Harry Bennett, the killer as artist

I don’t know when we’ll actually get started with it, but local historian Matt Siegfried and I are talking about producing a weekly “Ypsi History Minute” for the Saturday radio program. We’re still working out what these may look like in their finished form, but I’m imaging 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 Southern California, near Palm Springs, where he took up painting landscapes?”

That question about Bennett, by the way, won’t likely be one of our Ypsilanti History Minutes. I ran it by Matt a few days ago, thinking that he might find it of interest, and his response was to say that Hitler painted landscapes too. And he’s right, of course. I hadn’t brought it up, though, in hopes of humanizing Bennett, who was, by most accounts, a terrible man. I’d brought it up because, at the time I was writing to Matt, I just happened to be looking at a few photos of Bennett’s paintings, which had been sent to me by a man who, when he was a kid in California, used to clean Bennett’s pool.

According to the man who sent these images, the mountain in the top painting is Mt. San Jacinto. The other painting, I’m told, is of this man’s father, a friend of Bennett’s, who used to race cars.

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According to legend, Henry Ford hired Bennett, a former Navy man, after having seen him kick someone’s ass on the streets of New York. He was apparently just the kind of man that Henry wanted, a brutal enforcer who could take care of “problems” within Ford at a point in history when organized labor was becoming a force to be reckoned with. Bennett came to head Ford’s “Service” Department, which was essentially a private army within the company comprised of the most cruel hoodlums and ex-convicts that money could buy. The men of the Service Department, under Bennett’s direction, made sure that the plants kept running efficiently, no matter what the cost… Word is that Hitler’s Gestapo was modeled after the Ford Service Department, so that should give you some sense of what they were like.

Coincidentally, during this same time in Michigan, there arose a political organization known as the Black Legion. A splinter group of the KKK, the Black Legion was dedicated to stopping Communism in all of its forms, especially, it would seem, through the killing of men organizing workers in Ford plants… Following are two clips from a pamphlet published in 1936 titled The Black Legion Rides, which touches on some of the connections between Ford and the Legion.

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Interestingly, the Black Legion was known to have dumped bodies on a property near Pinkney owned by Ford… Even more interestingly, Ford and Bennett refused to cooperate when authorities asked for permission to drain the mill pond and search for additional bodies in the summer of 1936, after the body of a man was found on the property, and interviews led the police to think that there were others.

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Despite the headline, it’s my understanding that the pond was never drained… and Bennett went on to a happy retirement outside of Palm Springs, painting.

And it’s things like this, by the way, that keep me blogging. I loved that a guy who knew Bennett as a kid did a search online and it led him here. I love that my website is a conduit for stuff like this.

One last thing… If you should know of other paintings by Bennett, please let me know. The gentleman in California, who I’ve been corresponding with this past week, would love to know.

[The rest of the above article, which was published July 25, 1936, can be found here.]

This entry was posted in Art and Culture, History, Ideas, Special Projects, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

13 Comments

  1. Posted February 1, 2015 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I know you are keeping it Ypsi-focused, but I have plenty of Ann Arbor history gems if you need them :)

  2. Alan
    Posted February 1, 2015 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    There’s no justice in a world where Bennett could escape to California with his paints and die of old age.

  3. anonymous
    Posted February 1, 2015 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    How is it thatI’ve lived in Michigan for four decades and this is the first I’m hearing of bodies being dumped on Ford’s property?

  4. Bob Krzewinski
    Posted February 1, 2015 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    And people think just a lot of workplace laws just “happened”. No, often people who wanted to make a change in working conditions for the better were killed for them. And to add insult to injury, now it has become oh so fashionable to bash unions.

  5. Posted February 1, 2015 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    Agreed, Bob. I don’t think people realize just how hard we’re going to have to fight to win back what we’ve lost over these last several years.

  6. Teacher Patti
    Posted February 2, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I remember seeing a picture of Hitler going ape shit in love over his dogs. I threw up in my mouth a little, but it really got me thinking. I also go apeshit crazy over dogs. It sickened me that Hitler and I should have anything in common (other than the usual picking our nose, peeing, etc.), but it does further prove the “banality of evil” idea. These guys aren’t monsters sent from hell. They are people. (And I hope this isn’t some weird violation of Godwin’s Law, because in no way do I wish to compare that asshole Bennett to mega mecha assholetron Hitler).

  7. Mr. Y
    Posted February 2, 2015 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Matt,

    Does direct evidence exist of Ford funding the Black Legion, or having taken an active role, perhaps though Bennett, to create the organization? Today, we know that the Koch brothers, for instance, created the Tea Party to serve their own political ends. Do we know the same of the Black Legion, or is it possible that, while sharing objectives, they developed independently? Was the Black Legion, in other words, a predecessor of the “astroturf” groups we see around us today?

