February 26, 2021

A Gangland Murder at the Crossroads

The Doherty Hotel
By Tom Carr | Jan. 23, 2021

On a Saturday Night in May 1938, Isaiah Leebove strolled into the Hotel Doherty, the four-story brick building in the center of downtown Clare, [Michigan]. Leebove’s wife, Enid, had asked him to go to town and get her some ice cream. Little didLeebove know, a disgruntled former business partner was watching him and had murder on his mind.
That former partner was Jack Livingston, known as “Tex” by friends and associates because he grew up in Houston. He saw Leebove step into the door that led to the hotel restaurant, so he ran up to the room in the Doherty in which he’d been living. Livingston picked up the .38-caliber handgun he kept there, stuffed it in his clothing and went down to the restaurant.

Livingston found a booth near the table where Leebove had sat down to chat with a fellow lawyer, Byron Geller, and his wife Elizabeth.

Leebove and Geller had a friendly relationship as they were both attorneys, though they had different backgrounds. Geller had been a newspaper reporter in Windsor, Ontario, then assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan, and now had a private practice in Clare.

Leebove, on the other hand, had practiced law in New York City and had represented some heavy hitters in organized crime, including mobsters like Salvatore Spitale and Irving Bitz—go-betweens in the ransom negotiations for the Lindbergh baby. He also represented Arnold Rothstein, a gangster involved in gambling who is believed to have helped fix the 1919 World Series. His legal services extended to members of Detroit’s Purple Gang as well. Leebove claimed he had left his practice in New York and came to Clare because he was tired of working for “scum.” Others have said he came because he felt the heat of the law breathing down his neck in the Big Apple.

As Livingston sat at the booth hearing Leebove talk and laugh with the Gellers, he felt the heavy gun at his side. He’d been considering what he’d wanted to do for some time now.

Livingston and Leebove’s association started a few years prior after oil was discovered in central Michigan and the two men started drilling and investing near Clare. They joined forces and their venture eventually became Mammoth Producing & Refining Co., which grew into the largest oil company east of the Mississippi.

But they often argued bitterly over how to run the company. Due to their volatile relationship, Livingston eventually left the company that had made both him and Leebove a lot of money. Leebove was still doing well, having built a luxurious log home on the Tobacco River that he called Tobacco Ranch. He and Enid, a former showgirl from Canada, entertained the wealthy and powerful at the ranch, including ex-Gov. William Comstock, whose campaign he helped bankroll.

Livingston, on the other hand, had squandered his earnings and was now hurting for cash. His hatred of Leebove ate at him, or as he said later, “He ruined my soul.” He claimed his former partner had cheated him out of everything. And he had convinced himself that his former associate had used his friendship with Meyer Lansky—a well-known New York crime figure—to order a hit on him.

Now, sitting in the restaurant a few feet from the object of his resentment, Livingston figured he had thought about it enough. He stood up, walked over to Isaiah Leebove’s table, pointed the .38 at him and began firing. The shots blew Leebove off his chair, as a stunned Geller stood up. Leebove writhed on the floor, gasping, “Jack, Jack, why?”

In the sudden melee, Geller noticed that he too had taken two bullets in his leg. Jack “Tex” Livingston walked over to Harry Wehrly, the assistant manager of the hotel, handed him his gun and went upstairs to his rented room, accompanied by a bellhop, to quietly wait for the police.

A doctor heard of the shooting and ran to the hotel within minutes, only to declare Isaiah Leebove dead at the age of 42. The chaotic crowd was soon joined by Enid, who had heard that her husband was shot and sped downtown to the Doherty. She saw her lifeless husband and collapsed, sobbing.

Livingston sat in his room dictating to the bellhop a message for his father, expecting the police at any minute. He went with them peacefully as they led him to their car and to the county jail in Harrison.

Livingston stood trial for the murder. There was no question and no argument that he had indeed shot a bullet through Leebove’s heart, in cold blood and in a restaurant in front of several witnesses. Yet his defense convinced the court that he had acted in a state of temporary insanity.

The jury acquitted Livingston, though he was committed for a short time to a northern Michigan mental institution. He died of a drug overdose ten years later in New Jersey.

The shooting remains a curiosity to this day, particularly to those visiting the Doherty Hotel. The mob ties are often part of the narrative, as they should be. Detroit and New York gangsters had dealings with Mammoth and other connections in the local oil industry. And Leebove’s ties with Lansky certainly played into Livingston’s deadly paranoia.

But in the end, it appears to have been a crime committed out of very personal paranoia and animosity.

Excerpted from “Dark Side of the Mitten: Crimes of Power & Powerful Criminals in Michigan’s Past & Present” by Tom Carr."

IF YOU GO
The Doherty Hotel, which sits at the intersection of three major roadways — US-10, M-115, and US-127 — is often called the Crossroads because Clare sits halfway to everywhere in the Lower Peninsula. The original hotel, founded by late Senator Alfred James Doherty in 1924, contained sixty rooms, each with hot and cold running water and only some with a tub or shower.  In addition to the Clare Public Library, a coffee shop, soda fountain shop, barbershop, and other essentials like “a refrigerator room,” the ground floor also housed Senator Doherty’s office. In 1969, his grandson Alfred James Doherty III, took the helm and over the next several decades, substantially expanded the hotel with the help of his two sons, Dean and Jim, who have continued their family legacy. In addition to several meeting rooms, 157 total guest rooms, an indoor pool, historic Leprechaun Lounge and dining room, plans are underway for a 10,000-square-foot conference center. Nearby amenities include several hiking, biking, and snowmobile trails, and access to more than a dozen golf courses. Room rates, which include free Wi-Fi, start at $99. Rooms with king-size bed, fireplace, jacuzzi, and fridge start at $143. To learn more or book, visit dohertyhotel.net or call (989) 386-3441. 

Photo above, courtesy of Mission Point Press, appeared in the Lansing State Journal, May 16, 1938: "The Doherty Hotel in Clare, where the murder occurred on the bottom floor. The Leebove shooting is still a source of curiosity to hotel visitors."  

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