Many Wisconsin communities claim gangsters and crime connections based on stories, while crime connections in Manitowish Waters and its surrounding towns are based on empirical evidence. Manitowish Waters Historical Society (MWHS) research reveals our community served as a destination for some of the most notorious gangsters. Local Manitowish Waters criminal connections also included moonshiners, blind pigs (illegal taverns), gambling enterprises and more.
John Dillinger and his gang’s weekend at Little Bohemia in April 1934 is undoubtably the most famous criminal event in Manitowish Waters history. Two men died during the confrontation between the gang and law enforcement. FBI agent Carter Baum, the only agent killed in the line of duty in Wisconsin, died just west of the Highway 51 bridge at Koerner’s resort.
Al Capone’s legendary career as a mobster included vacationing on the Turtle lakes in Winchester. Photographs, three pieces of correspondence, and memorabilia confirm the stories of “Scarface” frequenting western Vilas County and eastern Iron County. In the spring of 2023, Milwaukee Public TV traveled to Manitowish Waters to photograph documents, visit South Turtle Lake, and interview Jim Bokern because we were the rare community with evidence of Al Capone’s activities.
Ongoing MWHS research by Kay Krans reveals even more criminal and gangster activities tied to our town. In October 1931, Leon Gleckman, known as “’the Brains’ of the Twin City alcohol rings” was kidnapped, likely by a Chicago gang. Gleckman was held hostage just up the river from Rest Lake by Hurley, Wisconsin operatives. Once again, Manitowish Waters and surrounding towns served as a “safe harbor” for some of the most notorious criminals.
Area residents also stepped outside the law to make a living in the Northwoods. Louis (Louie) LaPorte was a repeat offender of the Volstead Act and was ultimately indicted by a grand jury for a Prohibition violation. Louie’s sister, Nancy (Nan) LaPorte, served as the rum runner or bootlegger who traveled south to deliver contraband to speakeasies. Nan fell in love with a client named Emil Wanatka, who moved to Manitowish Waters and built Little Bohemia.
In 1930, the Tower Tea Room or Tower Inn was the site of another Manitowish Waters shooting. Hurley resident Oscar Hantke was closing the business for the evening when two men opened fire with handguns, hitting him three times. Motivations for the shooting remain unclear. Newspapers reported some gambling connections, and artifacts suggest the green cedar log building may have been a part-time brothel.
Jack Powers and his wife owned a small resort on the north side of Big Lake that included a moonshine operation. In the winter of 1922, a “Kentuck” named Jack Donahue was hired to help with moonshining. Donahue murdered Powers and took Mrs. Powers as his captive “wife.” Word got out, and a posse of area men surrounded the building in yet another Northwoods shootout.
In 2005, over 100 FBI and ATF agents descended on Manitowish Waters to arrest Denys Ray Hughes for illegal weapons, bomb making materials, and other suspicious materials. Hughes was a self-proclaimed militiaman and a survivalist with Army service. He was incarcerated on these and other charges, escaped and died in 2011.
During the early days of Manitowish Waters, many locals were trying to make a living, and violating game laws or Prohibition became a means to survive. Resorts that did not serve or allow alcohol would not prosper, so violating Prohibition became part of the Northwoods business model for many.
MWHS Video series with WJFW Channel 12 on John Dillinger