For months I looked forward to Robert Knapp’s new book launch at the Pere Marquette District Library. Like many other events it was canceled due to travel restrictions and stay at home orders. I was delighted when Knapp sent me a signed copy of Gangsters Up North, Mobsters, Mafia and Racketeers in Michigan’s Vacationlands.
The real-life stories that Knapp digs up are more entertaining than any fiction. Many tales have been spun over the years from vague or assumed details to entertain tourists and create an air of mystery surrounding many places. Knapp delivers the fascinating lives of well-known characters and their associates and how they had an impact on “Up North.”
With chapters like Purple Crude (about the Purple Gang) and Capone (Almost) Never Slept Here we can easily understand how these intriguing individuals created legends everywhere they traveled. I appreciate a myth busted or proven true—the research is the fun but often difficult part. Knapp does that work for us and his tales delight.
My favorite chapter (besides Capone) is about Harry Bennett. I was particularly looking forward to reading about Harry Bennett and his connection to Henry Ford and Bennett’s lodge in Lake, Michigan. In 2018 when Knapp was researching his book myself and a few other members of the Clare County Historical Society were invited on the research tour of the former Lost Lake Boy Scout Camp, site of Bennett’s up north lodge on 2,300 acres. Seeing Knapp in action with clipboard and research questions in hand I knew this book would be worth the wait. While it may disappoint some that the fun Boy Scout tales of escape tunnels, spike-riddled moats and roof top machine guns aren’t true, Bennett’s life story is so interesting and it’s noteworthy that Clare county is part of his story.
Clare is mentioned often in the book and had its share of questionable characters pass through or stay awhile. Isaiah Leebove was one, attorney for mobsters and oil companies that was shot at the Doherty Hotel by one-time friend and associate Jack Livingston. Leebove was the subject of Knapp’s 2014 book Mystery Man, Gangsters, Oil, and Murder in Michigan. Another was Sam Garfield, the topic of Knapp’s 2018 book Small Town Citizen Minion of the Mob: Sam Garfield’s Two Lives, The Purple Gang Meyer Lansky and Life in Clare Michigan. Their stories are included in Gangsters and obviously were intriguing enough to Knapp to create a larger work about other Northern Michigan legends outside of Clare. For this we are grateful, Gangsters puts a picture together of how ‘Up North’ was sometimes just a vacation destination for gangsters and their families and other times they took the opportunity to benefit their own interests the way they knew how; gambling, investing, intimidating, bootlegging or even bank robbing.
Gangsters is an entertaining read overall and will appeal to the casual reader of history and those seeking sources and documentation who may have heard one too many tall tales.