Henry Ford's reign of terror: Greed and murder in Depression-era Detroit

At the height of his power, Henry Ford created a secret army of criminals to rule over his burgeoning empire

Published June 1, 2014 8:00PM (EDT)

Henry Ford     (Wikimedia/Jeffrey White Studios)
Henry Ford (Wikimedia/Jeffrey White Studios)

Excerpted from “The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War”

Henry Ford was relaxing in a New York hotel room one day when he met a man named Harry Bennett. He was a little figure — five-foot-seven, 145 pounds, with hard blue eyes, receding brown hair, and a bulldog jaw. The New York Times columnist Arthur Brisbane introduced the two. Bennett was from Ann Arbor, Michigan, not far from where Henry lived. The twenty-four-year-old was just out of the navy, where he had served as a deep-sea diver and had boxed under the name “Sailor Reese.”

Henry took a liking to Bennett. The little man had sly eyes that were calculating and fearless and a picaresque past that made him sound like a character out of a gritty detective novel. Every scar on his face had a story. Harry Bennett had learned to brawl as a kid from his father. In fact, his father had been killed in a barroom fight.

“I could use a man like you at the Rouge,” Henry said. “Can you shoot?”

“Sure I can,” said Bennett.

The men at the Rouge were “a pretty tough lot,” Henry said. “I haven’t got any policemen out there.”

Soon after, Henry hurled Bennett into the iron jungle. “There may be a lot of people over there who want to fire you,” he told Bennett, “but don’t pay any attention to them. I’m the only one who can fire you. Remember, you’re working for me.”

Born in 1892, Bennett was a year older than Henry's son Edsel. In his basement office in the Rouge, he kept a small desk, a fireplace, and a couch. He hung a picture of his daughter on the wall. Other than that, the office was spare. It had two doors, one in front of him controlled by a button under his desk, and another secret door behind him so that Henry could come and go without being noticed. Bennett hung a target in his office for .32 caliber target pistols. He and his boss Henry sat for hours firing away. According to Bennett, “Mr. Ford was a dead shot.”

Each morning Bennett dressed in a suit, his trademark bow tie (a hanging tie could be grabbed and used in a fight), a fedora, and a holster in which he packed a handgun at all times. He picked up Henry at his Fair Lane estate and took him to work. Whatever Henry needed done, Bennett was there for the doing. The fact that he couldn’t change the oil of an automobile stirred confusion among the ranks. When asked what his job was, Bennett answered, “I am Mr. Ford’s personal man.” And then: “If Mr. Ford told me to blacken out the sun tomorrow, I might have trouble fixing it. But you’d see a hundred thousand sons-of-bitches coming through the Rouge gates in the morning, all wearing dark glasses.”

Henry paid Bennett “peanuts for a salary,” according to the ex-navy man. But he had access to a safe full of cash for special expenses. He moved into a winged Gothic home owned by Henry on the Huron River in nearby Ypsilanti, where he threw wild parties and showed pornographic films with titles like "The Casting Director" and "A Stiff Game." He called his home “The Castle.”

In the 1920s, Bennett began to amass a private security force called the Service Department—a group of ex-boxers and ballplayers, cons, bad cops kicked off the force, and characters from Detroit’s La Cosa Nostra, which during Prohibition ran a thriving booze trade, smuggling liquor over the Detroit River from Canada. Service Department men were noticeable for their size, rough language, and cauliflower ears, and for the fact that they hung around without do- ing any work.

“They’re a lot of tough bastards,” Bennett described his burgeoning Gestapo, “but every one of them is a goddamn gentleman.”

By the end of the 1920s, Bennett had become Henry Ford’s closest confidant. When asked by reporters one day who the greatest man in the world was, Henry smiled and pointed at the bow-tied brute. With Henry’s power behind him, Bennett’s star skyrocketed. Suddenly, if a reporter wanted to talk to someone at Ford Motor Company, he had to talk to Harry Bennett first. Nothing got done without Bennett’s approval.

“You couldn’t get a message to anybody without him seeing,” Ford engineer Laurence Sheldrick said of Bennett. “One could not hire, fire, or transfer a man. I could not send a man on a trip. I could not make a long-distance telephone call. I could not send a telegram if he did not wish me to do so. Regardless of where you were, he knew it. He had a spy system that was that thorough.”

