Russian immigrants waiting on Ellis Island.
Detroit’s slums were the breeding ground for crime and violence when waves of European immigrants settled in the city between 1881 and 1914. The Purple Gang members were second-generation Jewish-Americans of Russian and Polish descent. Their Hastings Street neighborhood was on Detroit’s Lower East Side known as Paradise Valley. It was anything but paradise. These young men were born into poverty and received little education barring them from desirable jobs. Mob life offered them everything but respectability.
Street punks waiting for some action.
Before they were known as the Purple Gang, they were part of a neighborhood mob of delinquent youths who became thieves, pickpockets, and shakedown artists primarily in the Eastern Market area just north of their home turf. Under the mentorship of older neighborhood gangsters–Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr–the Purples began to commit armed robbery, hijacking, bootlegging, loan sharking, kidnapping, extortion, and murder for hire. Soon, gang members ran gambling rings, speakeasies, and a numbers racket (lottery) among Detroit’s black population.
Purple Gang members avoiding a press photograph at the 13th Precinct police station.
The Purple Gang was exceptionally violent and ruled the Detroit underworld from 1927 until 1935. Authorities estimate that the gang murdered over 500 members of rival bootlegging gangs during Detroit’s bloody turf wars. They were virtually immune to police interference because of payoffs to city officials and local beat cops. When known Purple Gang associates were arrested, witnesses were terrified to testify against them.
The Purples came about through the merging of two groups–Oakland County’s Sugar House Gang led by Leiter and Shorr, and a mob of Jewish street hoods led at that time by nineteen-year-old Sammy Coen, who assumed the alias Sammy Purple. Detroit detective Henry Gavin claimed the gang was named after Sammy. Once the police tagged the group as the Purple Gang, the press took up the drum beat. Gang members hated the label. There are several urban legends about how the gang’s name came about, but Henry Gavin’s explanation is the most credible.
Canadian liquor being smuggled on the Detroit River.
The gang grew into manhood with the emergence of Prohibition. Three years before the Volstead Act and national Prohibition became the law of the land, Michigan passed the Damon Act in 1917 prohibiting the sale of liquor within the state. Henry Ford supported and financed the movement because he wanted a sober workforce, but the Damon Act was declared unconstitutional in 1919.
By the time the whole country entered Prohibition with the Volstead Act in 1920, Detroit was already a haven for bootleggers and hijackers of Canadian liquor shipments. Detroit was the gateway for the illegal distribution of alcohol to larger cities like New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. By the mid-1920s, Detroit was home to an estimated 25,000 illegal drinking establishments called speakeasies which were full-service bars. For people who couldn’t afford cafe society, blind pigs developed which sold liquor by the shot in private homes and after-hour businesses.
Legend has it that a church in Walkerville, Ontario installed a neon cross on their steeple to signal bootleggers that a shipment of booze was coming across. The neon beacon could be seen through the fog which was when the boats would leave. Pint bottles were developed so they would sink in case bootleggers had to ditch them in the Detroit River. Fifth-sized bottles would often wash up along the shoreline.
The four Kaminski brothers grew up in Delray on Thaddeus Street. They would hang out along the river and watch the rumrunners try to outrun the Coast Guard. If a shipment was in danger of being seized, the “Little Jewish Navy”–as they were called–would throw the booze overboard to ditch the evidence. The brothers knew the river currents and would dive in to retrieve as much product as possible–then sell it. Seems like virtually everyone in Detroit was in the liquor business.
Boats were used on the water, and trucks were used on the ice to transport booze.
Seventy-five percent of the liquor smuggled into the United States during Prohibition passed through Detroit. The Purple Gang’s liquor, gambling, and drug trade netted the gang hundreds of millions of dollars annually providing the “grease” to make hefty payouts to city officials and police who agreed to look the other way. Turf wars were inevitable, and it wasn’t long before Detroit streets ran with the blood of would-be rivals. The Purples became overextended and began to import hoods from New York and St. Louis to work as “muscle” for the gang.
