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David Fisk (Lens of
Purple Gang - Terrorizing Detroit in the 1920's
Led by Abe Bernstein, the Purple Gang was a mob of bootleggers and
hijackers who operated out of Detroit, Michigan in the 1920s. This group of
mostly young Jewish immigrants got its start in the Hasting Street
neighborhood known as Paradise Valley in Detroit's Lower East Side. Many
of the core members went to school together and as boys, became thieves
and pickpockets in an area called the Eastern Market close to their
school. As they got older, their crimes got bigger and they soon
began to commit armed robbery, loan sharking, and extortion under the
mentorship of older neighborhood gangsters.
The Purple Gang hiding their faces.
By the 1920's
Detroit had become a major port for running and distributing alcohol
products from Canada during Prohibition.
between Detroit and Chicago, and would meet behind the Bohm Theatre or in
secret places in houses of Albion, a small town halfway between the two
points. The gang supposedly received their name during a conversation
between two Detroit market owners, each of them gang victims. One owner
made the comment: "They're rotten, purple like the color of bad meat."
Perhaps the most ruthless
bootleggers of their time, they may have killed over 500 members of rival
bootlegging gangs during Detroit's bootleg wars.
Bootlegging netted the Purple Gang millions of dollars, but the mob was
also involved in extortion, hijacking, and jewelry thefts. After the
repeal of Prohibition in the 1930's, the Purple Gang members joined the
growing national crime syndicate that was replacing the old school mafia
leadership, fondly known as the Mustache Petes.
The Purple Gang also attempted to run gambling rings in Detroit,
especially among the African American population. Run by Julius Horowitz,
the son of the sugar supplier to the breweries, and a one-legged black
gangster wanted in the South for murder, the operation was successful
until the gamblers learned that the Purple Gang had been using loaded dice
and other tricks to keep it profitable. A small riot followed from which
Horowitz escaped but the black gangster was believed killed.
The Purple Gang was exceptionally violent, constantly at war with other
gangs and with each other. Newspapers would often carry stories of gang
murders on both sides of their conflicts, which were constant during the
gang's existence. Too many openly violent crimes caused a string of
convictions of Purple Gang members, while the intra-gang violence between
different gang members damaged the gang's organization and its abilities
to control its turf.
The Purples ruled the Detroit underworld for approximately five years
from 1927 to 1932 and had almost complete immunity from police
interference as witnesses to crimes were terrified of testifying against
any criminal identified as a Purple Gangster.
However, jealousies, egos, and intra-gang quarrels would
eventually cause the Purple Gang to self-destruct. In 1931 an intra-gang
dispute ended in the murder of three Purples by members of their own gang.
The three men had violated underworld code by operating outside the
territory allotted to them by the Purple Gang leadership. Three members of
the "Little Jewish Navy," a group of Purples who owned several boats and
participated in rum-running as well as hijacking, decided they would break
away from the gang and become an underworld power themselves. This was the
beginning of the end for the Purple Gang.
three men, Hymie Paul, Isadore Sutker, aka Joe Sutker, and Joe Lebowitz,
were invited to a peace conference with Purple Gang leaders on September
16, 1931. However, after a brief discussion the
three unarmed men were shot to death.
bookie named Sol Levine, who had transported the three men to the fatal
meeting, was arrested soon afterwards and was quickly frightened into
becoming a State's witness.
Levine's testimony was devastating and three of the four Purples involved
in the incident were quickly arrested. Irving Milberg, Harry Keywell,
and Raymond Bernstein, three high ranking Purple Gang members, were
convicted of first degree murder and sent to prison for life. Although the
Purple Gang remained a power in the Detroit underworld until 1935, long
prison sentences and intra-gang quarrels eventually destroyed the gang's
The Purple Gang smuggling in liquor from Canada.
The Purple Gang were considered suspects in the case of the Lindbergh
baby. The Purple Gang also used big grass lots all over Michigan for
planting drugs which they planned on selling in Detroit.
predecessors of Detroit's modern day Mafia family simply stepped in and
filled the void once the Purple Gang self-destructed.
by Kathy Weiser/Legends
of America, updated July, 2010.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
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