Edsel regarded Bennett as a curiosity at first. He saw plenty of Harry and his “Service Men,” as his father put Bennett in charge of all security detail. For Edsel, kidnapping threats were routine, for himself and his four kids. “I can replace factories, but not grandchildren,” Henry said. Edsel had his own bodyguards. Curiously, however, he began to notice that he was being followed. When he played golf, he saw men in the woods in suits and fedoras, watching him. When his eldest son Henry II drove his Lincoln Zephyr (he was at Yale now), he saw cars trailing him in his rearview.

The more Edsel learned about Harry Bennett, the more he realized the kind of things of which the Little Man in Henry’s Basement was capable. Once, when a hoodlum threatened Henry II, Bennett said he would handle it. “Later on,” remembered Edsel’s youngest, William, “the guy was found floating face down in the river.”

An astute political creature, Edsel began to see Bennett as a rival for his father’s affections. Edsel was an only child, but suddenly there were two sons in the Ford empire.

The stock market crash of 1929 fomented chaos in Detroit. No city was hit as hard with such immediacy in the first years of the Great Depression. From Black Tuesday on, America stopped buying cars. For three years, economists in Washington struggled for control over the monetary system. But in the end, Detroit’s banks failed first, sending the ailing economy off a cliff in 1933.

In February, spurred by the insolvency of Detroit’s banks, Michigan governor William Comstock declared a bank holiday, closing the doors to customers desperate to pull out their cash. Indiana’s banks followed on February 23, Maryland’s on the 25th, Arkansas’s on the 27th, and Ohio’s on the 28th. Banks in Alabama, Arizona, California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, and Oregon all locked their doors within the next week.

By this time, the auto industry had laid off more than half its workers. Detroit parking lots turned into shantytowns. Any business open all night became a homeless shelter. The jobless rate hit 40 percent by the time the banks closed; 125,000 Detroit families had no financial relief whatsoever.

When reporters sought Henry out at Ford offices, they found that his dark alter ego had taken complete control. Henry called the Depression “a good thing, generally.”

“Let them fail,” Henry said on one occasion. “Let everybody fail! I made my fortune when I had nothing to start with, by myself and my own ideas. Let other people do the same.”

The New York Times sent Anne O’Hare McCormick, one of the first powerful female journalists, to interview Henry. In a glass-walled office, he fidgeted for two hours. “Henry Ford is the only American name more potent internationally than that of a movie star,” she wrote. “To the world at large, his is the image in which we live and move.

“Something has happened to Ford,” she concluded, “and perhaps through him to the America which he represents.”

One reporter called Henry “the Mussolini of Detroit.”

Henry saved his most sour vitriol for the new president, Franklin Roosevelt. In a fury of activity during Roosevelt’s first one hundred days in the White House, he introduced his National Industrial Recovery Act, which dictated rules for businesses to function in a paralyzed economy. Henry went on the attack. He told reporters that Roosevelt was a leader “whose particular genius is to try to run other people’s businesses.” The government, Henry said, “has not any too rosy a record running itself so far.”

When the President invited Henry to the White House in an attempt to mend fences, Henry refused to meet him.

“If Henry Ford would quit being a damn fool about this matter and call me on the telephone,” Roosevelt told a friend during his first term, “I would be glad to talk to him.”

Henry finally agreed to meet Roosevelt on April 27, 1938. The meeting made the cover of Newsweek. Walking out of the White House afterward, Henry said, “Well, he took up the first five minutes telling me about his ancestry.” Henry had no idea why, “unless Roosevelt wanted to prove he had no Jewish blood.”

Edsel faced the bank crisis with optimism: not long after Black Tuesday, he gave everyone a raise. “Ford Motor Company employees of every grade began working under an increase wage scale Monday,” he announced, his statement making the front page of the New York Times.

But as the nation sank deeper into despair, Edsel fell into its grip. He was financially leveraged and had to ask his father for help bailing out a Detroit bank in which he was heavily invested.

Even worse, his dreams of a future as an aviation pioneer crashed to the ground, literally. The Fords had allowed the US military to experiment with a Ford Tri-Motor to see if the airplane could carry the weight of bombs. While in flight, one of the plane’s wings sheared off, and the fuselage became a missile, exploding on impact and killing its two pilots. Soon after, Edsel was in the Engineering Laboratory working over a new airplane design when his father entered the room. He showed the new plane to Henry.

“That’s no good,” Henry said. “No, don’t do that.”

