Ypsilanti’s most despicable son, Harry Bennett

In advance of the release of The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War, which is set to hit bookstores on Tuesday, Salon.com is running a salacious excerpt on the questionable activities of Ford enforcer, and notorious Ypsilanti resident, Harry Bennett. Here’s a taste.

bennett2Henry 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 doing any work.

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

Harry Bennett 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…


[If you’d like to know more about Bennet’s presence in Ypsilanti, check out our discussion about his “castle” on the Huron.]

This entry was posted in History, Ypsilanti and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. XXX
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    How many men were likely killed at The Castle?

  2. John Galt
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    The last sentence says it all. Productivity was up.

    And we won the war.

    Bennett’s a patriot.

  3. K2
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Follow the link and read the part about Ford and FDR meeting. Ford tells people afterward that FDR began by laying out his ancestry to the infamous anti Semite in hopes of proving that he had no Jewish ancestors.

  4. Meta
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Henry Ford II on firing Bennett: “I went to him with my guard up. I was sure he was going to blow my head off. Well, now Harry is back on the streets were he started.”


  5. alan2102
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink


    God Bless Murrica!

    If old Harry were alive today, I’m sure he would have heartily approved.

  6. Kram
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Bennett kept lions and tigers on his property. I don’t think it would be at all unreasonable, given what we know about the man, to assume that these animals, on occasion, were fed people who had run afoul of Ford. The location of the enclosures should be easy enough to find, and there could well still be human bones on the site. I suspect that a UM archeology class would love the opportunity to look around too.

  7. Elliott
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    two words. cadaver dog.


  8. Ben
    Posted June 22, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    If anyone is interested in this book, I’m ordering it for the library!

  9. JMA
    Posted May 31, 2020 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    After learning about Henry Ford’s hiring of Bennett, I came to the conclusion that Ford was essentially a power crazed control freak. Who was a amazing inventor and business man. Unfortunately the way he ran his business by planting fear in his employees hearts through Bennett and his thugs is wrong. A terrible boss to have.

5 Trackbacks

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  3. By The Saturday Six Pack with Mark Maynard: episode two on January 25, 2015 at 11:07 pm

    […] we really jumped around. One minute, we’d be talking about the Henry Ford’s enforcer Harry Bennett, and the next we’d be talking about the life and times of escaped slave turned university […]

  4. By Harry Bennett, the killer as artist on February 1, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    […] that they’d likely be set-up like questions. Like, “Did you know that Ford enforcer Harry Bennett, when he stopped plotting the murders of labor organizers at his Ypsilanti castle, retired to […]

  5. […] now and again, I get a call about Ford enforcer Harry Bennett. Not too long ago, as you might remember, a man contacted me from Palm Springs, where Bennett […]

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