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Detroit’s Purple Gang

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The irony of Prohibition was that a policy aimed at creating a virtuous and peaceful society had exactly the opposite effect. In Detroit, Jewish bootleggers controlled the supply of illegal liquor and, as was the case elsewhere, this led to violence.

Some members of the Purple Gang; a few looking as menacing as they can.

Some members of the Purple Gang; a few looking as menacing as they can.

Prohibition in Detroit

The Volstead Act that banned the sale of alcohol came into effect in 1920, but Michiganders had already gone through two-and-a-half parched years. Efforts to ban liquor in Michigan began when the area became a state in 1837. By 1845, municipalities were given to right to chose whether or not to go dry. A state-wide ban came into effect in May 1917.

Detroit became the first major city in the United States to experience life without booze. It also proved to be an incubator for criminal gangs who were determined to ensure citizens could still get their favourite tipple.

For more than a decade, the hooch trade in Detroit was controlled by the Purple Gang.

Vote for the saloon if you want future generations to be shrivelled, bloodless, prematurely decayed creatures . . . Vote against the saloon if you wish to build up a race of giant, healthy manhood and glorious womanhood.”

Michigan Catholic Register, 1911

The Purple Gang

The key players of the gang were the Bernstein brothers, Abe, Ray, and Izzy, along with Abe Axler, Harry Fleisher, and Phil Keywell. The Purple Gang ran everything from illegal betting and extortion, to drug and alcohol sales.

The gang started out in the early years of the 20th century among the children of Russian Jewish immigrants who went to America for a better life. But, as with many other newcomers, prosperity eluded them as they were exploited and ghettoized.

Facing dim prospects, some second-generation kids turned to crime. At first, it was petty street crime such as shoplifting and vandalism. Legend has it that a shopkeeper who had suffered from their crimes gave the group its title when he said “They’re rotten, purple―like the colour of bad meat, they’re a purple gang.”

Soon, the young men graduated to more serious stuff such as armed robbery.

They brought in thugs from other cities to provide the muscle needed to enforce their rackets and deter others from invading their turf. According to The Warkerville Times, “The gang became notorious for its high profile manner of operation and savagery in dealing with enemies.”

By the time the misguided experiment with prohibition came along, the Purple Gang dominated Detroit’s underworld and sat in the catbird seat to profit from the supply of alcohol.

The Purple Gang is ready to quench your thirst.

The Purple Gang is ready to quench your thirst.

The Detroit-Windsor Funnel

The Detroit River forms the boundary between Canada and the United States, with Detroit on one side and Windsor, Ontario on the other. There was a ban on liquor sales in Ontario at the time but no ban on manufacturing beer, wine, and spirits for export.

The river separated the bootleggers from thousands of cases of sustaining beverages; it proved to be not much of a barrier. It was less than a mile wide in some places and it was dotted with coves and inlets along its 28-mile length. It was impossible to stop all the smugglers.

Roy Hayes was America’s Prohibition Commissioner. He said the Detroit River was the perfect waterway for the illicit liquor trade: “The Lord probably could have built a better river for rum smuggling. But the Lord probably never did.”

It has been estimated that three-quarters of the liquor that got into America from Canada during Prohibition made the crossing that became known as the Detroit-Windsor Funnel. Warehouses had trapdoors so that rum runners could steer their boats in out of site of those charged with stopping the trade.

History.com notes that “Bootleggers modified Great Lakes fishing boats with specially designed holds for kegs and even installed an underwater cable system that could deliver 40 cases of liquor an hour across the river.” There was also a pipeline between a Canadian distillery and a bottling plant in Detroit.

The Hiram Walker distillery in Ontario made special flat-sided liquor bottles to fit under clothes for smuggling.

The Hiram Walker distillery in Ontario made special flat-sided liquor bottles to fit under clothes for smuggling.

Purple Gang Violence

Rather than running rum across the river, the Purple Gang preferred to wait until it arrived and then hijack it. They were happy to use whatever force they deemed necessary to steal the liquor. They ruled Detroit’s underworld through extreme violence.

An example of their brutality was the Milaflores murders. Gangsters from St. Louis had been trying to elbow their way into the Purple’s territory. In March 1927, three of these out-of-towners were invited to a peace conference at the Milaflores Apartments. Waiting for them was Fred ‘Killer’ Burke and his trusty Thompson machine gun. (Burke went on to become the prime suspect in Chicago’s Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929).

Fred ‘Killer’ Burke and his asymmetrical moustache.

Fred ‘Killer’ Burke and his asymmetrical moustache.

The gang branched out into the union enforcement business in the professional laundry dispute known as the Cleaners and Dyers War. People were beaten and killed, and bombs were exploded to enforce union rules. The coffers of the gang swelled.

Throughout their reign the Purple Gang was immune from prosecution because their victims were terrorized into remaining silent.

Decline and Fall of the Purple Gang

The profits from crime in Detroit were so massive that others were prepared to risk the consequences of poaching some of the gang’s trade.

Three such men started going after some of the off-track betting money. The situation was dealt with in the same way as the Milaflores killings in September 1931; invitation to peace talks in Collingwood Apartments, and then bang, bang you’re dead. But, this time there was a witness to the killings and within an hour police had Solly Levine in custody.

Two of the victims of the Collingwood massacre.

Two of the victims of the Collingwood massacre.

Levine’s connections to the Purple Gang were known so the word went out to round up other members. Tips started to come in, most likely from Purple Gang rivals. Within days, the police had many of the gang’s leaders in custody along with the killers. The gunmen and one of the Bernstein brothers received life sentences, and it became clear the Purple Gang was not invulnerable. A few other members were, in the parlance of the day, “taken for a ride.”

Then, Lucky Luciano’s East Coast Syndicate moved into Detroit and swallowed what was left of the Purple Gang. Finally, almost all the crooks joined into a loose affiliation known as the National Crime Syndicate; an unintended consequence of the ban on alcohol.

Bonus Factoids

  • Alcohol abuse was an enormous problem in Detroit and elsewhere before Prohibition. Hour Detroit comments that “Stories proliferated of men who took their paychecks straight to the saloon and drank them away in an afternoon. Billy Boushaw’s Bucket of Blood dive on Atwater was infamous for getting patrons drunk on election day and marching them from precinct to precinct to vote a dozen times.”
  • In 1929, the bootleg liquor trade in Detroit was the second largest business after car manufacturing. The Detroit Free Press reported that 50,000 people were employed in the industry.
  • There’s a reference to the Purple Gang in Elvis Presley’s 1957 hit Jailhouse Rock at the end of the second verse.

Sources

  • “The Purple Gang.” Mark Gribben, Tru TV, undated.
  • “Mobsters, Mayhem & Murder.” Walkerville Times, undated.
  • “The Lawless Border with Canada Was Once America’s Main Security Concern.” Christopher Klein, History.com, February 6, 2019.
  • “Prohibition.” Craig Pearson, Windsor Star, November 22, 2014.
  • “Dry Times: Looking Back 100 Years After Prohibition.” Mickey Lyons, Hour Detroit, April 20, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

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