THE PURPLE GANG

 

There are tales of hidden floors and boarded up tunnels in the storefronts along Gratiot at the entrance to Eastern Market.  The word on the street was that the Purple Gang used them for their activities.  We don't have absolute proof of that but we do know that these were the old stomping grounds of the Purple Gang.  They were Detroit's version of Al Capone's outfit in Chicago.  They were Jewish and started out as young east-side thugs forcing the local merchants to pay protection.  They came to adulthood during prohibition and became involved in the popular crime of the day, rum running or transporting illegal whiskey.  They quickly found out that hijacking other rumrunners was easier and more lucrative.  All of this resulted in a lot of killing and by the time it was over 500 people

were dead.  But eventually they turned on themselves and the ones that didn't end up a blood-splattered mess on the streets were eventually sent to prison.  By the time prohibition was history, so were they.  In his book, "The Purple Gang," Paul Kavieff details their activities in great detail.  The following is a brief summary of that book.

 

 

A SUMMARY OF "THE PURPLE GANG -- ORGANIZED CRIME IN DETROIT --

1910-1945"  by Paul R. Kavieff

 

"These boys are not like other boys of their age, they're tainted.  Off color."  "Yes, replied the other shopkeeper.  The whole bunch of them are Purple, they’re a Purple Gang."

 

That's one explanation for how the Purple Gang got its name although there are others; but the gang referred to itself as the "Boys."  According to Kavieff, it all began when Harry Bernstein, a Polish Jew, arrived in Detroit in 1902 with his wife and children and sat up shop in a small shoe repair located at 401 Gratiot Avenue on the city's lower east side, not far from Detroit's Jewish ghetto.  That area stretched from Jefferson Avenue to East Grand Boulevard, its outer boundaries extending a little more than two blocks east and west of Hastings Street (now I-75), which was also known as Paradise Valley.  The children of the immigrants in the area saw their parents work long hours without much success while the local gangsters seemed to live prosperous lives.  The Bernstein boys, Abe, Joey, Ray, and Izzy, followed in the footsteps of those men and became part of one of the most ruthless organized crime groups in U.S. history.  

 

By the time they were teenagers, the boys were out of control and they were sent to the Old Bishop School on Winder Street to learn a trade.  Instead they met the other toughs of the neighborhood and soon formed a street gang and began to terrorize the peddlers, shopkeepers and residents.  They graduated from juvenile delinquents to mobsters when Prohibition became law.  In 1918, when Michigan was declared officially dry, there were about 1,500 saloons and 800 blind pigs in Detroit.  In 1925, the number of blind pigs was estimated to be between 15,000 and 25,000.   It was during this time that hijacking liquor from older and better established Detroit mobs earned the Purples a reputation for daring and ferocity.  The gang became so powerful that they controlled the price of bootleg liquor in Detroit, financed moonshiners and ran their own Blind Pigs.  They picked up other income by extorting money from legitimate and illegitimate enterprises including some unions.  Anyone who objected went out of business permanently. They introduced the underworld expression "making their bones" in reference to committing murders, created fearsome reputations with harsh beatings, collaborated with other mobs when necessary and left an estimated five hundred unsolved murders in their wake.  During this reign of terror, the Purple Gang factions were led by the Bernsteins and a small group of men with similar backgrounds, the offspring of recent immigrants, Eastern European Jews who were hardworking and honest. 

 

Joe Bernstein was small in physical stature but developed a reputation as a "shtarker" a yiddish term meaing a tough guy.  His brothers could hold their own but he was the roughest of them all.  He came out of the Oakland Sugar House Gang which some people say mentored the Purple Gang; others say they were all the same mobsters operating different factions of the same group.  Since it was legal to brew wine and beer for home consumption, "sugar houses" as they were called supplied the products to make home brew.  Many legitimate suppliers catered to underworld brewers who in turn mass-produced for "blind pigs," establishments where liquor was sold illegally. This is how the Sugar House Gang got its name. 

 

Whatever the connection between the two groups, the Sugar House Gang was the

financial basis of the Purple Gang which had members who specialized in their chosen areas.  Henry Shorr and Charles Leiter had been members of the Sugar House Gang and were experts at the installation and concealment of high capacity brewing plants with excellent products.  They funded their operation through their hijacking and extortion rackets.  The Little Jewish Navy included Mike Gelfand "One Armed Mike" and Sam Solomon who was one of the biggest bookmakers in Detroit.  The Navy was the faction that ran stolen liquor from Canada in several privately owned speedboats.  Almost all of the Purples' liquor was stolen from some other gang.  Charles Auerbach, called "the Professor" because of his polished appearance and refinement, was suspected to have been behind most of the crimes during the prohibition era and he was the first gangster of notoriety to be convicted under the Public Enemy Law in 1931.

 

The Gang reached out-of-state to bolster their manpower.  One such member was Johnny Reid who was associated with the Egan's Rats of St. Louis that produced some of the toughest bank robbers and gunmen of the era.  When Reid came to Detroit he brought some talented killers happy to help the Purple Gang.  Reid's career was brought to an abrupt halt when he was shot in the head with a sawed off shotgun.  Later, in an incident known as the Milaflores Apartment Massacre, Frank Wright, the rumored killer of Reid, was gunned down in a hail of bullets, along with two of his companions.  The machine gun incident was without precedent; it was before the days when machine guns were a symbol of the underworld.  The police were able to draw a direct connection between the Purple Gang and the massacre although to this day the crime remains officially unsolved.  The massacre made the Purple Gang; it was clear that they would do anything.  They proved it when they had a rogue cop shot down in broad daylight; they thought he had gotten out of hand with his extortion demands.  Although there was a drastic crackdown, no one ever went to trial for Officer Welch's murder.

 

Fred "Killer" Burke, one of the killers suspected in the Melaflores murders, turned up again when he was accused of being one of the hitmen involved in Chicago's St. Valentine's Day Massacre in which a number of the Bugs Moran gang were killed.  They meant to get Bugs but he hadn't arrived yet.  Burke was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.  There were many theories why that Massacre happened but no one doubts it had something to do with Al Capone, Moran's rival.  The cooperation between Capone's gang and the Purple were ignored by the authorities and none of the higher ups were ever charged.

 

By the late twenties, the Purples had reached the zenith of their power and they were invited to attend the first national underworld conference initiated by the notorious New York mob.  This meeting was the birth of organized crime.  Ironically, it was about this time that the Purples began to disintegrate and its members ended up in prison or dead.  The Federal Government finally began to get serious about stopping their activities and actually began to convict and send the Purples to prison.  The Collingwood Manor Massacre was the culmination of incidents involving three Chicago gunmen who set up business in Detroit.  When they failed to pay off bets and began undercutting the Purples' liquor prices, Ray Bernstein decided to kill them all.  The prosecutor actually got someone to testify against the Purples and Ray was convicted along with three other Purples.  The police said it was the greatest accomplishment in years.   The Purples also began to kill each other in earnest.   Irving Shapiro was the first Purple over to be "taken for a ride."  He took exception when some of the other Purples tried to cheat him out of his share of some kidnapping money.  Many others would meet his fate.  In retrospect,

the Purples ruled the Detroit crime world only for a short time, but their viciousness ensured that they would be long remembered.

 

Submitted AS 3/03