1.05.2013

THE PURPLE GANG...DETROIT'S BLOODY LEGACY


Photo: Paul R. Kavieff's Images of America: Detroit's Infamous Purple Gang.

An old photograph from the Detroit Times shows various members of the Purple Gang awaiting arraignment on extortion charges as a result of their involvement in the Cleaners & Dyers War of 1925-1928. Left to right: (first row) Abe Bernstein, Irving Milberg, Harry Keywell, Joe Miller; (second row) Ray Burnstein, Simon Axler, Edward Fletcher, Abe Axler, Irving Shapiro.



Scene looking east on Collingwood Ave from 12th Street. Sept. 20 1931 between by Detective Edward Crimmins.



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. Others believe that the name came from a Hastings Street merchant who complained that these neighborhood kids were "tainted, off-color," like bad meat, "they're purple." Many dismiss these explanations and think it was merely a journalistic invention that stuck.
 
Detroit Police Headquarters built in 1923

The Purple Gang was to Detroit what Al Capone and his gang were to Chicago. From the late 1920s until their demise in the the early 1930s their members were the leaders of the city's underworld.


Raymond Burnstein, Abraham Burnstein's brother. He was one of the chief enforcers of the Purple Gang. From: Detroit's Infamous Purple Gang by Paul R. Kavieff

One characteristic of this group that made it quite unique was that it was the only Jewish crime organization to completely control the criminal underworld of a major American city. While other American Jewish gangsters worked within cross-ethnic alliances, the Purple Gang dominated Detroit entirely on its own.



Police mug shots of Purple Gang members Sammy Millman, from left, Phillip Keywell and Harry Keywell. From The Detroit News:

Like its criminally minded contemporaries, the Purple Gang was engaged in various criminal enterprises including bootlegging, hijackings, gambling operations, narcotics and kidnappings. And plenty of homicides were committed along the way...


Detroit's Purple Gang
Bootlegging, fraud, and murder by a gang of Detroit Jews
By Rabbi David E. Lipman


Detroit's Purple Gang was a local Jewish gang. The "Purple Gang," which operated during the 1920's and 1930's, had its beginnings in the Jewish section of Detroit's East Side.

The Detroit River was a highway for Canadian liquor during Prohibition. A Detroit News photographer hid in a coal elevator to get this picture of rumrunners loading their cars at the foot of Riopelle in 1929. From The Detroit News:

Originally formed around Samuel "Sammie Purple" Cohen, the leadership of this group of petty criminals was initially assumed by the three Bernstein brothers--Abe, Isadore, and Ray---who had emigrated to Detroit from New York. Beginning with shoplifting and extortion, the gang moved up into the distilling and brewing business.


Detroit News file photo

A crowd quickly formed outside the Collingwood Apartments at 1740 Collingwood in Detroit, where three men were shot by Purple Gangsters in 1931 in one of their most daring crimes yet.


ST VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE

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.

On the morning of Thursday, February 14, 1929, a handful of men — some wearing police uniforms, others wearing suits and ties — entered a garage at 2122 North Clark Street, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. Within minutes the men had lined up five members of Bugs Moran’s North Side Gang (along with two other associates) against an inside wall and swiftly executed.


In September 1928, Purple Gang defendants were found not guilty of extortion in the "cleaners and dyers war." This photo shows the prosecutors, defense lawyers and defendants during the trial before Judge Charles Bowles. From The Detroit News:


Law enforcement officers seized this armored Graham-Paige sedan, with bullet-proof glass and revolving license plates, in 1936 in an Albion garage. It was used by Jackson native Louis Fleisher Jr. and other members of the Purple Gang in safe-cracking jobs in Jackson, Albion, Battle Creek, Coldwater, Ionia, Grand Rapids and Lansing.

In Detroit bootlegging was huge. The Purples had all kinds of systems for smuggling booze across the river. Boats, sleds, canoes, trucks, you name it. They even had a cable system that they used to pull barrels underwater. In the winter, hundreds of cars just drove across the ice and came back with a load of booze. There are supposedly quite a few cars at the bottom of the river from those times.

On Grosse Ile, we looked at one house that supposedly had bullet holes in it somewhere from some bootlegging dispute. Our house was allegedly once used as a blind pig or a distribution point. If you look at the history of this time period you will see that a huge percentage of the Alcohol consumed in the US during prohibition came accross the Detroit river from Canada. It was very big here. It just did not get as violent and did not get as much press attention. Probably because the purple gang had no strong rivals and the feds did not get into gunfights with them like they did with Capone.


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.

READ MORE ON RK
HARRY GROSS: DETROIT PURPLE GANG MEMBER
DETROIT MOBSTERS: THE PURPLE GANG
DETROIT'S PURPLE GANG: THE ALBION CONNECTION
DETROIT RUMRUNNERS, WYANDOTTE AND MORE
KENYON'S HIDEOUT DETROIT'S PURPLE GANG
THE PURPLE GANG: GRACELAND BALLROOM

20 comments:

  1. "Aha - gotta send to a friend not on fb. They had a hangout up by Lupton and they tried to reuse the building, then it burned all down and the finally leveled it. Creepy.... because it had cutouts and stormers/turrents for the gooks with machine guns - also there are a few very deep smaller lakes there, no beaches, deep. Hmmm... cement shoes anyone?"