Unlike the Italian-American gangs who pioneered organized crime, the Purples were a loosely structured gang with shifting allegiances that came together and drifted apart when the need arose. After Sammy Purple’s leadership, Raymond Bernstein ruled the gang until his murder conviction. Ray’s soft-spoken brother Abe became the boss thereafter.
Author Robert A. Rockaway wrote in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies (2001), “Italian gangsters tended to involve (cross-generational) family members in their criminal activities. With the Jews, it was that one generation, the children of immigrants, and it ended with them.” As a postscript, the Purple Gang reigned over Detroit’s underworld for only five years. Most of the gang were either gunned down or died in prison.
The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Purple Gang
Purple Gang roundup by Detroit police: Sam Axler, Eddie Fletcher, Sam Goldfarb, Phil Keywell, Abe Zussman, Willie Lake, Harry Fleisher, Jack Stein, and Abe Axler (seated)
There is an oft-repeated story about how the Purple Gang got their name. When an Eastern Market butcher was assaulted and his shop vandalized, he reported to police that “These boys are not like other children, they’re off-color. They’re rotten purple like tainted meat. They’re the Purple Gang.” Whether the anecdote is accurate or not, the street thugs made their presence known to merchants and street peddlers from Paradise Valley to the Eastern Market–anybody they could squeeze a buck from was a target.
The Bernstein brothers–Raymond, Abe, Joe and Isadore “Izzy”–were young teens who ran with the gang of street toughs in their Hastings Street neighborhood on Detroit’s lower East Side. The gang started off as petty thieves and skake down artists. By 1919, they branched out to armed robbery, extortion, protection, hijacking, and murder under the tutelage of more experienced neighborhood gangsters from the Sugar House Gang. As their reputation for ruthless savagery grew, so did their power and grip over Detroit’s underworld.
In 1927, Frank Wright, a Chicago-based jewel thief, along with Joseph Bloom and George Cohen, New York based burglars, began to kidnap Detroit gamblers for ransom. Among the gamblers snatched were some Purple Gang members. The Purples plotted against the interlopers. One of Wright’s men–Meyer “Fish” Bloomfield–was kidnapped by the Purples to lure Wright into the open. The ploy worked. A ransom was agreed upon and a hostage exchange for money was to take place at the Milaflores Apartment on 106 East Alexandrine Ave.
At 4:30 am on March 28th, 1927, Wright showed up with Bloom and Cohen and knocked on the door of room 308 as prearranged. Three men at the end of the hallway opened the stairwell door and fired at point-blank range with pistols and a Thompson Sub-Machine Gun. The first known use of the Tommy Gun in Detroit. The trigger men escaped down the back stairway.
Evidence was found in the apartment connecting it with Purple Gang members Eddie Fletcher and the Axler brothers–Abe and Simon. The next day, Purples Abe Axler and Fred “Killer” Burke were pulled over on Woodward Avenue. Although they were suspects in the Milaflores slaughter, nobody was ever charged. It was commonly believed that Fred Burke wielded the Tommy Gun and Abe Axler and Ed Fletcher–known as the Siamese Twins–used hand guns.
Charles Givens, a reporter for the Detroit Times wrote, “In nine out of ten unsolved cases, investigators are virtually certain who the murderer is. Proof is another thing. Ask detectives who handle these cases and you get the same answer: ‘We knew who the murderer was, but there were no eyewitnesses or evidence’.”
The Milaflores Apartment murders did result in a Michigan ban on hardware stores and other retail outlets selling submachine guns and multi-round magazines to private citizens. Only police and the military could legally buy them.
Abe Bernstein was essentially the gang’s behind the scenes business manager. In 1925, Bernstein and corrupt American Federation of Labor president Francis X. Martell went into a business partnership to control prices in the cleaner and dyers industry. The Cleaners and Dyers Association was formed and the city’s independently owned cleaners were forced to join or pay the consequences. Shops were dynamited or burned down. Laundry plants were destroyed, owners and employees were beat up, and some people were gunned down.
