Gary, Indiana doesn’t quickly come to mind when one thinks of the Prohibition Era in the Midwest. Chicago, Al Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre are more obvious choices. I’ve heard stories that Gary’s close proximity to Chicago gave those gangsters a place to hide out; that there were tunnels connecting the two cities for ease of escape. So when I decided that I wanted to write a Prohibition Era story set in Gary, Indiana, I thought I’d have to make my imagination work overtime. That I’d have to find some tenuous connection between the steel mill and bootlegging to make it somewhat interesting.
That wasn’t the case.
Research is a beautiful thing. I’ve always embraced the lesson that setting is a writer’s best friend, especially if there is a historical element to it. While digging into Gary’s Prohibition past, I learned that the city had its own share of issues with the Volstead Act. There was a Little Italy section and its own Black Hand. I learned that there were bookies, bootleggers, brothels, speakeasies and corrupt public figures who ran the rackets better than the gangsters they were supposed to prosecute. James Lane’s City of the Century led me to real-life gangster Gasperi (or Gaspari) Monti who ruled the city’s Little Italy section until his violent death in 1923.
According to local newspaper reports, Monti is best known as the government’s star witness in a corruption case against more than sixty judges, prosecutors, policemen, and even then-Gary mayor Roswell Johnson, all for violating Prohibition laws. At the time, the Gary Police Department had a special enforcement arm called the Sponge Squad that arrested bootleggers, and then would sell liquor confiscated in the arrests to line their pockets and the pockets of everyone else up the law enforcement chain in Lake County. Monti made a deal with federal prosecutors to expose the corruption, but was gunned down in broad daylight by two unknown assailants on March 13, 1923, just days before he was scheduled to testify.
Monti was no stranger to violence and attempts on his life. In 1922, he’d been shot through the mouth by a man who’d shot him a year prior. He owned and operated the Black and Tan Club in the 1700 block of Adams Street where shooting deaths were commonplace. Even Monti’s wife, Mary, was into the rackets. After her husband was killed, police found illegal liquor and several pounds of explosives in her home.
Gary, Indiana’s past never ceases to amaze me. The further I go back in time, the more fodder I find for fiction. I imagine there are several genres I can squeeze out of the life of Gasperi Monti.