October 17, 2021

Up North Gangland

Robert Knapp’s book about northern Michigan’s mob history seeks to sort out legend from fact.
By Patrick Sullivan | June 6, 2020

As a professor at University of California Berkley, Robert Knapp spent decades researching and teaching ancient Roman history.

In retirement, however, he wanted to return to his own roots. He bought an old cabin near Clare, Michigan, not far from where he grew up, and started spending time there.

The place lacked plumbing and electricity, but its rustic charm suited Knapp, gave him time to think.

It wasn’t long before his mind began turning around an old family story he recalled from his childhood. Rather than ponder it and cast it aside like so many of us do, the old professor did what he’d done throughout his career. He began researching. But unlike excavating the dark and dusty texts and bronze tablets of ancient Rome, this time around, Knapp began uncovering leads to a much more recent (though, at times, no less dark) local history.

What emerged was his new book, “Gangsters Up North: Mobsters, Mafia, and Racketeers in Michigan’s Vacationland.” Northern Express caught up with Knapp to talk with him about his book’s investigation into northern Michigan’s history of underground gambling, bootlegging, baby farms, and murder — and how some of our best gangster tales might be the ones that never happened. 

Northern Express: You spent a lifetime researching ancient history in your academic career. Was piecing together the history of gangsters Up North very different from delving into ancient history?

Robert Knapp: It was not different terms of the process, but it was completely different in terms of sources. Ancient history has a finite amount of sources — written history, things on stone, things on bronze, statues, so on. There is not much new being produced — only by some chance discovery. However, in researching gangsters I got to use things that were constantly being created by people in the 20th century, and there were many people I could talk to. Letters I could read, journals, newspapers I could read — none of this exists when you’re doing ancient history. So, the type of source is completely different from the type of source that I was used to, but the methodology remains the same.

Express: It seems like, though, that there were not a lot of accurate contemporary accounts of gangsters Up North from that era — the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s — and you had to sort of delve into darkness to get what little information could be found.

Knapp: Well, that’s true. That is to say, there was nothing written about this before, extensively. There were a number of people who had done very good work that I could rely on — Rick Wiles of Petoskey, for example, has written a number of pieces in magazines and a couple of books that are very, very good about individual parts of Michigan gangsters. But basically, I just started county by county and called up the historical societies, called up libraries, asked if they knew of anybody that has any interest in gangsters. Talked to local historical societies. And I got a lot of leads that way. So then I could talk to people who directed me to other people and there were a lot of interviews that went on. When it came time to put it together, it turned out there was a lot of information.

Express: The book starts with a long account of all of the places in northern Michigan that claim Al Capone sightings that could not possibly be true. There are so many of them. As you note in the book, Capone would have had to have spent most of the 1920s in northern Michigan for all of them to be true, personally delivering cases of bootleg liquor. Why did all of these stories proliferate?

Knapp: I think there are a number of reasons. One is that in the ’30s, sightings of gangsters were very widespread. It was something that you read about in the paper every day. Dillinger was seen here. Capone was seen there. So, people had it in their minds that they might see a gangster. They might see a black Cadillac pulling up to a cabin at Spider Lake and assume then, well, that must be Al Capone, because of the black Cadillac. I think a second tangent to that is that people really enjoyed telling their kids and grandkids that they had exposure to a gangster. There’s a lot of, “My father told me,” “My grandfather told me,” “My aunt told me” stories. And I think a lot of these folks just made them up, quite frankly, although that irritates my sources. Then there is the business angle. If you can tie yourself to a gangster, that’s good for business now.

Express: I’m interested in the Al Capone story in Leelanau County, which comes from the well-known local historian Larry Wakefield, and which you thoroughly debunk in your book. Do you think local historians are typically more interested in getting a good story than they are about making sure that what they write is true? 

Knapp: I think in that case, he wanted to believe. All of us — us historians — have succumbed to this. We want to believe a historic event because we like the story, and we try to prove it, and I think that’s what happened to Larry — that he really believed some guy’s story that Al Capone was there, and he was just determined to show that it was true. Even good historians can get wrapped up in a story that they want to be true.

Express: As you worked on the book, did you ever worry that you’d have to spend too much time debunking legends rather than telling actual stories 

Knapp: No, actually, because I think that the untrue stories are just as interesting as the true stories, because it shows that people have this relationship with gangsters. Even if they’ve never met one, they still have this relationship. And so how that works itself out in terms of local stories, I found fascinating. There are tunnels everywhere. That’s part of the narrative. If you see a gangster, then you’re going to say that there are tunnels.

Express: Can you tell me a little more about the Edward Brooks baby farm in Benzie County? I thought I was pretty up on things around here, and I’ve never heard of that.

