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Purple Gang Mug Shots (starting from left): Eddie Fletcher, former prizefighter
and Sam “Gorilla” Davis, Purple Gang enforcer.

Mobsters, Mayhem & Murder

ONE OF THE GREAT IRONIES of Prohibition is that instead of creating a perfect society by banning the consumption of liquor, the era produced one of the most violent, crime-ridden periods in American history. Prohibition was the perfect fodder for crime bosses and syndicates that have become the stuff of legends like Chicago’s Al Capone and Detroit’s Purple Gang.

The Detroit-Windsor “Funnel”

Detroit was the first major US city to ban the sale of alcohol in public establishments. By 1918, the city was completely dry, giving it a one year lead when prohibition became the law of the land in 1919. A year for gangsters and bootleggers to build a network for the transfer of booze from Windsor to Detroit. A veritable river of booze, which led to an huge increase in the consumption of alcohol. It was an era of ingenuity, crime and gangster rules.

Newspaper cartoonist reflected public opinion towards the failure of enforcing Prohibition.
Cartoon from Detroit Saturday Night, August 7, 1926

Although individual provinces, including Ontario, had outlawed the retail sale of liquor, the federal government approved and licensed distilleries and breweries to manufacture and distribute alcohol “for export only.”
The Detroit River was a smugglers’ paradise;
28 miles long and less than a mile across in some areas, with thousands of coves and hiding places along its shore and islands. Along with Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River, these waterways carried an incredible 75% of the liquor supplied to the United States during prohibition.

It was a match made in heaven: Detroit, gateway to thirsty Americans in need of prohibited alcohol, and its sister city Windsor, legally able to produce and export beer and whisky in large quantities.

Bad Boys: The Purple Gang pose for a police line -up.
photo courtesy: The Detroit News

The Colour Purple

In the midst of its first great automotive boom, Detroit witnessed an influx of immigrants seeking employment in the auto capital of the world.
It was a tough town, and the lower east side near the Eastern Market incubated poverty, crime, and violence in the early 20th century.

One group that flourished in the years just preceding World War I was notorious: The Purple Gang. Legend has it that the gang received its colourful monicker as a result of a conversation between two Hastings Street shopkeepers. Both men’s shops had been terrorized, shoplifted and vandalised by Jewish kids in Eastern Market. One of the shopkeepers exclaimed, “These boys are not like other children of their age, they’re tainted, off colour.”

“Yes,” replied the other shopkeeper. “They’re rotten, purple– like the colour of bad meat, they’re a purple gang.”

Most of the young Purples were children Russian Jewish immigrants, who worked hard to scrape out an honest living for themselves and their families in the Jewish quarter near Eastern market on Detroit’s lower east side.

The young delinquents quickly graduated from nuisance street crime to armed robbery, hijacking, and extortion. The gang became notorious for its high profile manner of operation and savagery in dealing with enemies.

In the early years of prohibition, sugar houses provided corn sugar for home brewers, who were allowed to brew a set amount of liquor for personal use. The sugar houses were a valuable resource for illegal stills and breweries, and one of the biggest, the Oakland Sugar House, was controlled by mobsters.

The men known as The Purple Gang were young, but became valuable assets to the older Sugar House Gang. And when the opportunity came along to “import” liquor from Windsor, the Purple Gang was organized – and ready. They would soon dominate the business and connect with Al Capone’s Chicago syndicate.

By the early twenties, the Purples had developed an unsavoury reputation as hijackers, stealing liquor loads from older and more established gangs of rumrunners.

Sarcastically referred to as “The Jewish Navy”, The Purple Gang preferred hijacking to rumrunning– and their methods were often brutal. Anyone landing liquor along the Detroit waterfront had to be armed and prepared to fight to the death, as it was common practice for the Purples to steal a load of liquor and shoot whoever was with it.

The excursion vessel Ste. Claire (later famous as the Bob-Lo boat) was caught in a crossfire with the border patrol in 1931. An innocent passenger was wounded on the deck of the St. Claire by stray bullets from a border patrol boat. Incidents like this helped sway public opinion against prohibition. Photo courtesy Dossin Great Lakes Museum.

The Bernstein brothers – Abe, Ray and Izzy; Harry Fleisher, Abe Axler and Phil Keywell were a few of the names that became well-known to Detroiters during Prohibition, when most of America was forced by the 1919 Volstead Act to buy wine, beer and liquor from the underworld.

The Purple Gang sought to control alley breweries and stills, and fought with other gangs for dominance of booze flowing into blind-pigs. Prostitution and gambling went hand in hand with the speakeasies, and was valued by the mobsters.

A Detroit Mob War soon ensued between Italian, Irish and Jewish bootleggers fighting over territory. The Purples fought a vicious turf war with the Licavoli Squad led by the vicious brothers, Tommy and Pete Licavoli. When anyone was shot, newsboys would hawk a special edition The Detroit Journal, with extra pages devoted to all the gory details.

The Purple Gang rapidly rose to prominence after a machine gun massacre at the Milaflores Apartments in March of 1927. Three out-of-town gunmen suspected of killing a Purple Gang liquor distributor were butchered in the ambush. Fred “Killer” Burke, famous for his role in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929, was hired by the Purples as the machine gunner.

