The true story of Michael Fritz is not known, which is to say that there is little known about his life, and the information that is known is hidden. The whole masquerade is deep-rooted in my family, my father’s side, my Italian side. Most people, including myself until a few years ago, knew my great grandfather, Michael, as an outstanding worker for the St. Paul Waterworks. Organized crime, as it happens, runs in the family.
Michael Fratangelo was born somewhere in Abruzzi, Italy, at the tail end of the 19th century. Just before the First World War, Michael left Italy for New York with enough Lira to set him up for a week once he got there. He was lucky enough to escape disease on the boat ride, and lucky enough to survive a stomping from a local gang on the South Side of Manhattan minutes after his ship got in. The thugs left him with his money, saying that all they could use Lira for was toilet tissue. They were right, except for a whorehouse in the Bowery that accepted Lira.
Can’t take the slum. Must leave. Another journey. Grand Central. Stole fifteen dollars from a cart on Broadway. Should pay for the ticket. Whilstles blowing. Time to go. Steam and smoke. Conductor’s whistle. All aboard – time to go. First Philadelphia, then Pittsburgh. After Cleveland, Chicago. Can’t rail to St. Paul. Met a ferryman who needs a hand. Can work my way north. Reminds me of the Adriatic. Remember Abruzzi. Need a home. Found The Levee.
The Levee was a neighborhood of Italian-Americans just over the dykes of the Mississippi River; today it’s a landfill. Michael lived with his wife, whom he met on The Levee, until the day they tore the whole place down, and died a few years later, about ten years before I was born. He had three sons and two daughters: Joseph, Helen, Peter, Marie, and Dominic, in chronological order. Until I was about sixteen, this was the story of my great grandfather.
Then one day my Uncle Jim, my father’s brother, slipped something at the dinner table about “rum running,” and was quickly silenced by my grandfather. It is rare that conversation stops at an Italian dinner table, and when it does it is revived very quickly, but each millisecond spent in silence feels like an eternity, especially with my grandfather glaring at my uncle. From that day, no one in my direct family has told me about my great grandfather. I had to go to my great Uncle Joe.
Uncle Joe died last Christmas; it was the first time I had to deal with death and I was really crushed, both because he was one of my favorite relatives and that I am now alone as “Joseph Fritz,” something I never thought would be as lonely as it is. Thankfully, I got the truth about Michael a few years before he died. As it turned out, Michael is like a variety of other Italian-Americans with jobs in water, sewage, and other utilities. During the 1920s, Michael Fritz helped run illegal alcohol from Canada down to Chicago.
The depth of Michael’s involvement is uncertain, but it is known that he was a key player in the shipments that passed through St. Paul. For the first half of the 20th century, St. Paul had an auspiciously corrupt sheriff that allowed gangsters to stay within St. Paul’s limits for a “nominal fee.” The deal was sweet for the mobsters – do all the crime you want in Minneapolis, just don’t touch St. Paul, and you can stay. This system lasted through Prohibition well after World War II.
Michael was only about twenty when he got into crime, just like myself, so it’s easy for me to know what he was doing and how he was thinking. My whole life, I have felt scheming in my blood, and now I know why. Life is hard enough for a kid, let alone an immigrant kid, and sometimes you’ve got to hustle to get what you want. For Michael, Prohibition couldn’t have happened at a better time; three days after he read the headline in the papers, he walked down the street to an old man who made wine in his cellar. From there, he orchestrated an entire racquet throughout The Levee, making wine, gin, and sugar-based moonshine. The makers were all “out-of-sight,” and Michael ran the whole thing like a Don, helping his fellows get wasted and also helping them out in other ways. Michael soon learned that one can only be as powerful as those around him would allow him to be.
The problem with most of the police in St. Paul (and most of America) was their Irish decent; Italians and Irish don’t get along so well, especially in St. Paul. My grandmother, an Irish woman who lived a few blocks up from The Levee, told me that when her mother found out she was dating my grandfather, she forbade it because she thought she’d get maimed by some guinea hoodlum.
“They fight with knives down there!” she said.
We fight with a lot worse than that, now, and I’m sure they did, too. As money flows in, guns are needed for protection, against cop and crook alike. Luckily, cops are bribable. Giving police 40% of net profit isn’t really that bad when one remembers that it’s not being taxed in the first place. Michael was smart – he paid off who he needed to and didn’t get greedy, and ended up only taking about 20% of the overall profit, after he paid his crew. He was paying off two lieutenants, three sergeants, and about ten patrolmen, not to mention 5% to each of his three manufacturers and then another 5% to each of his five distributors, who ran it all for him.
After a year, Michael Fritz’s name was everywhere in the St. Paul booze industry and he didn’t technically sell any of it. His distributors would move the liquor out of each manufacturer’s house, and the manufacturer would send Michael a bill, which he would pay. Then, Michael would bill the distributor, who would pay as the alcohol was sold. The profit was good in St. Paul – he made almost double what they paid on each case – but Chicago was what really set him up. A friend of his from New York, Giovanni Pantoliano, who had stayed in Chicago so many years ago, came for a visit after he heard Michael’s name in Chicago. He figured he’d see if there was enough action for his boss to get involved, and there was.
The setting couldn’t have been more perfect – The Levee was literally on the levee of the Mississippi – they could practically load the liquor onto the boats out the back doors of the manufacturer’s houses. The sweet spot was that they could sell the cases for four times what they paid for them, which ended up only being 200% profit after Giovanni took his half, but after that it was smooth sailing for Michael. He made a killing right up until Roosevelt repealed Prohibition, figuring during a Great Depression, everyone could use a drink, and no one could afford to pay for it illegally. This was good for everyone except Michael, who was stuck working for the St. Paul Waterworks. There was no way he could leave The Levee and be a gangster in Chicago, he had a wife and three kids already. So Michael stayed, keeping up with his mob contacts, but never really touching the business after 1940, and so it has been in my family until me.
About sixty years after the Fritz name left the world of crime, it was brought back. Starting in High School as petty racketeering, loan sharking, and personal favors (which included everything from character assassination to real hitman-style beatings), I got out of it when I came to High Point University only to get immersed even more in something much worse. It is difficult to describe how I feel, being in virtually the same position as my great grandfather was almost a century ago, but I think he would understand. Michael lived a fast life when he was young, trying to make his fortune, only to discover that it wasn’t worth it. And it isn’t, he was right, a life of crime is no way to lead life.
My family has no idea what I do for a living – I blatantly lie to them about it, and for good reason. It’s the same reason they never told me my great grandfather ran booze. It’s an honor thing that is not fully understood by those that don’t live it; I’m only beginning to understand it, myself.
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