Knapp: This all came from looking at John Dillinger. And then I pursued Billie Frechette, one of his molls, probably his most famous one — except for the one that got him shot — and when I did my research, I would take a person, and just start searching. I just start pulling up newspaper stories, and there she was in Michigan [having taken her baby to Benzie County].

And then I started investigating baby farms and learned that they were places where mothers took illegitimate children to be disposed of, frankly. Allegedly, orphans could be adopted or sold to someone, or they could just be allowed to die, as with the farm there in Benzie, with all of the graves of little babies that were dug up. Brooks was ultimately brought to court in Cadillac, but he was never convicted of anything, so there’s no criminal proof. But people knew that this baby farm existed. It was in the papers, so it wasn’t any secret.

Express: I thought the stories you told about the grand old casinos in Harbor Springs, Petoskey and Charlevoix were fascinating.

Knapp: I really have to credit Rick Wiles for getting me started on those angles. He’s done a lot of work on the Club Manitou [in Petoskey], and he put me in touch with the Charlevoix Historical Society, which helped me a lot with the Colonial Club and John Cook. And again, once I get a name like John Cook, I can go to the newspapers and discover a lot more about what this guy was all about. And in Harbor Springs, the Club Ramona — I mean, it’s fascinating that it was an independent casino but just happened to be right next to a non-gambling, large, fancy resort, so the resort could claim that it was completely clean, but people only had to walk 100 yards to the place where they could have gambled all they wanted.

Express: Which of the stories from northwest Lower Michigan do you think is the most interesting?

Knapp: I actually have to say that [the Al Capone story at] Heart’s Ease in Leelanau is one that jumps out, just because the story was so thoroughly grounded, and yet with careful investigation, showed that it couldn’t have happened. I think that if I had to choose one of these places to visit, I think I would have chosen the Club Ramona in Harbor Springs. I think that was the fanciest of the places. I have to say that I was not able to talk to anyone who had actually been inside any of those places. That’s not too surprising. They would have had to have been born around 1915 or 1920 and also have been Up North. It would have been fun to talk to someone who had actually seen it alive, but I couldn’t do that 

Express: What about the Wertheimer kidnapping at Mullet Lake? That story was surprising.

Knapp: The Wertheimer brothers were completely new to me. I had run into their name very briefly when I was dealing with the gamblers in Detroit, but I hadn’t associated it with Cheboygan. And again, I just started tracing the name, and I quickly discovered that this was a Cheboygan person. Rick Wiles has since written a really nice piece on the Wertheimers, but before that, there really wasn’t anything.

I went up to Cheboygan and talked to the people at the genealogy society, very nice people, but nobody had written about the Wertheimers. So that was really a find. I’d say my two biggest finds were the Wertheimers and John Hamilton, a native of Sault Ste. Marie. A true “public enemy,” raised in Sault Ste. Marie. I had no idea. I pursued that because I investigated what I considered to be a fake story of John Dillinger in the Upper Peninsula.

Express: And in that case, it turned out [that Dillinger actually had] been there.

Knapp: In that case, it turned out he’d truly been there. But even in that episode, there was an example of how people came to make up stories. Because as I note in the book, a man was arrested in Sault Ste. Marie because he looked like John Dillinger. 

Express: Just a couple of days before the actual Dillinger showed up.

b Yeah. Yeah. So that could have happened many times. And everybody that knew that this person had been arrested could say that they knew that John Dillinger was there. So, I assumed it was another story. But it wasn’t another story. He was actually there. So that was fun.

Express: Tell me about the only murder in the book that takes place in northern Michigan.

Knapp: This is what got me started on my whole gangster thing. In May of 1938, my father was working in a drug store across from the Doherty Hotel in Clare, and, as he told it, heard gunshots. And it turned out, it was this murder. So, he and my grandmother, who both lived in Clare, both remembered this, and … we were told this story. And as I began to focus on Clare while living in the cabin there, I thought, “Well, I’m going to find out more about this story.” And sure enough, it turned out to be a fascinating story of an oil deal gone bad, combined with a big gangster deal gone bad, that ended up with this guy getting plugged in the bar of the Doherty Hotel in 1938. That’s how I got started.

Express: There aren’t many mentions of Traverse City in your book — the only thing in Grand Traverse County is a supposed visit that Al Capone almost certainly didn’t make to a resort on Spider Lake. What did all the gangsters have against spending time in Traverse City?

Knapp: I was very frustrated with Traverse City. I was sure there had to be at least stories, but I couldn’t reach any person that was interested in this sort of thing and so might have collected stories. So, I would expect that there are stories, and maybe when people read the book or think about it, they’ll come up with the stories. Because I don’t think Traverse City was some kind of island. Of course, it wasn’t as wealthy as Charlevoix or Petoskey or Harbor Springs, in terms of resorters and therefore the presence of gambling, but still, there should be more there, and I hope that somebody will come forward and tell me.

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