life and times
hiram who
birth of the auto
border cities
sports heritage

by Robert Earl Stewart

For a $2 ride in and out of the compact blocks of Windsor’s business section, any cab driver would point out which of the dingy rooming houses, pool rooms and tobacco stores along Pitt, Sandwich, Assumption and Pelissier Streets, behind whose false fronts you could get a girl, buy a drink or place a bet.
Maclean’s Magazine, May 1, 1950.

What is it about the graft that turns ordinary men into devils?

Is it the graft – abusing political influence by accepting money or gifts – or is it the fallibility of ordinary men that’s to blame? It seems that all too easily certain people can be coaxed away from their ethics by overtures of covert personal gain. How quickly morality falls by the wayside.

So why is it that so many of those unable to resist graft seem to end up in public office?

That old question again?

Yes, if there’s one thing the City of Windsor’s ongoing leasing debacle with MFP Financial Services has reminded us of, it’s that this town has had its share of public scandals involving high-ranking city officials.

With lease overpayments of $213 million, a lawsuit for $305 million, and alleged unethical behaviour seemingly at every turn, the City of Windsor’s current MFP dealings are a scandal – to say the least.

Juicy scandals, like the MFP scandal, involve money and greed on some level.

But the juiciest scandals have money, greed, pay-offs, alcohol, gambling, violence, murder and sex in their dark, velvety hearts.

The Windsor Police Scandal of 1950 had all that and more.

Border City Blues

The 1950s are often depicted as idyllic and quaint, full of good clean living and prosperity. The reality is that there were lots of places, Windsor being one of them, where prosperity was often connected to what the police like to call vice.

In 1950 downtown Windsor – a hotbed for illegal gambling, prostitution, after-hours drinking, gunplay – had a reputation as “sin city.”
Larry Kulisek, a University of Windsor history professor, specializes in urban and local histories, including Windsor and Essex County, stated: “A certain latitude towards gambling and bootlegging and other vices can be expected in a border area. The police weren’t on a moral crusade, there was just an expectation that ‘this is life’.”

This is not to say certain kinds of late-night entertainment don’t exist today, because, for better or for worse, they do. Ironically, many of the vices from the past – including gambling, escort services and late-night drinking – are now legal.

But in 1950, reports in the media elevated vices to the level of entertainment and Windsorites eagerly followed the exploits of downtown bookies, pimps and bootleggers in the daily papers and around the lunch counters.

Windsor gained a nationwide reputation as a wide-open town.

915 Shepherd raid by city police –
bookies but no evidence of betting

The Secret Room

March 11, 1950: the pages of The Windsor Daily Star are filled with stories of gambling and violence, including a page-one story about two-year-old Detroit murder case that’s been connected to a Windsor bookie joint, the Polo Club.

Also on page one, a less violent but no less sensational story about a bonanza of illegal liquor located in a room nobody can find.

This “Secret Room,” as the Windsor police referred to it, was apparently located somewhere in the Sandwich Street residence of one Joe Assef.

A raid on Assef’s property on January 1, 1950 had turned up hundreds of bottles of illegal booze. On March 7, Assef plead guilty to a charge of keeping illegal liquor for sale and running a speak easy at the Sandwich St. address.

During the lengthy court proceedings, it was established that large quantities of booze might still be stashed somewhere in the house. Subsequent searches of the property turned up nothing and Assef was mum on the whereabouts of the rest of his illegal booze cache (insiders said it was under the breezeway’s cement floor).

Little did anyone know that this mysterious but relatively unassuming event would kick-start a scandal that would result in accusations of widespread “moral laxity” on the part of the Windsor Police Department, and resignations amongst the City of Windsor’s top cops, lawmakers, administrators and politicians. Even the mayor was painted with the scandalous brush.

The Whistleblower

Whether he intended to or not, Magistrate J. Arthur Hanrahan, who sentenced Assef to six months in prison, blew the lid off the graft and payoff racket that had fuelled a booming Border City vice trade.

During Assef’s eight-week trial, Liquor Control Board of Ontario investigators raised questions as to how Assef had received 5,400 deliveries of beer and liquor over a 90-day period late in the previous year.

At a rate of 60 deliveries a day, it seemed impossible that no one, including members of the police department’s five-man morality squad, had witnessed suspicious activity at Assef’s residence.

Hanrahan found answers in a few other items uncovered in the Assef raid – several liquor delivery receipts bearing the home addresses of some of Windsor’s most prominent citizens and 16 Windsor policemen. The implications were obvious: the Windsor police were on the take.

On the day of Assef’s sentencing, a shocked and embittered Hanrahan unleashed a diatribe against the Windsor Police Department. He openly referred to what he called “moral laxity” on the police’s behalf and suggested Assef’s uninterrupted bootlegging was possible only through police complicity. Hanrahan said it was also likely the Windsor police force was “rendered impotent” by the booming vice trade around them.

The Fallout

There are those who suggest if the Assef trial had taken up less of Magistrate Hanrahan’s time, he would have been in a better mood on the day of the sentencing and let the 16 delivery receipts slide.

Criticized by Mayor Art Reaume for putting negative images of Windsor in peoples’ heads, Hanrahan went on the offensive. “I have had a growing conviction that things were seriously wrong in this city,” he told reporters. “The judgement I delivered on Assef was intended to bring this to the attention of the people.”

His bold words in the courtroom were heard as far away as Queen’s Park. Within days, The Windsor Daily Star reported that Attorney General Dana Porter was grilled on the floor of the provincial legislature for his apparent lack of action on “the allegations of police laxity in Windsor.”

Porter returned from his upbraiding in Toronto with “sweeping powers” to call in witnesses and follow up statements made in the police commission probe; the city of Windsor braced itself for a public inquiry. Clearly, the city’s moral laxity had become a thorn in the Province’s side.

Magistrate J. Arthur Hanrahan:
“I have had a growing conviction that things were seriously wrong in this city.”

The “Probe”

The first probe into the Windsor Police Department’s moral laxity began on March 16, 1950. The probe was conducted by a committee comprised of three men: Judge Albert J. Gordon (the past chair of the Windsor Police Commission) would chair the probe, Chatham Crown attorney A. Douglas Bell (appointed commission counsel by Porter), and Mayor Art Reaume.

The Police Association retained James S. Allan, K.C., as their solicitor. Magistrate Angus W. MacMillan, serving as the police commission chair at the time of the probe, replaced Judge Gordon the previous month.

There was substantial newspaper coverage during the days leading up to the probe. Citizens who had any information about corrupt police dealings were asked to come forward.

Rumours circulated throughout the city of a secret witness list, which supposedly included the names of several Windsor and provincial policemen. The Windsor Daily Star reported Chief of Police Claude Renaud, Deputy Chief W.H. Neale, Magistrate Hanrahan and the infamous Joe Assef were among those scheduled to take the stand.

Yet for all the hype leading up to it, the hastily assembled Windsor Police Commission probe revealed very little. The 16 policemen denied having any connection to Joe Assef and his bootleg liquor and Police Chief Claude Renaud was convinced of the loyalty and moral righteousness of every man on his force.

After rough treatment while on the stand from the three-man commission, Hanrahan told reporters “the attitude that has been shown to me here as a magistrate does not augur well for the treatment that would be given to the public who may appear here to give evidence.”

Despite the provincial and public heat, the Windsor Police Department appeared to be getting a break. The probe wrapped up on April 15, when Gordon made a motion to adjourn. Bell went on the record saying Hanrahan’s statements regarding moral laxity were “exaggerated” and “unjust.”

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