As the pigeon reached to pick up the wallet, Caplin would swoop in and snatch up the billfold. Nathan would then tell the target that he was in a hurry and offer to let them have the wallet of "cash" in exchange for some slight compensation. Then, the victim could take the wallet to its rightful owner and collect an even bigger reward of their own. The second origin story for the nickname was much more coarse, stemming from Caplin's ability to "drop" his opponents with just one blow of his fist or knife. Like Johnny Spanish, Caplan came from the impoverished neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, stealing from pushcarts and unsuspecting passerby. Also, like Spanish, Caplin sought to shield his family and confuse the cops by modifying his name, to Kaplan. The Dropper presented a daunting mix of brains and brawn and was much more gregarious than the mysterious Spanish. Despite their personality differences, the two hit it off and began to cut a swath through the Lower East Side.
Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan around the age of twenty.

In 1909, the Lower East Side gang scene was in something of a state of flux. Monk Eastman's successor, Max "Kid Twist" Zweifach, had been gunned down at Coney Island with his bodyguard Samuel Pristrich aka Cyclone Louie a year earlier by a Five Points gangster named Louie "The Lump" Pioggi. After an extended period, the Eastmans had been taken over by Abe Lewis, a first cousin of  Cyclone Louie. Ex-Five Pointers like Jack Sirocco and Chick Tricker ran their sections of the neighborhood, but Johnny Spanish set his sights on carving out his own slice of the pie. After Abe Lewis was convicted of a grocery store robbery in the autumn of 1909 and sent off to Sing Sing Prison for nineteen years, Johnny Spanish seems to have moved in to attempt to exploit his absence by going into the "labor slugging" business. As labor unions began forming in the newly industrialized America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, companies started hiring thugs to act as strikebreakers and to discourage union activity. In response, the newly forming unions hired muscle of their own to protect striking workers and to recruit new members, sometimes by force. Both sides would often face off on the picket line, verbally and physically attacking their opponents, often with the connivance of local law enforcement. Into this tumultuous breach came Johnny Spanish and his crew, who was hired by the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the autumn of 1909 to break a strike.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took up the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, located at the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village. The factory employed about 500 workers, most of them immigrant women, who worked long hours sewing women's blouses (called 'shirtwaists' in the vernacular of the era) under crowded and unsafe conditions; the plant's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, regularly locked and chained the doors of their business in order to prevent worker theft and unexcused absences. By the beginning of November 1909, the Triangle's workers began protesting the inhumane working conditions and talked of unionizing. As a result, management locked out the bulk of the plant's workforce, roughly 500 workers. Each day on the picket line, the seamstresses were picketing in front of the Asch Building. Members of the Women's Trade Union League appeared on the scene to show solidarity with the workers and to attempt to organize them. Police friendly to Triangle management menaced them at every turn. One officer growled to a young union organizer named Helen Marot, "You uptown scum, keep out of this or you'll find yourselves in jail!" Indeed, a total of ninety-eight women were hauled off to jail for protesting.

Some of the labor organizers who picketed in favor of the Triangle Shirtwaist strikers.

While the police posed a hazard to the strikers, a more direct threat came in the form of Johnny Spanish and his gang, who verbally abused and occasionally physically assaulted the strikers. A picketer named Annie Pardwin filed a complaint against Morris Goldfarb, one of Spanish's goons. Pardwin charged that Goldfarb had, "rushed up to her, slammed her against a wall near the shop and struck her with his fist, at the same time exercising his vocabulary to its limit." Johnny Spanish himself was accused by the picketers of assaulting Joe Zeinfeld, one of the locked out workers. Spanish beat Zeinfeld so severely he had to be hospitalized. Several female picketers cried out to policemen as Spanish ran from the scene. It was reported that an officer caught up with Spanish, calmly spoke with him, and watched as the young gangster casually walked away from the scene unmolested. Eventually, the strike was settled and business as usual resumed at the factory, due in no small part to the labor slugging done by Johnny Spanish and his men. It wasn't until the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire sixteen months later - and 146 workers were killed - that the world at large finally recognized the inhumane employment practices of the plant's owners.

"All the horse shows in the world, it seems, they never try so hard to keep up interest in horseflesh, are unavailing - the last straw - night riders and bold bandits come galloping into town to shoot up folks and places mounted on taxicabs." So began the New York Sun's November 13, 1909 article that introduced New Yorkers at large to Johnny Spanish and his crew. Fresh from their successful labor slugging mission, the Spanish crew decided to go on a bit of a rampage. It seems the trouble started on the evening of Wednesday, November 10, when bandits held up the Jefferson Coterie Club on Henry Street. Whether or not Johnny and his bunch were victimized here, they decided on a grand gesture of retaliation the very next night. Automobiles were still the province of the upper crust in the autumn of 1909, as horse-drawn vehicles still significantly outnumbered cars on New York streets. For those that did not own them, there were garages around the city that would rent autos to trustworthy individuals for short periods. It's not sure if this is how Johnny Spanish and his crew procured three taxicab automobiles, but somehow or another, the young gangsters were mobile and looking for revenge. Their actions that night suggest their behavior may have been artificially induced by alcohol or cocaine.

Around 8:30 that Thursday evening, three taxicabs were noted as cruising along Broome Street until they came to a stop. Johnny Spanish and about a dozen of his crew exited the three vehicles and began visiting saloons as if looking for someone. At Pitt and Grand streets, they happened across Assemblyman Aaron Levy, who was speaking to a judge. Bullets began flying in his direction, sending the assemblyman and judge running for cover. The gunmen proceeded to shoot up windows and streetlamps in the immediate vicinity. After this attack, the Spanish crew retreated to the waiting taxicabs. Around midnight, they showed up at Max Schnur's basement saloon and shot the place up. Customers were thoroughly terrorized, and all the mirrors behind the bar were smashed by bullets. Mike Kulisky and Sam Klein, sarcastically described as "innocent bystanders" by the Sun, received minor wounds in the attack. Police were thoroughly roused and rounded up hoods from all over Lower Manhattan that night, including Jake Siegel aka Kid Jigger and a William Albert, soon to become notorious as Big Jack Zelig.

The November 1909 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike and the subsequent taxicab rampage gave Johnny Spanish and his crew a modicum of notoriety in the Lower Manhattan underworld. Brimming with confidence and audacity, Spanish began looking to expand into other rackets. Spanish let it be known that he and his men were available for freelance muscle work. In addition to the usual pickpocketing, burglaries, armed robberies, and labor slugging, Spanish began muscling into underground stuss games. Stuss, known outside the neighborhood as Jewish faro, was favored in the underworld as the house won all the money when equal cards were drawn, as opposed to just half in standard faro. Such an action greatly increased profits for those hoodlums who ran the game. Johnny Spanish would often approach stuss operators and demand a substantial percentage of their daily earnings under the penalty of death. Spanish's gangland spoils had enabled him to buy a new house for his family members at 31 Lexington Avenue in the up-and-coming Maspeth section of Queens. The quiet, suburban setting provided an excellent escape for members of the Mistretta family. Soon Johnny's older sister Antonietta (Kate) had moved into the house with her husband Paul Ciccarelli and their growing family. Their mother Rose and Johnny's brother Joey also called the Maspeth house home.

Around the time that he was spreading his wings in early 1910, Johnny Spanish fell in love. Like many other Lower Manhattan gangsters, Spanish had a roving eye when it came to women and picked them up wherever he could; the dance halls, the theaters, the Coney Island boardwalk during summer months. Johnny had fallen hard for an attractive nineteen-year-old girl named Beatrice Konstant (or Kaplan - no relation to Kid Dropper). Herbert Asbury wrote that Spanish, "...was seized with a burning desire to ornament his adored one with silks and precious stones." In falling in love with Beatrice, Johnny Spanish (without even realizing it) had set in motion a chain of events that would eventually seal his fate.

Like any worthy New York gang boss, Johnny Spanish ruthlessly enforced his will within his own crew and was sometimes called upon to meet out some intra-gang discipline. In early May 1910, two of his men got into a deadly feud; Charles Manheimer stabbed a fellow gangster known as "The Kid" (believed to be Kid Dropper) several times. As The Kid recovered from his wounds, Manheimer avoided his usual haunts. On the evening of May 25, Spanish and Kid Dropper caught up with their wayward comrade at the corner of Norfolk and Hester streets. Manheimer got a bullet in his back that shattered his spine. Rushed to the hospital, the severely wounded gangster growled, "If I don't get a wooden overcoat I'll get the man who shot me without help from you 'bulls.'" Twenty-three-year-old Charles Manheimer died of his wound on June 12.

Buffalo Enquirer

The fatal shooting of his former underling was all in a day's work for Johnny Spanish, who immediately decided to move in on one of the more profitable stuss games in Lower Manhattan. Jacob Siegel, better known in the underworld as "Jigger" or "Kid Jigger," ran the game in question on Forsyth Street. Herbert Asbury gave a dramatic version of the Kid Jigger/Johnny Spanish confrontation, complete with invented old-timey dialogue, in Gangs of New York. Contemporary accounts indicate that there was nothing cinematic about their brief and brutal encounter. Around ten o'clock on the warm evening of May 29, Spanish showed up at Kid Jigger's game with Hyman Benjamin. Spanish bluntly informed Jigger that he was now entitled to half of his stuss profits. While he may not have been the cold-blooded killer that Spanish was, Jigger was still a product of the mean streets of the Lower East Side. As such, he refused Spanish's extortion demand. The gang boss then informed him that he would have to fight it out in the street. After Spanish and Benjamin left, Kid Jigger prepared himself as well as he could by arming himself with a cheap .32 caliber revolver. Jigger then exited his game into the warm spring night and headed north to the intersection of Forsyth and Grand streets. 

According to eyewitness accounts, Johnny Spanish and Hyman Benjamin were waiting for Kid Jigger at the corner; there may have been three other men standing just beyond them. After a brief conversation with the gang boss, Jigger stepped back and reached for his pistol. The frantic stuss game operator managed to get one harmless shot off before his flight instinct overwhelmed its fight counterpart and he sprinted for cover while one of his adversaries emptied a pistol at him. One of these bullets, unfortunately, struck a thirteen-year-old girl named Rachael Rooten in the abdomen as she passed through the corner. As she went down screaming, Spanish and his compadres made their escape. Police immediately swarmed the scene and began investigating while Miss Rooten was rushed to the hospital. The cops collared a man who gave his name as Max Hess and who had seemed to have sustained a minor wound to his thumb in the fray. Kid Jigger eventually fell into police hands and claimed that Johnny Spanish and Hyman Benjamin were behind the trouble at the corner that evening, explicitly saying that it was Benjamin who had tried to kill him and accidentally shot the young girl. After much suffering, young Rachael Rooten succumbed to her wound on June 11.

With two very public murders now credited to him, Johnny Spanish was subjected to a citywide manhunt. While Hyman Benjamin was arrested and charged with Rachael Rooten's killing, Spanish fled the city to let the heat die down a bit. Leaving behind his gangland kingdom and girlfriend Beatrice Konstant, the twenty-one-year-old gangster reportedly cooled his heels in Detroit for the duration of the summer of 1910. When Spanish returned to New York in September, he received a considerable shock when he discovered that his beloved Beatrice had cuckolded him with one of his chief underlings, Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan. His youthful passions and temper aroused, Johnny Spanish's hurt honor demanded immediate vengeance.

Go To Part 2

New York gangster Johnny Spanish: A Retrospective (2 of 2)

Go To Part 1

Around dusk on Friday, September 23, 1910, Kid Dropper was walking through the teeming slums of the Lower East Side. Perhaps he knew that his boss had learned about him and Beatrice. Maybe not. Either way, the Dropper didn't see Johnny Spanish coming that day. As the unsuspecting gangster approached the corner of Jefferson and Monroe streets, Spanish darted out of nowhere and opened fire. His bullet struck Kid Dropper in the neck, ranged upwards through the mouth, and took the remains of four upper teeth with it as it exited his cheek. As he collapsed to the pavement and passerby panicked, Spanish sprinted to safety, most probably thinking that he had killed his rival. A beat cop soon broke through the crowd that had gathered around the bloodied Kid Dropper. The bullet hadn't severed any vital arteries and veins and looked more severe than it actually was. The officer asked Dropper who shot him. "Johnny Spanish," he gargled through his bullet-damaged mouth. The call went out to find the young gang boss who, as it turned out, was just getting started that evening.

