Numbers & Neighborhoods
“Life is so lonely and untrue that death has a tremendous appeal.”
Janet MacDonald – August 1939
If you would like the complete story on Detroit's numbers, get a copy of my upcoming book, "When Detroit Played the Numbers." It will be available in March 2024 at Wayne State University Press (wsupress.wayne.edu)!
On August 5, 1939, Janet MacDonald, a 36-year old divorcee had reached her limit. With her 11-year old daughter, Pearl, seated next to her in her automobile, she decided to take their lives. Janet was upset that her boyfriend, William McBride, had ended their romantic relationship a month prior. William or Bill as he was known was a 37-year old Detroiter. In a letter written on stationary provided by the hotel he resided, he urged Janet to forget about him and to find a nice man. After all, Bill was nothing more than a former bootlegger, current numbers operator and gambler, and Janet could do much better. He insisted Janet was too good for him, worried he had nothing to offer her because he could not obtain steady work. Janet wanted marriage, Bill did not. In spite of this, Janet had her heart set on her “Billy.”
On that fateful Saturday night, Janet met Bill for the last time. At that meeting, Janet was unable to persuade Bill to resume their relationship. As a matter of fact, after his rendezvous with Janet, Bill met another woman at a cheap hotel in downtown Detroit for a tryst. Bill’s mental cruelty was too much for Janet to bear, and it pushed her to do the unthinkable. Janet, distraught and distracted, with Pearl dressed in a pretty pink taffeta dress, drove around that warm night until Pearl fell asleep. Janet parked her automobile in a rented garage, left it idling, and ran a hose from the exhaust through the car’s window. Carbon monoxide, the silent killer, did its job, and Janet and Pearl’s bodies were found the next day.
Before Janet committed suicide, she penned letters to the governor of Michigan, to the local newspapers, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Detroit Superintendent of Police, and to William “Billy” McBride. Janet, in a letter to Billy dated August 5, wrote,
"For the last time I am recollecting our friendship together and what should have been a beautiful thing certainly has failed, why? If I only knew why. Up until several months ago you claimed to be contented. You said you were satisfied with our arrangement at that time and you hoped I was. You said you were not interested in any one else. Then out of a clear sky you try to have extra arguments and start saying you were going to step out with half a dozen and started breaking our dates and saying your ex-wife was causing trouble and trying to break us up. At that time I believed you, but now I’m in doubt what to believe, you’ve told so many lies…I took insult upon insult from you while we worked at the Great Lakes only because I knew I cared too much for you to give you up, and now you’ve thrown me aside, for what?...Billy, you remember how I always told you the only way you could have another mama would be over my dead body. You didn’t think I really meant it, but I did. I can’t and won’t think of living without you. Picturing someone else in my place is too much. Call me crazy if you like. That’s what I’d be if I tried to go on without you. In spirit I’ll return and curse any woman that you make a friend of until the day you die. I’ll keep returning, then we’ll go together and you’ll know we should have been together here. You couldn’t fathom the loneliness and sorrow I’ve had these last weeks. Some day you may have a glimpse of it, too. I must go now, my time is up and I’m just a little frightened.”
In the other letters found near her body, MacDonald accused a number of city and police officials of being guilty of taking bribes from McBride and other numbers organizations in order to protect their illegal businesses. With these suicide letters, Janet MacDonald set off one of the most explosive investigations in Detroit’s history that ultimately revealed the intricate details of numbers gambling and its link to corruption within the city of Detroit and Wayne County. This scandal was not the beginning of numbers gambling in Detroit, nor was it the end. However, the scandal revealed how numbers gambling, an illegal lottery, helped thousands of Detroiters financially and socially.
In Detroit numbers gambling served a number of functions within society, most obviously as entertainment and sport. However, numbers gambling also served other important functions historically. It acted as a vehicle for achieving power and wealth in the city. At the peak of numbers gambling (in the early 1940s), the city of Detroit was experiencing rapid change and turmoil. Issues of race and inequality caused tension in neighborhoods and the workplace as blacks were segregated from whites and denied equal opportunities. In addition, Detroit was dealing with tensions caused by labor disputes and war production.
[…] too many of the people of Detroit are confused, embittered and distracted by factional groups that are fighting each other harder than they are willing to fight Hitler…Detroit is a city of violent extremes. In the 1920’s it made so many automobiles that it got rich and expanded beyond its wildest dreams. But in the 1930’s it sank lower into the great depression than any big U.S. city. Its large banks were the first to close and its labor wars were the most vicious in the nation…Now Detroit is flushed with feverish prosperity again but it still seethes with racial, religious, political and economic unrest. More than half its population of nearly two million came to Detroit in the last 20 years. They have no great love for their city and they give their loyalty to their own group, creed or union (Life 1942:17-19).
It was reported that “…the peculiar forces in Detroit have made the racial situation much more acute there than in most other cities…” (Brown 1944:24). This created the environment that made it conducive for numbers gambling to operate and flourish. Numbers gambling provided professional employment opportunities for blacks when they were denied other opportunities, and acted as a financial institution for blacks that were denied access to mainstream financial institutions. Numbers gambling was largely credited by many Detroit blacks for allowing a number of black businesses to exist. The men and women who ran numbers gambling establishments funded businesses and institutions when mainstream banks would not (Wilson and Cohassey 1998:65-66). This allowed Detroit’s black community to have access to neighborhood businesses and services that are essential to any self-sufficient thriving community. For example, these neighborhood businesses included hotels, bars, insurance companies, loan offices, real estate firms, newspaper stands, barbershops, and shoe shine parlors (Wilson and Cohassey 1998:66 & 102). These flourishing businesses, which were supported by numbers gambling, gave the community a sense of pride in the numbers men and women, as well as the businesses in their community. People looked at the businesses and the people responsible for them as a positive example of what the black race could produce (Wilson and Cohassey 1998:66-67 & 155). In a nut shell, numbers gambling became a means to remedy economic and social injustices, and offered a chance at the “American Dream” for blacks who were otherwise denied it.
Bridgett M. Davis wrote a moving book about her mother, a Detroit Numbers Queen. Her book tells the tale of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, as her resourceful mother provided the American Dream to her family via the numbers game.
Life - Detroit is Dynamite. August 17, 1942 - pages 15-23.
Earl Brown - Why Race Riots? Lessons from Detroit. 1944 - page 24.
Sunnie Wilson and John Cohassey - Toast of the Town: The Life and Times of Sunnie Wilson. 1998 - pages 66, 67, 102, & 155.