East Harlem Purple Gang

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This article is about the Italian American criminal group. For the Jewish-American Detroit criminal group, see The Purple Gang.
For other uses, see Purple Gang.

The East Harlem Purple Gang was a semi-independent gang of Italian American hit-men and heroin dealers who, according to federal prosecutors, dominated heroin distribution in East Harlem and the Bronx during the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City. Though mostly independent of the Italian-American Mafia and not an official Italian-American Mafia crew, the gang was originally affiliated with and worked with the Lucchese crime family and later with the Bonanno crime family and Genovese crime family.[1] It developed its "closest ties" with the Genovese family,[1] and its remnants or former members are now part of the Genovese family's 116th Street Crew.[2] They allegedly named their group the 'Purple Gang' as a tribute to a Prohibition Era gang (Purple Gang) that terrorized Detroit 50 years earlier.[3] Membership in the group was restricted to Italian Americans who grew up on Pleasant Avenue[3] between 114th and 120th Streets, just east of 1st Avenue, also known as Italian Harlem.[4] In the late 1970s, at the peak of its strength, the Purple Gang had about 30 members according to police reports and 80 associates, with higher numbers placing the gang's membership at over 100 (though this may include associates.) [3][5] By 1977, law enforcement claimed that the Purple Gang had committed at least 17 homicides, some on behalf of 'organized crime principals'.[3]

History and Criminal Activities[edit]

The Purple Gang originated as a youth street gang and were involved in various robberies and assaults before engaging in more organized criminal activity, and many of its members were related, some as brothers or cousins.[1] When they first drifted into the narcotics business, the gang originally acted only as "delivery boys" or "spotters" (i.e. lookouts) for local established mafiosi involved with the drug trade.[6] However, the Purple Gang eventually rose to power in the drug trafficking business and subsequently graduated to committing murders following the 1973 arrest and conviction of several powerful Italian-American Mafia figures who had been dominating heroin and narcotic distribution in East Harlem, including those mafiosi involved in the "French Connection," such as Louis Inglese and Lucchese boss Carmine Tramunti. In the wake of these arrests, the Purple Gang filled the vacuum created within the drug trade in East Harlem, eventually dominating the heroin trade in Harlem and the Bronx and becoming not only major independent drug distributors, but also major drug distributors for New York's "Five Families."[1] In addition to drug trafficking and murder, the Purple Gang's other activities included kidnapping rival drug dealers for ransom, collecting loansharking debts, and extortion.[7]

The Purple Gang was also closely connected with African-American organized crime groups in Harlem, and began supplying heroin to infamous drug kingpin Leroy Barnes and his organized crime network. After the arrest of Leroy Barnes, the top heroin dealer in Harlem, the Purple Gang began supplying heroin to his network of African-American dealers in Harlem at $75,000 per kilogram.[1]

The Purple Gang became increasing involved with murder, sometimes acting independently and sometimes as contract killers for the Mafia, and they became renown for their "enormous capacity for violence."[6][8][9] By 1977, law enforcement claimed that the Purple Gang committed at least 17 homicides, with many of these murders committed on behalf of 'organized crime principals' (i.e. Italian-American Mafia families.) [3] Many of the murders attributed to the Purple Gang were exceedingly grisly, with some involving decapitation, dismemberment, or multiple stab wounds. The gang was also suspected to be involved in a rash of killings in the 70s of various people with organized crime connections, with the murders notably involving .22 caliber firearms.[7]

According to police reports, at the peak of its strength in 1977 the Purple Gang consisted of approximately 30 members and over 80 associates, with higher numbers placing the gang's membership as over 100 (though this may include associates.) Most of the gang's members were younger men in their 20s or 30s, many of whom were considered by the Mafia to be too reckless or "uncontrollable" for membership in the Mafia. [3][5]