  8. Posted February 2, 2015 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Y-
    No, but there doesn’t have to be any direct connection. Just being Henry Ford was all he needed to do to provide the legitimacy for all kinds of reactionary groups and policies; some of which had profound consequences we are all still living with. Ford was a racist, an open anti-Semite whose views were, and are, deeply embedded in swathes of white America. He was instrumental in using his huge wealth prestige in helping to establish a mythical and reactionary Americanism. He was intensely nativist (see his ‘Americanization’ classes to immigrant employees), conservative and moralist (constantly pushing a return to past mythical American ‘values’) who wrote the book on pre-Cold War law and order anti-communism and employed violent repression against those he deemed in violation of the ‘values’ or thought didn’t make ‘good Americans’. And he was the most powerful and influential man in the United States. Shit rolls downhill.

  9. Dylan Strzynski
    Posted February 2, 2015 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    For what it’s worth I think Bennett’s paintings are better than Hitler’s. They have a lively palette and naive charm where Hitler’s are stiff and academic.

  10. Another Bennett Story
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    “Harry Bennett’s Role in the Ypsilanti Torch Murders of August 11, 1931”

    http://fornology.blogspot.com/2013/12/harry-bennetts-role-in-ypsilanti-torch.html

    In 1931, scratching for a living must not have been easy for the three shiftless young men looking to commit a simple robbery for an easy payday. They pulled their Model T Ford into Peninsular Grove along a dirt road bordering the north edge of the Huron River. The area was well-known and well-used as a “lovers lane.” Today, it is known as Peninsular Park off of LaForge Road.

    Two teen aged couples were “parking” when they were surprised by three shadowy figures. The four teens were beaten and robbed; the two girls were raped; all were murdered. The final indignity was that their bodies were soaked in gasoline and torched in their car at another location.

    The horrific nature of the crime caught the attention of Mr. Henry Bennett, known to his friends and foes alike as “Harry,” Henry Ford’s head of FoMoCo security and UAW union busting thug.

    Bennett had a chateau-like home built on the north bank of the Huron River off Geddes Road between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. The property was bordered by a concrete and iron reinforced wall, courtesy of FoMoCo.

    Henry Ford also had a private railroad spur built leading onto Bennett’s property, so his security chief could travel to Detroit in record time if he needed to. This was before Interstate 94 was built, and Michigan Avenue was the most direct route into Detroit.

    Bennett also had a speedboat with a hefty inboard engine that was all gassed up and ready to go at a moment’s notice. The Huron River ran southeast to the Detroit River, just south of the island of Grosse Ile where Bennett kept another “safe house.”

    Seems like being in the “security” business was pretty lucrative for Mr. Bennett. Sarcasm aside, this shows how important Henry Ford believed Bennett was to his “organization.”

    After the untimely death of one Joseph York, a Detroit gangster who tried to kill Harry Bennett in his home, Bennett had Ford architects design and build several strategically located crenelated gun towers on the roof of his home, staffed around the clock by Ford Servicemen. The entire area surrounding the Bennett Castle for many miles was known as a no-mans’ land for criminal activity. Then the Torch Murders happened almost on his doorstep.

    In a book published in 2003 with the dreadful title of Henry Ford: Critical Evaluations in Business and Management, Vol. 1, authors John Cunningham Wood and Michael C. Wood wrote about Harry Bennett’s role in the Ypsilanti Torch Murders.

    “The last crime of any consequence in the area occurred in 1931 (These authors obviously hadn’t heard about John Norman Collins) and Bennett cleared it up within forty-eight hours. It was a thoroughly horrible affair. It involved rape and murder, and the incineration of two young couples in a car parked along a road not far from the estate.

    “Bennett was invited to participate in the case by a local sheriff, and he soon had his Servicemen swarming over the countryside. Under the noses of the state troopers and the county officials, he shifted the scene of the crime a few feet to bring it into the jurisdiction of a hanging judge (note: Michigan has never been a death penalty state).

    “Then he uncovered two informers who named a couple of possible suspects. Taking one of the suspects in tow, Bennett, together with Robert Taylor, the head of the Ford Sociological Department, and one of his towering Ford Servicemen, repaired to the basement of his fortified house. There, while one of his companions created an enormous racket with an electric (weight) reducing machine, Bennett undertook to get a confession out of the suspect.

    “(Bennett) interrupted this job occasionally to dash upstairs and pour a beer for the county sheriff who visited him inopportunely before his ‘guest’ had begun to talk. He tactfully neglected to advise the sheriff of what was going on below, and it was not until he had results that he turned his captive over to the police.

    “The Torch Murder Case, as it became known, was rapidly brought to a successful conclusion. Bennett’s captive and two others were sent to Marquette Penitentiary for life. While they were being transported to jail, the prisoners were protected from a lynch mob by Bennett and his Serviceman as well as the police.”

  11. Dave
    Posted November 9, 2015 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I live in the house outside of PS that bennett retired in. that painting is the view from here for sure 100%

  12. Mike
    Posted December 1, 2015 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Dave, any interesting features of Harry’s house out there? I’ll see if I can dig up the video about his home on Geddes.

  13. Mike
    Posted December 1, 2015 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Well, that wasn’t hard: http://youtu.be/Z0jyOfSg0P8

One Trackback

  1. […] you might remember, a man contacted me from Palm Springs, where Bennett retired about 50 years ago, wanting to share photos of paintings that he’d been given by the former head of Ford security …. [Bennett had taken up painting in his retirement.] And, just a few days ago, I was asked by a man […]

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