Historicist: “Ontario’s Public Enemy No. 1”
Part Two of a look at Toronto's late 1930s gambling kingpin, Manny Feder.
Just before 5 p.m. on a Saturday in November 1940, a loud cheer arose from the 300 gamblers gathered at the Combine Club, the enormous and opulent club Manny Feder had built on The Queensway after shuttering the Brown Derby. It was, one reporter asserted, “Canada’s most perfectly appointed gambling house.”
The crowd’s enthusiasm came as Foster “Buck” Dryden, once dubbed “the best-known voice in Ontario racing,” called a photo finish over the public address system, as Sir Marlboro, a long-shot racehorse owned by Conn Smythe, won in ankle deep mud at Bowie. But just as Sir Marlboro’s jubilant backers moved to the wickets to cash their tickets for a 12 to one payday—including one unfortunate gentleman who stood to collect $1,320—raiding police broke into the club shouting: “Stand where you are! Do not move!”
Netting nearly 300 gamblers arrested as found-ins and 16 men charged as keepers, the raid was, newspapers hyped, “believed to be the biggest gaming haul in Canadian police history.” It all but put the Combine Club out of business. But Feder remained “Ontario’s Public Enemy No. 1” for vocal anti-gambling crusaders like Conservative leader George Drew and the Reverend Gordon Domm of Bathurst Street United Church. Before and after the raid, they regularly invoked Feder’s name and rumoured activities to incite public opinion and embarrass the governing Liberals as unable to enforce law and order.
(Left: Les Callan editorial cartoon from the Star [November 20, 1940].)
Despite police efforts to shut down illegal gambling in the Toronto area, business was flourishing. The demand was fuelled by workers with full-time wages to spend, but wartime restrictions limiting what was available for purchase. An American sociologist, who studied the local scene in the 1940s, estimated that in addition to roughly 400 bookmaking fronts in the city—providing the primary source of income for 1,000 Torontonians—there were 10 major gambling houses beyond the city limits, including Garrity’s in Leaside, the White Castle in Scarborough, and Fred Orpen’s National Sporting Club on Humber Bay. These venues, critics estimated, could rake in upwards of $35,000 or $40,000 a night.
The Combine Club, opened by Manny Feder sometime in 1939, was reckoned to be “the most lavish joint in North America” by senior police officers. Purpose-built as a gambling palace by Feder at a cost of $80,000, the Combine Club was constructed to resemble a two-storey colonial mansion behind a row of evergreens when passed on the street. But, its handsome doorway, green-shuttered windows, and garage door were all dummies affixed to a solid brick façade. Behind the building was a 500-spot parking lot, concealed from the street by an immense 100-foot-long earth embankment.
Entrance to the club, which attracted patrons from as far afield as London, Kitchener, and Oshawa, was gained through a back door. Then, after satisfying the scrutiny of a guard through a peep-hole, guests checked their hats and coats in the cloak room before passing through another electrically controlled security door to enter the 90- by 120-foot gaming floor. Said by some to be “as big as Maple Leaf Gardens,” the gaming floor was among the largest in North America. Lit by chromium-plated floodlights and air conditioned throughout, it was packed with tables for poker, blackjack, backgammon, and dice games. Sandwiches, soft drinks, gum, and cigarettes could be procured from the modern lunch counter with nickel trim and stools covered in red leather.
Stretching the width of the north wall were the wickets, where betters placed their wagers. Blackboards above the wickets were regularly updated with odds and results of horse races by men on a catwalk. Patrons could follow race action from finely finished benches that resembled church pews on the main gaming floor, or through a large window overlooking the scene from a luxurious second-floor lounge with red leather chesterfields and a kitchen fitted with top-of-the-line Frigidaire appliances. Public address man “Buck” Dryden’s “dramatic, hoof-by-hoof” descriptions, as police put it, of races from across North America could be heard throughout the Combine Club from speakers atop a pillar in the centre of the room. In between races, music was played over the radio.
