The Detroit River, representing the border between Ontario, Canada and the United States, is one of the busiest waterways in the world, with freighters bringing iron ore from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the bustling automobile factories of the Motor City.

Timber barges from northern Michigan and Wisconsin pass through the narrow waterway which separates Windsor, Canada and Detroit, Michigan en route to Lake Erie and the East Coast and hordes of recreational boaters and weekend fishermen use the river for their pleasure.

In the winter, traffic on the narrow flow (less than a mile across in some places) comes to a halt as the river freezes over.

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.

The Frog Pond circa 1990's

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.

The Downfall

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.

One of the very best parts of being a blogger is the readers who write in and provide me with more information! Warren (W. K. Berger) sent me his link to the novel he wrote called THE PURPLES. Read an excerpt HERE What a fun website! I read every word on that site.
The Purples Book cover
I love The Purples book trailer and can't wait to order this book!
You have to go see this website! I of course, adore mobsters and Detroit, well here they are together! Good Old Detroit Buy The Purples from my Amazon Store
More info on The Purple Gang



Big Rich said...

BAD-Ass Jewish Gangsters from Detroit!

MARY DEC said...

"My husband says his grandfather worked for the gang."


"They used to hang on the North End at Charlie the Pencilman's!"

Cheryl Sinclair said...

"A boyfriend of mine had a Great Uncle in the gang."

Warren said...

Great post on the Purple Gang, including a very nice book resource list. Thought you might be interested in my new novel just out this summer called THE PURPLES (about guess who?). It's a rollicking and suspenseful read, based on a lot of real events that took place during Prohibition-era Detroit, but it's also most definitely a work of fiction. You can find a book trailer, an excerpt, reviews, photos, and lots more at http://ThePurplesBook.com.

Christopher Chouinard said...

"I'm loving this. I had pal in high school who's band was called Detroit Mobsters."

Chris Scott Dellas said...

My Grandpa sold hats to The Purple Gang. He, then my father, owned Louie The Hatter on Gratiot & Chene downtown.

Retro Kimmer said...

@chris was your grandpa Bill Bradlin?

Chris Scott Dellas said...

no hon, his name was Elias Dellopoulos. My father's generation changed the name to Dellas. Dad's name was Steven Dellas, but his birth name was ESTATHIOS/STEVEN DELLOPOULOS. Steven Dellopoulos is on his discharge papers from the army... during WWII.
LOUIS THE HATTER was a small franchise owned by a Detroit Jewish family, while my family's LOUIE THE HATTER was only one location. The old columnist Charley Manos did a column about the rivals but I cannot find it on-line.

Retro Kimmer said...

@Chris when I used to do the Super Sale show at Cobo and the Silverdome we had Louis the Hatter as an exhibitor but their store was in Oak Park I think. Nice man Mr. Bradlin. He passed away some years back.

MJG196 said...

Yeah! Thanks a lot for this. Now I have some reading to do.

As for the book promo vid, I am trying to remember what documentary that music was used in...can anyone help me out? I want to say it was Jewish-themed.

Retro Kimmer said...

Warren what is the theme music behind your book trailer?

MJG196 said...

Oh yeah, the music was used in the documentary, "One Day In September," about the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre.

Retro Kimmer said...

How weird I have never seen that film and I was in Munich just as the Olympics were beginning April 1972
I need to see that film!

Warren said...

Sorry about posting twice about THE PURPLES—I wasn't signed in and didn't think the first post had gone through (and had to recreate it. You can delete one of them, if you want.)

Thanks for all the great plugs for my book, Kimmer. I'm trying to get THE PURPLES on the radar, and this really helps.

I had almost as much fun putting together the website and the book trailer as writing the book. For those wondering about the trailer music, it is "100,000 People" written by Philip Glass for the Errol Morris doc "The Fog of War." No real meaning behind that choice; just liked the sense of omininousness.

Tino Gross said...

Love your blog about the Purple Gang. My Uncle Harry Gross was a Purple and was shot dead with Harry Millman at Boeskey's on Thanksgiving Eve 1937. Harry aka 'huny'
was my Dad's oldest brother. His mugshot is in the Purple Gang book... some of the old-timers remember my Uncle Harry well. It was a real wild era in Detroit history!

Retro Kimmer said...

THANKS TINO! Happy New Year to you all out EAST.. Hey I got a mobster encyclopedia for Christmas! In it is a list of all the gangsters by city. They were tons in LA, NYC, Cleveland, KC, everywhere... but under Detroit it simply says PURPLE GANG!

Anonymous said...

I heard from my family, who ran slots in the 20's and 30's in Jackson area that the Purples had a house in Jackson county. Just north of Grass Lake off Mt.Hope Road on Timms Lake. In fact my uncle told me as a child he could remember going with granddad and getting slot machines there. This would have been in the late 20's. You know anything of this info?