New York Tribune

Maspeth was still an up-and-coming neighborhood of Queens in September 1910, with new houses sprinkled amongst large swathes of vacant lots that were still waiting for developers to build dwellings for those fleeing the sardine-can crowding of Manhattan or Upper Brooklyn. As a result, Maspeth had a very suburban, almost rural feel to it at the time. Eleven-year-old George Schlegmiller was running late in getting to his Maspeth home in the early evening of September 23. The young boy had no idea that a gangster named Kid Dropper had been shot through the head over an hour earlier on the Lower East Side. All young George knew was that it was rapidly getting dark and that he needed to get home. The young boy turned onto Monteverde Avenue (present-day 69th Place), a brand-new street where no houses had yet been erected.

As he did, a young couple stepped off a streetcar on Grand Avenue near the intersection. They turned the corner into Monteverde, proceeding up the street opposite of the Schlegmiller boy. Young George could tell the couple was having a heated argument, but he purposely was not paying too much attention to what they were saying as he walked along. As George watched, the young man suddenly grabbed the wrists of the young woman, jabbed the barrel of a gun against her abdomen, and pulled the trigger twice. The woman let out a loud scream as her assailant quickly looked around the nearly deserted street. The Schlegmiller boy locked eyes with Johnny Spanish for the briefest of moments before the gangster hopped over a nearby fence and began sprinting across the barren fields of Maspeth. Young George rushed back to Grand Avenue and hailed a passing beat cop. Beatrice Konstant was still alive but severely wounded. When asked who had shot her, she murmured, "I would rather die." A short time later in the hospital, when told she was dying, Beatrice gasped a name that sounded like "John Wheeler." It was soon realized that she had said Johnny Spanish's usual alias of Weiler.

A New York Sun rendition of Johnny Spanish's shooting of Beatrice Konstant.

Johnny Spanish's shooting of Beatrice Konstant is perhaps the most notorious incident of his career. As well as one of the more confusing. Some later newspaper accounts claimed that Beatrice had died as a result of the shooting, though there is no official record of her succumbing to her wounds. Journalist/author Alfred Henry Lewis claimed in a 1912 New York Sun article (that was subsequently picked up by Herbert Asbury and others) that Beatrice had not only survived the shooting but had been pregnant at the time of the attack, and soon after gave birth to a baby that had two of its fingers shot off by Spanish's bullets. Contemporary news accounts of the shooting make no mention of Beatrice being pregnant, however.

Regardless, Johnny Spanish escaped immediate punishment for the dual attacks on Kid Dropper Kaplan and Beatrice Konstant. Later that year in December, when Hyman Benjamin went on trial for killing Rachael Rooten the previous spring, Johnny Spanish's presence loomed over the courtroom. Kid Jigger had been thoroughly intimidated by this point, as he admitted on the stand that he was afraid for his life. Jigger now claimed that it was now-absent Johnny Spanish who fired the shot that hit the Rooten girl, and that was only when Benjamin had grabbed his arm in an attempt to wrest his aim. Hyman Benjamin eventually walked away from the courtroom a free man. As 1911 began, Johnny Spanish was seemingly at the height of his power as a Lower East Side gang boss. Only the nagging presence of the now-recovered Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan seemed to present a problem.

Max Miller was as tough as they come. A large, powerful Jewish saloonkeeper, he ran a popular basement tavern at 170 Norfolk Street. Known in the Jewish underworld as Moishe the Strong Arm (this name is often incorrectly transliterated as Mersher), Miller's tough-guy status made him a target for Johnny Spanish. Despite his notoriety and the increasing attention that he was getting from law enforcement, Spanish put the word out that he would be at Moishe the Strong Arm's Norfolk Street joint at midnight on Sunday, March 19 to clean the place out. Either by legitimate rental or forcible removal, Johnny and two of his men got their hands on a taxicab for the Norfolk Street raid. Just a few minutes after his appointed midnight deadline, Johnny Spanish entered Moishe the Strong Arm's joint with a pistol blazing in each hand. The nine patrons in the place dove for cover as bullets shattered the mirrors and crystal chandeliers of the place. As his two goons kept him covered, Spanish lined up the saloon's patrons and took from them about $200 worth of valuables. Johnny then walked behind the now wrecked bar and relieved the enraged Moishe the Strong Arm of his prized gold watch before snatching sixty-eight dollars from the cash register. Spanish and his two men then made their getaway in the commandeered taxicab.

As audacious as Johnny Spanish's raid of Moishe the Strong Arm's saloon was, it proved to be his undoing. The New York police knew immediately who was responsible and promptly put the screws to their informants and snitches. On the afternoon of March 21, Johnny and one of his underlings, Sam Greenberg, boarded a Graham Avenue streetcar at the Brooklyn Bridge, bound for the Maspeth home of Spanish's family. As they disembarked the trolley at Grand and Columbia avenues, the pair was arrested. Detectives accused Spanish of shooting both Kid Dropper and Beatrice Konstant, to which the gangster snarled, "You'll have to prove it."

Booked back in Manhattan, Spanish was also accused of the death of Rachael Rooten in May 1910 and made to stand in numerous line-ups while various robbery victims viewed him. From the beginning, it seems that the cops wanted Johnny bad and that it would be quite tricky for him to wriggle off of this particular hook. Unable to make bail, Spanish was remanded to the Tombs and marched across the infamous Bridge of Sighs to his new horrid accommodations. Back in 1911, The Tombs was little better than a dungeon, with airless cells that had wooden buckets for sanitation and abusive, underpaid guards overseeing the inmates. As he awaited trial for robbing Moishe the Strong Arm's saloon, Johnny may have gotten word that his old adversary Kid Dropper Kaplan had been sentenced to seven to ten years for robbing a West Thirty-Eight Street brothel in January.

By the time he came to trial for armed robbery in mid-July 1911, some of the sand seemed to have been taken out of the twenty-two-year-old gangster Johnny Spanish. After spending four months in the hell that was the Tombs, and with no guns, liquor, or cocaine for courage, the young man was now looking down the barrel of a hefty prison sentence. While the police were not able to specifically pin the shootings of Rachael Rooten, Kid Dropper, or Beatrice Konstant on him, a few of Moishe the Strong Arm's patrons were willing to testify against him. Spanish's elderly mother Rose was present in the courtroom each day, as was his new girlfriend Mildred. Perhaps it was their presence that finally broke him. On Friday, July 14, Johnny Spanish got on the stand and confessed to robbing the Norfolk Street saloon on the night in question. Judge Mulqueen promptly sentenced him to seven to ten years in Sing Sing Prison. Johnny's mother and girlfriend loudly cried out at the announcement of the sentence. In the blink of an eye, the bill for Johnny Spanish's life of crime had suddenly come due.

While no authentic photograph of Johnny Spanish is currently in public circulation, a portrait of him can be drawn from the notes of the admission clerk at Sing Sing. Recorded as "John Wheeler," Spanish was described as being 5'4 3/4" inches tall and weighing 132 pounds; his build was so slim that his warders mistakenly thought he may have been tubercular. Johnny was described as having a dark complexion with dark brown eyes and dark brown hair. Address: 322 E. 11th Street. Occupation: Kept a pool room. Size hat: 6 7/8. Size shoe: 6. Forehead: Normal. Ears: Small, irregular. Eyebrows: Arched & Medium. Nose: Short & Small. Mouth: Medium. Lips: Medium. Teeth: 3 Absent. General Features: Regular.

Little specific information survives about Johnny Spanish's subsequent sentence in Sing Sing Prison. His arch-rival Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan joined him there by the end of 1911, but it is unknown what, if any, contact they had with each other. It must have especially galled Johnny when the Dropper's lawyer managed to finagle his release within a year of his original sentence. While on the outside, the now ascendant Dropper ingratiated himself with a rapidly changing Jewish underworld that rocked and swayed with the nationwide furor over the Becker/Rosenthal murder case and the subsequent Labor Sluggers War. Even after Kid Dropper was re-incarcerated at Sing Sing in March 1914 on a charge of bigamy, it seemed like the Dropper was beginning to exceed him in gang circles. Johnny could only watch with envy.

One can only imagine the culture shock that twenty-eight-year-old Johnny Spanish experienced upon his return to the Lower East Side in the spring of 1917. Automobile traffic would have increased considerably since his departure six years earlier. The Queens suburb of Maspeth where his family lived had become increasingly built up. Spanish appears to have begun making the rounds of his old haunts and to put his reputation to good use on the streets. At his side was his brother Joey Spanish, who had avoided attention from the police and media. Johnny would have encountered Arnold Rothstein, a powerful gambler and underworld power broker who had probably paid little attention to Spanish before he went away to prison. Another was Jacob Orgen, who was known as "Little Augie" due to his small stature. Orgen had followed the now imprisoned "Dopey Benny" Fein as general overlord of the Lower East Side underworld. Johnny Spanish seemed to have made a deal with Little Augie to operate independently and not infringe on his territory.

Standard accounts have Spanish going back into the labor slugging business. Since Johnny had been locked up, the Harrison Narcotics Act had outlawed the sale of hard drugs. Both experienced users and sellers of cocaine, the Spanish brothers became perhaps the biggest dealers of the drug on the Lower East Side during World War I. Johnny's new program was complicated significantly by the return of Kid Dropper to the Lower East Side in December 1917. By now, it was the Dropper who had a higher standing in the underworld. In the interest of diplomacy, both Spanish and Dropper agreed to peaceably co-exist in the underworld. Arnold Rothstein may have even been brought in to mediate their dispute.

With the end of World War I and the attendant parades of victorious American servicemen around New York, the city's gangsters began anticipating the coming Prohibition of alcohol. After the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1919, the sale and manufacture of beer, wine, and liquor was due to be outlawed. Gangsters around the city anticipated the financial windfall that was about to befall them. At this late date, no one can say what thoughts Johnny Spanish had on the impending booze racket that was about to open wide up. On the surface, it seems as if the fast-moving New York underworld had bypassed Johnny during his time in prison, that he was now surrounded by gangsters were far more sophisticated and dangerous than the mentors (Paul Kelly and Monk Eastman) of his youth. If Spanish was going to survive in this brave new world, he needed to adapt. And there was Kid Dropper to worry about. Despite their non-aggression pact, the bad blood between them simmered just under the surface. All the Dropper had to do was slide the tip of his tongue around the gap in his upper jaw where the four teeth that had been knocked out by Spanish's bullet formerly resided. As for Johnny, all he had to do was close his eyes and think of Beatrice Konstant's face. The woman he had loved like no other. And how her eyes had sparkled for him no more after Kid Dropper had his way with her.     
The summer of 1919 began, and it seemed that the longtime hatred between Johnny Spanish was Kid Dropper Kaplan was on the verge of bubbling over. Spanish was noted as getting $100 a week for his labor slugging activity, and Dropper was trying to get his hands on a large percentage of it. Johnny had even had himself elected as a shirtwaist labor delegate, to better control illegal activity both for and against the union. With the beginning of the Wartime Prohibition Act on June 30, it was now illegal to sell liquor, wine, or beer stronger than 2.75 ABV. Whether or not Johnny began to make any inroads in the budding booze business is unknown. In retrospect, it seems a moot point, as Prohibition was part of a future that Johnny Spanish would have no part in.

Tuesday, July 29 was yet another hot and humid day in New York City; the temperature peaking at ninety-one degrees. The city regularly turned into an oven during the summer months and those who could often fled to the beach at Coney Island for heat relief or out to the broader expanses of the country. The precise movements of Johnny Spanish throughout that Tuesday are uncertain, but it is known that he agreed to meet his wife at Levitt's Restaurant at 19 Second Avenue at 4 o'clock that afternoon. Johnny stepped from a northbound taxicab across the street from the restaurant a little after four that day. Dressed in an expensive summer suit and straw boater, Spanish navigated his way across Second towards Levitt's. Johnny would have noticed the expensive touring car of his valet, Philip Rotkin, parked at the curb, which meant his wife was waiting for him inside.

