Saturday, December 12, 2009

Jeff Fort Family Tree

As discussed in previous posts (here, here, here, and here), Jeff Fort was one of the most notorious gangsters in Chicago history. Like better-known Italian mob leaders such as Colosimo, Torrio, and Capone, he perceived arbitrage profits from government policy (primarily drug prohibition in Fort's case), then developed and managed a huge criminal distribution and marketing enterprise to exploit them. Also like other top gang leaders, he used ingenious methods to distract law enforcement and to massage political and community perceptions, and became a controversial community leader.

Fort was critical in establishing several important gang entities, including the Blackstone Rangers, the Black P. Stone Nation (a collection of local affiliated "stone" gangs), the People Nation (a national cartel of gangs including the BPSN as well as other lage organizations including the Vice Lords), and the El Rukns (a religiously-motivated gang). While the Italian mob in Chicago is today a mere shell of its former self, Fort's gangs, with the possible exception of the Rukns -- whose influence is nevertheless still felt -- are going strong.

It is not uncommon for gang members to draw their family into a criminal organization. Without the ability to enforce employment contracts through the court system the way legal businesses do, trust becomes a next-best substitute for formal contracts in underground industries. Ethnicity and common background engender some level of trust -- hence the fact that most gangs are composed of members of the same race or ethnicity -- but family ties are even stronger. Shirking and disloyalty to the gang in such cases thus means turning one's back on loved ones. In addition, family members of prominent criminals may face discrimination in the labor market (would you think twice before hiring someone named "Gotti"?), so non-gang opportunities become relatively scarce.

The Fort family exemplifies the role relatives play within a gang. Jeff Fort had seven brothers and three sisters, most of which are known to have been active in his criminal enterprise. He is believed to have fathered at least seven children, and two of these rose to leadership positions in the gang. In addition, nephews and even grandchildren have also been connected with criminal activity.


  • Andrew Fort (born c. 1959)
Active in developing the drug sales operations of the El Rukns in the 1970s and 1980s after Jeff Fort's release from prison in 1976. In 1986, convicted of the April 1985 murder of Robert "Dog" Johnson on Stony Island and 67th Place. Johnson, a former Rukn, had left the gang to deal drugs independently and was allegedly killed by Andrew Fort in a territorial dispute.

(Pictured: Andrew Fort, being arrested for marijuana possession in 1979 at the El Rukn Temple)

  • Bennie Fort (born c. 1949)

Active in the Blackstone Rangers and BPSN during the 1960s and 1970s. Served two years in prison between 1968 and 1970 for aggravated battery. After release, rejoined gang and was among top leadership during Jeff Fort's first prison sentence, 1972-76. He apparently continued to be active in the El Rukns during the 1980s, and in 1982 was involved in a physical altercation with a woman in a dispute over ownership of a television set. The woman called police, and while accusing Bennie Fort of aggravated battery, also fingered him as the killer in a murder a few months before, a bar fight that ended in the death of Darryl Poindexter. Fort went on trial for the slaying, but after some witness intimidation by his brothers Eugene and Johnny Lee (see below), was acquitted. He did serve two years in prison for the woman's battery, however.

Televisions were bad news for Bennie Fort. In June 1988, a fellow El Rukn, Perry Squire, sold a broken TV to Fort for $40. Fort managed to repair it, and when Squire saw his broken set working again, he insisted it be returned to him. Fort refused, but a few days later, the television was stolen, and Fort confronted Squire about it. An altercation ensued, during which Squire stabbed Bennie Fort to death.

  • Eugene Fort (born c. 1951)

A low-level enforcer in the Rukns. Along with Johnny Lee Fort, he was involved in intimidating witnesses during Bennie Fort's 1983 murder trial. On July 14, 1983, the day after police arrested Bennie Fort, Eugene and Johnny Lee Fort allegedly broke into the home of the woman who had accused him of the killing and threatened to kill her.

  • James Fort (born c. 1962)

Drug dealer in the Rukns. Convicted of crack cocaine distribution and imprisoned in 1994.

  • Johnny Lee Fort (born c. 1947)

The oldest of the brothers and the namesake of his father. Despite age, does not appear to have held high office in the gang, though together with Eugene Fort, was involved in intimidation of witnesses in Bennie Fort's 1983 murder trial (see above).

  • Lawrence Fort (born c. 1960)

Ran one of the El Rukns' ancillary businesses in the 1980s, a security firm known as Security Maintenance Services, Ltd. The firm was unlicensed, and Fort was arrested as part of a police sting operation at McCormick Place. Pled guilty in the case to operating a security firm without a license, and carrying an illegal firearm.


  • Pee Wee Fort (born ?)

