Death of a Bootlegger

A bitter March wind was blowing in from the icy Detroit River through the gaps between the warehouses on Third Avenue as Jake Trager emerged from the Hastings Street blind pig. It was early afternoon, but the sun was already sitting low in the west, visible as a bright white ball through the gray clouds that sat in a seemingly eternal vigil over the city. Michigan was on the edge of the Eastern Time zone and evening came early during the winter months.
A handsome, thirty-something New York native, Jake had been in Detroit for several years now, but he had never gotten used to the endless string of colorless days that marked winter in Michigan. It seemed that sometime around late October when the rains came the blue skies headed south with the birds only to return in May. The sun’s periodic appearances over the long winter were in sharp contrast to the frigid temperatures.
The neighborhood didn’t offset the drabness of the weather, either. This was one of the more industrial areas of a city that was the epitome of the factory town. As far as the eye could see the only variation to the hues of gray were the occasional white piles of nearly melted snow and the brown patina from the warehouses which lined both sides of Hastings Street, one of the thousands of cobblestone thoroughfares in Detroit.
In the distance, Jake could hear the occasional bell from a freighter making the trip up the mile-wide Detroit River, which separated the city, Michigan and the United States from Ontario, Canada. The ships had just recently started navigate the waterway. The river froze over in the winter, making the busy waterway impassable from November to March. Coast Guard icebreakers started chopping up the main channel a few weeks before so the iron ore freighters could once again move through the river into Lake Erie.
Despite the best efforts of the icebreakers, winter refused to release its grip on the river and forced the Coast Guard to reopen the same stretches repeatedly. The return of spring meant many things to Jake, not the least of which was the need to find himself a reliable boat to make the trek across the river to meet his friends in Windsor. It had been several weeks since he had dared make the trip across the ice in his Stevens, for several of his cronies had already reported cracks in the ice that made driving across the river even more dangerous than usual. Since the Coast Guard cutters had moved through, Jake had been relying on American made product to supply his customers, but they were clamoring for the better Canadian stock and he risked losing his clientele unless he could find some way of getting across to Ontario. The cutters served two purposes: first, to open the shipping channel for the big boats, and second to keep an eye out for bootleggers brazen enough to brave the early spring chill in their mad dash across the river to Canada.
Jake had come west shortly after the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law in 1919, making the United States, on the surface at least, a dry nation. Jake was a smart man and before Prohibition became the law of the land he had already made contacts in Michigan with people on both sides of the law who were interested in continuing to ensure that the Detroit workingman had access to booze. Michigan had already experimented with Prohibition in the mid-teens, outlawing the sale and manufacture of liquor so that Henry Ford and the other entrepreneurs could be assured of a sober workforce. The state’s version of the Volstead Act had been declared unconstitutional, but not before hundreds of bootleggers like Jake Trager honed their skills in distilling or importing illegal booze. When the rest of the nation went dry shortly afterward, rumrunners like Jake Trager were ready for business.
Along with his brother, Willie, and friends Benny Glass and Louis “The Wop” Ricciardi, Jake founded the Saw Still Gang, which operated near Detroit’s Eastern Market, supplying booze to private citizens, blind pigs, restaurants and other bootleggers in a wholesale market. Jake had quite a reputation among bootleggers in Detroit, which, thanks to its ideal location, controlled the lion’s share of the illicit booze importation market in the United States. He worked alongside the Oakland Sugar House Gang, arguably the city’s most powerful gang in 1923, and the bloodthirsty and ruthless Purple Gang, which was in the early 20s emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the nation’s underworld.
The Purples, led by the Bernstein brothers, were still in a transition phase, no longer pulling the strong-arm punk rackets, but not yet commanding the fear and respect which they would earn during Detroit’s bloody Cleaners and Dyers War a few years hence. The Purple Gang, under the direction of the leaders of the Oakland Sugar House Gang, had developed a habit of knowing just when and where the next shipment of booze was coming across the river and showing up armed to the teeth to hijack the hooch. This strategy of robbing and silencing other bootleggers helped them gain a great deal of power without coming to the attention of either the federal revenue agents or the Detroit police. After all, no bootlegger was going to complain to the law about a lost batch.
Prohibition had been very good to Jake and the rest of the Saw Still Gang. He had developed a national reputation and remained close to his East Coast friends, Salvatore Lucania, a.k.a. Charlie Luciano, Irving “Waxey” Gordon and Meyer Lansky. The heart of the “Bugs and Meyer Mob,” Lansky, Luciano, Benny Siegel and Francesco Castiglia — who would later come to run the New York underworld using the name Frank Costello – were easily a dozen years younger than Jake Trager, but their youth was no impediment. The Bugs and Meyer crew rivaled any of the more experienced New York criminal enterprises, thanks to the backing of Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein. Visiting the Big Apple on a regular basis for “business” meetings, Jake would return to the old Willett and Rivington neighborhood like a conquering war hero, driving into Little Italy in his Stevens-Dureya touring car, which marked him as a powerful man to the immigrant residents.
From everywhere, youngsters would flock to the Stevens with its bright brass running lamps and dual spare tires. For a penny or two, Jake would hire a couple of youths to guard the car against the curious onlookers who might be interested in a souvenir while he sat inside a Willett Street pool hall hammering out important matters with his New York friends.
One of Jake’s regular car guards was a young tough who would later adopt the name Johnny Spinoza. Johnny had attended P.S. 34 with Luciano, Siegel, Lansky and Costello, although the Bugs and Meyer crew was several grades ahead of him. More importantly, Johnny was Jake Trager’s nephew and was following his uncle’s example. Like the Bugs and Meyer gang, Johnny and his friends got their start in crime almost as a defense mechanism against the severe poverty and brutality that marked Little Italy and its environs in the early 20th century.
