The Purple Gang
|Founding location||Detroit, Michigan; Muskegon, Michigan; Alabama United States|
|Criminal activities||Murder, extortion, theft, armed robbery, kidnapping, gambling, bootlegging|
Fred "Killer" Burke
|Rivals||The Detroit Partnership|
Fred "Killer" Burke after 1927
The Purple Gang, also known as the Sugar House Gang, was a criminal mob of bootleggers and hijackers, with predominantly Jewish members. They operated in Detroit, Michigan during the 1920s and came to be Detroit's dominant criminal gang, but ultimately excessive violence and in-fighting caused the gang to destroy itself in the 1930s.
Liquor became illegal in Michigan in 1917, three years before national Prohibition. Henry Ford owned the River Rouge plant and desired a sober workforce, so he backed the Damon Act, a state law that, along with the Wiley Act, prohibited virtually all posession, manufacture, or sale of alcohol starting in 1918. Detroit is close to Ohio, so bootleggers and others would import liquor from Toledo where it was still legal. Judges took a lenient view of offenders, and the Damon Act was declared unconstitutional in 1919.
In 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment was adopted, and prohibition took effect throughout the United States. Canada became a major point for running alcohol products, particularly the port city of Windsor, Ontario directly across the Detroit River from Detroit. This was partly because the Canadian government had also banned the use of alcoholic beverages but still approved and licensed distilleries and breweries to manufacture and export alcohol.
Detroit's immigrant neighborhoods were stricken with poverty like most major cities at the beginning of the 20th century, and some became breeding grounds for crime and violence. The Hastings Street neighborhood was known as Paradise Valley in Detroit's lower east side, and most of the Purple Gang's core members went to Bishop School where all were placed in the division for problem children. The gang members were the children of Jewish immigrants, primarily from Russia and Poland, who had come to the United States in the great immigration wave from 1881 to 1914. The gang was led by brothers Abe, Joe, Raymond, and Izzy Burnstein, who had moved to Detroit from New York City.
The Purple Gang started off as petty thieves and extortionists, but they quickly progressed to more violent crimes such as armed robbery and truck hijacking under the tutelage of older neighborhood gangsters (Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr). They received notoriety for their operations and savagery, and they imported gangsters from other 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 shop keepers:
The gang became hijackers and gained a reputation for stealing the alcohol cargoes of the older and more established gangs. Their reputation for terror increased, and people began to fear them. Al Capone was against expanding his rackets in Detroit, so he began a business accommodation with the Purple Gang in order to prevent a bloody war. For several years, the gang managed the prosperous business of supplying Canadian whisky to the Capone organization in Chicago. The Purple Gang was involved in various criminal enterprises, such as kidnapping other gangsters for ransom, which had become very popular during this era, and the FBI suspected that they were 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. The gang members consorted with more infamous mobsters, branching into other cities, as well. Abe Burnstein 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 them 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 City to take part in the scheme (although other sources put their origins in Detroit)  In 1927, nine members of the Purple Gang (Abe Burnstein, Raymond Burnstein, 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.
Harry Rosman (1891–1958) was president and owner of Famous Cleaners & Dyers in Detroit, Michigan. He gained notoriety in the news for being the key witness testifying against the infamous Purple Gang in a trial that lasted from 1928–1929. The prosecution alleged extortion activities against Detroit area businesses during the sometime violent showdown known as the Cleaners & Dyers Wars. Harry testified under oath that the Purple Gang asked for $1000 per week from his and other area cleaners & dyers' businesses for their "protection" against violence.
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. The deceased men 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. No one was ever convicted of the murder. This was reportedly the first use of a submachine 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 Burnstein 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 Burnstein, 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 policemen went to S.M.C. Cartage on North Clark Street (Moran's North Side hangout) and opened fire with Thompson submachine 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. Whether the Purples were involved with Buckley's death is questionable, as the police suspected the local Sicilian mob. 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 Burnstein and Harry Keywell were also arrested.
Irving Milberg, Harry Keywell, and Raymond Burnstein, three high-ranking Purples, were convicted of first-degree murder in the Collingwood Manor Massacre and were sentenced to prison for life. Burnstein, 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 run 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 Burnstein and Abe Burnstein 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 was 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 eventually decided to eliminate them.
In popular culture
Although heavily fictionalized, the 1935 film Public Hero No. 1 deals with the hunting down and capture of the Purple Gang.
They are referenced in the 1957 film Jailhouse Rock in the song of the same name: "The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang."
The Purple Gang was also referenced by Ross Macdonald in his 1952 novel The Ivory Grin.
- "Mobsters, Mayhem & Murder". The Walkerville Times. Retrieved November 16, 2012.
- Gribben, Mark. "The Purple Gang: Bootlegger's Paradise". Crime Library. Archived from the original on September 20, 2009. Retrieved November 16, 2012.
- "Repeals by Implication: Prohibition in Michigan". Michigan Law Review. 17 (6): 495–497. April 1919. doi:10.2307/1277607. JSTOR 1277607.
- Nolan, Jenny (June 15, 1999). "How Prohibition Made Detroit a Bootlegger's Dream Town". The Detroit News. Archived from the original on June 17, 2011. Retrieved November 17, 2012.
- Gribben, Mark. "The Purple Gang: The Color Purple". Crime Library. Retrieved November 16, 2012.
- "Purple Gang". The Internet Index of Tough Jews. J-Grit. Retrieved November 16, 2012.
- Rockaway, Robert A. (2001). "The Notorious Purple Gang". Shofar. Archived from the original on November 5, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2012 – via HighBeam Research.
- Kavieff, Paul R. (July 16, 1999). "Detroit's Infamous Purple Gang". The Detroit News. Retrieved November 16, 2012.
- Lipman, David E. "Detroit's Purple Gang". My Jewish Learning. Retrieved November 16, 2012.
- "Purple Gang Part 1". FBI Records: The Vault. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved November 16, 2012.
- Schoenberg, Robert J. (1993). Mr. Capone: The Real—and Complete—Story of Al Capone. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks. p. 209. ISBN 978-0688128388.
- "Purple Gang Part 3". FBI Records: The Vault. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved November 16, 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. Archived from the original on October 30, 2013. Retrieved November 16, 2012.
- "On the Witness Stand". The Detroit News. June 8, 1928.[full citation needed]
- Newton, M. (2009). Mr. Mob: The Life and Crimes of Moe Dalitz. McFarland. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-7864-5362-7. Retrieved June 14, 2016.
- Bak, Richard (February 2010). "The Gory '20s". Hour Detroit. Retrieved November 18, 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 January 8, 2013.
- "Death in Detroit". Time. August 4, 1930. Retrieved November 19, 2012.
- May, Allan. "Jerry Buckley: A Victory Short Lived". Archived from the original on June 19, 2008. Retrieved January 8, 2013.
- Gribben, Mark. "The Purple Gang: The Collingwood Manor Massacre". Crime Library. Retrieved November 19, 2012.
- Gribben, Mark. "The Purple Gang: The End of the Purple Gang". Crime Library. Retrieved November 20, 2012.
- "Purple Gang Part 2". FBI Records: The Vault. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved November 20, 2012.
- 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.
- Kavieff, Paul R. (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.