The Dark History of Gary Mayoral Leadership in The Jazz Age
Updated: Sep 25
Over the decades modern Region history and collective memory have faded about the tales of Gary's earliest forefathers. Initially, it was my intention was to research former Gary mayors to enlighten myself and readers how their administrations shaped the built environment of Gary we experience today. However, as if I were binge watching a suspenseful thriller I found myself hooked to my computer screen. What I uncovered from old periodicals jolted me to detour from my original plan to ultimately write and publish the article before you.
To set the mood - I recommend you play the 1920s musical ambience as you read.
The Patch - Gary's Red Light District
One hundred years ago, Gary was a rambunctious burgeoning mill town. Gary's 'Southside' in its formative years also referred to as 'The Patch' neighborhood was left unplanned and unregulated by US Steel's Gary Land Company who focused its efforts planning pristine housing developments and commercial corridors for Gary's corporate and upper middle class residents North of 9th Avenue. Due to the Patch's unplanned nature, the neighborhood that grew South of The Gary Land Company's first subdivisions were inundated with booze, poolhalls and brothels houses. Akin to New Orleans's French Quarter less the French and Spanish influenced architecture, Gary's Southside was home to densely populated neighborhood of low quality wood framed homes and businesses varying from one to three stories in height (listen to a personal recollection of life in Gary's patch here). The Patch on Gary's Southside infamously served as an epicenter of sex, illegal gambling, moonshine and murder for much of this red light district's existence.
The amount of bloodshed, illegal gambling and debauchery that took place between Broadway - Madison Street and 9th Avenue to 17th Avenue is virtually unfathomable today. For many millworkers, this red light district was an alluring street car pit stop in their commute home. The Patch was also the setting of many of backdoor gatherings between Gary's early political establishment and vice king pins who bartered relationships and influence with one another to solidify power and fat profits over Gary's working class men.
This forgotten neighborhood, 'The Patch' on Gary's Southside had maintained its character of ill repute until the early 1970's when then newly elected Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher obtained federal funding from the Nixon Administration to bulldoze the red light district utilizing federal urban renewal funding. Upon demolition, The Patch the neighborhood was replaced with several affordable housing communities and commercial strip mall developments visibly present today.
Mayor Roswell O Johnson - A Story of Gross Corruption & Political Might
Republican candidate Roswell O. Johnson was Gary's first elected mayor in 1913 defeating Gary's founding father Mayor Thomas Knotts however by 1917, the US Attorney General's office charged Mayor Johnson and seven others in Lake County with attempts to corrupt the 1916 General Election. In 1918 United States Judge District Court A.B. Anderson ruled and delivered a 'Not Guilty' verdict claiming that both he and the defense acknowledged there was not enough evidence to prosecute RO Johnson and the other Lake County officials that were charged in alleged voter corruption scheme during the 1916 General Election.
In light of the political fraud accusations charged Johnson was defeated in the 1917 Gary mayoral election by candidate William Hodges. Despite this loss, RO Johnson maintained his strong political grip within Lake County. When the US Prohibition Act went into effect prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol in January 1920 the federal mandate did not fair well to the thousands of Gary mill workers seeking hard liquor relief and recreation from saloons in The Patch. By this time one can generalize that the average working Gary man viewed RO Johnson as a candidate that would maintain business as usual giving establishments and individuals a pass in selling and consuming this now illegal beverage.
Despite US Prohibition Act having gone into effect in 1920 The Patch continued to flourish with illegal moonshining, speakeasies and gambling halls. RO Johnson was indeed the most powerful political politician in Lake County upon re-election as Gary's mayor in 1921 winning a 2nd term in office. With Johnson back in city hall, local vice lords leveraged the influence and profits of their illegal patrons for criminal protection from Gary and Lake County officials.
In the early 1920s Mayor Johnson, Gary's police chief, Gary city judge not only knowingly turned a blind eye to the illegal activity occurring in the Patch but they actively devised a system to settle charges against saloon and gambling hall owners through bonds paid by defendants charged with violating liquor laws. The bonds paid to the city made its way into illegal election campaign accounts. Mayor Johnson, the upper echelon of his Gary administration and over six dozen Lake County officials were ultimately Federally charged and found guilty of violating US Prohibition laws. By 1922 The US Federal government had embedded itself within Gary to investigate the power structures that allowed - Gary to be known as a 'wide open' town which by definition meant a jurisdiction where common laws and regulations were rarely enforced.
Gaspari Monte - A Gary Vilnian or a Community Martyr?
Gaspari Monte and his wife Mary were the notorious the owners and operators of the Black & Tan Saloon on 1720 Adams street along with other pools halls, gambling halls and saloons in Gary's Southside neighborhood. Gaspari had his share of potential hits, having been shot several in the past his face bore scars of life under the Italian Mano Nera - The Black Hand. The Monte's home was raided where dynamite and liquor was hidden in a tunnel between their home and their Black and Tan Saloon.