As Spanish reached the sidewalk in front of the restaurant's door, he stopped dead in his tracks. Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan stood by the restaurant's door flanked by two goons, Herman "Hymie" Kalman and Billy "The Kid" Lustig. Witnesses saw the two rivals speaking to each other briefly, but no one was able to catch what was being said. Suddenly the man in the center, almost certainly Kid Dropper himself, pulled a revolver. Johnny Spanish neither tried to run or draw a gun of his own, as if he was frozen at the moment that nine years of hatred finally reached its climax. The first bullet struck him in the heart and caused him to stagger before falling face-forward onto the sidewalk. The Dropper fired a second bullet into the back of his rival's head as passerby began yelling and scattering. The Dropper and his two men were seen casually walking around the corner into First Street and disappearing into the crowd. Meanwhile, Johnny's wife ran screaming out of the restaurant, with Philip Rotkin close on her heels. The two lifted the bleeding gangster into Rotkin's touring car and made for the hospital. Johnny Spanish was still showing faint signs of life after his arrival at Bellevue Hospital, but he soon expired in the examining room.

After a wake at his family's home at 31 Lexington Avenue in Maspeth, Queens, the thirty-year-old gangster was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery under the name John Mestrett. Police announced that they were looking for Nathan Kaplan, Herman Kalman, and Billy Lustig. The latter later admitted that he had been at the scene of the crime but denied knowing who had fired the fatal shots. Charges against all three men were eventually dismissed. In the absence of his brother Johnny, Joey Spanish was not quite skilled enough to hold their various criminal enterprises together. Nevertheless, Joey was still determined to avenge his brother and began lurking near Kid Dropper's home at 195 Madison Street in the hopes of catching him off guard. On the evening of December 3, 1919, Joey Spanish mistook Adolph Caplin for his brother Nathan and opened fire on him as he walked down Madison Street with a young girl named Martha Janoff. Joey's bullets missed the intended target and struck Miss Janoff in the abdomen. The younger Spanish was captured by police after a brief foot chase and charged with assault with intent to kill.

One of Johnny Spanish's killers did eventually met a violent end when Herman "Hymie" Kalman was shot and killed on September 20, 1921 while exiting an East Broadway movie theatre. The prime suspect turned out to be Lefty Kantor, a longtime member of the old Spanish crew. Kantor was never convicted of the crime, and became a victim of gangland himself in 1925. With the murder of Johnny Spanish and the imprisonment, not long after, of Jacob "Little Augie" Orgen, Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan became the undisputed leader of the Lower East Side underworld. The Dropper attained power and wealth beyond his wildest imaginings, but Little Augie Orgen was soon back on the street and had his own designs on the seat of power. On August 28, 1923, Kaplan was arraigned on a concealed weapons charge at the Essex Court Building. After being remanded to another court, Kid Dropper was transported outside to a waiting vehicle. A crowd of at least one hundred police officials and newsmen observed the move. After Kid Dropper and his wife had entered the car a low-level Little Augie henchman named Louis Cohen, hopped up on cocaine and false promises, darted through the crowd, put a gun to the vehicle's rear window, and blew Kid Dropper's brains out.

A New York Daily News headline describing the assassination of Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan.

In retrospect, the career of Johnny Spanish was somewhat unremarkable when compared to New York gangsters of old like Arnold Rothstein, Lepke Buchalter, or Meyer Lansky. Even his nemesis, Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan, made more of an overall splash in the underworld. Nevertheless, Spanish had qualities of resourcefulness and daring that made a name for himself amongst underworld denizens who could not be fooled on matters of personal courage. Johnny's hair-trigger temper and lack of caution in certain situations proved to be his undoing in more ways than one. Had Johnny Spanish survived his Second Avenue encounter with Kid Dropper, he probably would not have lasted very long in the rapidly changing New York underworld. With the coming of Prohibition and the tremendous profits that turned street gangsters into millionaires, Spanish's fiercely independent streak and famous temper would have almost certainly resulted in a violent demise at some point during the 1920s.

Probably the main reason we know the name of Johnny Spanish today is because of Herbert Asbury. The hood of Gangs of New York is a violent, mysterious thug with noble Spanish origins who carried out several daring crimes of the era. The far-less poetic reality of Johnny Spanish featured a bright yet temperamental Italian/Spanish hood who blazed a short, self-destructive trail through Gotham gangland, occasionally retreating to his family's suburban Maspeth house when he needed an escape from the pressure cooker of the Lower East Side. Like many gangsters of the era, Johnny Spanish (once known as Giovanni Mistretta) survives today as a footnote in the violent underworld history of our nation's largest city.


Athens, Lonnie. The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals. Champaign, IL: University of
Illinois Press, 1992.
Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1927.
Fried, Albert. The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America. New York, Columbia
University Press, 1993.
Keefe, Rose. The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, The Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the advent of the Jewish Gangster. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2008.
Lewis, Alfred Henry. The Apaches of New York. New York: M.A. Donohue & Company, 1911.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle: May 26 and 30, 1910; March 22, 1911; August 6, 1919; September 21, 1921.
Brooklyn Standard Union: March 22, 1911.
Brooklyn Times Union: July 14, 1911.
New York Daily News: July 29, August 4, December 4 -5, 1919; August 29 and November 11, 1923.
New York Evening World: March 22, June 30 and July 12, 1911; July 30-31, August 26 and December 4, 1919.
New York Herald: July 30-31, August 27 and December 4, 1919; September 21, 1921.
New York Sun: November 5-6, 12-13, 1909; March 19 and July 14, 1911; October 6, 1912.
New York Times: September 24-25 and December 14, 1910; March 19 and 22, July 1 and 15, 1911; July 30, 1919.
New York Tribune: May 26, September 24 and 26, 1910; February 7, 1916; July 31, August 27 and December 4, 1919.
1920 and 1930 U.S. Census.
New York, Queens Probate Administration, 1919, Case No. 1010.
New York, Queens Probate Administration, 1927, Case No. 2116/27.

05 July 2019

New Book about the Detroit Mafia

It gives me great pleasure to present to you my fourth work; Vìnnitta: The Birth of the Detroit Mafia. This book is probably the most difficult one I have attempted yet. It had its origins in the early research that I was doing into the Purple Gang and other Prohibition-era gangs in the city. By the autumn of 1999, I had begun to notice repeated yet vague references to a gangster named Sam Giannola, who I had never heard of before. Further investigation revealed to me the existence of the so-called “Giannola-Vitale War,” which had apparently taken place in Detroit from 1918–1921, a few years before the Purple Gang had even come to power. Accounts of this conflict were conflicting and intriguing, with some claiming that over one hundred men had been killed during its duration. I took my first stab at fleshing out the story of the Giannola-Vitale War in my first attempt at a book during the winter of 2000–2001.

As the years passed, my research uncovered a lot of different factors and stories behind the rise of the city’s Mafia family. Some names, such as Giannola and Vitale, may have been known to criminologists while others, such as Caruso and Mirabile, were not. It is my hope that this work will provide a thorough look at the turbulent first years of the Detroit Mafia, culminating with the conclusion of the Giannola-Vitale feud in 1921. Complete portraits of the three Giannola brothers are drawn for the first time, as well as rivals such as John Vitale, Pete Mirabile and the two Adamo brothers. A fresh examination is also given to the Castellammare feud between the Buccellato, Bonanno, Bonventre, and Magaddino families.  
Giannola protégé and future Mafia boss Giuseppe "Pippinu" Zerilli

Early Detroit Mafia boss Sam Giannola.

In addition to giving an in-depth examination of the Mafia, I have also tried to recreate life in Detroit’s old Italian quarter and illuminate some individuals whose lives were affected either directly or indirectly by the gangsters, from the undertaker who ultimately ends up preparing many of his friends for burial during the violent underworld feuds; the deaf-mute barber who risks his life to provide information about Mafia crimes to the police; a frustrated housewife who longs for a wealthier life and gets in over her head with the Mafia or the group of hard-working Italian-born police detectives who tirelessly tried to bring the mafiùsi to justice. 

Special thanks to Scott Burnstein, James Buccellato, Thomas Hunt, and Richard Warner for helping to bring this work to fruition. 

Copies of Vinnitta can be purchased at the following links;

A link to a recent review of Vinnitta;

A link to a related article;

10 April 2019

Egan's Rats rob the Baden Bank

One hundred years ago today, the St. Louis-based Egan's Rats mob committed their first bank robbery of note in the North St. Louis neighborhood of Baden.

After first gaining notice in the early 1890s as a gang of Kerry Patch hooligans known as the Ashley Street Gang, the Egan gang had evolved into the city's premier organized crime outfit. Headed for much of their history by Thomas "Snake" Kinney and Thomas Egan, the crew specialized in both traditional street crime and political terrorism. In addition to being best friends and brothers-in-law, both Kinney and Egan were active in Democratic politics, the former as a Missouri State Senator and the latter as chairman of the St. Louis Democratic City Committee. The Kinney-Egan combine controlled several key St. Louis political wards and was able to use their muscle to not only influence elections but the passage of laws that would benefit both themselves and their constituents. With money and favors exchanging hands both above and under the table, the Kinney-Egan operation usually ran like a well-oiled machine. The only messy periods were the periodic Election Days, where the kid gloves came off, and the Egan crew used muscle and bullets to get the desired results at the ballot box.

After Snake Kinney's death from tuberculosis in May 1912, Tom Egan assumed full control of the gang's St. Louis-area operations, with Kinney's younger brother Michael taking his place in Missouri state politics. Egan's Rats (Tom hated the name and told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter as much during a 1912 interview where he flaunted his crew's power) numbered over 300 men at their highest total and seemed virtually immune from prosecution for various criminal misdeeds, some of which included very public murders in downtown St. Louis.
As the great debate about whether or not to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcohol progressed in the early 1910s, Tom Egan accurately predicted that the Eighteenth Amendment would eventually pass. As a result, Egan went to great pains to construct a whiskey smuggling network between several cities in the Midwest and South. Known to be brutal and cunning, Egan was recognized as one of the most powerful crime bosses in the Midwest as the decade progressed.

With the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1919, it looked as if Tom Egan's foresight was going to pay off incredibly in the form of thousands of dollars of profits from illegal bootlegging. As fate would have it, Tom would never see a cent of that windfall. In late 1918, Egan was diagnosed with the degenerative kidney disease then known as Bright's disease. In modern times, a transplant may have saved his life, but the crime boss continued to weaken throughout the winter. By the beginning of April 1919, the forty-four-year-old Egan was on his deathbed at his North City home at 4551 Arlington Avenue. Control of the gang fell to Tom's younger brother Willie.

Thirty-five years old in 1919, Willie Egan ran a popular saloon/restaurant known as Egan's Buffet at the corner of Fourteenth and Franklin streets. While a brilliant gangster and politician, Willie wasn't the natural leader of men that his older brother Tom was, and it just so happened that Willie assumed control over St. Louis's most powerful gang at an extraordinarily crucial time.
St. Louis gang boss Willie Egan
With the impending Prohibition of alcohol on the horizon, the dynamic of power in St. Louis's underworld was shifting away from the traditional political clubs to more open criminal businesses such as bootlegging. There was also a particular segment of Egan gang members who desired to make money through quick and decisive means such as armed robbery. These gangsters tended to be younger and more violent than their political war-trained predecessors; police would nickname them "The Red-Hots." As such criminal behavior tended to upset the apple cart and attract undue attention from police, Tom Egan would have squashed any notion his men had of bank robbery like a bug. However, by the spring of 1919, Tom was not in the position to squash much of anything. As a result, several of the "Red-Hots" began plotting a lucrative caper as their boss lay dying.

While the exact identities of the perpetrators of the upcoming heist were never made public, both the St. Louis police and Egan gang informant Raymond Renard would attribute it to Egan's Rats. Their target was the Baden Bank, located at 8200 North Broadway Avenue in the North City neighborhood of Baden. One suspected participant in the robbery was Max Greenberg, a clever member of the crew who would notoriously break away from the Egan mob and join the arch-rival Hogan Gang two years later. Baden, a residential neighborhood with a large German immigrant population, had somewhat lower crime rates than the rest of the city of St. Louis. Thus, they would not be expecting an armed robbery of their central bank branch.

