A review of Robert Knapp’s latest book on Michigan history
I want to know more about Joe Barnes. Was this resident of Clare County that author Robert Knapp talks about in his new book Gangsters Up North, Mobsters, Mafia and Racketeers in Michigan’s Vacationlands REALLY Al Capone’s chauffeur as he sometimes claimed to be? And did Barnes host Capone’s men at his Arthur Township property as has been alleged? Was Barnes really a gangster like so many others who came to Clare, men like Meyer Lansky, the Purple Gang’s Bernstein brothers, and sorta gangsters like Sam Garfield, Harry Bennett and Isaiah Leebove. I really want to know.
In this book, Knapp offers compelling evidence that Barnes was a gangster connected with Capone but stops short of confirming it. However, Barnes is just one many fascinating characters we meet. Knapp has unearthed plenty of stories as well as rumors about nationally known, honest-to-goodness gangsters in Northern Michigan, men such as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Fred “Killer” Burke. The book also covers lesser known ones. In fact, it appears nearly every good size city in the Northern Lower and Upper Peninsulas had gangsters living there or at least visiting. It was amusing to learn how rumors have grown over time. For example, if a gangster did own a home, that home invariably had, according to locals, machine gun nests, guards, and secret tunnels (like the ones Henry Ford’s enforcer Harry Bennett supposedly had on his property in western Clare County).
Clare County is well represented. While I won’t go as far as to say Clare, Michigan was Michigan’s “Gangster Central,” it did have more than its fair share of mobsters, as we learned in Knapp’s other books, Mystery Man about Isaiah Leebove, and Minion of the Mob about Sam Garfield. However, that said, neither Capone or Dillinger ever visited Clare. However, Big Al’s little sister did live in Oscoda, Michigan for many years, and kept a photo of Al on her nightstand. She was Knapp reports, “a lifelong apologist for the family.”
The story of Capone’s sister is only one of many things I learned from reading this book. I also learned how widespread gambling was and how many gangsters were involved. Even the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island offered gambling as a profitable although illegal pastime for its guests. It was also interesting to see how many cities and towns in Michigan had connections with gangsters. Even more interesting is to see the huge number that now claim to have had them!
Of course, gangsters didn’t come to Michigan just to engage in illegal activities or hide out. They also came for the same reason people come now—to relax and enjoy the beauty this state has to offer and Knapp covers that topic as well. Oh, although Knapp doesn’t say it, there is absolutely NO evidence any gangster even came to Clare for its baked goods, not matter how good those sugary treats might be.
Like Knapp’s other books, Gangsters Up North is well researched and an easy read. Although it deals with a serious topic, there is even a story in it about a gangster’s kidnapping that will make you smile if not laugh out loud. Gangsters Up North is currently available online and locally in Clare County
BTW, if you have the real scoop on Joe Barnes, let me know. Please don’t make me send a gangster or mob enforcer after you.
Note: Knapp is also the author of several other books on Clare County’s history and it’s association with gangsters. They are:
- Minion of the Mob, Sam Garfield’s Two Lives
- Mystery Man, Gangsters, Oil and Murder in Michigan (Isaiah Leebove)
- Clare, Michigan, 1865-1940 (Images of America Series)