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Abe Bernstein (c. 1892 – March 7, 1968) was a Detroit, Michigan gangster and a leader of the infamous Prohibition-era Purple Gang with his brothers Joseph Bernstein, Raymond Bernstein, and Isadore Bernstein. Born in New York, Abe Bernstein and his brothers moved to Detroit in their youth. During their teenage years, they joined a juvenile street gang that was the precursor to the adult Purple Gang. By the beginning of Prohibition, Bernstein and his brothers had emerged as leading members of the gang.
As the Purple Gang members grew older, they quickly gained a reputation along the Detroit waterfront as ruthless and violent hijackers. However, they normally attracted little attention from police as their victims were usually either rumrunners or rival gangs such as the Little Jewish Navy.
Bernstein and the others soon formed an association with longtime mobsters Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr and they were working exclusively as enforcers for them by the early 1920s.
Bernstein and several other members were later arrested three days after the murder of Detroit policeman Vivian Welsh. Although the Chevrolet coupe used in his murder was traced to Bernstein's brother Raymond, Abe was released to due to lack of evidence. This decision may have resulted from press reports that alleged the deceased Welsh had extorted money from independent bootleggers and speakeasy operator. Abe and other gang members were under continual police surveillance. Several years later, Raymond was convicted of first degree murder in a different case.
In March 1928, Bernstein was arrested and charged with conspiracy to extort money from the city's wholesale dry cleaners industry. Arrested and charged with Bernstein were Purple Gang members Raymond Bernstein, Irving Milberg, Eddie Fletcher, Joe Miller, Irving Shapiro, Abe Kaminsky, and brothers Abe and Simon Axler. Police were initially unable to locate Bernstein; he had been attending the mobster Atlantic City Conference with Meyer Lansky and Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Returning several days later, Bernstein surrendered to authorities and posted a $500 bail bond. Beginning June 4, 1928, forty-two witnesses testified over a three-month period before Judge Charles Bowles. All the defendants were acquitted of all charges.
Involvement in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre
Bernstein, a chief supplier of Canadian whiskey to Chicago Outfit leader Al Capone, is also suspected to have been involved in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Bernstein supposedly set up North Side Gang leader George "Bugs" Moran for a murder attempt by Capone by selling him a recently hijacked liquor shipment and delivering it to a North Side warehouse. On February 13, 1929, seven North Side gunmen waiting for the liquor shipment were instead killed by Capone gunmen at that warehouse. However, the real target, Bugs Moran, never arrived.
Bernstein, who had begun branching out to other major cities in the country during the mid-1920s, eventually became an associate of New York mobsters Joe Adonis and Meyer Lansky, later became a partner in several syndicate gambling casinos in Miami. After his brother Ray was imprisoned for his part in the "Collingwood Massacre", he devoted the rest of his life to getting his brother out of prison until his death on March 7, 1968 in his hotel room of the Book-Cadillac.
- Burnstein, Scott M. Motor City Mafia: A Century of Organized Crime in Detroit. Arcadia Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-7385-4084-6
- Kavieff, Paul. The Purple Gang: Organized Crime in Detroit 1910-1945. Barricade Books, 2000. ISBN 1-56980-147-9