Retro Kimmer said...

@anon- no I don't know about the Jackson house but I will research that today. Thank you for the address that helps!

Anonymous said...

The Purples are connected to Northern Michigan as well.

They were known to frequent the Graceland dance hall in Lupton and had one of the largest "ranches" in the area called the South Branch Ranch.

Also several of our older local residents say they may have had chop shops in the area. This became a more palusible story after a burlap bag of prohabition era lic plates was found while a foundation was being dug locally.

Anonymous said...

Actually the home was in grass lake, Right off 94 on the south side next to Tims lake. I believe it is still there. And from what I was told there is a also a barn on the property and Joe Lewis use to come out there and practice boxing in that barn. I wonderful lady was just telling me this story today actually. If you would like more info on it please let me know and I can get you in contact with her.

Retro Kimmer said...

Thank you! plz email me info anytime ok? retrokimmer@gmail.com thank for the info!!! RK

Hoppe123 said...

My Great Uncle was Sam the gorilla Davis on my grandma's side,my family always talk in the basement at my grandpa's house and we just watch them talk lol.

Anonymous said...

My late uncle was in "The Purple Gang". I won't use his name as some of his kids are still alive, and I don't want them to receive any repercussions, as he was a hit man for them. As Hoppie 123 said, they would gather at my uncles house at times and talk in other languages so the kids didn't know what they said. I was real young, and didn't know what really happened until he passed away.

Anonymous said...

My Great Uncle was part of the gang-he went to prison for awhile and less than 6 mths after he was released the Gang killed him in a bar for abandoning the Gang

Anonymous said...

We must be related because Sam is my great uncle to and my mother has the same memory

B Hollander said...

Hoppe 123 we must be related because Sam was my great uncle and my mother has the same memory

Anonymous said...

To clarify on some of the comments. It was a Jewish mob at first it than was infiltrated by the Irish and eventually it was tied to the Irish mob. It is still around to this day jusy kept under wraps and very secretive. This is a gang my family was a part of for a very long time until my grandfather decided no more. My dad can recall men coming to christmas gatherings they called them "uncles" but they were no where even close to being related to us. When my grandpa passed 5 of the members who still are or at one point were associated with the gang showed for his funeral.

Cheryl said...

My grandfather was Charlie the Pencilman! I actually have a photo of me on my second birthday with Charlie and his wife (my grandmother) taken in the back of the drug store that was Charlie's.

I have often wondered if he was a member of the gang or just gave them a place to hang out. My mom took me to California but my brother remembers some of the members still hanging out at Charlie's as late as the late 50s/early 60s.

stephencohen said...


Michael Bomia said...

I did 27 years in Michigan prison was great friends with Dominic ( ice pick ) piconne ,1937 to 1997 had pictures of all of them ,was involved with them since child hood ,Jewish mother sicilan father ,. Lot of stories lot of respect ,Sammy Norberg,looked out for him tell his passing great guy ,carried 1000.00 dollar banker notes with him in the joint ,hrs in the book A hundred years of Marquette . he's missed the unwritten purple, everyone who was anyone knew who he was, Mr. Zirrelli made sure until his passing Mr. Piconne was taken care of!

Anonymous said...

I spent 10 years behind the walls of SPSM & MBP. I once watched him kill a black inmate. I do NOT believe that Zirreli took care of Puccini. Dominic spent years in seg for homicides and assault with Nothing.

Anonymous said...

I'm quite familiar with the estate on the north shore of Timms Lake as I was a former resident of the area. My grandfather delivered kerosene there back in the 20s and 30s and had quite a memorable experience one morning while making a delivery stop. Apparently, one of the "gang chauffeurs" driving recklessly along the access ran him off the road, resulting in his delivery truck being rolled. Grandpa wasn't injured, but the caretaker of the estate invited him in for breakfast to smooth things over. Needless to say, being seated right next to none other than Joe Louis "made it all better" for him!
I remember being there a few times in the 60s, once to salvage an old pontoon boat and other times to purchase seedling spruce trees and remember it as a rather rustic, enigmatic place that seemed to be surrounded by dark secrets (how little did I know!) Guardedly, I was told the former owners were associated with the numbers racket out of Detroit and the caretaker's wife was commonly seen in Grass Lake entering the local bank with a large bundle of rolled up newspapers (the original version of a deposit bag). The owner that I knew in the 60s was an executive of Walker Muffler, and a portion of the former estate is now the site of the Walker Michigan Engineering Center located next to I-94.
Today, it appears that the former main house is gone, but the guest house, garage and barn are still there. Unfortunately for me, I'll be asking my grandfather the questions I should have asked him once I slip to the other side!!

Mario Carter said...

I lived in one of the upper level apartments over Charlie the Pencilman's store, from 1 years old to 4 years old! (see more on the link)

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