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James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: Bullets, blood and beer

January 25, 2020

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

Prohibition, which began on July 1st, 1919 proved especially difficult for Milwaukee.

Some of the Cream City’s breweries preceded the 1920 passage of the Volstead Act by as much as 80 years. Most breweries survived the drought by producing soda water, syrups and heavily diluted alcoholic concoctions, known as “near beers.”  Mainstays like Schlitz and Pabst even took on entirely new roles, manufacturing chocolate and processed cheese respectively.  In 1918, Milwaukee had one tavern to every 230 residents, and all were heavily attended.

The Wisconsin state legislature would go on to pass the Severson Act, mandating that Wisconsin follow the Volstead Act, which itself clarified what alcohols would be considered illegal and what punishments would be assigned for violating the new law.

The proprietors of Milwaukee’s breweries lobbied the U.S. Congress to distinguish between hard liquor from beer, and saloons from the far more benign beer gardens.  Their efforts fell on deaf ears.

Federal Prohibition agents struggled to keep the Cream City dry, and Prohibition enforcement eventually lagged. It was thus relatively easy for Milwaukee’s citizens to find liquor by making the drinks themselves, or by frequenting one of the countless roadhouses on the outskirts of the city. While the Cream City’s wealthier residents frequented membership-only resorts on the outside of the city, for locals, the Third Ward became a popular location for bootlegging. Certain elite members of Milwaukee’s Italian Mafia, known as the Padroni, even established an intricate system involving young boys who were tasked with transporting alcohol from Lafayette, Indiana, to Milwaukee.

Federal agents would often do nothing until a public outcry against their lack of enforcement spurred them to action. As complaints piled up, the agents would carry out a highly public raid on several small producers and sellers. Also, the federal agents were constrained by brutally limited budgets. At one point in 1921, there was just one agent for the entire eastern district of Wisconsin.

Arrests were rare, and even when there were arrests, bootleggers never faced serious punishment.  In fact, some of the first bootleggers apprehended were sentenced to the city’s workhouse, where they formed a bootlegger’s row, which often held parties involving steaks and whiskey.

Most of Milwaukee vehemently opposed Prohibition and it’s not difficult to spot why:  In 1918, just one year before the 18th Amendment became law, Milwaukee’s nine breweries employed over six thousand workers, with an annual output of $35 million, quite an enormous sum at the time. The 18th Amendment threatened jobs and livelihood citywide, and The Milwaukee Sentinel even editorialized against its enforcement.

In March, 1920, the Milwaukee Common Council demanded that the American people be allowed to vote on whether the 18th Amendment, which banned the sale and consumption of alcohol across the U.S., should become law.  The council also suggested legalizing low-alcohol beers and wines.

prohibition final

Early Milwaukee Mob Boss Vito Guardalabene died on February 6, 1921 from systemic kidney inflammation at age 75. With Little Italy’s crime lord now gone, control of his empire passed to his sons Giovanni and Angelo.

Giovanni in particular hid his illicit activities behind a façade of legitimacy at the Monte Carlo night club, a popular destination during Prohibition known for its extensive liquor selection.  Among Milwaukee businesses who broke the law banning the sale of alcohol, Giovanni’s Monte Carlo was one of the most frequent violators.

As native Milwaukee chronicler Gavin Schmitt details it, federal prohibition agents conducted several high-profile raids on the club, but always failed to convince Wisconsin authorities to declare the Monte Carlo a public nuisance, which would’ve banned the establishment from operating.

Milwaukee Police Chief John Janssen resigned in May, 1921 following back to back stokes, ending one of the longest careers in Milwaukee Police history. Janssen would die three years later.

You could say Janssen entered retirement confident about the longevity of his police department, evident by the 22 years he spent grooming his successor, a man whose organizational implementations would bring the MPD national recognition.

Though Jacob Laubenheimer Jr. began his police career at age 19 as a clerk stenographer, police work was in his blood from the very beginning:  His father, Jacob Sr. was a Milwaukee police captain for decades, even serving as an Inspector of Police when junior was appointed chief in 1921.

jacob laubenheimer 2

Milwaukee Chief of Police Jacob Laubenheimer Jr

Under chief Janssen’s wise tutelage, the future Chief Laubenheimer served as a foot patrolman in some of Milwaukee’s roughest sections. Laubenheimer would eventually rise to detective before becoming the chief.

Giovanni Guardelebene was arrested in October, 1926 for liquor violations.  Prohibition agents from out of town had collected evidence against him the previous month.  Milwaukee’s own prohibition agents were so well known in the Italian community, that a “grapevine telegraph” was used to warn of a coming raid before agents even stepped in the door.

Giovanni’s brother Angelo was also arrested, and Milwaukee’s newspapers called the arrests the Feds’ opening salvo towards drying up the Third Ward, which was renowned for ignoring liquor laws.  The Milwaukee Journal even proudly proclaimed “The Third Ward is dead.”

Prohibition was a violent and painful era for Milwaukee, and Gavin Schmitt gives us an example of just how tumultuous times were:  Serbian immigrant Anthony Kuzmanovich had worked in the saloon business since arriving in Milwaukee in 1913. In June, 1927, Prohibition agents seized six half-barrels of spiked beer from Kuzmanovich’s Te Kay Café, and arrested Kuzmanovich and his bartender.  “Spiking” beer meant inserting a needle through a cork to add raw alcohol to otherwise non-alcoholic beverages.  Kuzmanovich refused to divulge his suppliers when interrogated, and was sentenced to 8 months in the workhouse.

Less than a month after his release, Kuzmanovich was gunned down with a sawed-off shotgun fired from a car window just a block from his home. Milwaukee detectives Frank Burns, John Zilavy, and Ray Carlson responded before handing the case over to Sheriff Charles Frank Schallitz, a former brewery manager who famously campaigned on the slogan “I don’t want any dry votes.”

Sherriff Schallitz felt Kuzmanovich’s death could be part of a “beer war” between Milwaukee and Chicago. The Milwaukee Police had even received anonymous letters regarding Kuzmanovich’s beer dealings and felt they originated from a business rival.

Though Kuzmanovich’s murder was investigated exhaustively, no one was ever arrested for it.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return …

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