Small Town Citizen
A Book Review
By Marty Johnson
Clare County Historical Society Member
When Robert Knapp published his book "Mystery Man" about gangster attorney and Clare resident Isaiah Leebove in 2014, he got little if any pushback from residents. But then few knew much about Leebove, other than he was murdered at the Doherty Hotel in 1938. Plus, no one was around to share personal stories and memories of the man.
Now, Knapp has written a new book, “Small-Town Citizen, Minion of the Mob: Sam Garfield’s Two Lives. The Purple Gang, Meyer Lansky, and Life in Clare Michigan.” I had the chance to review an early copy and it will be interesting to see whether this new book gets the same lack of a reaction. That's because many people who knew Garfield when he lived in the City of Clare are still alive. Plus, many appreciate to this day the kindness and generosity Garfield and wife, Ruby, showed them and the city, and they might think "Sam was a good person" whose memory should be left alone.
But Sam, the quiet and kindly Clare citizen, was just one side of Sam Garfield. There was another side to the man. This other Garfield was a scammer, gambler and racketeer, a man who worked with gangsters such as the Purple Gang, Meyer Lansky and Moe Dalitz and who laundered mobster money made through extortion, prostitution and gambling and who ran bookmaking operations in various states and even ran financial scams to take money from unsuspecting citizens.
The book Knapp has written covers Garfield's life from his birth in 1899 to his death in 1981. Although on the road a lot, Sam called Clare home from around 1929 to 1977. He died at his retirement home in California at the age of 82.
Living in Detroit, Sam came to the Clare area with business partner Isaiah Leebove to take advantage of the just-starting oil boom. Although Sam never went past the eighth grade in school, he had a knack for running businesses; some of them, like bookmaking, of an illegal variety, but some like the oil businesses he started were quite legit.
Knapp has written a balanced account of Garfield's life. He documents both Garfield's illegal activities and mob connections as well as Garfield's well-known generosity including cash, food and gifts to people in Clare, and renovating the city library to memorialize his wife, Ruby. Clarites will recognize many of the locals Knapp interviewed in writing the book. Others like Isaiah Leebove and Father Joseph Scruba, the priest at St. Cecilia's from 1946 to 1970, also make an appearance. As Knapp did with “Mystery Man”, there are plenty of footnotes – 506 in all.
One of the other names in the book that may also register is that of Meyer Lansky, who was an associate of Sam's and who came to Clare several times a year during the 1950s and 1960s to socialize with Sam and Ruby. However, many readers may not realize just what an important and powerful mob figure Lansky was, and how big an impact he had in gambling in places such as pre-Castro Havana, Cuba, and Las Vegas, Nevada, where gambling was legal, and Miami, Florida, where it was not. Luckily, Knapp provides several epilogues that go into more detail. One of them provides background information on Lansky and another covers the connection between mobsters and gambling. There is also an epilogue on the Bernstein brothers who were the leaders of the Purple Gang and who trusted Garfield to invest and launder their money.
I'm still not quite sure why Knapp calls Garfield a "minion," which seems to imply a simple follower or underling. Although Garfield stayed in the background for the most part he played an important and trusted role for a number of mobsters and most likely a lucrative role (one year it is said Sam made $27 million). In the book, Knapp himself says, “Sam was a successful entrepreneur both on his own behalf and others’ and in both legal and illegal activities. He provided valuable services to gangsters and was respected by them.”
Some may wonder why write a book on Garfield that airs the darker side of his life, a life that Sam kept mostly out of Clare. There may not be one right answer. First, Sam didn't deny some of the less wholesome parts of his life and even sometimes embellished the truth, such as telling people he was a member of the Purple Gang (he wasn't) and that he owned a casino in Havana, Cuba (he didn't). But the answer I came away with is that maybe Sam wanted the story told. Knapp relates that just before leaving Clare for the final time in 1977, Garfield called Forrest Meek to his office and for two-and-a-half hours told Meek his life story, including the bad. Garfield knew Meek was a historian. He must have known that Meek might well publish the information.
Well, Meek didn't, but Robert Knapp did, and he's done a fine job writing about a complex man and providing a lot of background information besides.
Robert Knapp will present his new book at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23 at the Pere Marquette District Library in Clare.