Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Bennett, Harry

Harry Bennett, Henry Ford’s personal assistant, bodyguard, and enforcer, was born in 1892 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1909 to 1916, where he took up boxing. Accounts vary on how Bennet was introduced to Ford. One possibility is that he was spotted by a newspaper columnist during a street brawl and sent to Ford. Ford hired Bennett as a watchman at Ford Rouge Complex and in 1926 he was promoted to organize and lead the infamous “Ford Service Department,” Ford Motor Company’s internal police force and union-busting department.

Bennett hired ex-athletes, former criminals, and tough characters to patrol the Rouge to keep workers from organizing a labor union. Ford allowed Bennett to use whatever means necessary—including flogging employees—to keep the union out of the plant. In addition to patrolling the plant and using spies and anti-union groups to intimidate fellow workers in their own neighborhoods, Bennett’s people created such a pervasive atmosphere of fear that both blue-collar and white-collar employees constantly feared losing their jobs. 

Bennett became indispensable to Ford, with his authority second only to Henry and his son, Edsel. His salary was never revealed but was generous enough for him to own a 100-acre island, a 75-foot yacht, a “castle” near Ypsilanti, Michigan, a summer home on Grosse Ile, Michigan, and a 60-acre estate in Palm Springs, California. Most of his properties included defensive features such as escape tunnels, moats, and gun towers.

Of all Bennett’s brutalities, two of the most notorious are the killing by Ford Service Department employees of four workers and wounding of 60 others after the March 7, 1932 Hunger March, and the so-called “Battle of the Overpass” on May 26, 1937. On that day, Walter Reuther and other union organizers, witnessed by a Detroit News photographer, arrived to distribute pro-union organizing leaflets at the pedestrian overpass to Gate 4 of the Ford Rouge Plant on Miller Road. While posing for a picture on the overpass, Bennett and as many as 40 members of the Service Department came up behind the union men and beat them severely. No charges were filed.

Henry Ford wanted Bennett to succeed him after Edsel Ford died in 1943, however, the Ford Family disliked Bennett. In 1945, the family convinced Henry to appoint his grandson, Henry Ford II, as president of the company, who promptly fired Bennett. Bennett retired to California where he died on January 4, 1979.



“Taking the Guns” painting by Harry Bennett, 1919 – 1984.007.001

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