Active in El Ruks during 1980s. In 1985, Yonava Eason and two girlfriends were walking down a street when they saw Andrew Fort (above) and David Carter, both El Rukns, open fire on Robert "Dog" Johnson. Eason picked Carter's photo from a lineup, but when asked to testify in court, recanted her identification. Andrew Fort was convicted, but without Eason's testimony, Carter went free. Later, in 1991, Eason admitted she had changed her testimony after being threatened out of court by Pee Wee Fort, who told her she "better not testify". "My family was more important to me than telling the truth in that courtroom that day," she said.

Carter was convicted of murder, but eventually had his sentence reduced to 8-1/2 years on narcotics distribution charges, based on prosecutorial misbehavior. Prosecutors in the case had allowed gang snitches to use drugs, liquor, and to have sex with their wives and girlfriends while under state guard.
  • Merriam Rice (neĆ© Fort) (born ?)

No known gang activities in Chicago. Today is an anti-gang activist, working alongside former Gangster Disciples leader K.G. Wilson in inner-city Minneapolis, who is involved in street preaching and anti-violence community organizing. See this article for details. The Disciples are the chief Chicago rivals of the BPSN, and form the core of the "Folk Nation", a gang cartel organization rival to Fort's "People Nation"; hence, Rice's work with Wilson is significant. Wilson said,

I heard Jeff Fort had a sister here. I introduced myself and told her to come out with me. She did, and she's been with me ever since. Here I am, an ex-chief of the Black Gangster Disciples, and God gave me the sister of Jeff Fort. I think that allows us to show people that this gang thing is garbage.

[Thanks to Otto Sotnak for the tip about Merriam Rice, which inspired this post.]

  • Antonio Fort (born c. 1966) (also known as "Prince Akeem")

Believed to have been among top Chicago-based leadership of the El Rukns during the 1980s (Jeff Fort commanded the gang from prison in Beaumont, Texas, for most of the period), Antonio Fort was the target of the arrest warrant police used to infiltrate and eventually demolish the El Rukn Grand Major Temple and mosque headquarters on 39th and Drexel in 1989. Antonio Fort was apparently not fully loyal to the gang (possibly under the influence of a substance abuse problem), leading Jeff Fort to direct "drummings" [beatings] of his own son by fellow gang members as punishment on at least two occasions.

In the early 1990s, Antonio Fort is believed to have led a large Stones set the South Shore neighborhood (colloquially known as "Terror Town" during the gang's reign). Between 1992 and 1996, he served a prison sentence for conspiracy to purchase cocaine in Evanston. His release may have created a power struggle in the gang; in any case, his body washed up on the shore of Wolf Lake, separating Illinois and Indiana, in March, 1997.
  • Watkeeta Valenzuela Fort (born c. 1970) (also known as "Prince Watkeeta")

In the power vacuum left after the government takedown of the Rukns in the late 1980s, Valenzuela came to power, leading one of the major Stones sets which controlled the Englewood neighborhood, with headquarters at 54th St. and Bishop St. (pictured at the top of this post). Valenzuela led the Stones in violent clashes with the Gangster Disciples gang, which also tried to move in on Rukn territory on the South Side during the early 1990s. In March, 1997, he pled guilty to running a cocaine trafficking operation, telling the court "I was born into this. I had no other choice."

Valenzuela is believed to have remained the closest of his siblings to father Jeff Fort, and to have incorporated much of the quasi-Islamic religious aspects of the Rukns in the 1990s Stones sets. His followers called themselves "Moes", a reference to the "Moorish Science" tenants of the Rukns. That name is still common among some factions.


  • Eugene Fort, nephew and son of Eugene Fort, brother (born c. 1972)

Active in Minneapolis crack trade during the early 1990s. Was chief suspect in 1990 murder of 11-year old boy Marcus Potts, who was at home alone while his house was being burglarized. A trail of footprints in the snow from the boy's home led police back to Eugene Fort's house, where traces of the boy's blood were found. However, the evidence was not strong enough to convict in court, and so the case was not brought to trial for 15 years, when DNA testing technology had advanced to the point where the blood could be more authoritatively matched. Eugene Fort was convicted of murder in 2007, though a new trial was briefly considered in 2007 based on the apparent jailhouse confession of his cousin Paul Rice. However, Fort's conviction was upheld.

  • Paul Rice, nephew and son of Merriam Rice, sister (born ?)

After the conviction of his cousin Eugene Fort in the murder of an 11-year old boy, Rice supposedly bragged to jail inmates that he had "killed a little boy" on at least two occasions. On this basis, Eugene Fort received a hearing to determine whether a new trial was warranted, though Fort's conviction was subsequently upheld.