Among the staff at the Combine Club (sometimes referred to as the Combines Club) were Harry Lieberman and Harry Marshak, both hold-overs from the Brown Derby, as well as a former flyweight boxer, Morris Bowmile. One of the doormen, Harry Desenhouse (aka Mexican Pete), had a history of convictions for accepting bets, weapons, assault, and robbery charges and worked as a go-between for Bob Bossin’s father, who ran the Canadian Racing and Financial News, and his bookie subscribers. His relationship with the Feder brothers stretched back as far as 1932. Another Combine Club employee, Ben “Curly” Litman, was a more recent addition to Feder’s payroll. Involved as a gunman in “some of the most vicious armed robberies” in the Great Lakes region—including some in which clerks had been killed—Litman had been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in upstate New York before being released in March 1937 and deported to Canada. Feder “found him a useful man,” as George Drew later put it, and employed him as his “strong-arm man.”
(Left: Star [February 5, 1940].)
“Queen’s Park can clean up the gambling club scandal in the suburbs of Toronto if it wants to,” Rev. Gordon Domm thundered from his pulpit at Bathurst Street United Church at the height of his anti-gambling crusade in the winter of 1940. “Where there is a will there is a way,” he added, calling for more government action. “If there is the will at Queen’s Park to clean the thing up, there will be a way found.”
Although Domm’s campaign started with a series of rabble-rousing sermons in January 1940, its origins lay in his arrival at the church at Bathurst and Lennox in 1937. In a changing neighbourhood, the congregation’s membership was dwindling and Domm set about rebuilding it through community outreach and raising the church’s public profile. As a lifelong opponent of liquor and gambling, he was been eager for Bathurst Street United to take a lead role in debating “social questions in a religious setting and from a Christian point of view.” The spellbinding speaker latched onto the anti-gambling campaign as one of the first such opportunities in his 21 years at Bathurst United.
Sunday after Sunday, Domm preached. He wondered why suburban clubs in certain municipalities operated with impunity when a few raids, as he saw it, could clear up the whole problem. He shared heartbreaking letters from housewives desperate for relief from husbands who spent all their wages at gambling clubs. And, he described the inner workings of the gambling underworld, gathered from informants and his own visits to downtown bookies. Then, on Mondays, “Holy Joe” Atkinson, the publisher of the Star and an anti-gambling ally, dutifully reprinted Domm’s speeches in the newspaper. The irony was that the Star, like all Canadian newspapers of the day, owed much of its daily sales to the printing of the odds and results from the race track.
(Right: Globe and Mail [May 7, 1940].)
It became a point of pride for Domm that he never wavered in his campaign despite threats he received from “anonymous, sinister, and threatening forces” via mail and telephone and an offer of “financial consideration” that promised “enough money to put me on easy street” if he abandoned his crusade. Believing that the criminal underworld was striving to control or influence municipal politics in Toronto’s suburbs, Domm alleged that “highly placed politicians” had been seen frequenting gambling joints, and senior municipal officials accepted bribes or gave tip-offs of looming raids. Because of this, it didn’t faze him that the anti-gambling campaign failed to provoke much response from suburban council chambers.
Instead, Domm and his allies fixated on Attorney General Gordon Conant as the target of the crusade, urging him—as a February 1940 petition signed by more than 200 of Domm’s congregants articulated—to “use all means within your power to eliminate commercialized gambling in Toronto and adjacent municipalities.” Conant was not particularly receptive. He explained that, because he was loath to send provincial police into a municipality without first receiving a written request for assistance from the local force, his office was immediately forwarding any complaint received from Domm or anyone else to the police department concerned. But, despite his encouragement, the attorney general never received a single such request for OPP aid. In fact, towns had no problem with the situation and didn’t want OPP help. “Etobicoke has had no reason to seek the assistance of the provincial police in the past few years,” Reeve W.A. Armstrong said a few years later. “I am sure the only real solution to the problem would be to license gambling.”
(Left: Detail from George Lonn’s portrait of Hon. Gordon Daniel Conant, 1944. From Wikimedia Commons.)
To Conant’s critics, this appeared to be a deflection of responsibility. But, in fairness, Conant had been trying to solve the problem of law enforcement, or lack thereof, for more than a year, but had been continuously rebuffed by obstinate municipal politicians. “I am frank to say that I do not think the fault lies so much with the police themselves as with the governing or controlling bodies,” Conant once asserted, insisting that the greatest problems occurred in suburbs like Etobicoke where police departments were accountable directly to municipal councils, rather than independent police commissions.
