Pierre de Champlain is one of Canada’s foremost experts on organized crime. As an intelligence analyst for the RCMP he got an up close and personal look at gangsters and crimes. As an author he shared his knowledge with readers around the world. On February 26, his new book about the history of organized crime in Montreal will hit stores. By Pierre de Champlain
The release of Histoire du crime organisé à Montréal de 1900 à 1980 (it is printed in French - English prints will soon follow) comes ten years after the release of my book Mobsters, Gangsters and Men of Honour which detailed the Mafia’s codes, structure, and behavior.
This new book reveals that organized crime activities such as drug trafficking, prostitution and gambling were almost out of control in the early 20th century in Montreal, where corruption was “a way of life” among city police and politicians. It also covers the activities of the Black Hand, a criminal organization which was not only active in New York and Chicago but in Montréal and Toronto as well.
It contains new information about Tony Frank, a mobster born in Catania, Sicily, who emigrated in Montréal in the 1900's. He was a very influential mafia boss who had solid ties to some of the members of the Morality Squad of the Montreal police. There was also Harry Davis, a gangster born from Russian Jewish parents, who in the mid-1920s became an important drug trafficker, and who was finally arrested by the RCMP in 1933. Organized crime in Montreal was predominantly ruled by Jewish gangsters who migrated to the US and Canada in large masses at the beginning of the 20th century. The Italian mob became a force only in the mid-1950s, when Carmine Galante and his cohorts set foot on Canadian soil in the early 1950's and took over Montréal rackets, namely major drug operations.
The book focuses in great part on the life and career of the Cotroni brothers, and in particular that one of Vincenzo, who ruled Montréal rackets from the mid-1950's until the 1980s. Thanks to the Access to Information Act, and to National Archives in Ottawa, which enabled me to get genuine information on the origins of the Cotronis in 1925, and other well-known Canadian major crime figures.
Until the arrival of New York’s Cosa Nostra in Montreal in the early 1950s, gambling and underworld crime were locally-run, and from the 1920s until the 50s, many Jews were actively involved in these illicit enterprises.
Max Shapiro came to Montreal from Poland in the 1920s and ran one of the most successful gambling houses in the city. Eventually, with partners, he opened the famous Ruby Foo’s hotel and restaurant.
Harry Feldman, of New York, owned a three-storey building on Bleury and Ste-Catherine, where the ground floor housed a legitimate business, but the upper floors were dedicated to bookmaking. Unlike his contemporaries, he lived quietly and did not get involved in the drug trade. He was a part owner of many significant establishments, including Chez Parée, and was known as a good family man. In fact, over the course of his 14-year career, he was never apprehended and his organizational skills were even praised by the chief of Montreal police at the time, Pacifique Plante.
Harry Davis of Romania was another prominent local gambler, responsible for the first underworld killing in Montreal. In 1935, he had Charles Feigenbaum—a police informant whose testimony had resulted in Davis’ 14-year sentence for smuggling morphine—murdered on Esplanade across from Fletcher’s Field. After several years in jail, Davis returned to the city in the mid-1940s and regained his title as gambling Tsar, controlling who could open gambling venues in the Red Light District and taking 20% from each. His rule came to an end on July 25, 1946, when he was shot to death in his gambling house at 1244 Stanley Street. He was killed by Louis Bercowitz, who did not receive Davis’s permission to open his own gambling establishment. Davis’s death permitted Harry Ship to dominate the gambling trade until his mistakes brought the New York Cosa Nostra to Montreal, engendering a new era of organized crime. Harry Ship, called the King of the Montreal Gamblers, was a major bookmaker and operator of illegal casinos all over Montreal. Born in 1915, Ship studied mathematics at Queen’s University. Although he did not graduate, he excelled in his studies and was highly respected among his peers. He returned to Montreal in 1940, where he established a series of “white houses” along Ste-Catherine Street. Each house contained five telephone lines, blackboards and operators’ headsets, so bookies could take bets and write them up simultaneously. Business was so brisk that the apartments were often subdivided into halves and quarters to be able to house all the bookmakers. He also operated illegal casinos in Lachine, Greenfield Park, and on a farm in Côte St. Luc. Ship admitted that he made $1M annually, from 1940 to 1946 (equivalent: $15M today).
Although he lived lavishly, including owning a mansion in Outremont and the Chez Parée nightclub, which featured acts such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, his operations were frequently raided and he paid huge sums of money to the local police. Eventually, he was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail.
Perhaps Ship’s legacy to Montreal is the introduction of New York’s Cosa Nostra into the city. It seems that Ship owed money to Frank Erikson, the wealthiest bookie on the East Coast, whose silent partners included Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano. Due to his indebtedness, Ship was forced to accept the interference of the New York families in the early 1950s, which resulted in the Montreal underworld being controlled from New York, and the city becoming an important center for bookmaking and heroin smuggling. Little is known about Ship after this period, except that his is buried in the only family circle at the Baron De Hirsch Cemetery in Montreal and he, like so many other iconic figures, is immortalized in Mordecai Richler’s novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Ship’s legacy in the Jewish community was immortalized in Mordecai Richler’s novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Richler’s character, “The Boy Wonder,” was based on Ship, who went by the same nickname. Died 1998.