During Prohibition, rum runners and bootleggers used the frozen river as an easy way to get booze from Canada into the United States. From Detroit liquor went to Chicago (where Capone sold it under his "Log Cabin" label), St. Louis, and points west.
It was a well-known fact that if you were bringing a load of hooch across the Detroit River that you had better show up armed to the teeth. Because in the 1920s, Detroit belonged to the Purple Gang, a group of killers and thugs as vicious and bloodthirsty as any racketeer in New York or Chicago.
Above: In August of 1937, Purple Gang member Harry Millman’s LaSalle Coupe was blown to bits. The blast killed a valet (who had been sent for the coupe) outside the 1040 Club in Detroit, a favorite Purple Gang watering hole. photo: The Detroit News
The car was "the most completely equipped burgular’s automobile we have ever seen," stated a Michigan State Police officer at the time. It had a 3/4 inch bullet-proof glass the Gang would have their car serviced at what is now Bilicke’s on Austin Avenue.
Workers there would wonder why the glass was so thick, a metal flap in the back window that could be pulled down to deflect bullets from the rear, metal shields on other car parts including the tires, holes to position firing guns, removable doors and seats so a large safe could be inserted. A two-wheeled hand cart was also stored inside, used for transporting the safe.
Articles found in the car included nitroglycerine, dynamite and electric caps, drill punches, a sledge hammer, chisels, tongs, rubber wire, soap, bank bags, screw drivers, other burglar’s tools, a .38 Colt army revolver, a .38 automatic pistol, a .45 army revolver and one regular one, a Winchester .30 rifle, a Marland 30-30 rifle, a 12-gauge Winchester pump-gun, and a Remington gauge sawed-off shotgun, along with a bag of ammunition, and guns fully loaded. The gangsters had the car wired so that wires ran from the car to the safe which was blown up with nitroglycerine.
The Purples ran the rackets in Detroit for much of the 1920s and early 30s until the Syndicate boys from back east moved in and wrested control from a gang that had seen its numbers decimated by infighting and prosecution.
How They Operated
The Purple Gang was loosely organized, and instead of concentrating on a single racket, the individual members of the gang were generally for hire, going wherever the price was highest. As a result, they were often overextended. They were also careless in selecting jobs, slipshod in carrying out the work, and indiscreet in whom they double-crossed. This negligence in the end contributed to their disappearance.
For several years, however, the Purples managed the prosperous business of supplying Canadian whisky--Old Log Cabin--to the Capone organization in Chicago.
Despite its relatively high price, this brand could be sold easily because of its well-known quality. It was the hijacking of a shipment of Purple Gang Old Log Cabin whisky by the Bugs Moran gang of Chicago that led to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of seven Moran gangsters in 1929.
Although their major source of income was bootlegging whisky, the Purples branched out into other fields in order to earn additional money. They hijacked prizefight films and forced movie theaters to show them for a high fee; they defrauded insurance companies by staging fake accidents; they kidnapped people; and they accepted contracts for killing the enemies of various hoods who did not want to do the job themselves.
Because they were flamboyant and well-known in the city's night spots, and because many of them liked to dress well, be seen in public, and live in fine houses, a romantic aura surrounded the Purples that distinguished them from other gangs in Detroit. The gang was destroyed from two directions: The police moved against them when gang members left behind too much evidence of their crimes, and a rival Sicilian gang, tired of competing with the Purples, decided to eliminate them.
One by one, the Purples were murdered until most of them were either dead or afraid to remain in the Detroit area. So stealthy was the Sicilian move that neither the Purples nor the public realized what was going on.
In July 1929 four members of the Purple Gang--Eddie Fletcher, Harry Sutton, Abe Axler, and Irving Milberg--were sentenced to 22 months in Leavenworth Penitentiary for conspiracy to violate the prohibition laws. In 1930 Morris Raider was sentenced to 12-to-15 years in Jackson State Prison for shooting a boy he suspected of spying on members of the gang who were cutting whisky.
And in 1931 Ray Bernstein, Irving Milberg, and Harry Keywell were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the ambush-slaying of three members of a rival gang.
Remaining leaders of the Purple Gang were systematically and mysteriously executed. In July 1929 Irving Shapiro was taken for a ride and slain. In November 1933 the bodies of Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher were found in a car on an isolated country road. Each man had been shot numerous times in the face from close range. The murder of Harry Millman in November 1937 signaled the end of the Purple Gang in organized crime in Detroit.
On the senator who stood up to the Purple Gang - and lost..
The gangland slaying of Michigan Senator Warren G. Hooper was such shocking news in 1945 that it swept war headlines from the front pages of newspapers across the Midwest. Decades later, his brutal death is still something of a mystery.
Senator Hooper, elected from Albion, had made the courageous decision to testify in a probe of rampant government corruption, a legacy of Prohibition. His was to be the critical evidence in the investigation. He was slain before he got the chance.
Warren Hooper was ambushed on his way home from the capitol in Lansing to his home near Albion. That a public servant could be taken out so brutally and blatantly by a gang of thugs seemed like something born of the nineteenth century wild west and was a tremendous shock at the time.
More info on The Purple Gang