  • Antonio Fort, grandson and son of Antonio Fort, son (born c. 1987) (also known as "Peanut")

Allegedly involved in 2002 mob beating that made national news. Jack Moore and Anthony Stuckey were driving drunk and high through the Oakland neighborhood, and crashed their van into a house on Lake Park Ave., where three young women were sitting. The crash injured the women, killing one. A crowd of men who were nearby at the time of the wreck dragged Moore and Stuckey out of the van and beat them to death on the street. A police officer who arrived on the scene to break up the violence claimed that Antonio was a leader of the vigilante mob, and had personally attacked Moore and Stuckey.

At trial in 2003, Antonio Fort testified that he arrived on the scene after the violence had already begun, and that he left quickly when he heard his mother calling him. Fort was acquitted. Reports indicate he is not closely associated with the Stones.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Monroe Street

Perhaps second only to Wells St., Monroe St. was the home of vice in pre-Fire Chicago.

In the earliest years of Chicago's history, Monroe street was entirely rural, with many farmhouses. It may well have been Monroe that inspired one of the earliest town ordinances, passed in 1833, which imposed a fine of $2 on anyone allowing a pig to run loose in the city "without a yoke or a ring in its nose" (pigs were forbidden on the street entirely, nose ring or not, in 1842).

By the 1840s, Monroe was home to many fine mansions, primarily country-style homes. The architectural vogue in those days was a Chicago version of Palladian, mixing the classical Greco-Roman columns with aspects more familiar to southern plantation estates. The area near Wabash Ave. was known as "Garden City", likely inspired by the city seal ("Urbs in Horto"), but also indicative of the greenery that covered the Loop in those early years. Standing at Monroe and Wabash today, with the clash and clatter of the elevated train passing overhead and darkened by the hulking shadows of steel tracks and skyscrapers, it is difficult to picture the bucolic setting in which early Chicagoans once resided.

But while Wabash and Michigan Ave. retained their large estates up until the Fire, the 1850s saw Monroe St. in decline. Lumberyards sprouted at the west end of Monroe, near the river, and just on the other side of the river. 1850 saw the city's first gas works plant, the Chicago Gas Light and Coke Company, built at the corner of Monroe and Wacker Dr. (then known as Market St.). The presence of a big, dirty, industrial factory lowered surrounding property valuesSeptember 5, 1850 saw the city lit by gas for the first time, and by the end of the year, a series of pipes connected the factory to 112 street and bridge lamps around Chicago.

Another cause for Monroe street's diminishing reputation was the establishment, in 1856, of North's National Amphitheater, one of the city's first commercial venues for amusement, on the north side of Monroe, between Wells and Clark streets. The Amphitheater played host to traveling circuses, carnivals, and other troupes, and the characters who worked in these events were considered unsavory, and frequently stood accused of drunkenness, vice, as well as more serious crimes.

One 1850s newspaper review of a show indicated the precarious position Chicagoans were still in with respect to Native Americans on the plains:
"The Iroquois Indians are a novel feature, and go through their dances, and other aboriginal barbarities, with as much unction as their white brethren of the sawdust. It is also cheering to know that they entertain a high opinion of their audiences, and are invariably in favor of peace."
Levi J. North, the proprietor of the Amphitheater, was one of the 19th century's most famous horsemen. After performing in traveling shows up and down the East Coast, the Caribbean, and in Europe, where he was famed for an act involving galloping bareback, while holding aloft an infant child, North came to Chicago and built the Amphitheater.

(Advertisement of show at North's Amphitheater, Jan. 5, 1859).

Like most great riders, North was relatively small of stature, standing less than five and a half feet, and had long, flowing blond hair, which trailed behind him as he sped around the circus ring. In his later years, one commentator wrote that "He was born on a horse, has always lived on a horse, will die on a horse, and have a horse for a monument, and will rest uneasily if the monument is not trained." He was said to have been the first rider to ever turn a somersault on horseback.

While in Chicago, North also became involved in politics, running for and winning a seat as alderman of the third ward. The election was disputed, since North had only moved into the ward ten days before the election, but he was eventually allowed to keep his seat. After some years, however, misfortune befell the great rider when the theater burned, and the insurance company simultaneously went bankrupt. North rebuilt the circus ring and began performing again, earning $50 per night, which he continued in Chicago and in touring companies for over a decade before retiring in 1870 and moving to New York City. The Amphitheater was demolished in 1864 and the property rebuilt for commercial use.

With the poverty and criminality growing on the street, wealthy residents increasingly moved away from Monroe, lowering property values and attracting even more itinerant and criminal elements, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Cigar stores and houses of prostitution, including most famously Madam Lou Harper's "Mansion" between Wells and Franklin, and Francis Warren's troupe of streetwalkers, who resided between Clark and LaSalle.

The 1850s and 1860s saw masses of poor immigrants, primarily from Ireland, building a shantytown of low, tumble-down buildings centered around Monroe and Wells St., known as "Mrs. Conley's Patch". Longtime alderman and world-renowned dandy "Bathhouse" John Coughlin, was raised there. However, "the Patch" was also notorious in its day, not only for the decrepitude of its dwellings, but also for the depravity and dark crimes of some of its residents.