A brave businessman stood up and filed a complaint in 1928 with the Wayne County prosecutor. In all, nine Purple Gang members (Raymond Bernstein, Irving Milberg, Eddie Fletcher, Joe Miller, Irving Shapiro, Abe Kaminski, Abe Axler, and Simon Axler) were indicted for extortion. Several days later, Abe Bernstein surrendered and paid a $500 appearance bond. All the Purples were acquitted. The gang was at the height of its power with a feeling of invincibility. The huge amount of money the Purples skimmed from this labor racket allowed the gang to dominate the city’s underworld until 1931.
The Collingwood Manor Massacre on September 16th, 1931 marked the beginning of the end of the Purple Gang’s stranglehold over Detroit’s underworld. An inter-gang dispute erupted when three Purple Gang members violated the underworld code of poaching outside their operating territory. Herman “Hymie” Paul, Isodore “Izzy” Sutker, and Joseph Leibowitz were members of a Purple Gang faction called The Little Jewish Navy (LJN). They owned and operated boats transporting liquor across the Detroit River. The trio wanted to break away from the gang and establish their own organization and territory.
Collingwood Manor at 1740 Collingwood Avenue
A bookie go-between named Sol Levine brokered a meeting between gang factions and transported the LJN men to the apartment on Collingwood Avenue. The LJN, thinking they were going to cut a deal with the gang’s leaders. Ray Bernstein ordered the hit and stayed outside in the car acting as the wheel man. After a brief discussion with Purple Gang members Harry Fleisher, Irving Milberg and Harry Keywell, Fleisher stood up and brutally shot the three unarmed men to death. Fleisher dropped his gun into an open can of green paint as he and his men ran down the stairs and out a back entrance to the alley where Bernstein was waiting in the get-away car.
In the heat of the moment, Sol Levine was left behind in shock and was arrested when the police arrived. In fear of his life because he was the only eyewitness to the murder, he turned state’s evidence placing himself under police protection. Milberg, Keywell, and Bernstein were arrested and convicted of first-degree murder and sent to Michigan’s maximum security prison in Marquette. The trigger man Harry Fleisher left town and was never convicted of the crime. In those days, criminals had a much larger and less-documented world to move around in. It was still possible to simply vanish.
Eddie Fletcher and Abe Axler–“The Siamese Twins”
The Sicilian Mafia–called the “Moustache Pete’s” in Detroit–began to fight the Purples over territory they could no longer control. The bodies of Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher were found shot to death on November 27, 1933 around 2:00 am in the back seat of a brand new Chrysler at the corner of Telegraph and Quarton roads in Bloomfield Hills. The bullet-ridden bodies of the so-called “Siamese Twins” were placed side-by-side, their hands intertwined as a sign of disrespect.
Purple Gang gunman and loose cannon Harry Millman was brutally shot to death on Thanksgiving Day, November 24th, 1937. Radio crime reporter Walter Winchell described the hit this way:
In a big Midwest metropolis yesterday, another gang member met justice at the end of a gun. Prominent Detroit Purple Gang member Harry Millman was enjoying a drink in the bar of Boesky’s Restaurant, on 12th Street (and Hazelwood), when four men entered brandishing guns and shot the hoodlum ten times. His body was still warm on the floor when the Detroit Police arrived. His killers were rumored to be members of Brooklyn’s notorious Murder, Incorporated. Millman’s death signaled the end of the Purples as a force in organized crime in the Motor City. Because of his repeated escapes from convictions for kidnapping, robbery, and extortion, Millman earned the nickname “Lucky.” Yesterday, his luck ran out. This is Walter Winchell reporting.
Millman was whacked for feuding with the Detroit Mafia and extorting money from their brothels and gambling operations. The predecessors of Detroit’s modern day Mafia simply stepped in to fill the void once the Purple Gang was neutralized.
Abe Bernstein was spared because he had friends in high places–namely New York gangsters Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis–with whom he co-owned several Miami gambling casinos. Abe Bernstein was allowed to live out his life bookmaking from his suite at the Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit until his death from a stroke in 1968.
Detroit Police Chief of Detectives James E. McCarthy credited the Collingwood Massacre for “(breaking) the back of the once powerful Purple Gang, writing the end to more than five years of arrogance and terrorism.”