The Purple Gang
|Founding location||Detroit, Michigan, United States|
|Years active||1910s − 1932|
|Criminal activities||Murder, extortion, theft, armed robbery, kidnapping, gambling, bootlegging|
|Allies||The Capone mob, Fred “Killer” Burke|
|Rivals||Rival gangs, The Detroit Partnership, Fred “Killer” Burke after 1927|
The Purple Gang, also known as the Sugar House Gang, was a mob of bootleggers and hijackers, with predominantly Jewish members. They operated out of Detroit, Michigan, in the 1920s and came to be Detroit's dominant criminal gang, but ultimately excessive violence and infighting caused the gang to self-destruct in the 1930s.
In 1916 Michigan adopted the Damon Act, which prohibited liquor effective in 1917, three years before national Prohibition. Henry Ford, who owned the River Rouge plant, was a proponent in advocating a sober workforce. Due to Detroit's convenient proximity to Canada and Ohio, several bootleggers and individuals traveled toward Toledo to obtain booze; judges took a lenient view of offenders, and in 1919 the Damon Act was declared unconstitutional. However, in 1920 the Eighteenth Amendment was adopted, and prohibition took effect throughout the United States. Canada became a major port for running alcohol products because the Canadian federal government approved and licensed distilleries and breweries to manufacture, distribute, and export alcohol.
Like most major cities at the beginning of the 20th-century, Detroit's immigrant neighborhoods were stricken with poverty and some became breeding grounds for crime and violence. From the Hasting Street neighborhood known as Paradise Valley in Detroit's lower east side, most of its core members went to Bishop School where all were placed in the division for problem children. The gang members were the children of immigrants from eastern Europe, primarily Russia and Poland, who had come to the United States in the great immigration wave from 1881 to 1914. The gang of boys were led by four brothers: Abe, Joe, Raymond and (Isadore) Izzy Bernstein, who had emigrated to Detroit from New York. They started off as petty thieves and shakedown artists, soon progressing to the more lucrative areas of crime such as armed robbery, extortion, and hijacking under the tutelage of older neighborhood gangsters (Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr). They soon gained notoriety for their operations and savagery, and began to import gangsters from other American cities to work as "muscle" for the gang. There are numerous theories as to the origin of the name "Purple Gang". One explanation is that a member of the gang was a boxer who wore purple shorts during his bouts. Another explanation is that the name came from a conversation between two shopkeepers:
The Purples soon became hijackers and gained a reputation for stealing the booze cargoes of the older and more established gangs. As their reputation of "terror" grew people began to fear them; Al Capone was against expanding his rackets in Detroit and began a business accommodation with the Purples in order to prevent a bloody war. For several years, the Purples managed the prosperous business of supplying Canadian whisky, Old Log Cabin, to the Capone organization in Chicago. The Purples were involved in various criminal enterprises. They were also involved in kidnapping other gangsters for ransom, which had become very popular during this era. They were reportedly suspected by the FBI to have been involved with the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
By the late 1920s, The Purple Gang reigned supreme over the Detroit underworld, controlling the city’s vice, gambling, liquor, and drug trade. They also ran the local wire service, providing horse racing information to local horse betting parlors and handbooks. The gang members cavorted with some more infamous mobsters, branching out into other cities, as well. Abe Bernstein was a friend of Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis, with whom he owned several Miami gambling casinos in his later years. The gang hijacked prizefight films and forced movie theaters to show the films for a high fee. They also defrauded insurance companies by staging fake accidents.
Cleaners and Dyers War
As the gang grew in size and influence, they began hiring themselves out as hitmen and took part in the Cleaners and Dyers war. The Purples profited from the Detroit laundry industry unions and associations; they were hired out to keep union members in line and to harass non-union independents. Bombing, arson, theft, and murder were the usual tactics that the gang employed to enforce union policy. Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher were reputedly imported from New York to take part in the scheme (other sources put their origins in Detroit)  In 1927, nine members of the Purple Gang (Abe Bernstein, Raymond Bernstein, Irving Milberg, Eddie Fletcher, Joe Miller, Irving Shapiro, Abe Kaminsty, Abe Axler and Simon Axler), were arrested and charged with conspiracy to extort money from Detroit wholesale Cleaners & Dyers. They were eventually acquitted of all charges.
A Detroit Mob War soon ensued between the Italian, Irish, and Jewish bootleggers over territory. The Purples fought a vicious turf war with the Licavoli Squad led by the brothers Tommy and Pete Licavoli. In March 1927, three men were killed. They had been brought into Detroit as hired assassins for the Purple Gang and the motive for the murder was believed to be retaliation for a "double cross". The homicides took place in an apartment leased by Purple Gang members, Eddie Fletcher and Abe Axler (and reportedly Fred Burke), which made them prime suspects in the slaying. The three suspects (Fletcher, Axler, and Burke) were questioned, as were the other Purples and associates. However, no one was ever convicted of the murder. This was reportedly the first use of a machine gun in a Detroit underworld slaying.