Egan gang member Max Greenberg
Thursday, April 10, 1919, dawned fair and cool in St. Louis, the temperature around forty-four degrees. The Baden Bank opened for business at nine o'clock that morning. On the premises were the bank president, Frank W. Giese; head cashier Martin W. Muntzel; assistant cashier F.R. Baumgartner; teller Henry J. Fischer, and stenographer Ruth Pohl. Business was very light that morning, and nothing initially indicated that this would be any different than a usual business day. At precisely ten o'clock, a blue-black 1915 Hudson Super Six Phaeton containing eight men parked at the curb next to the bank's Baden Avenue side entrance. Two men remained in the front seat with the motor running while the other six exited the vehicle. All eight men were dressed identically in light gray raincoats and plaid flat caps; five of their number had handkerchiefs tied around their lower faces. When describing the heist to investigators a half-decade later, Ray Renard guessed that the outfits were Max Greenberg's idea. In retrospect, it was indeed a smart move to have the bandits dress identically, as adrenalized witnesses would instinctively focus on those outfits when describing the robbers to police. As one man stood guard near the side door, his masked cohorts rushed inside the bank.
There was no guard on duty that morning. In its ten years of operation, the Baden Bank had never been robbed. In fact, the very notion of bank robbery seemed inconceivable to most St. Louisans in 1919, the type of violent crime that belonged to the distant dime-novel past of Jesse James and his ilk. At the moment of truth, the bank's vault stood wide open as the employees "checked up" the money for the day. The five masked intruders leveled identical Army-issue Colt .45 caliber automatic pistols at the startled employees. Ruth Pohl let out a shriek as the lead bandit yelled out, "Throw up your hands!"
As there were no customers currently in the bank to deal with, the armed quintet quickly strode through the door that led behind the counter and cage. As three gunmen kept the employees covered, the other two produced cloth sacks and began gathering up stacks of cash from the shelves before cleaning out the loot from the open vault. The robbers also quickly searched counter and desk drawers for any money. At one point, one of the heisters noted an ostentatious diamond ring on cashier Martin Muntzel's finger and tried to snatch it. Muntzel twisted and raised his arm around so the bandit could not grab it. The frustrated gangster thrust the barrel of his .45 into the plucky cashier's face and told him, "Put both your hands up, or I'll kill you!" With their two cloth sacks now full, another of the robbers suddenly barked, "You all get in that vault." Muntzel, who had managed to save his diamond ring from its intended thief, protested that they would suffocate inside. Another bandit, described as being unusually tall, said, "We won't do anything like that." Still holding their hands up, the five bank employees were quickly herded into the vault. The bandits then closed the inner "day" door while leaving the massive vault door open. The heisters then made for the side door through which they had initially entered. It was later calculated that they had been in the bank for precisely four minutes as if operating on a strict time limit.
No sooner were they out the door when cashier Martin Muntzel quickly rummaged through an open safe-deposit box and fished out an old, single-action revolver. Muntzel then ran to the front door in time to see the bandits' Hudson Phaeton turning south on North Broadway. The escaping robbers, adrenaline pumping, were startled to hear the crack and pinging of three bullets fired through the bank's screen door by the gritty cashier Muntzel. Their driver immediately opened the throttle and accelerated down the avenue. A passing foot patrolman was roused by the sudden gunfire and saw the blue-black Hudson heading south at an increasing rate of speed. The unnamed officer commandeered a passing mail truck and ordered its driver to give chase. Standing on the truck's running board and hanging on with his left arm, the officer fired on the Hudson with his service revolver. One of the bandits, who seemed to be about thirty years old with a black mustache, leaned out of the Hudson's passenger side window and returned fire with his .45 automatic. No one was hit in the running gun battle. The Hudson's driver hung a sharp right turn onto Calvary Avenue and almost hit a pedestrian. Undeterred, the getaway driver gunned the Hudson up the avenue's steep incline and threaded the needle between Calvary and Bellefontaine cemeteries. The larger mail truck had a more difficult time negotiating Calvary's grade and fell behind in the pursuit. The robbers were last seen turning south onto West Florissant Avenue.
St. Louis police quickly arrived at the bank and began to take statements from the bank's employees and outside witnesses. The robbers were universally described as being young, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five mostly, save for the older mustachioed bandit who fired on the officer during the pursuit. The pedestrian who was nearly hit at Calvary and North Broadway confirmed details about the getaway car and gave its license plate number as 144933. The plate was quickly traced to a member of Egan's Rats named Ernest "Bergadine" Miller. Now awaiting trial for stealing goods from railroad boxcars (an essential racket of the pre-Prohibition Egan gang), Miller claimed that his Hudson had been stolen sometime earlier. Police didn't buy his alibi and began taking a close look at the Rats while issuing an all-points bulletin for the vehicle. Over fifty suspects were rounded up from all points of North City and downtown St. Louis and put on the grill. Police got precisely nothing to work with. 
Around ten o'clock that evening a car driven by Detective Ira Cooper, the first Black detective in the history of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, caught sight of the wanted blue-black Hudson Phaeton as it drove north on Taylor Avenue. Cooper was accompanied by two other Black detectives, William Crockett and Charles Johnson, and gave chase. They noted that the Hudson matched the description of the Baden Bank bandits' getaway car but now lacked a license plate. Now alerted that he was being followed by police, the Hudson's driver hit the gas and turned right on Easton Avenue (modern-day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive).
STLMPD Detective Ira Cooper
Detective Cooper and his partners followed close behind for a few blocks until the Hudson swung south on Pendleton Avenue. A block or two later, the Hudson turned east on Evans Avenue. At that point, the three detectives were suddenly halted in their pursuit. The first version said that two strange sedans had moved away from the curb and blocked their path as the Hudson disappeared down Evans. A second version, related by a police officer who wished to remain anonymous, stated that the trio of sleuths had been forcibly halted by a group of White policemen who were suspicious of three plainclothes Black men driving through the neighborhood at a high rate of speed. Whatever the reason for the delay, Detectives Cooper, Crockett, and Johnson were quickly moving again. At Sarah and Evans streets, the trio picked up two uniformed cops, a Sergeant Armstrong and Patrolman William Teppe. After a brief search, the task force managed to locate the Hudson in question parked near the corner of Cook and Whittier avenues. There was little inside the vehicle except one $20 gold piece, two $2.50 gold pieces, and a nickel.

Throughout the city of St. Louis and the surrounding area, the Baden Bank robbery dominated newspaper headlines. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed an editorial inevitably comparing the robbers to Jesse James. While Egan's Rats wouldn't be publicly linked to the heist until Ray Renard's testimony in 1925, the police had an excellent idea that the trail of guilt led right to Willie Egan's saloon at Fourteenth and Franklin. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the heisters retreated to Egan's Buffet immediately after the job. As bank robbery was not yet a federal offense, the Rats had nothing to worry about from the embryonic FBI (then still officially named the Bureau of Investigation). After the evening papers began hitting city newsstands later that afternoon and the connection to Egan gang member Ernest Miller became public knowledge, they most likely designated one of their number to get rid of the Hudson Phaeton used in the robbery. The car disposal got a little hairy thanks to Detective Ira Cooper and his partners, but it was ultimately successful.
Even the Post-Dispatch Weatherbird commented on the robbery.

It was eventually determined that the Egan crew got away from the Baden Bank with a total of $59,310.15 (a little over $872,000 by current monetary standards). The denominations of their loot included several $1000 gold certificates, two $500 bills, several $50 bills, a total of $1500 in fives, tens and twenties in additions to 60 to 80 gold coins of various denominations. It was the largest bank robbery in St. Louis's history up to that point and would remain so for eleven years. A reward of $1000 was offered for information leading to the apprehension of the perpetrators; it remains uncollected to this day. Other than the four coins found in the getaway car, none of the loot was ever recovered.

On April 20, 1919, ten days after the Baden Bank robbery, gang boss Thomas Egan succumbed to Bright's disease. Egan's death, virtually concurrent with the successful bank job, signaled the beginning of a new phase in the history of his criminal organization. Gone were the days of politically motivated terrorism. No longer would the city and state Democratic politics determine the direction of the gang. After April 1919, the driving force in the Egan universe was cold, hard cash. With the coming of Prohibition and its thousands of dollars in potential bootlegging profits, in addition to the seeming inability of local law enforcement to stop a broad-daylight bank robbery, the city of St. Louis was riper than a summer squash in September. For the "Red-Hots" of Egan's Rats in the spring of 1919, the world was their oyster.


- While the eight perpetrators of the Baden Bank robbery remain officially unidentified, some of the Egan gang members suspected of participating included; Max Greenberg, Abe Goldfeder, Ben Milner, Ernest "Bergadine" Miller, Ben "Cotton" Funke, Edward "Big Red" Powers, Clarence "Little Red" Powers, and David "Chippy" Robinson. Out of those eight suspects, only three of them would die of natural causes. 

- Two key members of Egan's Rats, William "Dint" Colbeck and Louis "Red" Smith, had not yet been discharged from the Army after their wartime service in France. Thus, they didn't participate in the Baden Bank robbery.

- At the time of the Baden Bank robbery, three suspected participants; Max Greenberg, Ben Milner, and Edward "Big Red" Powers were free on an appeal bond after their 1917 conviction of theft of interstate shipment in Danville, Illinois. The trio had been sentenced to a total of five years each, but Willie Egan utilized connections that enabled a presidential pardon petition to make its way to President Woodrow Wilson. After spending a few months in 1920 behind bars in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, all three men would be officially pardoned.

- Between April 1919 and November 1924, it was conservatively estimated that Egan's Rats had stolen close to 4.5 million dollars from the various bank, armored car, and messenger robberies that they committed.

- The Baden Bank remained in business until 1984. The building that formerly housed the bank still stands at 8200 North Broadway Avenue in North St. Louis. Other than a few boarded up and broken windows, it looks virtually the same as it did a century ago when Egan's Rats arrived to make their unexpected withdrawal.


The April 10-11, 1919 issues of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and St. Louis Star.

Daniel Waugh, Egan's Rats: The Untold Story of the Prohibition-era gang that ruled St. Louis, Nashville: Cumberland House, 2007.

20 September 2018

The Mysterious, Violent Career of Albanian gangster Joe Baktashi

When people think of Prohibition-era gangsters, they naturally think of Chicago and New York. The fascinating exploits of iconic mob bosses like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky have provided endless fodder for articles, books and films. Even lesser-known mobsters such as Enoch Johnson, George Remus, Abe Burnstein and William “Dinty” Colbeck have taken tentative steps into the limelight with the beginning of the 21st century. Yet for every Capone or Luciano that plied their trade in the Dry Era, there are dozens of other hardcases from that period who remain unknown. These men did not get biographies and HBO series made about their lives, mostly because they did not deserve it and also because they slipped through the cracks of history.
            During my research into the Detroit gangsters of old, I inadvertently discovered the existence of Joe Baktashi. I had never heard of him before, but as I gathered the fragments of his story together, I gradually grew intrigued. Baktashi’s career spanned two very different locales; the Eastern city of Detroit and the Western frontier of north-central Utah. What I found interesting is that this man seemed to have two separate identities, two criminal specialties and as it turned out, two separate sets of enemies. Bandit. Prison Escapee. Safe Cracker. Drug Wholesaler. Killer. This skel had seemingly done it all.
Only trouble was, there just was not a whole lot of information about him. Even after a modern research push with all the resources of the second decade of the 21st century at my disposal, Joe Baktashi’s life remains only partially known, at best. In fact, this author is not even certain of Baktashi’s birth name. Nevertheless, what can be revealed about him reveals a tough and violent yet imperfect hoodlum. While Baktashi’s career was not as Earth-shattering as that of a Capone or Luciano, assembling the pieces of his life paints a fascinating picture of a gritty underbelly of the Prohibition-era underworld that is seldom heard about.

Albania in the late nineteenth century was an isolated, mountainous nation that was increasingly chafing under the heavy-handed rule of the Ottoman Empire, which they had been subjected for well over three hundred years. The country was divided by the Ottomans into four districts known as vilayets (Kosovo, Janina, Monastir and Scutari). It was in the vilayet of Janina, in southeastern Albania, that our story begins. Like the rest of the country, Janina was a mixture of ethnic Albanians and Ottoman Turks. Due to its proximity to the border with Greece, the vilayet was also home to a substantial Greek population.[i]
The Albanian vilayets of the late 19th century. Joe Baktashi's hometown of Leskovik was three miles from the Greek border.

