Henry Ford’s Relationship With The Mafia: Godfather Of Auto Industry Used Mob Muscle

Automotive industry tycoon Henry Ford had deep ties to the mob and used his underworld connections to grow his Ford Motor Company to epic heights in the business world, as well as to protect himself and his family from his enemies. Born and raised in Detroit, Ford relied heavily on mafia thugs recruited from streets of Southeast Michigan to serve as his muscle in deterring the unionization of his employees. His FBI file states relationships in one way or another with Detroit gangland figures, Peter (Horseface Pete) Licavoli, Cesare (Big Chet) LaMare, Joseph (Joe the Baron) Tocco, Anthony (Tony Cars) D’Anna and Joe (Legs) Laman, among others.

Ford’s No. 2-in-charge Harry Bennett, a former professional prize fighter and sailor in the U.S. Navy, recruited the mob muscle for his Service Department, which for all intents and purposes acted as Ford Motor Co.’s enforcement unit. Bennett was small, but tenacious and had Ford’s complete trust and total sanctioning for his infamous strong-arm campaigns. Dr. James Buccellato’s newly-released book Early Organized Crime In Detroit – Vice, Corruption & The Rise Of The Mafia In Michigan details Bennett’s and Ford’s relationship with the underworld.

Licavoli, LaMare and Tocco were powerful bootlegging bosses in the Detroit area during Prohibition, with Licavoli leading the River Gang, LaMare leading the Westside Gang and Tocco leading the Downriver Gang out of Wyandotte, Michigan. D’Anna was a noted hoodlum in the Downriver wing of the Eastside Gang led by Giuseppe (Joe Uno) Zerilli and Vito (Black Bill) Tocco, Joe Tocco’s first cousin. Unlike the others, Legs Laman was a non-Italian mobster known more for his daring kidnapping ring than traditional racketeering.

As his power and profile in the public eye grew, Henry Ford greatly feared his or his family being targeted in a kidnap-for-ransom plot. Per Michigan State Police records, that fear led to Ford bringing shady and criminally-honed characters like Legs Laman, Horseface Pete Licavoli and Big Chet LaMare into his orbit, believing their presence would fend off would-be assailants.

Ford particularly enjoyed socializing with LaMare throughout the 1920s, according to some media reports of the time. LaMare, who headquartered his operations out of the Venice Café in Hamtramck and was arguably the second most powerful Italian Mafiosi of that era behind only the area’s undisputed Prohibition don Salvatore (Singing Sam) Catalanotte, held concessions contracts with the Ford Motor Co. for providing food trucks to their auto plants.

When Catalanotte died suddenly of pneumonia in 1930, LaMare and his Westside Gang fought Zerilli, Tocco and the Eastside Gang in the Crosstown Mob War for control of the rackets in the Motor City. The ego-maniacal LaMare didn’t fare well – he was slain inside his own mansion in February 1931 by his own men.

At the conclusion of the Crosstown Mob War, the victorious Zerilli and Tocco created the modern-day Detroit mafia, bringing all the region’s crime syndicates under one banner, known locally as the “Partnership” or the “Combination,” and ruling the crime family side by side for the next four decades. Joe Tocco and Pete Licavoli were named two of the family’s first capos. One’s tenure would be considerably longer and more successful than the other.

In 1938, the infamous “Baron” of the Downriver rackets, Joe Tocco, a confidant of Harry Bennett’s and one of his most frequently utilized goons for intimidation purposes, was gunned down in front of his home. He had been feuding with Tony D’Anna in a beef that slowly escalated over the years and boiled over in a dispute over Ford Motor Co. stock options. D’Anna was suspected by authorities of arranging the hit. Following Tocco’s murder, D’Anna replaced him as capo of the Detroit mob’s Downriver regime.

Like Joe Tocco, Bennett forged a close relationship with Tony D’Anna. As a result, D’Anna was the beneficiary of a number of Ford Motor Co. service contracts (D’Anna owned E&L Auto Transport which shipped Ford-made cars around the country). D’Anna’s FBI file states he ran gambling rackets inside Ford plants, a 24-hour den of vice and unique subculture all to its’ own and was the Detroit mafia’s representative to all the city’s car companies, earning him his nickname.

Harry Bennett (left) & Henry Ford
Harry Bennett (left) & Henry Ford

Bennett employed a group of Pete Licavoli’s crew members as an in-house “fire squad” at Ford manufacturing centers, using them for intimidation purposes and general leg breakers for workers that got out of line (the Licavoli-backed goons were actually employed as firemen because Ford plants were allowed by the state to employ their own private fire department). Licavoli and Bennett butted heads in 1937 and Licavoli ordered him murdered, per state police documentation.

On March 27, 1937, Bennett’s car was ran off the road by Licavoli henchmen. Legend has it that Bennett reached

out to New York mob figure Joe Adonis to arrange a sitdown with Licavoli so the beef could be squashed and the murder contract removed from his head. Adonis had business interests with Ford Motor Co. on the east coast.

The year before that in 1936, Bennett made headlines by brokering the surrender of wanted Detroit mobster Leonard (Black Leo) Cellura after Cellura went on the run for six years dodging a murder indictment. Cellura was a top bootlegger during Prohibition aligned with the Westside Gang.

After Henry Ford died in 1947, Bennett was forced out of the Ford Motor Co. Bennett and Ford’s son battled for power and successorship in the monolithic auto empire in the years preceding Ford’s passing, with Ford himself reportedly actually backing Bennett instead of his own flesh and blood. However, once Ford died, Bennett was pushed out of the picture, retiring to California. Bennett died peacefully in 1979.

D’Anna and Licavoli lived long lives, too, each dying in 1984 of natural causes. Licavoli moved to Arizona in the 1950s, overseeing his rackets in Detroit via proxies like former fellow River Gangers, Matthew (Mike the Enforcer) Rubino and Joseph (Joe Misery) Moceri. He climbed to the position of syndicate underboss in the early 1970s, although the promotion was more ceremonial in nature than anything. D’Anna never rose above captain status.