Though technically an independent gang that operated largely outside the constraints of the established "Five Families" of the New York City Italian-American Mafia, the Purple Gang was closely tied to Italian-American Mafia and would often act as "muscle" or hit-men for the larger New York families. Many Purple Gang members were in fact relatives of established Italian Mafia members.[6] However, it remains unclear what activities the gang performed independently and what activities the gang carried out for certain Mafia families. For instance, several members were notably arrested in Monroe, New York in Upstate New York for assaulting private sanitation workers, suggesting the gang may have been involved in corruption or extortion within the sanitation business, either independently or as enforcers for the New York Mafia.[1] Though the gang often worked for the Five Families and frequently acted as drug distributors for the Five Families, they were also noted for their "lack of respect for other members of organized crime," and they just as often competed with the Mafia or disregarded the Mafia's turf claims and orders, sometimes moving in on Mafia drug territory. In fact, law enforcement at one point feared that a mob war would break out between the Purple Gang and certain Mafia families, specifically Carmine Galante's Bonanno Crime Family, and the gang became so powerful and feared that it was sometimes referred to as New York City's "Sixth Family."[6][5]

Law enforcement speculated that during the late 1970s, the Purple Gang developed a relationship with Nicaraguan drug dealers, trading firearms for drugs.[3] The firearms were apparently sent to Latin American narcoterrorists through connections in Florida in exchange for smuggled drugs.[1] They were also suspected of having ties to the Cuban Mafia in Florida.[5]

The Purple Gang disintegrated during the late 1970s and early 1980s and was absorbed into the current 116th Street Crew. Some members were invited to join the Mafia and became made men, including Angelo Prisco and Daniel Leo[10] who became the acting boss of the Genovese crime family in 2005.[11]

Pleasant Avenue[edit]

Pleasant Avenue, a six-block stretch in East Harlem is one of the most famous incubators of the Italian Mafia in New York City. Anthony 'Fat Tony' Salerno, ran the Genovese crime family from Pleasant Avenue. Rao's, an exclusive restaurant in New York, is located here. In the 1960s and 1970s, Pleasant Avenue was so protected by the mob that residents did not lock their doors.[4]

Locals still recall such colorful characters as Eddie the Butcher, whose meat shop on 119th st supposedly didn't sell a single piece of meat in 40 years and Charlie Ding-Ding's candy shop on 118th st was a casino by night.[4]

Anthony Loria, Sr., a longtime partner of Vincent Papa who masterminded the "Who Stole The French Connection" corruption scandal was born and raised on Pleasant Avenue. This scheme involved corrupt NYPD and law officials that allowed the drug lords to steal an estimated 70 million dollars of narcotics from the NYPD property room at 400 Broome Street in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The total scope of the scandal is still not known and many questions linger on how exactly it happened.

In popular culture[edit]

  • In The Godfather movie, Sonny Corleone beat up Carlo on Pleasant Avenue.
  • In Carlito's Way the Purple Gang was referred to as the 'Pleasant Avenue Crew'.
  • In Analyze That Robert De Niro recalled growing up with the Purple Gang.
  • The Purple Gang was also the subject of books "The Pleasant Avenue Connection" (Harper & Row, 1976) and "Blue Domino" (Putnam, 1978).[4]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Younger Thugs Surpass Elders: Manhattan's new Purple Gang deals with deceit, drugs, death". Eugene Register-Guard. New York Times News Servie. Dec 8, 1977. Retrieved 20 November 2015. 
  2. ^ Kappersetter 2007.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Blum 1977.
  4. ^ a b c d Kilgannon & Malliozzi 2004.
  5. ^ a b c d Sifakis, Carl (2005). The Mafia Encyclopedia. Infobase Publishing. Retrieved 20 November 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d Blum, Howard (Dec 16, 1977). "Gang's Former Errand Boys Form Their Own Mob, Police Say". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. New York Times News Service. Retrieved 20 November 2015. 
  7. ^ a b Schorr, Mark (May 7, 1979). "The .22 Caliber Killings". New York Magazine. Retrieved 20 November 2015. 
  8. ^ Conley, Kristan (March 7, 2011). "Untouchable Bronx hitman faces life in jail after ‘40 murders’". New York Post. 
  9. ^ "Notorious gangster who led Purple Gang found shot to death in car in Bronx". NY Daily News. Nov 17, 2013. Retrieved 20 November 2015. 
  10. ^ Capeci 2006.
  11. ^ Capeci 2007.