At a special meeting at Queen’s Park in January 1939, he had implored the York County Police Commission to foster greater coordination among the suburban police forces to overcome the existing “lack of co-operation, petty jealousies and interpolice friction.” But, within a few months, the county police commission tabled a report insisting—with a straight face—that “no gambling existed in York County.” It’s unsurprising, then, that county officials rejected Conant’s offer to have the OPP assume primary policing duties across York County in May 1939.
Domm was well stocked with information on the various gambling palaces, teasing the public with tantalizing details about their inner workings and political connections, and threatening, at one point, to out “some important Toronto names” as gambling habitués. But, his sermons—or at least the portions reprinted in the Star—were consistently short on specifics. Sincere as his beliefs were, at times Domm’s strategy seemed to be to spread salacious rumours, without worrying much about supporting evidence, under the guise of merely asking questions. At other times, Domm seemed to have uncanny awareness of the criminal underworld.
(Left: Globe and Mail [April 14, 1942].)
Feder’s illicit enterprises, his critics insisted, ran the gamut from overseeing Toronto bookmaking, fixing races by drugging horses, bootlegging on an extensive scale, running the Combine Club, and floating games of cards and chance out of hotel rooms to bribing and corrupting police and public officials. Painting the local scene as increasing violent since J. Edgar Hoover had made the U.S. “so hot” for gangsters that many hired guns had migrated north, critics alleged that thugs in Feder’s employ had beaten rivals so brutally that they were in hospital “on the verge of death.”
During this period, there were also an increasing number of bomb threats involving gambling dens—including what police characterized as an “amateurish attempt” at dynamiting the National Sporting Club in January 1941, which led to its permanent closure shortly afterward. Some observers dismissed the threats as impetuous rants of disgruntled customers. But, there’s the strong possibility of intensifying hostilities among rival gangs during the early 1940s. “Gangsters don’t waste love, and they usually fall out somewhere along the line,” Domm said of a July 1940 bomb that hadn’t been reported to the police. “Evil sets up the conditions of its own ultimate annihilation; evil-doers, all the way from Hitler and Mussolini to ones near home, in the end turn on each other.”
Domm’s rhetoric was typical of those who viewed gamblers and gangsters as synonymous. But, for the average roadhouse visitor, Feder and his brethren were generous, big-hearted characters. “Manny was always there when anyone ever asked him to help out,” his sister-in-law once recalled. “He was always very kind to everyone.” On one occasion when he found himself in police custody, Feder covered fines for not only the found-ins from his club, but all his fellow prisoners. If a punter had a bad evening at the Brown Derby or Combine Club, Feder was known to hand them a couple dollars to tide them over.
(Right: Inspector Hammond of the Ontario Provincial Police, February 1930. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 19218.)
Much as Mitch Hepburn, the premier of Ontario, weary of the war of words, later derided the anti-gambling crusaders as “sanctimonious ministers,” they were successful in inciting public opinion and prompting government action. Citing “a substantial breakdown in law enforcement,” Conant ordered Inspector Charles W. Scott, head of the Toronto Police’s morality squad, and Inspector E.D.L. Hammond of the OPP’s Criminal Investigation Branch to initiate a raid of the Combine Club. No advance warning was given to the York County or Etobicoke police departments or their political masters. “The failure of the authorities…to ask for assistance of the Provincial Police is…not so easy to understand,” Conant clarified afterward. “It is even more difficult to believe that local authorities are unaware of [gambling dens’] existence.”
At 4:40 p.m. on November 16, 1940, a snowy Saturday afternoon, a joint squad of 30 Toronto and provincial police officers broke through the Combine Club’s back door from the nearly half-full parking lot. Unlike the time-consuming efforts to batter into the Brown Derby, Hammond and Scott’s men got through the club’s numerous doors in a matter of minutes. Inside, just before the first police knock, the lights flashed off and on two or three times—a signal, police said, from a lookout in a nearby building. “A raid!” someone yelled, touching off momentary panic as patrons rushed to find an exit. “It’s all right. It’s the police. Sit down,” came a voice to calm the crowd, and panic gave way to quiet reservation. “They took it philosophically,” a Star reporter surmised. A few men smiled at their stroke of bad luck. As Hammond entered, Lieberman, who’d been Feder’s lieutenant at the Brown Derby, greeted him with a friendly laugh: “I see you wanted to make it a double.”