Jake’s sister – Johnny’s mother – was married to another important New York racketeer, Anthony Carfano, who was known on the street as Little Augie Pisano. Little Augie was tight with Luciano and Vito Genovese, serving as a capo regime in Genovese’s organization for many years. Known to the public and the police by his street name, Carfano preferred to be called “Gus” by his friends and family. Carfano was also close to Johnny Torrio, the one-time boss of Chicago, whose protégé, Al Capone, was now arguably the most famous mobster in the United States. In fact, Jake’s presence in Detroit was partly because of Capone’s position in the Windy City.
Standing on the corner of Hastings and Wilkins streets in Detroit, Jake was joined by his brother and Benny Glass. The three men stood some distance apart from each other, not talking, their collars pulled up and their wide-brimmed hats pulled low against the cold wind. Growing out of the corner of his mouth, Benny’s ever-present nickel cigar gave off a cloud of smoke that hovered around his head and somewhat obscured his face. Jake gave Willie a stare that matched the icy temperature. Willie was a good man, but he had a weakness that Jake couldn’t understand and for which Jake had recently lost patience. Willie liked to bet; he would place a wager on almost anything, which in and of itself wasn’t so much of an issue. The problem was that Willie couldn’t pick the winner in a two-horse match race, and he tended to bet money he didn’t have. Willie liked to live large, and he spent his portion of the Saw Still profits faster than Jake, the group’s treasurer, could pass them out.
In recent months, Jake had bailed out Willie more times than he cared remember and it was starting to take its toll on their relationship. They were brothers, and Jake had always promised to look out for his younger sibling, but Willie didn’t seem to care that he was taking advantage of his brother’s filial concern. More than once Jake had told Willie he wasn’t going to continue to cover his bets, and yet Willie would come back within days with another lame excuse. Now, the handbook operators weren’t even bothering to go to Willie to collect. They were going straight to Jake. No threats from Jake could make the Italian bookies stop taking his brother’s wagers.
Something would have to break, Jake thought to himself. The street was nearly deserted. It was too cold for the children of the tenement to be playing outside and the workingmen had not yet finished their labors. Vendors from the Eastern Market had already packed up for the day and only a few pushcarts remained. There were a number of automobiles around, mostly Fords and Dodges, with the occasional Hudson. One of the Dodge cars sat at the corner, its large-block engine idling roughly. Curtains covered the back windows, and no one except Jake could see who was seated behind the driver.
As Jake and Benny approached the car, the rear passenger’s side window was rolled down and the curtain pulled back slightly. Witnesses would tell police later that Jake and the passenger exchanged words in low voices – it did not appear the two men were arguing – before several shots exploded from the Dodge and Jake fell to the cold, wet cement, his head making a loud cracking sound as Jake’s lifeless body collapsed.
Living in a world of violence, Jake Trager would not normally have been gunned down under the conditions he found himself in. There is a very good possibility that Jake was double-crossed and killed by members of his own gang. Nevertheless, all it takes is one moment of carelessness for a bootlegger to drop his guard and pay the ultimate cost. Newspapers reported at the time that Jake, accompanied by Benny Glass, approached a car owned by Louis Ricciardi, had a brief conversation with the occupant (who was never fully identified) and fell under a hail of lead. His brother was standing nearby, although he was unable (or unwilling) to intervene.
There are two theories about why Jake Trager died on that cold Detroit street corner. The first is that he was rubbed out because he refused to cover one of his brother’s gambling debts and that Willie had agreed with the men who held his markers to turn over the Saw Still operation to them. Of course, the only thing standing in the way was Jake Trager. However, there is scant evidence to support this theory, and those who knew Jake and Willie refuse to believe one brother would sell out another like that.
The second, more credible, theory is that Jake was killed to send a message to his New York friends. Jake had been sent to Detroit specifically at the request of Al Capone, who was operating in Chicago, and Johnny Torrio, who had moved back east. In the Byzantine relationships between mobsters, it is possible to connect Jake Trager, Capone, Torrio, Luciano, Carfano, Ciro Terranova and of course the Bugs and Meyer mob. Luciano, Carfano and Terranova were all the forefathers of the Genovese family and as such were very tight. Capone and Terranova were cousins. Trager and Carfano were brothers-in-law.
Detroit was the lynchpin to controlling a nationwide bootlegging network. Capone needed a steady supply of Canadian booze and Jake Trager was tough enough to move into the motor city and take control. Many had tried to conquer Detroit since the beginning of Prohibition, but no one had really succeeded. Egan’s Rats, the St. Louis mob, had tried and had been rebuffed, the Purples had yet to rise to power, and the Licavolis and other Italians had not organized to the extent that they were powerful enough to dominate the entire city. Detroit was ripe for the picking by the New York Syndicate and Jake Trager was their point man in the city. That’s why he had to die. Jake’s murder made the front page of two of Detroit’s three daily newspapers, and his photograph was run in the Detroit Times. The Times reported that police from the city’s “Italian Squad” were looking for Ricciardi, who reported his car – identified as the murder vehicle – stolen. Ricciardi was later tracked down and arrested in Newark, New Jersey, but no further newspaper articles address any justice being done in Jake’s death. Further investigation of Jake Trager revealed one interesting fact: on his death certificate, Trager’s mother’s maiden name was Ricciardi. This begs the question of what relationship Trager and Ricciardi shared – if any. Were they brothers? Cousins? Louis the Wop disappeared into history and efforts to track him down have not met with success.
Jake Trager’s death soon faded from the public eye and the story of his violent end was replaced by another senseless crime on the front pages of the Detroit papers. After all, the city averaged almost one murder a day that year.