Amongst the Ottoman Turks who peopled the Albanian vilayet of Janina were a considerable number of Muslim settlers who adhered to the Bektashi Order, a Sufi dervish that base their faith on non-Orthodox and mystical interpretations of the Quran. The Bektashi occupied a considerable place in Ottoman culture; they were the primary conscripts of the Ottoman Army’s feared shock troops, the Janissary. Eventually, the Bektashi would be ostracized by other Muslims as practicing a non-traditional form of Islam that more closely resembled Orthodox Christianity.[ii] 
According to his World War I draft card, the man whom American law enforcement would come to know as Joseph Baktashi was born on May 15, 1895 in the picturesque Janina mountain village of Leskovik, located a mere three miles away from the Greek border. It is uncertain what his birth name was or exactly who his parents were. Leskovik was a small town of a bit less than a thousand residents at the turn of the 20th century. Its inhabitants were about evenly divided between Bektashi Muslims and Greek migrants. Given his name and later American events, young Joseph and his family were almost certainly Bektashi Muslims. As Joseph was growing up in Leskovik, the main language of his home was Albanian with Ottoman Turkish being spoken in school and during religious ceremonies. Due to his hometown’s Greek community and its proximity to the Hellenic nation, Joseph also gained a decent knowledge of the Greek language in his youth; a proficiency that would serve him well in later years.[iii]

While nothing concrete is known of Baktashi’s childhood, it seems as if he grew up in turbulent times. By his eleventh birthday, opposition groups within the Ottoman-controlled sections of Albania had risen up in rebellion. They were known as the Committee of Union and Progress, or Young Turks. They favored replacing the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional government. The Young Turks fostered insurrection both in civilian and military life. They successfully lifted the Ottoman ban on the Albanian language being taught in schools and replaced the Arabic alphabet with Latin script.
After the abdication of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in April 1909, the new Constantinople government sought to maintain control of the disintegrating empire by levying new taxes and outlawing guerrilla groups. The Young Turks responded by imposing the bastinado (foot whipping) on those who carried rifles, committed misdemeanors or demeaned the independent Albanian state. Separate violent revolts in 1910 and 1911 saw widespread clashes and executions between the Ottoman loyalists and Albanian nationalists.
It was in this rough, stressful period that Joe Baktashi passed through his formative years. His earliest memories would have been of his isolated hometown being gradually torn asunder by forces outside of their control. Baktashi would have seen and learned violence up close from an early age. Perhaps he witnessed Young Turks administering bastinado on a fellow Bektashi Muslim. Perhaps he saw kriminale victimizing his neighbors.[iv]
Whatever the cause, Joseph Baktashi followed the example of many of his countrymen by immigrating to America around the age of seventeen, right around the time that Albania was formally recognized as an independent nation. While it is unknown exactly when he arrived in the United States, Baktashi told a census taker in 1920 that he landed in 1912.[v] Upon his arrival in North America, the young Albanian journeyed two-thirds of the way across the continent to Utah. What exactly drew Baktashi the Beehive State is uncertain. It seems likely that he had either a familial or fraternal connection with the area for him to uproot there.

Utah in the early 1910s had been a state for just less than two decades and was still considered the frontier by many of their fellow countrymen. Long the home of practitioners of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, Utah is a contrasting state of craggy mountains, beautiful canyons and arid deserts. Many of Utah’s main towns are in close proximity to the Great Salt Lake in the north-central part of the state. Beginning in the late 19th century, Utah’s substantial mining boom attracted immigrants from all over the world to try their luck in excavating such diverse minerals as copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, zinc, lead and beryllium. Many get-rich-quick boomtowns sprung up virtually overnight and housed ambitious people who were looking to strike it rich in any way that they could.[vi]
            It was into this new frontier that teenaged Joe Baktashi moved around 1912-13. He stood about medium height with a slim build and an olive complexion. Baktashi had brown eyes, black hair, and was noted as having a serious yet cool demeanor. Far from striking it rich in his new country, the 18-year old Baktashi was forced to walk great distances from town to town looking for work. Joe generally followed railroad tracks and hitched rides aboard freight trains. Walking with Baktashi in these first months was nineteen-year old Abdul Alli.[vii]
            Like Joe Baktashi, Alli was from southeastern Albania and a Bektashi Muslim. Both men formed a close friendship, their age and their fraternal connection serving as a solid foundation as they attempted to make their way in the New World. Their nomadic existence was a harsh one of few creature comforts that was occasionally punctuated by grueling labor that brought them a plate of beans and a silver dollar at the end of the day.
By the spring of 1914, the hungry Albanians had set their sights on the town of Spanish Fork, nine miles south of Provo. Located in the Goshen Valley with the Wasatch Mountains to the east, Spanish Fork was a bustling village that was near two key railroad lines that passed southeast through nearby Spanish Fork Canyon, up the steep Soldier Summit and passing by a small burg named Tucker before they hit the coal mines at Winter’s Quarters.
In the early 1910s, the powers-that-be had decided they wanted to reduce the steep 4% grade of Soldier Summit to a more manageable 2%. This task would entail rerouting rail lines and moving untold amounts of earth to improve the ease of train navigation. The work for this project was grueling and frequently dangerous for the men who blasted, dug and laid out new railroad tracks after the earth had been sufficiently altered. Baktashi and Alli appear to have been anxious to join this project. [viii]   

The area around and south of Salt Lake City as it appeared in the 1910s.

The afternoon of April 8, 1914 was cold and blustery in Spanish Fork Canyon. Around noon, Joe Baktashi and Abdul Alli were observed following the railroad tracks out of Gilluly in the direction of Tucker. The Reynolds-Ely Construction Company was doing a significant amount of work in the area, and they may have been looking to shape up for work. Somewhere outside of Tucker, the two Albanians had an encounter that would change their lives forever.
 Joe Lavella was an Italian immigrant who worked as a watchman with the Reynolds-Ely company. A former copper miner, Lavella made a point of sending the majority of his wages to his wife and two children in his native Calabria.[ix] By mid-afternoon, he was taking a break and warming himself at a fire alone while watching a steam shovel work. As he did, Baktashi and Alli approached and joined him at the fire. Despite their language barrier, the trio began talking with each other. Some later accounts suggested that Baktashi and Lavella had gotten into an ethnic dispute of some kind; with Baktashi taking offense to Lavella’s disparaging remarks about Turks.[x]    
 A Mexican laborer named Miguel Aguirre later testified he saw Lavella fighting with Baktashi and Alli from a great distance. While Aguirre was too far away to hear anything, at some point during the struggle a fatal bullet was fired into Lavella’s head. Both Albanians quickly fled the area, only to be arrested later in the small town of Thistle.[xi]  

A headline from the Provo Daily Herald announcing the arrest of Joe Baktashi and Abdul Alli.

Once in custody, both men professed not to speak English and requested that an Albanian interpreter be sent down from Salt Lake City. Both suspects were recorded as being given the “third degree” in an effort to “sweat” a confession out of them. Authorities determined that robbery had been the motive for the crime and charged Joe Baktashi and Abdul Alli with first-degree murder. Both men pleaded not guilty and were scheduled to be tried separately. Baktashi, through his court-appointed attorney J.W.N. Whitecotton, claimed that Alli had done the actual killing during the fight.[xii]
While interpreter George Kypros translated his testimony, Baktashi claimed that Alli had asked Lavella for money to return to Salt Lake City with. When Lavella protested that he was broke, Alli allegedly knocked him down and killed him before stealing $2.45 from his person. The jury, however, was not convinced and found Baktashi guilty as charged. At Abdul Alli’s trial a week later, Baktashi insisted on taking the stand for the prosecution without the aid of an interpreter. Speaking in broken English, Joe reiterated his claim about Alli’s culpability. This jury believed his tale and found Alli guilty of murder. Both young men were then sent off to serve life sentences in a prison in a country they barely knew.[xiii]

The old Utah State Penitentiary, located in the Sugar House section of Salt Lake City.

The Utah State Prison was a 180 acre brick complex located in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City. Surrounded by 18-foot high walls, the current prison had been built in the 1890s to replace its crumbling predecessor. Joe Baktashi arrived in the spring of 1914 as an embittered 19-year old Albanian immigrant. Only able to speak a few words of English, Baktashi was delivered into one of the harshest prison systems in America. While the overall capacity of the Utah State Prison was small compared to those of other states, the prison had still not quite made the transition to the 20th century (electrical lighting would not be installed until 1920).  
            No details of Baktashi’s prison life survive, but if reports of other Western prisons of the era are any indication, Joe would have had to deal with back-breaking labor and callous discipline from the guards to accompany the threat of various forms of abuse from his fellow convicts. The scraps of evidence from this period show that Joe Baktashi and Abdul Alli were at each other throats from the moment they set foot inside the prison’s walls. Alli understandably had a beef against Baktashi for testifying against him in his trial. The two reportedly clashed multiple times.
            Prisoners at the “Sugar House,” as it was colloquially referred to, made brushes, saddle niches and shoes. They also worked heavily in road construction.[xiv] The prison was also where inmates who had been sentenced to death were executed; during Joe Baktashi’s first year of imprisonment, Swedish-born labor activist and convicted murderer Joe Hill was put to death via firing squad. While inside, the young Albanian killer rubbed elbows with criminals of all stripes and learned the ins-and-outs of the underworld trade. While he may have been a foolish youth with self-destructive tendencies at the time of Joe Lavella’s murder, Baktashi’s prison experience transformed him into a career criminal.
            Abdul Alli had undergone a similar metamorphosis. The afternoon of August 14, 1918 found Alli on a work detail outside the prison walls. While cutting the prison’s lawn grass, he and an inmate named William McVey took the opportunity to make a run for it and made a successful break from their captors.[xv] Both men were recaptured soon after. In a surprise move later that same year, Joe Baktashi confessed to prison authorities that it was he, and not Alli, who had fired the shot that killed Joe Lavella. The warden and state corrections officials believed the confession. As a result, Alli was subsequently pardoned and released from prison on March 22, 1919.[xvi]
Outside of the walls of the Sugar House, great change with sweeping not only Utah but the whole country in the form of the World War and the enactment of Prohibition. What little news Joe Baktashi got of the outside world most probably came from incoming prisoners. In November 1921, the now 26-year old Baktashi went before the parole board and claimed to be a changed man. Baktashi pointed to his love of birds and flowers as well as a letter of support from Wilford Giles, Chief of Police of the city of Provo. Despite his efforts, Baktashi’s petition for release was denied.[xvii]
Disheartened and embittered, Joe Baktashi focused his rage on his old frenenemy Abdul Alli, who had recently been convicted of armed robbery and sent right back to the Sugar House.[xviii] Their resultant fight netted them a predictable beating from the guards and time in “The Hole.” Unable to gain parole, Baktashi’s fertile mind began looking for other ways to effect his release.
On August 28, 1922, Joe Baktashi and a couple dozen other inmates were led outside the prison walls in order to be loaded onto a truck and driven to Parley’s Canyon, where they would work undermining a hillside in order to clear a path for a highway. Baktashi and several others spent the morning excavating a blast tunnel, which would eventually be stuffed with dynamite into order to blow out a section of the hill. At one point in the afternoon, Baktashi was sent by his guard to fetch something (accounts are uncertain as to what). After a full hour passed without his return, it became obvious that Joe Baktashi had put himself “into the wind.”[xix]

