Volume 15, Issue 3
Published May 23rd, 2007
What Secrets Lie In the Waters of Lake Erie?
By James Renner
Rattlesnake Island - Inhabited by mafioso and European masseuses?
Behind the parking lot for Miller's Ferry, where Route 53 dead-ends into Lake
Erie, is a small wooden bar inside a ramshackle house painted the color of
dead seaweed. This is the Catawba Inn, a watering hole for mainlanders, folks
who live here, who winter here. The bar serves Budweiser in plastic pints and
cans. The kitchen cooks up a decent perch basket. And if you listen closely
to the idle chatter of the old fishermen who frequent this bar, you just
might hear a tale or two about a place called Rattlesnake Island. Tales
that'll make your skin crawl.
"Tiny knows about Rattlesnake Island," the young bartender says, pointing to
a large man with a white handlebar mustache sitting at the end of the bar,
watching a rerun of Charmed on an old TV.
"No, I don't know anything," says Tiny, shaking his head. He continues
watching his program for a moment. Then, reluctantly, he says, "Unless you
mean about how the mob owns it."
The way Tiny tells it, the Cleveland mafia use Rattlesnake Island as a
hideaway, a place where the dons can live in peace after they retire, without
looking behind their backs every few minutes for old enemies bent on
vengeance. It's the most common rumor concerning the secret island. According
to Tiny, this rumor has legs.
"Something's going on out there," he insists. "I go fishing out by the
island. You can catch some good walleye and perch out near the rattlers. And
sometimes when I'm out there, I've seen men driving golf carts around the
island. Men with machine guns."
Tiny also has a friend who works for a local marina. Sometimes well-dressed
men show up and pay for a chartered boat to take them out to the island. "But
the guys that drive the boat aren't allowed to go anywhere on the island when
they get there. They're not allowed to step foot on the island." Tiny leans
close and lowers his voice. "I've heard that you can do just about anything
you want to on the island, if you know the right people."
THE BEST PLACE to get a good look at Rattlesnake Island is atop Perry's
Victory and International Peace Monument, a Doric column (the world's
largest!) rising 352 feet above Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island. For $3, you
can buy an elevator ride to the observation deck where park rangers are
waiting to tell you the story of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and the Battle
of Lake Erie. Look out across the harbor, beyond little Gibraltar Island, and
there it is, twinkling in the sunlight, pretending it's not up to something.
From this angle, you can see an ivory mansion that was built on the lee side,
surrounded by immaculate gardens, beside a small port. Behind it is a small
lighthouse. In the water, just south of the lighthouse are two craggy islets
that vaguely resemble a rattlesnake's rattlers. The whole island is a mere 85
The history of the island is easy to uncover ? up to a certain point. A
business owner from Toledo purchased it in 1929. He built a small landing
strip for planes, a lodge and the harbor. Then, in 1959, he sold Rattlesnake
to a Cleveland surgeon named James Frackelton and his friend Robert Schull, a
stockbroker. A private post office opened on the island in 1966; the United
States Postal Service was not interested in ferrying mail to and from the
island itself. Islanders designed and printed their own stamps for packages
shipped to the mainland. It remains the only USPS-sanctioned local post
office operating in the United States, and Rattlesnake stamps are coveted by
Dr. Frackelton and Schull sold the island in the '70s, but joined up with 65
private investors who repurchased the property in 1998 for $4.6 million. No
one outside the island knows exactly who the 65 members are. The island is
run by a board of directors now. No one but members, their families or their
invited guests can set foot on Rattlesnake legally. The only information
available to outsiders is limited to a members' Web site set up to give
current rates on yacht dockage and lodging.
The Web site (Rattlesnakeislandclub.com) offers fleeting glimpses of some of
the private resort's amenities. There's one restaurant on the island, called
the Golden Pheasant Inn, where Chef Galvin will "prepare anything to your
exact wishes." There's also a four-hole golf course, bocce ball courts, a
large pool and Jacuzzi, and massage services, run mostly by young European
women on work-study visas. "Business can mix with pleasure, here," the site
Dr. Frackelton still practices preventative medicine in Westlake. Reached at
his office, he talks briefly and offers to explain some of Rattlesnake's
"It's a beautiful place," the doctor says, simply.
The rumor about the mafia was probably started by the previous owner, he
says, who was upset that people kept coming onto Rattlesnake to steal things.
The closest lawman was located on Put-in-Bay and by the time he could get to
the island, the bandits were always long gone. Once people heard the mob was
on the island, they didn't really want to sneak onto it.
"The caretaker also started carrying a shotgun full of rock salt," he says.
"If you get that in your butt, you're gonna feel it for awhile."
Then he grows quiet, like the old man in the bar. When Dr. Frackelton speaks
again, his voice is wistful, nostalgic and eerie. "Just like any place in
this world, gangsters have gone there for a day or two, but that's really not
the case anymore."
What? What does that mean?
"I hesitate to say too much," he says. "I'm the postmaster general there now.
I'm not the head honcho. Talk to Buddy, he's the president of the board."
"Buddy" is John Koch, former chairman and CEO of Charter One Financial, Inc.
He could not be reached for comment. Calls to the island are answered by
caretaker Keith Folk. When asked for a tour, he laughs and says, "We don't
need the adverti***t." He dares Free Times to find a way on the island.
THE CLOSEST WE GOT was the pier on Put-in-Bay, where dockkeepers shudder at
the mere mention of Rattlesnake Island.
"I've heard things," the manager says as he scrapes wet grass from under a
large lawnmower. "Big parties out there. But I don't want to talk about it. I
don't want my name to get out there."
No boat owners will take a reporter over to the island. One captain has taken
supplies over to Rattlesnake before and was not permitted beyond the docks.
It creeped him out. "It's locked up tight," he says.
The local police have jurisdiction over Rattlesnake, but according to the
officer on duty, no one has ever reported a crime. And he's never been to the
A young manager at the Boardwalk, a monstrous restaurant and bar near
Put-in-Bay harbor, is a little more helpful. She doesn't want us to use her
name; her friend's father is one of the 65 shadowy members and she doesn't
want to get in trouble. She's been to the island. She's seen it herself.
"There are some very, very wealthy people involved with the island," she
says, looking around to see if anyone is close enough to eavesdrop. "I can't
name names but I was out there for a wedding and ? wow ? it was, it was
amazing. Members can call up that restaurant anytime, you know? They can call
and order rock lobster from some specific part of Maine and they'll have it
ready for them. The parties there are amazing. But I don't want to say too
much about it. Anything can happen on the island. And what happens on
Rattlesnake Island stays on Rattlesnake Island."
It seems some mysteries, like Catawba vineyard grapes, only get sweeter over