Mobsters in the vacationlands

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Image: Eli Skates, Flickr

By Eric Freedman

Northern Michigan – land of hunters and resorters, anglers and campers, sightseers and birders.

Sure.

But Northern Michigan – land of mobsters, gamblers, gun molls and booze smugglers?

That too, according to Robert Knapp, the author of the newly released “Gangsters Up North: Mobsters, Mafia and Racketeers in Michigan’s Vacationlands” (Cliophile Press, $24.95).

Image: Cliophile Press

From crime boss and occasional visitor “Scarface” Al Capone to the Upper Peninsula’s own Public Enemy #1, John “Red” Hamilton, Up North has historic ties to organized crime and the baddies who used the area as a playground far from their normal haunts in Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland and elsewhere.

“Gangsters just joined the millions of others who came north. Sometimes they, too, simply sought rest and relaxation at a cabin, a gangster-friendly retreat or a resort hotel,” wrote Knapp, a retired University of California-Berkley professor of ancient history, who grew up in Mount Pleasant and spends part of the year at his great-grandfather’s old farmhouse near Clare.

“Other times, they saw opportunities for furthering their own interests in gambling, bootlegging and even kidnapping, bank robbery and murder,” he wrote.

Chicago-area mobsters during and after Prohibition generally preferred the Lake Michigan shoreline, while those based in Detroit often opted for the lakes and forests of the sparsely populated northeast Lower Peninsula, Knapp said.

Some of these visitors are a prominent part of American crime lore, starting with Capone. Other equally ruthless mobsters are little-remembered today, such as the four Bernstein brothers of Detroit’s infamous Purple Gang.

How did a professor specializing in the experience of ancient Rome on the Iberian Peninsula – the locale of Spain and Portugal – end up researching the holidaying habits of gangsters in Northern Michigan?

“I’m an historian and always looking for historical things, not necessarily to write about but to learn about,” he said.

There’s also the local connection.

Knapp’s father heard gunshots from the 1938 murder of Isaiah Leebove, a former fixer for “mega-gangster Arnold Rothstein” in Clare’s Doherty Hotel. And his grandmother was warned not to go down the street of the same town where Purple Gang cofounder Sam Garfield lived.

“I continued to be fascinated by these guys,” he said.

Separating myth from fact was a challenge complicated by  sensationalistic newspaper coverage of real and imagined gangster activity, hype to promote tourism, local lore and second-hand and third-hand family lore.

“Most people are content to repeat the stories they heard or read without digging deep,” he said.

It’s likely that Capone spent part of at least one summer at a lake near Lansing and visited Southwest Michigan cities near Lake Michigan such as Benton Harbor, Knapp said. However, his  sightings Up North at Muskegon, Oceana County, Lake County, Lake Ann, the Escanaba and Iron River areas and other locations remain undocumented and unproven.

But some events that initially sounded mythical proved to be factual.

When Knapp read about celebrity gangster John Dillinger coming to Sault Ste. Marie in 1934, “I originally put that in the myths.” After all, it was a 500-mile drive from Chicago, much of it on gravel roads.

But it turned out to be true. Dillinger made the road trip with gangmate John Hamilton, who grew up in the Soo, Knapp said, citing evidence from Hamilton’s sister who lived there.

There’s practically nothing left of the places mobsters patronized, he said. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island – once a hotbed of illegal gambling – and the Doherty Hotel in Clare are notable exceptions.

The Ramona Park Casino in Harbor Springs, partially financed by Cheboygan gambling racketeer Mert Wertheimer, is long gone. So is the Club Manitou, a speakeasy and casino also in Harbor Springs.

South Branch Ranch, once a “rest and relaxation retreat for Detroit mobsters” southeast of Grayling, is now a golf course

And the Montmorency County Savings Bank in Hillman, scene of a 1930 robbery that triggered a manhunt for the crooks by hundreds of area residents and law enforcement personnel, is now an antique store.

Local police didn’t bother vacationing gangsters, according to Knapp.

“I never ran across any law enforcement people who gave a hoot for the fact some of these guys were underworld characters. Not in Roscommon County, not in Cheboygan County, not in Emmet County.

“There was no violence,” he said.

“In resort areas, which side of the toast is the butter on?” he continued. “They knew the casinos were the lifeline of Little Traverse Bay and Charlevoix and Mackinac Island.”

While gangsters wined and dined and gambled and partied with impunity, local police focused on enforcing Prohibition – but only against local residents, he said.

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