It was 10:15 p.m. on Saturday, May 14, 1938 when the sound of gun shots rang through the quiet town of Clare, Michigan. Isaiah Leebove, 42, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Mammoth Producing and Refining Corporation of Clare had been shot dead. Not only was Leebove shot, but his attorney, Byron Geller, had suffered two bullet wounds to the left thigh. Who was guilty of these gunshots, you ask, and perhaps why? Let me take you into a rabbit hole of the infamous Purple Gang.
The story begins with Isaiah Leebove who was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on November 27, 1894. He would remain in Pittsburgh until he attended Cumberland University of Law in Lebanon, Tennessee. Not long after, he was admitted to the bar by the Texas Supreme Court in July of 1916. Leebove would continue to practice law in Texas and Oklahoma until November of 1921 when he moved to New York City. In June of 1922, Leebove was admitted to the New York Bar with the support of Justice William Pierson of the Supreme Court of Texas and Louis H. Solomon (New York Attorney). Mr. Solomon had retained Leebove as council in Oklahoma while he was investigating oil properties. With the high-class recommendations behind him, Leebove was given entry into the leading circles of his profession. He entered a partnership with a prominent law firm on Fifth Avenue, where he would never cut ties and often be called back to the city for consultations.
Mr. Leebove’s previous contact with the oil industry in Oklahoma would give him an intimate insight into the business. During the early days of oil development and after finding himself in trouble with the law, he and his wife made a move to the small town of Clare, Michigan and purchased the home of Walter Pettit, aka Tobacco Ranch. With time, he turned the bungalow into one of the finest homes in Central Michigan. With hosting guests in mind, he incorporated stone pillars, multiple stone fireplaces, and an enclosed porch overlooking the pond. He would also go on to purchase additional acreage where a game preserve was located and well stocked with various native wildlife. Once Mr. and Mrs. Leebove were settled in, he would interest himself in some of the local drilling projects. It was then, that Mr. Leebove would meet Purple Gang lieutenant Sam (Uncle Sammy) Garfield, aka the unofficial godfather of Clare.
Now, who was the Purple Gang, you ask? Well, they were a criminal mob of predominantly Jewish men that were infamous for bootlegging, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion, etc… You name the criminal act, and they were involved. The gang originated in Detroit and gained criminal speed during the prohibition era, when they would become the cities most dominant criminal gang. The location of Detroit, a river away from Canada and alcohol, helped the Purple Gang gain publicity during prohibition. With a body count exceeding 500 in less than a decade, famous gangsters, like Al Capone, would start to take notice of their reign and offer business trades. For years, the gang managed the prosperous business of supplying the Capone organization with Canadian Whiskey. Outside of bootlegging, the gang also would become known for multiple massacres, partaking in the cleaners and dyers war, and controlling Detroit’s underworld of vice, gambling and drugs.
Now, let’s get back to the story. With the meeting of Purple Gang lieutenant, Garfield, Leebove would go on to become an associate and attorney for the Purple Gang. During their business endeavors of the oil industry, they would stumble upon seasoned oil man, Jack Livingston (rumored as Leebove’s cousin). Livingston had made his home at the locally owned Doherty Hotel for the prior eight years. The three of them, Leebove, Livingston, and Garfield, would eventually become business partners and start Mammoth Producing and Refining Corporation (Mammoth Oil). The corporation would go on to be the largest independent producer east of the Mississippi River.
Like most business partnerships, there were disagreements. Unfortunately, one small disagreement would turn into one partner dead, another jailed, and the third, a very lucky man. Mr. Leebove owned several acres outside of his modern ranch home and much of it was uninhabited. With that in mind, Livingston proposed Leebove sell the land, 45 acres, to the company to be drilled. Leebove refused. It is unknown why he refused to sell his land, but it would ultimately be a fatal decision. With conflict rising between the two co-owners, Livingston became concerned of Leeboves connections. His close affiliation with the Purple Gang would deliver a sense of paranoia to Livingston. Knowing the Gang hired themselves out as hitmen, Livingston became wary that Leebove would hire them for a murder contract. With the weight of this newfound paranoia, Livingston would make his own drastic decision.
It was just after 10 p.m. when Mr. and Mrs. Gellar (Leebove’s attorney) were seated at a booth on the west side of the Doherty Hotel Lounge. A few moments later, Mr. Leebove and associate, Purple Gang Enforcer Sam Braunstein, entered and joined the Gellar’s at their booth. In the same moment, Mr. Livingston, seated in the center of the room with friends, excused himself from the table and left. A few minutes later, he returned to the lounge and took his seat. Another minute or two passed when Livingston abruptly left his chair and fired three shots towards Leebove. One of the shots passed through Leebove’s left arm, through his chest, piercing his heart and exiting his body. With the words, “Jack! Jack! Why!?” Mr. Leebove fell from his chair and died instantly. Another shot passed through his left arm and a portion of the skin between his thumb and forefinger of his right hand. It is believed that this is the bullet that entered Mr. Geller’s thigh and grazed his pelvic bone. The third shot inflicted the skin in the thigh area of Mr. Geller’s leg.
At this point, Mr. Braunstein jumped to his feet and grabbed Livingston’s arms and forced him to the lobby of the Hotel. Once they reached the lobby, Mr. Livingston turned the gun away from him and handed it to the assistant manager of the hotel. In the same moment, Mr. Geller had dropped to the ground and crawled to the south side of the Lounge. Several minutes had gone by before anybody had discovered that he was injured. He would make an appearance at the Clare County General Hospital before recovering nicely.
Mr. Livingston was escorted to his room by the bellhop. His first request was to send his father a telegram. It was during this telegram that the Chief of Police entered and made the arrest. It is noted that Livingston talked calmly with no regret of his actions. When he found out that he had also injured Mr. Geller, Mr. Livingston stated that he was sorry and had considered Mr. Geller a friend. Livingston was then taken and jailed at the Clare County jail in Harrison.
When Mrs. Leebove found out the news that her husband had been shot, rumors say that she jumped up and ran all the way to hotel and wept aside of her husband’s lifeless body. The coroner then removed his body and the county conjured up a jury. Eight witnesses were summoned, but only two were heard, one being Mrs. Geller. After being out for just short of an hour, Mr. Livingston was acquitted via a plea of temporary insanity.
After spending time in a Norther Michigan institute, he moved to New Jersey where he would die of a drug overdose at 55 years old. With one co-owner dead and the other ruled insane, Garfield assumed complete control of Mammoth Oil. Already owning his own company, Garfield Oil & Gas, he eventually merged the two companies into Mammoth Oil. So, as it seems, one small disagreement, over 45 acres of land, lead to one partner dead, another mentally insane, and the third, a very lucky and rich man.