To ensure the safe passage of liquor to other cities, The Purple Gang developed the fictitious Art Novelty Company. Smuggled liquor coming into Detroit was repackaged and shipped under false label to St. Louis, Chicago, and other cities; Chicago mobster Al Capone was one of their main customers. This arrangement was made after Capone was told by the Detroit underworld to keep his operation out of the city. Capone thought it more prudent to make the Purples his liquor agents rather than go to war with the gang.

One of these shipments was hijacked by Bugs Moran’s Chicago gang, and led to the famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.

By the late 1920s, The Purple Gang reigned supreme over the Detroit underworld, controlling the city’s vice, gambling, liquor, and drug trade. They also ran the local wire service, providing horse racing information to local horse betting parlors and handbooks, including many in Windsor (see Issue #22).

For several years the Purples enjoyed almost complete immunity from police interference. Witnesses to crimes were terrified to testify against any criminal identified as a Purple Gangster.

Reporters covered the war between the authorities and the bootleggers and between rival gangs, with a vengeance. Two new dailies joined the News, Free Press and Times in covering the mayhem. Competition was fierce and extras were printed almost continuously. Impartiality was the order of the day; many reporters drank in the same blind-pigs as the bootleggers; they knew the gangs as well- or better than the police.

The gangs meanwhile grew increasingly violent and brazen. Hijacking and kidnapping were rampant, as was murder of rivals. Innocent pleasure boaters or fisherman could hardly go on the river or lake for fear of stray bullets from Customs agents or gangs. The innocent and guilty were subjected to searches of their property, homes and persons.

Ben Bronstein paid a heavy toll for hijacking liquor from The Purple Gang.
Photo: The Purple Gang, Paul Kavieff

By 1929, illegal liquor was the second biggest business in Detroit at $215 million a year, second only to auto manufacturing. Public opinion was squarely against the liquor ban – no mayor was elected in Detroit
who expressed favourable views of prohibition.

People drank everywhere, from speakeasies to private clubs, to established restaurants, to storefronts – and of course they drank at home. Cocktail parties were all the rage, and workmen wanted beer with lunch or dinner.

One could buy a shot from a car in the parking lots of the Hamtramck auto plants or in one of the four hundred ‘soft drink parlors’ licensed in that city in 1923.

When the state police raided the Deutsches Haus at Mack and Maxwell, they arrested Detroit Mayor John Smith, Michigan Congressman Robert Clancy and Sheriff Edward Stein.

From St. Clair Shores’ Blossom Heath on Jefferson to Little Harry’s downtown, to the Green Lantern Club in Ecorse, Detroit’s most upstanding citizens fed the coffers of the gangs that were reaping huge fortunes from their appetite for alcohol.

Hollywood actor Robert Blake (centre) portrayed a gangster in the 1960 movie “The Purple Gang.”
Blake is currently on trial for the murder of his wife. photo: The Rumrunners, by C.H. Gervais

The Purple Gang became arrogant, even sloppy to the point where they were terrorizing Detroiters with street executions of their enemies, killing a police officer and in 1930, murdering well-known radio personality Jerry Buckley in the lobby of a downtown hotel.

In 1931 an inter-gang dispute ended with the murder of members of their own gang. The three men had violated an underworld code by operating outside the territory allotted to them by the Purple Gang leadership.

Known as the “Little Jewish Navy,” this group of Purples owned several boats and participated in rumrunning as well as hijacking. They decided they would break away from the gang and become an underworld power. The three men, Hymie Paul, Isadore Sutker (aka Joe Sutker) and Joe Lebowitz were lured to an apartment on Collingwood Avenue on September 16th, 1931.

They believed they were going to a peace conference with Purple Gang leaders. In reality, they were being set-up for a mob assassination. After a brief discussion, the three unarmed Purples were shot to death by the very gangsters they had gone to meet.

A bookie named Sol Levine, who had transported the three men to their fatal rendezvous, was arrested soon afterwards and quickly became the State’s main witness to the murders.

Levine had been allowed to live because he was a friend of Ray Bernstein. The State finally had a live witness who could testify against The Purple Gang, and Levine’s testimony was devastating. Three of the four Purples involved in the incident, known as the Collingwood Manor Massacre, were quickly arrested. Irving Milberg, Harry Keywell, and Raymond Bernstein, three high ranking Purples, were convicted of first degree murder in the Collingwood Manor Massacre and sent to prison for life.

The demise of The Purple Gang began when government agents enlisted the help of the Italian mafia, who would soon trade places with the purples and control the criminal underworld.

Although the Purples remained a power in the Detroit until 1935, long prison sentences and inter-gang sniping eventually destroyed the gang’s manpower. The predecessors of Detroit’s modern day Mafia family simply stepped in and filled the void as The Purple Gang self-destructed.

End of an Era

Outrage from the citizenry at the violence spawned by prohibition, along with the absurdity of trying to stifle a universal thirst, and anger at imperiled civil liberties, eventually combined to move public opinion towards the repeal of this flawed experiment in legislation of social policy. On May 11, 1933 beer was legalized again. Seven months later, on the day before New Year’s Eve, the manufacture and sale of liquor were legalized in Michigan.

The stock market crash in 1929 together with the start of the 10-year Great Depression signalled an end to the Roaring Twenties and an era in bootlegging that will never be seen again.

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