 Whether Joe Baktashi planned his escape in advance or acted on impulse is unknown. With no money of his own and no transportation, it would seem that Joe had at least a little help on his way out of Parley’s Canyon. With Utah authorities on the lookout for him, Baktashi decided to leave for another part of the country where he was relatively unknown. The fugitive Albanian set his sights on the city of Detroit, nearly seventeen hundred miles to the east.
              When the fugitive Utah murderer first arrived in the Motor City in the autumn of 1922, he encountered a growing metropolis of around one million residents from various walks of life and ethnic groups. The city’s now-bustling economy revolved around numerous automobile plants and other assorted factories. More appealing to Joe Baktashi was the fact that Detroit was the country’s major entry point for illegal alcohol. Like many criminals across America, the newly freed Baktashi was most likely drawn like a moth to the flame of Detroit’s immense booze business.
The only trouble was that men much more powerful than Baktashi ran the bootlegging rackets. The city’s growing Mafia family controlled a large piece of the action while extracting tributes from independents who wished to smuggle booze across the Detroit River to their landing spots. While the Mafia had the East Side and Hamtramck, a young yet volatile group of Jewish hoods called the Oakland Sugar House Gang were just starting to make noise in the North End (they wouldn’t become known as the Purple Gang for a few more years).[xx]
On the run and with little money available to him, Joe Baktashi gravitated to downtown Detroit’s Greektown neighborhood. Branching out for a few blocks in each direction from the intersection of Beaubien and Monroe streets, Greektown was the perfect place for the Albanian fugitive to lay low while he got his bearings in his new city. Introducing himself around town as Pete Milo, Baktashi began to ingrain himself with members of the local underworld.
While it was remarkably easy to get a drink in Greektown, the local hoods primarily made their money off of illegal gambling. While the local coffee houses acted as traditional gathering places for immigrant Greek men, their back and basement rooms often housed card and dice games for trustworthy individuals. Baktashi made the rounds, with his ethnicity and Greek language ability opening doors that may well have otherwise remained closed. Sipping strong coffee in the smoke-filled cafes and conversing with local hoodlums, Baktashi seems to have made a favorable impression; he apparently took great pains to not disclose that he was a prison escapee. Joe was soon introduced to the hidden gambling casinos.
While Baktashi seems to have supported himself through the occasional armed robbery or safe-cracking (he apparently learned the rudiments of the latter racket while incarcerated in Utah), he sought to enter the upper tier of organized crime. As Pete Milo, mysterious Greek-fluent Albanian hard case, he was befriended by Greektown gambling boss James Thompson sometime in early 1923.
About the same age as his new pal “Milo,” Thompson (real name Dimitrios Poulos) had emigrated from Greece as an adolescent. Around 1921, he had migrated to Detroit’s Greektown and set up shop in the neighborhood’s coffee houses. Known in the city’s underworld as “Jimmy the Greek,” Thompson was known as an expert card player and dice thrower who rubbed elbows with the cream of the Motor City underworld.[xxi]
While it is impossible to know what was going through Joe Baktashi’s head during these early Detroit months, it’s quite possible he saw in Jimmy Thompson what he could have possibily become if fate had dealt him a bit of a different hand. Baktashi began working as a capper/doorman for Thompson’s secret gambling den, which was then located in the 400 block of Monroe Avenue in the heart of Greektown. This was an entry level position for many aspiring Detroit gangsters of the era. Baktashi, hardened both mentally and physically by his years of incarceration, also acted as an armed guard when Jimmy the Greek went to other Detroit joints to gamble. While Thompson moved in a dangerous world, he himself was not a violent man. Thus, it was Baktashi’s job to ensure that no one tried to rob “The Greek” after he exited a game with thousands of dollars on his person.

Joe Baktashi as he appeared at the height of his Detroit underworld career.

Over the course of 1923 and into 1924, Joe Baktashi became a fixture in the Greektown gambling underworld. Making more money than he ever had before, Baktashi's days of grueling railroad work and hard prison time seemed to be receding into the past. Baktashi began dressing better and frequenting high-class restaurants and nightclubs. Moving through Jazz Age Detroit, the Albanian gangster must have felt like he had finally arrived.
One of Joe’s new pals was a tall, muscular Albanian Greek named Zero Puchi. At least ten years older than Baktashi, Puchi had a build and demeanor of a much younger man. Having migrated north to Detroit from Ohio, Puchi was known as the powerful “attitude adjuster” of Thompson’s gambling joint.[xxii] Between Puchi’s fists and Baktashi’s quick trigger finger, their Monroe Avenue casino seemed like a solid operation. By now, Baktashi had begun living in a decent apartment at 3632 Cass Avenue in midtown Detroit.
A fateful trip to Johnny Reid’s blind pig at Third and Peterboro streets in February 1924 put Joe Baktashi in the company of many former members of the St. Louis underworld. Reid had once been a member of the Gateway City’s premier gang, Egan’s Rats. Among those who frequented his joint in the winter of 1924 were notorious gangsters such as Robert Carey, Arthur Wilson, Isadore Londe and Fred “Killer” Burke. Joe Baktashi may well have made the St. Louisans’ acquaintance, but he specifically hit it off with a St. Louis hood named Harry Halloway. The two men, probably on Baktashi’s recommendation, decided to rob a wealthy Chaldean saloonkeeper named James George. While no details of the crime survive, they had gotten away clean for the moment.[xxiii]
As the year 1924 progressed, Joe Baktashi became intimate with another aspect of the Greek underworld that was seldom spoken of; the dope racket. Since the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, a large market for illegal drugs existed in America’s cities. In the city of Detroit, the primary commodities were opiates such as heroin, opium or pure morphine. There was also a market for cocaine, but like it is in modern times, the white powder tended to be a drug for the upper crust. The drugs of choice in Greektown seem to have been hashish and morphine. Whether or not Baktashi experimented with any of these substances is unknown, but he seems to have realized that a good deal of money could be made by selling them.
Around this same time Joe Baktashi got a brief taste of the gang violence that periodically swept through the Detroit underworld. Around 3 o’clock on the morning of March 12, 1924, the heart of Greektown was rocked by a tremendous explosion that startled residents from their beds and caused concerned citizens to spill out into the street. A large, battery-detonated dynamite bomb had exploded in the doorway of Nick Smerles’ coffee house at 579 Monroe Avenue, destroying much of the front part of the building along with two adjoining structures. A total of thirty people were wounded in the blast and required medical attention. Amazingly, no one was killed. Plaster, bricks and broken glass littered the street in front of the wrecked coffee shop. Police thought it may have been related to the recent beating of a Mafia associate named Frank Bommarito in the coffee house. Both Bommarito and his friend Pietro “Pete” Corrado were arrested and charged, but both managed to beat the rap.[xxiv]

On the night of April 2, thirty-year old John Deplaris emerged from the coffee house at 547 Monroe Avenue with his buddy Nick Mavros. As they began to cross the street, they were confronted by an angry looking man. Deplaris uttered an exclamation in Greek as he jerked a pistol from his pocket and opened fire. The hurried gambler missed while his adversary pulled his own gun and struck Deplaris twice in the abdomen. Another shot from the adversary hit a bystander named Chris Kolinsgos in the foot. As Deplaris fell screaming to the street, the winner of the duel vanished into the night. While bystander Kolinsgos recovered from his injury, Deplaris died of his wounds two days later at Grace Hospital.[xxv]
The Detroit police had two theories as to who the killer was. The first possibility was Fotios “Frank” Kokalaris, who was from the same Greek village as the victim and would go onto to an exceptionally violent career in the Greektown underworld.[xxvi] The other suspect was none other than Joseph Baktashi. No one who knew the temperamental Albanian would doubt his guilt in such a situation. Nevertheless, neither this shooting or the bombing that preceded it was ever solved.

Joe Baktashi’s newfound criminal career in Detroit showed just how much he had progressed since his original 1914 incarceration. Now showing a bit more polish in his dress and mannerisms, Baktashi made decent money working for Jimmy the Greek in the Greektown gambling business. Despite his status as a budding racketeer, Baktashi could not seem to resist dabbling in small-time crimes such as robberies and safe-cracking. The newfound money and status he had appears to have gone to his head. Perhaps emboldened by his success, Baktashi began to get careless. By the end of 1924, at least a half-dozen people knew of his status as a fugitive Utah murderer. Baktashi had reportedly boasted to fellow henchman Zero Puchi that he had escaped from the “Utah State Pen.” All in all, it was an incredibly foolish thing to do.
Joe Baktashi’s hubris came home to roost on New Year’s Day, 1925 when he was arrested by Detroit police along with his St. Louis pal Harry Halloway. Booked under his alias of Peter Milo, Baktashi clammed up under questioning. Detective Lieutenant Andrew O’Day grew suspicious when he received a tip that his prisoner “Milo” had busted out of a Utah prison. A national fingerprint check soon confirmed Pete Milo’s true identity. An extradition order was quickly filed, and detectives soon arrived from Salt Lake City to take Baktashi into custody. One can only wonder what was going through the Albanian gangster’s mind on his long train ride back to Utah. Baktashi held Zero Puchi responsible for his fugitive status being learned and vowed to kill him, but as the documentation from his arrest shows, he had no one but himself to blame.[xxvii]
Joe Baktashi had been flying higher than he ever had in his life, only to come crashing back to Earth because of his own big mouth.

The Sugar House Prison in Salt Lake City had changed little since Baktashi escaped over two years before. Closely scrutinized by the guards as a security risk, the re-imprisoned Baktashi re-assimilated into the daily grind of jailhouse life. With years of imprisonment, a successful escape and big city racket time under his belt, the Albanian gangster now occupied a pretty high place in the inmate hierarchy. Joe renewed his rivalry with Abdul Alli, who was still serving time for his botched 1921 robbery. Baktashi watched with envy and hatred as his former pal was granted parole in October 1925.[xxviii]  
Baktashi focused his rage into chiseling his already wiry physique into a rock-hard machine with endless hours of calisthenics. Having learned long ago how to psychologically manipulate people, Baktashi went out of his way to keep a clean prison record and give the impression that he was a changed man. A year after his return to the Sugar House, the Albanian crook applied for the vacation of his original murder sentence. In a surprise move, Baktashi’s motion was granted. On October 16, 1926, thirty-one year old Joseph Baktashi walked out of the Utah State Prison a free man.[xxix]

The newly freed gangster immediately caught an east-bound train for Detroit. Baktashi was welcomed back into the Greektown underworld and resumed working for Jimmy “The Greek” Thompson at his Monroe Avenue casino. Joe seemingly displayed no enmity towards Zero Puchi, whom he held responsible for his return to prison. By late 1926, Thompson was the gambling boss of Greektown and had begun dabbling in the narcotics trade. While Baktashi was content to take orders from Thompson, he yearned to fashion his own criminal identity. The Albanian gangster saw his ticket to independence in the dope racket.
            Through means that remain unknown, Baktashi (using his alias of Pete Milo) connected with a drug supplier that agreed to sell him large quantities of hashish and morphine. Joe may have made this connection through the Greek-Turkish underworld in order circumvent the local Mafia and their heavy-handed pizzu taxes. A lesser possibility is that Baktashi made his drug connection through the North End-based Oakland Sugar House Gang. The Albanian gangster took on an Italian-born drug peddler named James Carloze as his partner. Carloze (real name Albert Valento) had been operating on the fringes of Detroit’s Mafia family for a few years.[xxx] On the surface, this deal seems both bold and foolhardy. Such a large business would almost certainly attract the attention of both the Mafia and the Sugar House Boys.[xxxi]
            Nevertheless, in January 1927, Joe Baktashi took his leave of Jimmy “The Greek” Thompson’s gambling joint and went into the dope business for himself. His new headquarters was the Afghanistan Coffee House, located on the eastern edge of Greektown at 742 St. Antoine Street. To the rear of the coffee house were a small tobacco shop and an apartment on the second floor of the building. Night after night, Baktashi and Carloze held court in the coffee house and did business with the low-level dealers who pushed their narcotics into the streets. Judging from a later investigation, Carloze seems to have been something of a front man while “Pete Milo” remained in the background pulling the strings.
            For a few months, Baktashi’s new dope business went swimmingly. Money started flowing in for the Albanian gangster. In addition to establishing himself as a drug wholesaler, Baktashi appears to have fallen in love with a neighborhood waitress. This courtship, with a woman whose name is not known to history, may well have been the first serious relationship that Baktashi had ever been in. In hindsight, it seems that the first half of 1927 may well have been the happiest time of Joe Baktashi’s life; he headed a profitable drug wholesale operation in a major American city, made copious amounts of money and was in love.
            It seemed almost too good to be true, and it was indeed. It wasn’t long before the Milo/Carloze dope operation attracted the attention of the local Mafia, headed by Salvatore “Sam” Catalanotti. Evidence suggests that Baktashi rebuffed the Mafia’s efforts to make him pay protection money for the privilege moving his drugs. By June 1927, it seemed that a violent confrontation of some kind was imminent. Joe Baktashi’s previously sweet world had suddenly turned rotten.
It was probably in this grim mindset that Baktashi left his coffee house headquarters and made the rounds in Greektown on the warm evening of June 15. The Albanian gangster visited several coffee houses and gambling dens, all while getting progressively drunker. While Baktashi was not known as a heavy drinker, the critical situation with his dope business and his increasingly rocky relationship with the waitress had apparently prompted his current binge.
            Sometime after midnight, he wandered over to Jimmy the Greek’s place in the 400 block of Monroe Avenue. The menacing Zero Puchi was at his usual post at the front door, shooting the breeze with a local Greek gambler. Under normal circumstances, Joe Baktashi was as cool as a cucumber. Tonight his personal and professional crises, combined with his alcohol intake, caused his rage to erupt to the surface. Baktashi angrily accused Puchi of ratting him out to the cops back in late 1924. Some accounts also intimated that Puchi had informed Baktashi’s sweetheart of his ex-convict past. Puchi attempted to pacify the Albanian gangster with peaceful words, but Baktashi persisted. Inside the joint, Jimmy the Greek had been alerted to the situation brewing outside.
After seeing he couldn’t handle things peacefully, Puchi apparently prepared to settle things with his ham-like fists. In response, the much smaller Baktashi suddenly whipped out a pistol and fired two shots into Puchi’s abdomen. The bouncer crumpled in pain while a third shot missed him completely. Men inside the casino began shouting and a handful of passerby yelled as Baktashi ran east and rounded the corner north onto Beaubien Street. A crowd of Jimmy the Greek’s friends angrily chased after him.
After sprinting north for a block, Baktashi hopped on the running board of a yellow Checker Cab parked directly across the street from the Detroit Police Headquarters at 1300 Beaubien. With adrenaline pumping almost visibly through his system, Baktashi thrust the still-warm barrel of his gun against the left temple of cab driver Udo Andres and told him to step on it. The cabbie punched the gas pedal and sped his captor away into the night. Baktashi’s commandeered taxi was last seen speeding north on Brush Street with a dark sedan in hot pursuit. Baktashi managed to get away clean from both the police and Jimmy the Greek’s men that night.
            Zero Puchi was rushed to Receiving Hospital, where he soon died from his gunshot wounds. Joe Baktashi was arrested a couple of days later and charged with murder. The Albanian killer claimed that he had acted in self-defense when Puchi had tried to attack him. Baktashi was housed in the Wayne County Jail until his case was adjudicated. After considerable deliberation, Baktashi was ruled to have shot and killed Puchi in self-defense.[xxxii]

A Detroit News article detailing the shooting of Zero Puchi.