Fred Pickett, who identified himself as the manager, and Philip Feder, who claimed to be just a friend of Pickett’s, were found in the office behind the wickets—the latter with $1,545 on his person. They, and 14 others charged as keepers, were separated from the nearly 300 found-ins. After having their identification recorded, the found-ins snacked on sandwiches, drank coffee, and smoked cigarettes while waiting for their spot in a van transporting them to a variety of city police cells—a slow task, across icy roads, that took until past midnight. Meanwhile, to motorists passing on the street, the Combine Club still looked open for business, and police reported at least 150 would-be patrons pulled up and hastily departed.
In York County Police Court on Monday morning, the found-ins were brought before the bench in groups of 30 to register their guilty plea and be fined $25. Acting for the customers, Feder’s defence attorney, Eddie Murphy, good-naturedly griped about the price increase from the standard fine of $5 or $10, but peeled over $7,000 off a thick wad of bills to clear all the penalties. Domm, who urged more raids, thought the punishment for found-ins was too lenient, and advocated reporting their names to credit agencies.
Although it was one of the largest gambling busts in Canadian history, the police sweep failed on two major points. First, Feder was not only away from the Combine Club that evening, but police also couldn’t directly link him to the establishment. While a search of the office and cashier area turned up construction-related paperwork and telephone contracts, Feder’s name didn’t appear on any of it.
Second, although betting slips and poker chips strewn across the gaming room floor suggested many thousands of dollars worth of business transacted at the Combine Club that night, police recovered only $2,000 from the premises. That was nowhere near enough for the house to cover wagers for 300 customers. With orders to “strip the club to the bare walls,” the police conducted a thorough search, dismantled the gambling equipment, and removed the race results blackboards from the wall. No potential hiding place was overlooked. Yet, they couldn’t find any more money. Eventually giving up the search as futile, police estimated that between $25,000 and $50,000 had been hastily distributed among employees who then slipped into the crowd of found-ins, none of whom were searched. Police believed the club operators had practiced this money hand-off “like a fire alarm drill,” and were so successful that not even the undercover man police had inside at the time of the raid detected what was happening.
When it came time to haul the contents—everything from the dice tables and loudspeakers to the chesterfields and Frigidaire stove—to police storage, officers discovered two dozen decks of cards, 50 pairs of dice, 50 pounds of butter, and a garden hose were missing. Two constables standing guard over the weekend would be temporarily suspended from duty as a result.
John McConnell, Etobicoke’s chief of police, publicly thanked the provincial police for undertaking a large-scale raid for which his force had neither the equipment nor manpower to conduct. But, behind the scenes, according to later statements by OPP Commissioner W.H. Stringer, the police chief admitted that he “had been instructed by the reeve to lay off the club,” as a 1951 Globe and Mail news report put it.
(Right: Star [November 28, 1940].)
Once again, Conant took the opportunity to urge reform of municipal police systems, threatening to launch an investigation of Etobicoke police inaction. Conant insisted that the Combine Club raid illustrated the benefit “if not the necessity, for the co-ordination of all police forces in the Province.” In November 1943, at the province’s initiation, the Etobicoke Police were reorganized to be “free from politics,” as historian Robert A. Given put it, with a new three-person police commission comprised of the reeve, a county judge, and a police magistrate.
In early December, Pickett and the 15 others accused of operating the Combine Club were brought before Magistrate William Keith in York County Police Court facing a combination of charges for keeping a common betting house, keeping a common gaming house, possessing liquor illegally, and obstructing police officers. “It is a wonder the Crown does not charge us with another offense because a picture of a nude woman was found,” Murphy deadpanned at one point in the proceedings.
The trials, which prosecuted the betting and gaming house charges separately, were not as thoroughly covered by reporters as the Brown Derby trial had been in 1938. Once again, Scott and Hammond had sent their undercover operatives to the Combine Club to place bets on horse races and play table games in the weeks leading up to the raid. But this time, due to the “businesslike manner the club ran,” as Crown Attorney J.W. McFadden put it, the witnesses were unable to clearly identify the gaming floor duties performed by many of the defendants.