    ReplyDelete
  2. John B Davis1/05/2013 1:51 PM

    My Dad worked in a place right on west Jefferson, had a front door on the street and a back door on the Detroit river for smugglin booze from Canada, he found an old black jack there and brought it home to show us kids...good times!

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  3. Michael Martin1/05/2013 1:51 PM

    "The whole rhythm section"

    ReplyDelete
  4. Benjamin Borden1/05/2013 1:52 PM

    I'd get a new rhythm section if these louts turned up.

    ReplyDelete
  5. John Jeffire1/05/2013 4:37 PM

    Capone actually hired Killer Burke and some other Purples for the St.Valentine's Day Massacre because he knew they would accomplish the mission. He tried to make some inroads into Detroit to take advantage of the booze flow from Windsor but backed off immediately when the Purples let him know they wouldn't tolerate it. Like I said, some bad dudes.
    7 hours ago · Edited · Like

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  6. Marilyn Pope Taylor1/05/2013 9:56 PM

    I see that some others have blogged on it. It is spooky to me, sad that it burned. Log buildings are ripe for that. I own 2 log cabins West of there in West Branch and it's always a concern. I do remember the name of the place being called Kenyen's when I was younger - gosh forgot all of that. But remember the very deep lake.pond across the street. The area sits quite high too so good spot for looking out, tho, there are a lot of tall pines there.

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  7. Kristina Millman1/07/2013 8:56 PM

    Hey Kim,

    I saw you are big into the Purple Gang. I'm Harry Millman's great niece and I'd love to see all the cool stuff you have on the Purples.

    ReplyDelete
  8. David Freeman1/07/2013 9:13 PM


    Great Grandpa Geo. Voleck ran his boats laden with Canadian whiskey and Great Grandma Lottie ran the boarding house where some of the gang stayed. Later locating to Grosse Ile the half way point, after the PG was found to be responsible for setting up the St. Valentines Day Massacre. I now live outside Blaney Park U.P. where they stayed at the resort and watched U.S. 2 from a Fire tower for raids and had a small airstrip for quick escapes.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Marilyn Pope Taylor1/07/2013 9:14 PM

    gotta send to a friend not on fb. They had a hangout up by Lupton and they tried to reuse the building, then it burned all down and the finally leveled it. Creepy.... because it had cutouts and stormers/turrents for the gooks with machine guns - also there are a few very deep smaller lakes there, no beaches, deep. Hmmm... cement shoes anyone?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Marilyn Pope Taylor1/07/2013 9:15 PM

    Yup, I tried your link but didn't get to the story, thatnks for the link. I see that some others have blogged on it. It is spooky to me, sad that it burned. Log buildings are ripe for that. I own 2 log cabins West of there in West Branch and it's always a concern. I do remember the name of the place being called Kenyen's when I was younger - gosh forgot all of that. But remember the very deep lake.pond across the street. The area sits quite high too so good spot for looking out, tho, there are a lot of tall pines there.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Remondo Santiago1/07/2013 9:16 PM

    Jailhouse Rock

    "Spider Murphy played the tenor saxophone
    Little Joe was blowin' on the slide trombone
    The drummer boy from Illinois went crash, boom, bang
    The whole rhythm section was a purple gang"

    ReplyDelete
  12. Steampunk Fabricators1/07/2013 9:17 PM

    Have eaten many dinners at Kenyons in Rose City. This was a notorious hide our of the gang.

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  13. Chuck Buckleberry1/07/2013 9:17 PM

    The PG forced my Great Grandad's Blind Pig out of business because he was feeding people who bought drinks for free! He was drawing too much business.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Scott Wilson1/07/2013 11:14 PM

    Clare County, a CMU Professor had a Docu at the Theatre across from the Doherty Hotel this summer

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  15. The Mafia put a HIT on Purple's leader Millman, an undisputed Psycho, who pistol-whipped every Mafia Guy who came to Detroit to try and do business. Finally they just decided to hit Millman. It took them 12 attempts to get it done...from car bombs to snipers...they finally got them both on Thanksgiving Eve, 1937. End of the Era.

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  16. Would there be anyone who has studied or documented the members who may know who is in an old picture I found

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  17. I stumbled on a picture of my grandfather and asked my mother who the men were with him sinceI did not recognize them as family...she tells me it's some of the purple gang he worked for as a driver...I had never heard of them till now..it's freakin me out a bit...not sure who the men in picture are...we're they a very large gang?.

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  18. My husband's grandfather, and his great uncles, were the guys who killed Irving Shapiro. Grandfather was the owner of the car that they "took him for a ride" in.

    Not sure what became of the Uncles, but the grandfather packed up his wife and 3 kids and left for Ontario CAN, where they had child #4 (my husband's mother ). Grandfather died in July 2000 at the age of 98.

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  19. stephen cohen11/24/2015 10:51 PM

    eddie fletcher was my grandpas uncle he was born in ny and soon left to join some friends to detroit in a gang...can barely find any pictures of him only a few of him...most of the family disowned him ..but any info i would love....

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  20. When I was in Detroit years ago I ate at a place called the Detroit Soup Kitchen where it was said they hung out. Is it still around

    ReplyDelete

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