While the Albanian gangster may have gotten off the hook with the law, he was now persona-non-grata in the Greektown underworld after having killed popular bouncer Puchi. Baktashi returned to his St. Antoine Street headquarters to find out that his dope business partner James Carloze had apparently cut a deal with the local Mafia in his absence. Baktashi seems to have had an aversion to dealing with Italian gangsters that probably dated to his original long-ago fight with Joe Lavella back in Utah.
            Carloze’s contact appears to have been twenty-four year old Pete Corrado, an up-and-coming mafiùsu who was noted as the Detroit family’s unofficial liaison to the Greektown underworld. Carloze may have begun buying narcotics directly from the Mafia and/or paying a protection fee to move his product. Baktashi seems to have once again earned the enmity of the local Mafia; he may have refused to pay them tribute or otherwise insulted them. As the autumn of 1927 began, Detroit seemed to be growing increasingly unwelcoming to Joe Baktashi. Unwilling to directly lock heads with the Mafia and with Greektown closed to him, the Albanian gangster once again put himself into the wind.
            This time is seems that Baktashi made the right decision to split. A month after his departure, on the night of November 11, agents Joseph Bell and Arnold C. Lachenauer of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics infiltrated the Afghanistan Coffee House at 742 St. Antoine Street. The two agents posed as drug buyers and ended up purchasing 440 grains of morphine for forty dollars. Once the transaction was completed, the raid was announced. As Bell and Lachenauer were walking three suspects to their car, a hidden assailant opened fire on them from a darkened doorway. Agent Bell was seriously wounded while Agent Lachenauer escaped injury.
James Carloze and one of his helpers, Joseph Elahia, were arrested and charged with the shooting. Police searching the coffee house found a stash of morphine in the basement as well as a cache of firearms. Both Carloze and Elahia managed to beat the assault rap but could not avoid being sentenced to federal prison for narcotics violations. While federal narcotics agents were confident that they had busted up the St. Antoine Street dope operation, they were frustrated that the mysterious “Pete Milo” had apparently slipped through their fingers.[xxxiii]
By his account, Joseph Baktashi stepped off the train in Salt Lake City on October 12, 1927. In a sense, it was a bitter homecoming. Just five months earlier, he had seemingly been on top of the world. His successful Detroit underworld career had been laid to waste by Mafia pressure and the killing of Zero Puchi. At thirty-two years old, Baktashi was a killer and ex-convict with an increasingly bleak future. Quickly burning through his traveling stake, he was apparently forced to borrow money from friends just to make ends meet. By late November, Baktashi had connected with members of the Salt Lake City underworld, most probably through a mutual network of fellow Utah State Prison alumni.[xxxiv]
            Baktashi’s new partner was forty-four year old Hamilton “Harry” Daywalt, a grizzled yegg who had served prison time in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.[xxxv] Baktashi and Daywalt almost certainly knew each other from the Sugar House, as they were both locked up there at the same time in 1922. Daywalt and two unknown accomplices proposed a safecracking job. The S.H. Kress & Co. department store reportedly had an $8,000 monthly payroll at a specific time at the beginning of every month. Joe Baktashi told them that he was in. The boys carefully staked out the store to see when the payroll money would be delivered. Once the money was in place, they would strike that very night. On the afternoon of December 3, their surveillance paid off when they saw the bank messenger visit the Kress store. The job was a go.
            As it was a Saturday evening, all the men had to do was waiting for closing time, infiltrate the store and crack the “crib.” Around 7 o’clock that evening, however, an anonymous phone call to the Salt Lake City Police Department alerted them that thieves were planning on hitting the Kress department store that very evening. A squad of detectives and patrolmen took up surveillance positions inside the store at 257 Main Street and waited for their quarry to arrive.
            Completely unaware that they were heading into a trap, Joe Baktashi, Harry Daywalt and their two accomplices set out to pull the job around ten-thirty that night. From his position in the shadows of the Kress store, Detective Martin McGinness watched as two figures darkened the skylight of the main room and carefully entered the building. After dropping to the floor, the two intruders hurried to the rear door of the store. They then let in a third man who was carrying a heavy iron jimmy bar and other burglary tools. Once the trio began to make their way to the office that held the safe, Detective McGinness and his men sprang from their hiding places with aimed pistols, “Throw up your hands!”
            Baktashi, Daywalt and their accomplice momentarily froze like deer in headlights. One of them loudly cursed before the three bolted for the back door while pulling pistols from their pockets. A frantic, close-quarters gun battle erupted between the trapped thieves and the police. Baktashi later said a bullet passed so close to his eye that he felt its passage; yet another slug passed harmlessly through his pants leg. Daywalt had just made it to the back door when a .45 ACP slug slammed into his back, eventually lodging in his right lung. Although wounded, he managed to make it outside and stagger away from the scene. Three of the officers tackled Baktashi and subdued him with fists and gun butts. The unnamed accomplice dashed up a stairwell and crashed clear out a second-story window to the alley below. This individual managed to make it to his feet and disappear into the night; his identity remains unknown.
            While Baktashi was cuffed and led away, police spread out through the neighborhood looking for the other suspects. Harry Daywalt was found lying on the sidewalk outside the nearby American Theatre. A witness said he had been led there by a mysterious man in a leather jacket. Another suspect named John Pirtle was arrested, but he was soon released.
After keeping his mouth shut for about twenty-four hours, Joe Baktashi admitted his true identity and confessed to the attempted burglary. The Albanian gangster explained his past criminal history (while carefully omitting his Detroit adventures) and the events leading up to the burglary. Baktashi also made a point of saying that he had lied to Utah prison officials back in 1918 on Abdul Alli’s behalf. Joe now said that Alli had been Joe Lavella’s actual killer, all along. While refusing to name his accomplices in the Kress store job, Joe had harsh words for the anonymous tipster, “I know the fellow who got away is the bird who squealed to the police before we started to work on the crib,” he was quoted as saying. Baktashi’s eyes blazed as he said, “If he is caught he will be sent to the State Prison and I will be there and I will kill him.”
            By December 6, Harry Daywalt had recovered enough to be moved to his arraignment. As they sat together, Baktashi looked Daywalt in the eye and said point blank, “I wish when they had fired at me that they had of killed me.” It seems from the beginning that Joe Baktashi had no illusions about how things would turn out. In his final comments about the case, the Albanian gangster pled guilty to burglary and stated his desire to begin serving his sentence at once. The state of Utah obliged him by pronouncing a sentence of 5 to 20 years imprisonment. Salt Lake City officials commented favorably that Baktashi had saved the taxpayers the expense of having a trial. For the third time in his life, Joe Baktashi was on his way to the Sugar House.[xxxvi]

After going through the standard in-processing, Baktashi was reintroduced to prison life. The Sugar House had not changed at all since he had walked out its gates just fourteen months earlier. Back then, he potentially had a clean slate in front of him. Nowadays, Joe thought of little else but getting even with those he believed had wronged him. Joe Baktashi was labeled as a discipline problem right off the bat. To make matters worse, Bureau of Immigration officials let Baktashi know that they planned on commencing deportation proceedings against him upon completion of his prison sentence.
Despite the odds stacked against him, Baktashi found an unlikely ally in Chief Deputy Warden Wilford Giles. The former chief of police of Provo, Giles remembered when police had beaten a murder confession out of then-young and scared Joe Baktashi back in 1914. The Deputy Warden figured that Baktashi had turned down the wrong path in life due to being given a raw deal in the Joe Lavella case. Far from the frightened kid he was when Giles first met him, the sociopathic Baktashi promptly began to manipulate Giles by speaking of the rotten luck he had encountered while working as a “mechanic” in Detroit. Joe often talked with the Deputy Warden about his love of flowers and birds. Largely through Giles’ efforts, Baktashi was designated as a trusty in the spring of 1928 and charged with maintaining the prison’s garden just outside the walls. 
During the spring and summer of 1928, the Utah State Prison was rocked by a number of disturbances that included numerous fights; several escape attempts, and one near riot. One of the escapees, Bert Sorenson, managed to make it all the way to Indiana before being shot and killed by police. Warden R.E. Davis and Deputy Warden Wilford Giles attempted to isolate troublemakers by putting them in positions where they could not stir up trouble amongst the other inmates. Joe Baktashi, in his trusty position as a gardener, spent most of his days outside of the wall away from the pressure cooker atmosphere of the cell house.
After supper was served on August 15, Joe was allowed outside the walls to water the prison’s flower garden. The activity seems to have had little to no supervision. By 8 o’clock, the guards realized that the Albanian convict had not yet returned. When he was still missing at the final head count before lights out, the prison administration realized that Baktashi had done it again.[xxxvii]

An Ogden Standard Examiner headline announcing Joe Baktashi's second prison escape.

Joe Baktashi’s second successful escape from the Utah State Prison made headlines all over the state. Authorities in both Utah and neighboring Nevada were put on alert. Deputy Warden Wilford Giles took full responsibility for the escape, as he had put Baktashi in the trusty position that allowed him outside of the prison’s walls. Warden R.E. Davis spoke in his colleague’s defense, “It’s just a case of misplaced confidence…I realize we are open to censure by the press and the public for letting a man like him outside the walls. But we figured it was the easiest way to handle him. He was a disagreeable prisoner inside.”[xxxviii]
            As with his first break in 1922, its unknown if Baktashi planned this escape in advance or acted on impulse. Unlike his previous escape, there were few places where the Albanian gangster could go. With police all over Utah on the lookout for him, staying put was not advisable. In retrospect, Baktashi’s best bet would have been to leave the country, perhaps heading north for someplace like Calgary or Vancouver. To this day, no one knows his exact motivation. Baktashi had always been a temperamental criminal, and perhaps he still desired to exact revenge on the man who ratted him out.
            There is no exact information, then or now, about Joe Baktashi’s whereabouts in the ten days or so after he escaped from his gardening detail. On August 27, twelve days after his break, Baktashi was seen in Detroit, renting a room at 3163 Meldrum Street. One can only guess why he decided to return to the Motor City, which had become even more inhospitable to him than Salt Lake City. The Greek underworld still wanted revenge against him for Zero Puchi, while the Sicilian mob was still angry about their dope racket beef. Some investigators would postulate that the target of his vengeance was in town. Unconfirmed reports even stated that his old nemesis, Abdul Alli, was now living in Detroit as a racketeer. Perhaps Joe was indeed in town to get revenge, or perhaps he was looking to pick up the pieces of his drug business. Maybe, when all was said and done, Baktashi simply did not know where else to go after his prison break.
            Word quickly began to filter through the Detroit underworld that Pete Milo was back in town. On the evening of August 30, Baktashi was observed making the underworld rounds in Greektown. Moving through the smoke-filled coffee houses and gambling dens filled with hard men speaking in rapid-fire Greek, Baktashi may have felt soothed by the familiar environment. While he does not appear to have been making waves, he almost certainly would have noticed the chilly reception he was getting. At some point in the night, Baktashi encountered a familiar face that was actually somewhat glad to see him. Who this individual was is unknown, but this man was in Joe’s company by no later than midnight.
            By two-forty that morning, Joe Baktashi and his buddy were walking east on East Lafayette Avenue, leaving Greektown and heading into Little Sicily. The street was largely deserted at this time of the night. Baktashi’s business in the Sicilian district is unknown. Perhaps he was going to meet someone. Joe and his companion were about a quarter-block past Hastings Street when a dark sedan pulled to the curb and noiselessly slowed behind them. A man hopped out of the passenger door and was on the sidewalk before the vehicle had come to a complete stop. Baktashi did not even notice the car behind him, or the man with the .45 automatic in his fist. Eight bullets ripped into Baktashi’s head and body, the muzzle blasts from the .45 staining the back of Joe’s neck with powder burns. The Albanian gangster was killed instantly.
            John Lichenberg turned his automobile into Lafayette Avenue from Hastings Street just as the attack concluded. The motorist was able to see the killer return to his car, the dead form of Baktashi lying on the sidewalk and his companion running apparently unharmed into the darkness. Lichenberg slowly pulled forward as the killers’ car accelerated east on Lafayette. Lichenberg noted that the rear of the auto was so slathered with mud that he could not make out the license plate.
A Detroit Free Press headline detailing Joe Baktashi's murder.