(Left: Star [December 11, 1940].)
Pickett, who also pled guilty to keeping a disorderly house and the liquor charge, was found guilty of both betting and gaming offences and was sentenced to a fine and a total of six months in jail. Dryden, the club’s announcer and a mainstay of Toronto racetracks and radio, and Harry Lazier, a blackboard marker, were sentenced to a fine and three months on the betting charges. Lieberman, Marshak, Thomas Rashkin, and George Jameson—who the undercover men had fingered as operators of dice and card tables—were sentenced to fines and at least three months on gaming charges. All others saw their charges reduced to being found-in and paid small fines.
“I hope your worship will remember that we’ve paid approximately $8,000 in fines already,” Murphy quipped with typical wit. Magistrate Keith wasn’t amused. “There has been a good deal of levity shown in this court during this case,” he scolded. “While we may think that gambling is not harmful and should be legal we should remember that the people elect members to parliament who enact these laws…The laws are there and until they are changed they will have to be enforced.”
The magistrate ordered the police to return all cash taken from the found-ins, including Philip Feder’s $1,545. Despite rumours, relayed by Domm, that confiscated gambling equipment had made its way back to the Combine Club, everything save some ordinary furnishings was scheduled to be destroyed by police in a “bonfire and sledge-hammer party” in late January.
(Right: Star [November 18, 1940].)
Rumours that the Combine Club was back in business—or on the brink of reopening—persisted among the anti-gambling crowd until at least April 1942, but the attorney general’s office denied having any such reports from front-line officers. It’s unlikely it ever did reopen. Within days of the raid, Pickett had publicly mused about offering its premises to be a war-time training facility for Polish airmen. In early 1944, real windows were punched through exterior wall and, by March, the building had been converted into a factory producing for the war effort. In 1945, the 15-acre site became a modern film, and later television, production facility, operating first as Queensway Studios, then Sovereign Studios, and later occupied by Batten Films. Finally, no later than the early 1970s, the former Combine Club site at 1640 Queensway became home to a gas station and eventually a shopping plaza anchored by a Canadian Tire.
Domm wasn’t entirely satisfied by the outcome of the November 1940. Other suburban clubs had gone temporarily quiet in its wake, he said. But within a few days, they were “running high, wide and handsome again.” By early January 1941, he was at the pulpit again urging a public inquiry into the Combine Club’s construction. “Who were and are now its owners? In whose name was the club registered? Under what circumstances, to whom and by whom was the building permit granted? Who are and have been the financial backers?” he demanded to know. “We will not get the root causes of this social evil until these questions are answered.”
And, Domm questioned how the great embankment hiding the parking lot was built. “Does the highways department know anything about this?” he asked. “Is it true that the earth used to make this ramp around the [Combine Club] was brought from highways department jobs and in highways department trucks?” It was a scandalous assertion/accusation, implicating Hepburn’s Liberals in the club’s origins, but one made from the cover of merely asking questions. “If there is anything of truth in these reports,” he concluded, “the people of Ontario have a right to know it.” The deputy minister of highways didn’t rule out the possibility a private contractor had acted without his department’s knowledge, but the question was never pursued further.
On April 13, 1942, Conservative leader George Drew stood in the provincial assembly and launched into a concerted attack on the attorney general’s lack of action against suburban casinos. His commentary touched off a heated, three-day debate so highly publicized that some prominent members of the city’s gambling fraternity were rumoured to be watching from the crowded galleries.
Characterizing police efforts as “token raids,” Drew’s Conservative Opposition thought Conant showed leniency, instead of using the full breadth of his powers to address illegal gambling. “There are many people,” Conant responded, outlining the challenges of shutting down illegal dens, “who believe that all you’ve got to do is to take a gang out and surround the place. All you would find would be a bunch of dupes without any evidence about who the keepers were.” Furthermore, he argued, he was powerless to force police magistrates to issue stiffer sentences. “You can’t control it by fines,” he added. “They must be closed for good long stretches. We instruct crown attorneys to press for jail terms, but the sentence is up to the magistrate.”
