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Detroit Mob Warfare In My Historical Novels, by DE Johnson

Detroit has been overshadowed by New York and Chicago when it comes to organized crime, but it has plenty of history of its own. One of the reasons I chose the time period I did for my series (1910 – 1913) was that it coincided with the city’s first mob war.

Vito Adamo was a Sicilian immigrant who came to America around 1900. He was a grocer in a little town called Ford City, which is now a part of Wyandotte, in the general area described by most Detroiters as “downriver”. He was, of course, more than a grocer, but I mention it because he had some competition across the street – the Gianolla brothers, who opened a grocery a few years after he did.

Vito and his brother, Salvatore, had systematically gained control over the Sicilian and Italian crime of the time, both in Ford City, which had a large Italian population, and in Detroit’s Little Italy. That crime included the Black Hand (the protection racket), illegal immigration (Canada is right across the river from the city), importation of duty-free goods (the U.S. was very protectionist at the time, and duties could as much as double the sale prices of foreign goods), and, of course, the “numbers”, or Italian lottery. It was beer sales, however, that started things with the Gianollas.

The Adamos had a stranglehold on beer sales in the area they controlled, which was virtually all the territory available to a Sicilian gang at the time. Tony Gianolla saw opportunity and went to the Adamo’s customers with a significant cut in beer prices. When faced with the lost business, Vito Adamo decided to match the prices and throw in ice, a necessity at the time. The Gianollas took umbrage at this and beat up a few delivery drivers. This led to retaliation by the Adamos and, finally, to a shotgun war on the streets of Detroit.

Prior to this, the Adamos were unknown to the Detroit police, and the Gianollas had only recently become suspects in the gruesome murder of a former associate. The Ford City police had raided the Gianolla’s store and confiscated about $2,000 in illegal olive oil ($2,000 was about a year-and-a-half’s wages for a laborer in 1913 – a lot of money). Tony Gianolla suspected a man named Sam Buendo of ratting them out to the police. Buendo’s mutilated and burned body was found shortly thereafter in a nearby field.

As the war between the gangs ramped up, the police were still unclear as to the identity of the factions. The close-range shotgun executions, which was really what these murders amounted to, occurred throughout 1913, and were plastered across the front page of the Detroit newspapers for the better part of a year. Both sides lost soldiers until November, when members of the Gianolla gang caught Vito and Salvatore Adamo unawares and gunned them down. The remaining members of the Adamo gang scattered to the wind, and the Gianollas became the bosses – until they were brutally murdered six years later by an associate named John Vitale, who was next in line to run things.

An interesting side note is that after Vito Adamo was killed, the police searched his home and found a notebook with pages full of Italian writing and drawings of murder scenes, such as stilettos plunging into men’s backs. The newspapers reported that this might be the break the police had been looking for: a detailed description of the events of the war as well as the players involved. When they had it translated, they found that Vito Adamo was an aspiring author. The notebook was his attempt at a dime novel and was the story of a poor Sicilian boy who resorted to murder only as revenge when persecuted beyond all reason.

Perhaps Vito Adamo felt that he was that boy. History remembers him differently.


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