When Edsel watched his father walk out of the room that day, he saw his defining ambitions vanish. Henry was sickened by the death of the pilots, by the idea of Ford airplanes being used for military purposes, and perhaps by the sales charts too. The peak year for the aviation venture was 1929, when Ford sold ninety-four airplanes. By 1932, that number shrank to four. Henry ended the company’s aviation venture. He turned Ford Airport into a motorcar test track.

“Edsel Ford is more depressed than I’ve ever seen him,” a Ford friend wrote in his diary in 1933.

Harry Bennett, however, found opportunity in the Depression. As head of personnel, Bennett ruled the Rouge. People were desperate for work. If a man wanted a job—well, then, maybe he’d have to do somebody a favor. Maybe he’d have to vote a certain way in an election. Maybe he would have to wax one of Harry Bennett’s yachts, if he didn’t want to get his teeth knocked out. By 1937, Bennett had succeeded in building the Service Department into what H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury magazine called “the most powerful private police force in the world.”

“There are about eight hundred underworld characters in the Ford Service Department,” labor leader Benjamin Stolberg said. “They are the Storm Troops. They make no pretense of working, but are merely ‘keeping order’ in the plant community through terror.”

Among the Service Men employed by Bennett: Norman Selby, an ex-pugilist who fought as “Kid McCoy,” married ten times, paroled to Bennett after serving twenty years for murdering his sweetheart. Joseph “Legs” Laman, admitted serial kidnapper, nicknamed for his ability to evade the law on foot. Joe Adonis, a mobster called by the New York Post “a gang punk” and “dope king.” Sicilian mob boss Chester LaMare, the “Al Capone of Detroit,” who controlled Detroit’s waterfront during Prohibition. Former journeyman pugilist Elmer “One Round” Hogan, Sicilian gangster Joe Tocco, Jack Dempsey’s former manager Leonard Saks. . . .

Under constant intimidation by Bennett’s Service Men —the “Ford Terror”—workers at the Rouge suffered nervous breakdowns and an anxiety-induced ailment known as “the Ford stomach.” “I think it was just fear that caused this tension in the company,” recalled engineer Roscoe Smith. “A lot of people, when [Bennett’s men] came around and started taking them apart, just couldn’t take it. They couldn’t stand the pressure.”

Meanwhile, the speed of the assembly line increased.

“Go like hell,” was the call of the foremen. “If you’re gonna get that raise, you gotta increase production.”

Once the best place to work in the country, Ford was becoming the worst. “Henry had a way of getting his work done through fear,” said Jack Davis, a longtime Ford sales executive. “The loyalty you had, you had because of Edsel. You hoped and prayed for the day when Edsel could be in charge.”

As Edsel lost control of the company, he found solace in his own role as a father. There were football games at Gaukler Pointe and sailing trips on the lake. Though he indulged his four kids and shielded them from the Ford Terror, his oldest, Henry II, saw the worry lines deepen into his father’s face. The split between Henry and Edsel was, in the words of one of Henry II’s schoolmates, “the dirty little secret of the Ford family.”

Edsel knew that Henry II was next in line. The young man would soon be the center of this drama. Edsel took an active role in grooming Henry II, in his education at Yale and his future at the Rouge. He made sure that Henry II had a relationship with his grandfather.

Then, one day, Edsel was on a train from Maine to Detroit when he was overcome by a stabbing pain in his gut. He had to be removed from the train and taken to a hospital. The next day he told reporters that he was “all right,” that the ailment was “not serious.” But it was serious. The malignancy Edsel would battle for the rest of his days had struck for the first time. Locked in a power struggle with Bennett and his father, he began to suffer vomiting episodes at work, sometimes retreating to the private suite connected to his office, where his secretary brought him glasses of milk and crackers.

Clara Ford asked Sorensen to come to Fair Lane and explain what was happening to her son. What was happening between Henry and Edsel?

“Who is this man Bennett,” she asked Sorensen, “who has so much control over my husband and is ruining my son’s health?”

Sorensen was one of the hardest men in Detroit. He walked away in tears.

The empire had split into rivaling factions: Henry and Bennett on one side, Edsel on the other. Cast Iron Charlie Sorensen—who ran the production day to day—lived in the gray area between. The two factions rivaled like tectonic plates in a fault line. It was clear that something drastic was about to occur. And then one day it did.

Excerpted from “The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War” by A.J Baime. Copyright © 2014 by Albert Baime. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

By A.J. Baime


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