I have been trying to understand the life of Gladys Girgenti. Eventually, I’m going to have to talk to her family and I want to know exactly what questions I need to ask them. I know it’s going to be uncomfortable for them and I want to make it as non-floundering as possible.
I don’t think I suspect Gladys in the earlier bombings, but as of right now, she strikes me as someone who is absolutely well-positioned to know who did do them. I go back and forth on this.
My main question at the moment is whether and how she might be tied in to the guys who were arrested for the Hattie Cotton bombing. I have a sense that I am constantly brushing up against a structure I can’t see–a web of relationships that would make clear how this could happen and how no one has narced, for fifty years. I don’t know what that web is–family, childhood church membership, parents all in the same Klan unit, or ties to the illegal gambling halls on that side of the river, or something that happened in Bells Bend.
But it’s a lot of people who’ve kept their mouths shut for a long time, especially for bombings where no one was killed. There has to be some mechanism by which that silence is enforced, some shared pressure.
Anyway, this requires looking at Gladys’s life, which, frankly, seems pretty fucking brutal. Her two older half-brothers were tried twice for killing a guy in a robbery gone wrong (I think they must have eventually gotten their convictions overturned since they were sentenced to 99 years, but were out and living their lives by 1960). Then, when she was 15, she married her 37 year old neighbor, which you know I’m feeling rather gross about.
By 1960, she’s in Detroit, married to Nick Girgenti, who had a million brothers, not all of whom were scary robbers, but Nick was among them that were. He did quite a bit of time. Nick had a daughter born in 1954, but I don’t know anything about her other than that, in the late 60s, she shot him. (Which parallels what Carroll Crimmons’s son did to him). I suspect she wasn’t Gladys’s child, because her kids with Nick came in the 60s, before he got shot.
Gladys said they left Detroit because her house was firebombed during a race riot in ’71 and then the stress of it killed her husband. As we’ve talked about, there were no race riots in Detroit in ’71, no firebombings, except for the white people rioting about busing and the firebombing of the Pontiac school buses.
She came back here and spent the 70s being a single mom and raising her kids and belonging to the Klan. She then seems to have run into the “Sunday School teacher” equivalent in the Klan, where the smart, capable women are shuttled off into taking care of the children while the men get to have all the fun. Gladys, allegedly, had enough and tried to kill one of the Klan leaders, thus getting herself kicked out of the Klan.
She then formed her own ultraviolent terrorist cell and tried to bomb the Temple.
I don’t know how to describe what I feel about Gladys. I don’t feel sorry for her, exactly. Northwest Davidson County was a rough place when she was growing up. Lots of girls got messed with and saw family members in and out of jail and they didn’t join the Klan and live lives curiously adjacent to many Klan bombings.
But I do see someone whose life was hard and mean and she became hard and mean to survive it. And I wish that her life had not been hard and mean. And that’s how I feel. I wish she had some luckier breaks.