St. Valentine's Day Massacre
The Purple Gang was reputedly suspected of taking part in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. On February 13, 1929, Abe Bernstein had reputedly called Bugs Moran and told him that a hijacked load of booze was on its way to Chicago. Moran, who was in the middle of a turf war with Capone, had only recently begun to trust Bernstein, who had previously been Capone's chief supplier of Canadian liquor. The next day, instead of delivering a load of liquor, five men dressed as cops went to S.M.C. Cartage on North Clark Street (Moran's North Side hangout) and opened fire with machine guns, killing seven men in what has become known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Collingwood Manor Massacre
The Purple Gang began terrorizing Detroiters with the street executions of their enemies; killing a police officer named Vivian Welsh on February 1, 1927 (who was later revealed to be a dirty cop and was reputedly trying to extort money from the Purple Gang) and in 1930, murdering well-known radio personality Jerry Buckley in the lobby of a downtown hotel. It is questionable if the Purples were involved with Buckley's death as the police officers suspected the local Sicilian mob. However, no one was charged in either case and both of the murders remain officially unsolved.
In 1931, an inter-gang dispute ended in the murder of three Purples by members of their own gang (Chicago gangsters who had been imported to Detroit to help out the Purple Gang). The three men had violated an underworld code by operating outside the territory allotted to them by the Purple Gang leadership. Herman "Hymie" Paul, Isadore Sutker a.k.a. "Joe Sutker", and Joseph “Nigger Joe” Lebowitz, were lured to an apartment on Collingwood Avenue on September 16, 1931. They believed they were going to a peace conference with the Purple leaders. After a brief discussion, the three men were gunned down. Authorities caught up with the gang when they burst into Fletcher's apartment and found the suspects (Abe Axler, Irving Milberg, and Eddie Fletcher) playing cards. Ray Bernstein and Harry Keywell were also arrested.
Irving Milberg, Harry Keywell, and Raymond Bernstein, three high-ranking Purples, were convicted of first degree murder in the Collingwood Manor Massacre and were sentenced to prison for life. Bernstein, Milberg, and Keywell boarded a special Pullman train bound for Michigan's Upper Peninsula to begin serving their sentences in the state's maximum security prison in Marquette. Harry Fleisher, another possible suspect, remained on the lam until 1932, but he was never convicted in connection with the massacre. Later on, he served time in Jackson Prison, the World's Largest Walled Prison, in the early 1950s for armed robbery of an Oakland County gambling house. According to Detroit Police Chief of Detectives, James E. McCarty, the convictions in the Collingwood Massacre, "broke the back of the once powerful Purple Gang, writing finis to more than five years of arrogance and terrorism".
For many years, the Purples enjoyed seemingly complete immunity from police interference as witnesses to crimes were terrified of testifying against any criminal identified as a Purple gangster. The Purple Gang reputedly became more arrogant and sloppy as time progressed. They dressed flamboyantly and were well-known to the public and the city's night spots. They lived in fine houses and soon a romantic aura surrounded the Purples that distinguished them from the other gangs in Detroit. Jealousies, egos, and inter-gang quarrels would eventually cause the Purple Gang to collapse. The police eventually moved against them as gang members began leaving behind too much evidence of their crimes.
Phillip Keywell had already been convicted for a senseless murder, and Joe Bernstein and Abe Bernstein both were given hefty prison sentences after previously escaping heavy jail time through intimidation and corrupt officials. Different waves of bloodier-than-previous infighting ensued, with the aggressive and high-ranking members Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher getting shot dead, then one-time partial-boss (there wasn't a strict hierarchy) Henry Shorr killed in further infighting. Some gangsters drifted away, a few fleeing Detroit, others were executed by fellow members or rival gangsters, and several members were subsequently imprisoned. A rival Sicilian gang, tired of competing with the Purples, also decided to eventually eliminate them.
In popular culture
- The 1935 movie Public Hero No. 1 deals with the hunting down and capture of the Purple Gang, although it's heavily fictionalized.
- A line in the Elvis Presley hit "Jailhouse Rock" is "The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang... "
- "One Mile Wide," a song by Michigan-based klezmer band The Red Sea Pedestrians, is about the Purple Gang.
- The Purple Gang are referenced four times in the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. They supply two goons to the Spangled Mob in Diamonds Are Forever; are one of the gangs employed by Auric Goldfinger in his raid on Fort Knox; in The Man with the Golden Gun, Francisco Scaramanga is said to have killed one of their hitmen; and in Thunderball, Blofeld tells of an operation where SPECTRE kidnapped a Purple Gang member's daughter.
- In the videogame series Saints Row there are some references to this subject. The street gang 'The 3rd Street Saints' all wear purple. The default car for the gang is called the 'Bootlegger'.