On March 12, 1923 Gaspari Monte was shot dead in broad daylight near his home and saloon in front of 1732 Adams Street with a sawed-off shot gun just days before he was scheduled to testify against the Mayor RO Johnson, Gary City Judge William Dunn and other Lake county officials charged with conspiracy. The news sent shockwaves across the Calumet Region and the State. This brazen murder prompted US Federal Marshals to sweep Gary, escorting remaining witnesses from their homes to trains awaiting for them to be transported immediately from Gary's Union Station bound for Indianapolis. The witness's hotels were armed with guards who ultimately escorted them both to and from their hotels while 'The Gary Rum' trial took place in a federal courthouse in downtown Indianapolis. Through the remainder of March 1923 the federal courthouse in Indianapolis remained lined was armed guards as the trial transpired in fear that gangland hits from both Gary and Chicago's organized crime rings would attempt to quell witnesses from testifying their knowledge of the selling and distribution of illegal alcoholic beverages in the Calumet Region. Days after Gaspari's murder a typewritten telegraph was mailed to the office of Homer Elliott US District Attorney overseeing the Gary Rum Case.
Gaspre Monti's widow eventually took the stand after Monte's death helping the prosecution to incriminate the political defendants. Ultimately The Gary Rum Scandal sent Gary Mayor RO Johnson, Gary City Judge William Dunn and fifty-three Lake County officials to federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia by 1925.
Prior to Mayor Johnson serving his federal prison sentence he appointed William J Fulton as mayor of Gary on March 29, 1925. Fulton in turn appointed RO Johnson's wife Mrs. Alice Johnson as the second woman in the United States to hold a public office in finance. However, Fulton only served eight months as Gary's mayor during the 1925 mayoral election cycle having been defeated by candidate Floyd E. Williams who's political campaign was openly and proudly supported by the Klu Klux Klan.
Although William 'Bill' J. Fulton lost the mayoral election of 1925 to Floyd Williams, former Mayor Fulton went on to run and enjoy a successful tenure as Lake County Commissioner. Popular and well liked for his business acumen and Fulton was perceived to be well received by his peers. However on the morning of May 8, 1930 Lake County was stunned to learn that the former Mayor and Lake County Commissioner Fulton committed suicide in his bedroom on early May morning at 7500 Oak Avenue while his wife Mary prepared breakfast in their Miller home. Mrs. Fulton uncontrolled with grief sought the aid of neighbor upon hearing the gunshot and the discovery of her husband's body. After Fulton's death, his name was thrown into multiple allegations of knowingly being on the periphery of political fraud.
Curious about the outcome of Mayor Floyd Williams who was backed by the Klu Klux Klan in his election for Mayor of Gary in 1925? Well, by Mayor Floyd Williams went bankrupt in 1933.
Back to Mayor RO Johnson, upon his release from a federal penitentiary in Atlanta in November 1925 he was surprisingly paroled and eventually pardoned by then President Calvin Coolidge in March 1929. RO Johnson's political ambitions had not faltered thereafter as he decided to run for mayor of Gary a third time in 1929. The Indiana Attorney General office and Gary City Council fought tirelessly in legal battles to prevent Roswell O Johnson from running and winning a third term as mayor of the Steel City. But after a tumultuous battle the Indiana Supreme Court dismissed injunctions set forth days before RO Johnson's third inauguration. By January 1930 with RO Johnson back in power and Fulton positioned to lead as a Lake County Commissioner Mayor Johnson was set to once again wield his unrelenting corrupt political power.
On January 3, 1930 RO Johnson was sworn in for a third term as mayor of Gary.
Oh! But let's not fret about Mayor RO Johnson! By 1932 Mayor Johnson the State of Indiana charged Mayor Johnson of using city purchased material and city labor to build both his Miller summer home and his rock garden on Gary's West Side at 739 Lincoln Street.
Ultimately Mayor Johnson was not found guilty of any crime (are we surprised at this rate!?).
Empowered by this Teflon ability to escape the law by 1932 Mayor Johnson went on to run an unsuccessful campaign to run for Congress. On June 15, 1938 RO Johnson passed away in old age on June 15, 1938 surrounded by his family at this home on 430 Hayes Street.
After four decades of power, one could argue RO Johnson laid the foundation to which Gary government functioned with factions of his influence that persisted within the city well beyond his tenure. By the 1949 Gary had become so overwhelmed by the woes of corruption and vice that 1,500 Gary women of various racial backgrounds and ages stood together to create the Women Citizen's Committee lobbying for attention from Gary and state legislature to help clean up Gary upon the unsolved murder of Lew Wallace High School teacher Mary Cheever, what transpired thereafter leaves room for another Gary Story...
In the 2000's when the Gary Post Tribune abandoned its flagship headquarters at 1089 Broadway in Gary various sources have reported that many photographs, film were left abandoned to waste. If you have knowledge regarding the whereabouts of these contents as well as any knowledge about copyright status of past Post-Tribune circulations please contact firstname.lastname@example.org so we may help track down, preserve and share our city's culture for future generations. All of the articles clipped and referenced in this post where pulled from The Lake County Times now The Northwest Indiana Times www.nwitimes.com via Newspapers.com.
Last, I have gratitude and provide a posthumous thanks to all of the local journalists of the past that left us a diary of Calumet Region stories, all amassed from their collective reporting and efforts to provide transparency and demand good government. Their stories continue to serve and enlighten the many generations that secede them.