Chiefest among these was the city's first -- and perhaps greatest -- king of vice, Roger Plant. I have already covered Plant's exploits to some degree in this earlier post. A Yorkshire-born Englishman, Plant arrived in the city about 1857. Legend has grown around Plant, who was always tight-lipped about his personal history, such that it is impossible today to discern fact from exaggeration, but purportedly Plant had been convicted of a felony in England and was scheduled to be exiled to Australia when he escaped and made his way to Chicago.

By 1858, Plant had built "Roger's Barracks", a set of poorly-constructed shacks centered on the northeast corner of Wells and Monroe. The Barracks, later known as "Under the Willow", so named after a single sad willow tree which stood on the corner, was the center for all vice in the city up through the end of the Civil War. It was Plant who popularized the catchphrase "Why Not?", which was emblazoned on each of the blue window shades in the complex.

Plant himself was diminutive, at just over five feet tall and no more than 100 lbs, but he was apparently a vicious fighter, skillful with pistol, knife, and club, but especially with his fists and teeth. The only one who could ever whip him, it is said, was Mrs. Plant, a mountainous woman weighing at least 250 lbs. Plant kept order in the saloon on the premises, and operated as a fence and a bail bondsman, while his wife ran a brothel with no fewer than 80 inmates, rented out cubbies on the property for use by streetwalkers, and made a trade in "white slaves".

During the war, Under the Willow ("that shadowy haunt of sin", as the Tribune put it), played host to battalions of soldiers and was rarely empty at any hour. It was a fearsome place, however, with many men finding themselves robbed, beaten or knived, and discarded in the alleys (oftentimes by Mrs. Plant herself) after imbibing too much or falling asleep in one of the decrepit cribs.

Some of the permanent residents of the Plant complex included Mary Hodges, an apparently fantastically talented shoplifter, who it is said (again in tall tale fashion) would drive a cart into the shopping district several times a week to bring back her takings. Another was Mary Brennan ("an audacious old sinner", as the Tribune described her), who was herself a thief, but also the trainer of thieves and pickpockets. Mrs. Brennan's two daughters were caught breaking into a home whose owner was away on business one afternoon in 1866, and as punishment, were placed in the Catholic Asylum, separated from their mother until adulthood.

Another long-time tenant was Lib Woods. Miss Woods arrived in Chicago in 1855, and was described in 1860 as "one of the gayest, prettiest, most fascinating creatures that could be found among her class in this city....with a splendid head of hair that made her rivals all despair. It hung down below her waist, in long, glassy ringlets."

Woods was girlfriend to Billy Meadows, a successful prizefighter. But when Meadows took sick and died in 1861, Miss Woods' decline into dissipation was quick. She took up residence at Under the Willow as a prostitute shortly after, and was then seized with smallpox, which disfigured her beautiful features. She was frequently drunk and became increasingly violent as she aged. She died a sad death in 1870, found in a gutter of Wells street.

Roger Plant was also notorious for paying off the police to keep the heat away from Under the Willow and his other nefarious doings. In October, 1866, he was arrested for robbing a man he had helped bail out of the bridewell of $25. A few days later, the police discharged him, much to the uproar of the city's more righteous denizens. Most likely, the increasingly wealthy Mr. Plant greased a few palms on his way out of the police house. In a later committee investigation before city council, Plant was directly asked whether he had every paid off the police, and, displaying honor among thieves, he refused to perjure himself -- he "took the fifth" and was eventually dismissed for being unwilling to answer questions.

Within a few years after the war, Plant had amassed such a fortune as allowed him to depart his vile surroundings for a country estate outside of Chicago, and by 1871, the Tribune reported that "Roger is now a member of the church in good standing, drives an elegant team, and lives like a Christian."

Plant had many children, by some counts as many as fifteen, and a number of them went on to establish their own houses of vice in the Custom House Place district during the 1880s and 1890s, including daughters Kitty and Daisy Plant, and son Roger Plant, Jr. Many other former tenants not related to Plant also went on to develop vice businesses as well. He is rightly known as the father of vice in Chicago.

By the time of Roger Plant's retirement, Under the Willow extended halfway down the block on both Monroe and Wells streets, and the centerpiece of the property, rebuilt after the Great Fire, was a four story building. Plant continued renting the property for large sums into the 1890s, until it passed out of the family's hands in 1908, purchased by the city's top sporting man, J.J. Corbett for the sum of $100,000.

After the Fire, most of the residents of Mrs. Conley's Patch, having had their homes destroyed, moved to the south side, where many of the neighborhoods to this day still have substantial Irish populations. The west end of Monroe street was redeveloped largely as a warehouse district, while business and commercial buildings arose closer to the Lake.