Joe Baktashi’s murder made the national news wire; the only time in his career that he would rate such coverage. Detroit police investigating the homicide were confounded by the fact that the victim apparently lived two lives; known in the Utah underworld as Joe Baktashi while he sold dope in Detroit’s Greektown as Pete Milo. Since the victim’s double life and produced a double amount of enemies, it was difficult to know where to go for suspects. The Greek underworld may have finally exacted revenge for Zero Puchi, while the fact that Baktashi had been killed in Little Sicily indicated to some that the Mafia had eliminated Pete Milo as a potential rival in the dope business. Members of the Purple Gang were also considered as possible suspects, as they were major players in Detroit’s narcotics racket. Maybe the quasi-mythical Abdul Alli had finally ended their longtime feud. Whoever was responsible, it seemed likely that Baktashi’s unknown companion had decoyed him to his death.[xxxix]
Any and all of the aforementioned reasons were plausible motives for Baktashi’s murder. After all his years and miles of scuffling, Joe had finally run out of options, out of places to hide and out of time. No one knows if his family members, if he had any remaining, were notified. On September 4, 1928, thirty-three year old Joseph Baktashi was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Roseland Park Cemetery in the suburb of Berkley, Michigan.

Meanwhile, in the dog-eat-dog Detroit underworld, the deadly cycle of life continued unabated.

[i] Miranda Vickers, The Albanians: A Modern History, London: I.B Tauris, 1999.
[ii] H.T. Norris, Islam in the Balkans: Religion and Society between Europe and the Arab World, London: Hurst & Company, 1993, pgs. 92-96.
[iii] World War I draft card;
[iv] Stavro Skendi, The Albanian National Awakening, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.
[v] The 1920 U.S. Census recorded Joe Baktashi as being an inmate at the Utah State Prison.
[vii] According to his World War I draft card, Abdul Alli was born on May 15, 1894 in Korçë, Manastir, Albania to unknown parents. Like Joe Baktashi (with whom he apparently shared a birthday), it is unknown when Alli came to America; he told the census taker in 1920 that he immigrated in 1912.
[ix] Giuseppe La Vella was born circa 1879 in Pedivigliano, Calabria, Italy to unknown parents. He told the census taker in 1910 that he had immigrated to America in 1904. Once in the U.S., Joe Lavella (as he was known to English speakers) began working in a copper mine in Salt Lake County, Utah. Sometime in 1910, Lavella returned to his native Italy and reunited with his family. A year or so later, he returned to Utah and began working for the Reynolds-Ely Construction Company. Lavella and his wife Maria had two children, Francesco (b. 1899) and Antonietta (b. 1911); State of Utah: Death Certificate, No. 120 (1914); 1910 U.S. Census; Utah, Utah County, Probate Estate Files, Case No. 23125-2370, 1914.
[x] Ogden Standard Examiner, August 29, 1922.
[xi] Provo Daily Herald, April 13, 1914.
[xii] Provo Daily Herald, April 20, 1914.
[xiii] Ogden Standard, April 21 and 29, May 2, 6, 8-9 and 12, 1914; Provo Daily Herald, May 7, 1914.
[xv] Salt Lake Telegram, August 15, 1918.
[xvi] Salt Lake Telegram, December 21, 1918 and March 24, 1919.
[xvii] Ogden Standard Examiner, November 6 and 21, 1921.
[xviii] Abdul Alli, along with Toy Smith and another man, was convicted of robbing J.L. Jordan in Ogden, Utah on September 6, 1921. The Albanian bandit was given a sentence of five years. Why Alli had another falling out with Joe Baktashi is unknown. It seems that Baktashi had taken the blame for Joe Lavella in return for something from Alli. Perhaps Alli was to have assisted Baktashi in his own 1921 parole hearing and failed. The answer is lost to history. Details of Alli’s robbery case can be found in the following Ogden Standard Examiner issues; September 26 and October 22, 1921; January 16, 18 and 25, 1922.
[xix] Ogden Standard Examiner, August 29, 1922.
[xx] Daniel Waugh, Off Color: The Violent History of Detroit’s Notorious Purple Gang, Holland, MI: In-Depth Editions, 2014, pgs. 73-83.
[xxi] According to his death certificate, Dimitrios Poulos aka James Thompson was born on May 15, 1894 in Stemnitsa, Greece to Thomas and Maria Vlachogiannis Poulos. It is unknown exactly when he immigrated to America. Poulos would eventually anglicize his name to William James Thompson, but he was primarily known in the Detroit underworld as “Jimmy the Greek.” Michigan Department of Health, Certificate of Death, (1933), No. 984.
[xxii] Zero Puchi was born in Gjirokastër, Albania to Nazif Puchi and an unknown woman. While his death certificate gives an approximate birth year of 1885, Puchi’s World War I draft card gave his birth date as September 22, 1874. The same draft card gave his address as 8 N. Howard Street in Akron, Ohio, with a relative living in Detroit at 180 Brush Street. After he moved to the Motor City, Puchi lived at 2215 Fifth Street; Michigan Department of Health, Certificate of Death, (1927), No. 8099.
[xxiii] Detroit Free Press, January 3, 1925. The author was unable to find any further information on Harry Halloway and believes that this name was most probably an alias. James George was noted as running a Greektown blind pig at 347 Monroe Avenue.  The fact that Baktashi victimized a respected saloonkeeper on his boss Thompson’s turf pointed to the Albanian gangster’s wholly unpredictable nature.
[xxiv] The bombing was thoroughly covered in Detroit newspapers, notably the March 12-14, 1924 issues of the Detroit Free Press and the March 12, 1924 issue of the Detroit News.
[xxv] Ioannis (John) Deplaris was born on either September 7, 1893 or July 5, 1894 in Filatria, Greece to Dionysus and Helen Christopoulos Deplaris. By the time of his death, Deplaris was noted as living in a suite at the Hotel Tuller and operating a Greektown coffee house/gambling den at 347 Monroe Avenue. Michigan Department of Health, Certificate of Death, (1924), No. 4003; World War I draft card. Details of his murder from the April 3, 1924 issues of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.
[xxvi] Fotios (Frank) Kokalaris was born on March 18, 1891 in Filatria, Greece to Petro Kokalaris and an unknown woman. Kokalaris would be noted as the prime suspect in several unsolved homicides in and around Greektown during Prohibition, including one 1929 case when he and Detroit gangster Pete Corrado were acquitted of killing gambler Tom Serenotes in front of his Hastings Street laundromat/gambling den. Michigan Department of Health, Certificate of Death, (1931), No. 8374; additional information from the July 11, 1931 issue of the Detroit Times and the October 29, 1931 issue of the Detroit Free Press.  
[xxvii] While the information surrounding Joe Baktashi’s capture is sparse, my account was derived from the following sources; Salt Lake Telegram, January 2, 1925; Detroit Free Press, January 3, 1925; Detroit Times, August 31, 1928.
[xxviii] Salt Lake Telegram, October 18, 1925. Abdul Alli appears to have faded into obscurity after his release. Unconfirmed accounts in contemporary Utah newspapers claimed he moved to Detroit and went into the rackets, but this author was unable to find any confirmation for that hypothesis.
[xxix] Salt Lake Telegram, October 17, 1926. All told, Joe Baktashi had served a total of ten years and twenty days in prison for the murder of Joe Lavella.  
[xxx] The author was unable to discover much about James Carloze other than that his real name seems to have been Albert Valento (or Valente). He was apparently born circa 1905 and began selling dope in Detroit around 1924. After serving a two-year term in Leavenworth, Carloze would be confined in New York’s Sing Sing Penitentiary. Contemporary news accounts often spell his alias as “Carlozzi.”
[xxxi] Little is known for certain about Joe Baktashi’s dope business other than he operated it under the Pete Milo alias and was considered enough of a threat by the Federal Narcotics Bureau that they continued to hound him until the day he died. Some fragments of his dope business can be found in the following articles; Detroit Free Press, November 12, 13 and 15, 1927; August 31 and September 1, 1928; Detroit News, November 12, 1927 and August 31, 1928; Detroit Times, August 31, 1928.
[xxxii] Details on the Zero Puchi killing and its aftermath were drawn from the June 16, 1927 and August 31, 1928 issues of the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and Detroit Times.
[xxxiii] Detroit Free Press, November 12, 13 and 15, 1927; August 31, 1928; Detroit News, November 12, 1927 and August 31, 1928.
[xxxiv] Salt Lake Telegram, December 5, 1927.
[xxxv] The son of a Civil War veteran turned gold miner, Hamilton Daywalt was born on November 12, 1883 in Breckenridge, Colorado to David and Frances Ready Daywalt. Hamilton, or Harry as he was called, was in constant trouble from an early age; he was noted as having run away from home more than once and hitching a ride on freight trains. Daywalt’s extensive criminal career began when he was sentenced to serve time in Colorado’s Canon City Penitentiary in April 1908 and paroled three years later. Daywalt married Anna Elizabeth Welch in Pueblo, Colorado on November 1, 1911. After working as an iron worker for a number of years, Harry struck back out on the outlaw trail. In the autumn of 1919, he would be incarcerated in the Idaho State Penitentiary for burglary for one to five years; he was released on October 9, 1920.
Daywalt headed south to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he was arrested after burglarizing a house on June 1, 1921. During his six-month term for petty larceny in the Salt Lake County Jail, he was thrown into solitary confinement for the last eight weeks of his sentence for using his position as a trusty to smuggle drugs to fellow inmates. Free again during the winter of 1922, Daywalt was busted yet again for burglary and sentenced to a longer term at the Sugar House Prison. It was at this point that Daywalt almost certainly met Joe Baktashi before the latter escaped that August. Daywalt walked out the gates of the Sugar House in December 1924 into the arms of federal officers, who laid in wait to bust him for altering the name on a $50 Liberty Bond he had stolen in his June 1921 heist. After serving a two-year term in Leavenworth Federal Prison, Harry Daywalt headed west again to his rendezvous with Joe Baktashi.
 Aspen Daily Times, April 4, 1897; Salt Lake Telegram, June 2 and December 15, 1921; February 13-14, 1922; December 23, 1924 and December 7, 1927.  Idaho, Old Penitentiary Prison Records, 1920, Harry Hamilton Daywalt; World War I draft card; Colorado Steel Works Employment Records, Hamilton Daywalt; Colorado State Census, 1885; 1910 and 1930 U.S. Censuses.
[xxxvi] My recreation of the ill-fated Kress store safecracking was drawn from the December 4-8, 1927 and February 29, 1928 issues of the Salt Lake Telegram.
[xxxvii] Salt Lake Telegram, August 16 and 31, 1928; Ogden Standard Examiner, August 16, 17 and 31, 1928.
[xxxviii] Salt Lake Telegram, August 16, 1928.
[xxxix] While differing on some minor points, I recreated Joe Baktashi’s final days and death from the following articles; the August 31, 1928 issues of the Detroit News, Detroit Times and Salt Lake Telegram. Supplemental material from the September 1 and 5, 1928 issues of the Detroit Free Press.