- Legz Diamond released a 2013 album called "9 Pistolas" with a group named the Purple Gang.
- Champions Online has a gang called the New Purple Gang, which operate out of Millenium City - a rebuilt Detroit.
- In Chapter 21 of Raymond Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely", he describes "famous gambling houses, run by graduates of the Purple Gang."
- The 2013 book My Lunches With Orson records a conversation between Orson Welles and his friend Henry Jaglom in which Welles discsussed his relationships with various movie studio bosses, including MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer who (according to Welles) had direct connections with the Purple Gang:
- Welles: " ... L.B. was worse than Harry Cohn. He was self-righteous, smarmy, waving the American flag, doing deals with the Purple Gang in Detroit ..."
- Jaglom: "The Purple Gang in Detroit?"
- Welles: "Before the unions, it was all Mafia. But no one called it the Mafia. Just said “the mob.” And, mainly, the Purple Gang. They controlled all the blue-collar guys who projected the movies, pushed the dollies, swept the floors. They controlled the teamsters. They didn’t control directors or anything – didn’t need to. And when L.B. needed extra money, he got it from the Purple Gang. When he wanted strong-arm work, he’d call the Purple Gang, who’d send their tough guys into town."
- Jaglom: "Louis B. Mayer had people hit?"
- Welles: "Beat up. I wouldn’t put it past him to have people killed. He liked to think of himself as a founding father and capo of the Mafia. "
- "Mobsters, Mayhem & Murder". The Walkerville Times. Walkerville Publishing. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- Gribben, Mark. "The Purple Gang: Bootlegger's Paradise". Crime Library. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- Nolan, Jenny (June 15, 1999). "How Prohibition made Detroit a bootlegger's dream town". The Detroit News. Retrieved 17 November 2012.
- Gribben, Mark. "The Purple Gang: The Color Purple". Crime Library. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- "Purple Gang". The Internet Index of Tough Jews. J-Grit. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- "The Notorious Purple Gang". HighBeam Research. Cengage Learning. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- Kavieff, Paul R. (July 16, 1999). "Detroit's Infamous Purple Gang". The Detroit News. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- Lipman, David E. "Detroit's Purple Gang". My Jewish Learning. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- "Purple Gang Part 1". FBI Records: The Vault. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- Schoenberg, Robert J. (1993). Mr. Capone: The Real - and Complete - Story of Al Capone. New York City: William Morrow Paperbacks. p. 209. ISBN 978-0688128388.
- "Purple Gang Part 3". FBI Records: The Vault. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- Sifakis, Carl (2005). The Mafia Encyclopedia. New York: Checkmark Books. p. 371. ISBN 978-0816056958.
- Gribben, Mark. "The Purple Gang: The Big Time". Crime Library. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- Bak, Richard (February 2010). "The Gory '20s". Hour Detroit. Retrieved 18 November 2012.
- Kavieff, Paul R. (2008). Detroit's Infamous Purple Gang. Arcadia Publishing. p. 29. ISBN 978-0738552385.
- Gribben, Mark. "The Murder of Vivian Welsh". The Malefactor's Register. Retrieved 8 January 2013.
- "Death in Detroit". Time Magazine. Aug 4, 1930. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
- May, Allan. "Jerry Buckley: A Victory Short Lived". Archived from the original on 2008-06-19. Retrieved 2013-01-08.
- Gribben, Mark. "The Purple Gang: The Collingwood Manor Massacre". Crime Library. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
- Gribben, Mark. "The Purple Gang: The End of the Purple Gang". Crime Library. Retrieved 20 November 2012.
- "Purple Gang Part 2". FBI Records: The Vault. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 20 November 2012.
- Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley Songfacts
- WMNU program guide, August 25, 2011
- Kalamazoo Gazette, August 16, 2007
- Peter Biskind (ed.), My Lunches with Orson: Coversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles" (Picador, 2013), pp. 49-50
- Kavieff, Paul R. "Detroit's Infamous Purple Gang." Detroit News. July 16, 1999.
- Kavieff, Paul R. (2008). Detroit’s Infamous Purple Gang (Images of America). Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0738552385.
- Rockaway, Robert A. (2000). But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters. New York: Gefen Publishing House. ISBN 9652292494.
- Paul R. Kavieff (2005). The Purple Gang: Organized Crime in Detroit 1910-1945. ISBN 1-56980-281-5.
- Waugh, Daniel (2014). Off Color: The Violent History of Detroit's Notorious Purple Gang. Holland, MI: In-Depth Editions. ISBN 978- 09889772-2-8.
- Burnstein, Scott M. (2006). Motor City Mafia: A Century of Organized Crime in Detroit (Images of America). Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0738540849.
- Feature film The Purple Gang at the Internet Movie Database
- The Purple Gang at the Crime Library
- The Purple Gang at the J-Grit: The Internet Index of Tough Jews
- FBI files on the Purple Gang From the FBI Freedom of Information Act