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James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: Blue blood

December 15, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the third instalment in Jason’s series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin.

Milwaukee citizens grew tired of the spoils system maintaining their police department. A delegation was sent to Madison to demand that a state law be passed to remove politics from the police and fire departments.  Accordingly, the state legislature established the police and fire commission, a four-person non-partisan body charged with approving all appointments to Milwaukee’s police and fire departments and keeping political influence out. As one of its first directives, the commission established an unprecedented lifetime tenure for its police chiefs.

The first Milwaukee Police Chief to serve under this system was John T. Janssen, who would become famous for ushering in Milwaukee’s professional code of conduct.  Janssen became chief in 1888 at age 34, and remained in the position for an astonishing 33 years. A favorite slogan that Janssen used throughout his long MPD career was “crime on Sunday, Waupun [Wisconsin’s state prison] on Monday.” (It is worth noting here that James Ellroy has used an eerily similar slogan to describe Los Angeles:  “L.A.–come on vacation, go home on probation!”) As Milwaukee native and police historian George Kelling explains it, prior to the arrival of Janssen, Milwaukee and its police were so corrupt, that Chicagoans by the trainload would regularly travel to Milwaukee for gambling, prostitution and murder, all with minimal police interference.

john janssen

Milwaukee Police Chief John T. Janssen

It would be impossible to tell the story of Milwaukee’s police without mentioning the Cream City’s dynamic mafia presence. According to native Wisconsin chronicler Gavin Schmitt, the origins of the Milwaukee mafia are unclear, primarily because the subject has not been explored as exhaustively as the Chicago or New York mobs. Also, because the Milwaukee mafia was unaffiliated with their New York or Chicago counterparts, the Milwaukee mafia’s earliest leaders were likely already involved in criminal activities while living in Sicily.

In a March, 2015 interview with Milwaukee Public Radio, Schmitt said “If there’s one thing the mafia loves to do, its prey on innocent people who need all the support they can, so [the impoverished, dilapidated, post-fire Third Ward] was prime picking ground for them.”

Milwaukee’s first mob boss was Vito Guardelebene, an immigrant from Sicily who would later be regarded as “King of the Third Ward”.  Schmitt does not mince words when describing Guardelebene’s influence:  “If you wanted to do anything in the Third Ward—if you wanted to get a job, if you wanted to get a bank loan, you had to go through him, because he had the connections to make it happen.”

vito guardelebene on left.v1

Rare Photo of Milwaukee Mob Boss Vito Guardelebene (on left)

Along with counterfeiting, garbage collection was one of the Milwaukee mob’s primary undertakings. The Cream City’s garbage industry was founded in the early 1900s, around the same time as the city’s massive Italian influx. Prior to this, according to Schmitt, people would drive out of the city with their garbage and burn it. The earliest garbage collectors were all immigrants, and all were hired by mobsters who controlled the garbage collection. As Schmitt describes it, the hiring racket the mob constructed insured a steady stream of desperate dependents… “[The mob] hired the haulers, they hired the dump managers… anybody who wanted that type of job, which was […] everybody arriving off the boat at that point, had to go through Vito Guardelebene.”

The July, 1897 murder of teamster James Soukop instigated massive distrust of Italians among non-Italians, and widened the already cavernous divide between Sicilians and mainland Italians.  As Schmitt recounts, one Italian businessman told the Milwaukee Journal that the Sicilians were “Dagoes” [an insulting slur for someone of Italian descent], and “not real Italians.” As the businessman explained it, “I am not proud of the people in this country who are supposed […] to be representatives of Italy.  Sicilians have never become loyal subjects of Italy.  They were born of a race of cut-throats and brigands who thrive only on crime and live in a condition of squalor and degradation.  Brigandage [robbery] still prevails to a large extent on the island, especially under that large-scale organization known as the mafia…  The Sicilians in [Milwaukee] are […] treacherous and vindictive.”

The early years of the Italian Third Ward were marred by countless murders, traced to a number of alleged criminal societies. One such society known as the Black Hand, were famous for taunting their extortion victims with multiple letters threatening the destruction of homes and families if their demands weren’t met. “These murders are too numerous and of easy commission, and we will do everything in our power to bring the criminals to justice,” Captain John Sullivan said after a particularly bloody 1911-1912.

As a possible solution, an anonymous Italian Third Warder told the Milwaukee Sentinel that the police department should hire more Italian patrolmen, because the residents possessed a tremendous disgust of authority.  “The average foreigner is ignorant of the laws of the United States […] and there exists a prejudice that does not disappear in the first generation.”

Chief Janssen in turn would echo the Milwaukee Sentinel in expressing his own wish that his police force had more Italians. “There is not an Italian in Milwaukee […] with the nerve or desire to accept the best position in the Milwaukee Police Department.”

Janssen claimed that for a decade he offered the job to countless Italians, and was always met with refusal. Janssen said the reason for such persistent eschewal was that prospective Italian officers feared they would be murdered if they joined the department.

As reported in the Milwaukee Journal, the Cream City’s citizens universally agreed that the department should still hire an Italian detective.  As attorney Hugo Trost implored, “Milwaukee needs Italian detectives… [more murders] will eventually result if something is not done.”  Still, as Schmitt has grimly noted, no Italian joined the Milwaukee Police Department until 1928.

State legislation drafted in 1911 would give Milwaukee’s police chiefs full authority to establish police policies, rules and regulations, a virtual barrier between police departments and elected officials.  According to Kelling, this distinguished Milwaukee on a national scale, as no other police department, and no other police chief enjoyed such unrivaled independence.  Once appointed, a Milwaukee chief was in a monarchical position to completely dictate police priorities, policies, rules and regulations, all with lifetime tenure, and accountability to no one.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return …

 

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