He believed the Opposition’s demands were beyond his power, but the Conservatives disagreed. “Let me be in your place for twelve hours,” Leopold Macaulay, Conservative member for York South, glibly told Conant, “and I’ll close them up.” Later in the debate, Macaulay proposed hiring unemployed men as constables and stationing them outside suspected casinos night and day to scare off customers.
Basing his arguments on information given by the United Church of Canada—and almost certainly originating with Domm himself—Drew focused his criticisms on Feder, who he said was still active as the “overlord of the underworld.” From a luxury apartment near Queen’s Park, Drew asserted, Feder had extended his control over Toronto gambling “like an octopus,” hiring the likes of Litman as muscle and earning hundreds of thousands in illicit income each year. “If the Attorney-General doesn’t know that,” Drew said of Feder’s extensive criminal enterprises later in the debate, “then his files are not complete.”
(Right: Globe and Mail [April 16, 1942].)
“I despise Manny Feder and all of his kind, but it is an entirely different matter than rumor and suspicion,” Conant declared at one point in the debate, again invoking the difficulty of securing enough evidence for a conviction. Before the debate was over, Drew reported receiving threats from two sources he suspected of being connected to Feder. “I am a Canadian and I am not going to stop my demands for a clean Canada because of threats from rats of this kind,” Drew affirmed to applause in the House.
The beleaguered attorney general presented his solutions on the afternoon of April 15. First, he introduced An Act Respecting Gaming and Betting Houses, a measure conceived that very morning and finalized just minutes before Conant entered the legislature. The bill enabled the authorities to padlock any place for which a conviction on betting or gaming charges had been registered within the preceding three months, preventing its use “for all or any purposes for any period not exceeding one year.” The bill was hastily pushed through first, second, and third readings that afternoon and evening to fast-track its passage before the session’s prorogation the next day. Drew was disappointed that the bill didn’t go further. “I hope a place like the Combine Club…will not only be padlocked but dynamited and blown out of existence,” he explained.
Second, Conant announced the creation of an OPP Anti-Gambling Squad “empowered to enter any municipality where it is believed local police are not taking effective action” against gambling. “If there are thugs and racketeers in this Province as alleged, they had better make immediate plans to migrate elsewhere,” Conant concluded. “Ontario will not be a healthy place for such people. They will be pursued and persecuted until it will be correct to say that the Province of Ontario has been rid of thugs, racketeers and gunmen and that their works have been eliminated.”
In its first eight months after entering service on May 1, the Anti-Gambling Squad led to nearly 300 prosecutions on gaming or betting charges and $13,000 in fines. In 1943, the squad raided over 300 premises suspected of hosting illegal gambling. Drew, however, wasn’t satisfied with the performance of “Conant’s Commandos,” as he dubbed the squad, and argued that its officers were handicapped by the attorney general’s hesitancy to enforce his own padlock policy against barbers and cigar stores owners acting as small-time bookmakers.
(Left: Globe and Mail [April 2, 1943].)
“The time has come to end this pretense about the gambling racket having been stopped,” Drew announced in the House on April 1, 1943. “While it is true that most of the gambling palaces have been closed, gambling hasn’t been stopped.” He argued that “Manny Feder and his gang [were still] operating on a large scale in Toronto,” having shuttered his bricks-and-mortar club in favour of hosting dice and cards games from a succession of hotel rooms. The Conservatives’ goal, with a provincial election looming, was to rehash the old critiques of Liberals being soft on gamblers and racketeers—and the strategy ultimately proved successful with the Conservatives winning the provincial election in August 1943. But Drew may have been working off outdated information because, by the next morning’s papers, Feder had chimed in from his farm in Temperanceville, north of Richmond Hill. He vehemently denied any ongoing involvement in illegal gambling. “I am trying to live down my past and forget it all,” he insisted and issued a sincere invitation for Drew to visit and help him milk the cows.
By May 1942, Feder, his wife Frances, and their adopted son had moved to a Tudor mansion on more than 300 acres, and settled into the life of a full-time dairy farmer. He was praised, in these later years, for doing “a good job producing food for the war effort,” for possessing “one of the district’s finest herd of cattle,” and for his generous support for numerous local charities.
“Surely there is a law of compensation which prevents a cheap politician from seizing on a taxpayer’s name and bandying it around like dirt,” Feder complained of Drew’s slander in April 1943. “And Col. Drew shouldn’t have to stoop to those methods, even if he is on the eve of an election and must attract attention. Those methods are exactly like those of a child who makes faces and hides behind mother’s skirt: he can say what he likes in the Legislature and be protected from the recourse of law which covers other citizens.”
(Right: Star [October 20, 1947].)
When Drew rebuffed his invitation, Feder energetically returned downtown to briefly reconnect and joke with his old friends in the gambling fraternity. “There he became his old self quickly,” James Y. Nicol recalled in the Globe and Mail. By then Feder was dealing with ill-health. He suffered two strokes by the time he was 35, was diagnosed with high blood pressure, and lost 135 pounds in one year on a doctor-ordered diet. The next time he ventured into the city, but he was no longer the same man. “It was plain that Manny was slipping and would have to take things quieter and not let the dominoes gallop too hard on him,” Nicol lamented. Feder died at Toronto General Hospital, at the age of 37, on October 20, 1947, leaving an estate valued at $77,878 (or nearly $1,000,000 in today’s dollars).
It’s impossible to know whether Manny Feder truly retired from crime, or had merely taken a more hands-off role. In moving to the country, he had set up a number of his “boys” in legitimate, but unspecified, businesses. Some of his associates seemed to go clean. Philip Feder and partners invested $100,000 to open Tops Restaurant, a long-standing presence at Yonge and Dundas, in 1948, and Marshak eventually became owner of Winfields Restaurant at Wellington and York. Yet both Marshak and Philip were arrested on gaming and betting charges in the late 1940s, and the latter was a victim of an attempted hold-up at his Forest Hill home in 1947—until he and his three pre-teen children fought off their armed intruders. Whatever their intentions, at least some folks had the impression they were still involved in crime.
Ben Litman, on the other hand, remained clearly planted on the wrong side of the law. He became proprietor of the Atlas Sporting Club—the social club under whose charter the Brown Derby (and, more than likely, the Combine Club) operated. From second-floor premises at Spadina and Dundas, the club was a hangout for gamblers and criminals and suspected to be part of a betting ring focused on hockey games. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the authorities tried to put the club out of business; the Litman name (sometimes spelled Littman or Leitman) regularly appeared in the papers in connection to betting and gaming charges, as the victim of armed robberies, and for his involvement in a shooting (with Jack Pearl, doorman at the former Brown Derby, as the intended target). Finally, in 1962, after a protracted appeals process, provincial authorities succeeded in rescinding its charter.
Gambling remained big business, with $150,000 or $200,000 bet through illegal channels every day in Toronto, according to 1949 Financial Post estimates. But the bosses changed with Max Bluestein, Joseph McDermott, and Vincent Feeley—the latter pair with an Anti-Gambling Squad officer on their payroll—emerging to replace Feder through the mid-1940s and beyond.
Thanks to Denise Harris, Chief Historian of the Etobicoke Historical Society for additional sources and suggestions.
Sources consulted: Bob Bossin, Davy The Punk (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2014); Jim Coleman, A Hoofprint On My Heart (McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1971); Jim Coleman, “Ten Bucks on the Nose, Joe,” Maclean’s (April 15, 1944); Trent Frayne, “Vice Squad,” Maclean’s (June 1, 1948); Robert A. Given, Etobicoke Remembered (Pro Familia Publishing, 2007); Denise Harris, “Abe Orpen in Etobicoke,” The Aldernews (March 2013); Dahn D. Higley, OPP: The History of the Ontario Provincial Police Force (The Queen’s Printer, 1984); Adam Howell and Denise Harris, “Etobicoke: Township of Vice,” The Aldernews (March 2013); Norman Jolly, “The House at 380 Sherbourne Street,” The Aldernews (September 2000); Sammy Luftspring, with Brian Swarbick, Call Me Sammy (Prentice-Hall of Canada, Ltd., 1975); Suzanne Morton, At Odds: Gambling and Canadians 1919-1969 (University of Toronto Press, 2003); Stephen Schneider, Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada (John Wiley & Sons, 2009); Jocko Thomas, From Police Headquarters (Stoddart, 1990); and articles from the Newmarket Era and Express, the Ottawa Citizen; the Toronto Globe, the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Toronto Telegram.
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