When the ‘Purple Gang’ ruled Detroit

The story of Detroit’s most notorious mob

DETROIT – In the 1910s and 1920s, organized crime ruled many large cities in the U.S. -- including Detroit.

Three years before national Prohibition, Michigan adopted the Damon Act, prohibiting the sale of liquor, which took effect in 1917.

By the time the rest of the country entered Prohibition in 1920, Detroit already had been taken over by bootleggers and hijackers.

Organized Crime takes over Detroit

The Purple Gang was Detroit's most notorious mob. It operated in the 1920s and 1930s, led by members of the Bernstein family. The gang was made up of mostly Jewish members.

The Canadian border provided a gateway to illegal distribution of alcohol products from Detroit to larger cities like Chicago and New York.

The Purple Gang, also known as the Sugar House Gang, has been labeled the bloodiest gang of its era, with estimates reaching more than 500 rivals killed during bootleg wars.

The Purple Gang controlled Detroit's underworld, including gambling -- especially on horse races and other sporting events -- liquor sales and drug trade. These operations kept the gang rich, netting millions of dollars.

In 1929, making and distributing illegal alcohol was Detroit's No. 2 industry, behind automobiles. By the mid-20s, the city was home to more than 25,000 illegal speakeasies -- most of them controlled by the Purple Gang.

The industry generated more than $300 million per year, which translates to more than $4 billion in today's economy.

When bootleggers in Detroit smuggled booze into the city, they relied on a frozen Lake St. Clair.

Stopping incoming vehicles carrying booze at gunpoint, killing the drivers, and stealing their loads became a signature sign of the Purples.

Related: 6 Metro Detroit bars that used to be speakeasies during Prohibition era

Friends of the Purple Gang

The Purple Gang had many allies with other mob operations across the country.

Abe Bernstein, one of the gang's founders, worked closely with Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis. Lansky, known as the "Mob's Accountant," helped develop the National Crime Syndicate in the United States with Lucky Luciano.

The Purple Gang also had a business partnership with Al Capone. For several years, they supplied the Capone organization with Canadian whisky.

Capone did not want a turf war with the Purple Gang, given their violent reputation, so a partnership was put in place to prevent a massacre.

Cleaners and Dyers War

Since the gang profited from the Detroit laundry industry unions, they had a vested interested in keeping union members in line.

Between 1925 and 1928, the labor union for laundry services was gang-controlled. Companies that declined to join the union were harassed and bombed by the Purples.

The Cleaners and Dyers War ended in 1928, when nine members of the gang were charged with extortion. They all were acquitted of all charges.

More: How rum-running became one of Detroit's biggest industries during Prohibition era

The Purple Gang vs. the FBI

The Purple Gang had almost complete immunity from police, due to fear of retaliation. That didn't stop FBI director J. Edgar Hoover from trying.

Files obtained from the FBI show that between 1933 and 1945, Hoover continually investigated tips on the whereabouts of the Purple Gang.

The files include written letters to the bureau offering evidence and other information to the illegal activities of the Purples, including murder, kidnappings and bootlegging.

More: J. Edgar Hoover's FBI vs. Detroit's Purple Gang: Read the declassified files

Detroit Mob Wars

Tensions began to rise in the late 1920s between the Purple Gang and rival Italian and Irish mobs. The Purple Gang started a turf war with the Licavoli Squad.

In March of 1927, three men were killed in an apartment owned by the Purple Gang. The attack was believed to be retaliation for a "double cross."

Although the police had three suspects, nobody was ever charged with the murders.

The Collingwood Manor Massacre

In 1931, three members of the Purple Gang were murdered by their own after allegedly betraying gang members.

After being invited to a "peace conference" at an apartment on Collingwood Avenue in Detroit, Herman "Hymie" Paul, "Joe Sutker," and Joseph Lebowitz were gunned down at point-blank range.

As the story goes, Ray Bernstein, one of the Purples' founders, devised a plan to kill the three men for failing to pay back past-due debts. He would use Sol Levine, a friend of both groups, as an accomplice.

After buying an apartment at the Collingwood Manor Apartments, Bernstein convinced Levine that the Purples were partnering with the three men in the liquor business.

The meeting was set for Sept. 16, 1931. The men arrived and, after some conversation, Bernstein waited in the getaway car. Harry Fleisher was cued, stood up and killed all three men. Levine watched it all unfold, helplessly.

The four members of the gang, Bernstein, Keywell, Milberg and Fleisher, fled the scene, leaving Sol Levine as the only eyewitness. Police questioned Levine until he confessed to seeing the murders and telling police who did it.

After the Levine confession, police received an anonymous tip informing them where the Collingwood shooters were. Heavily armed police invaded the area, located at 2649 Calvert, and arrested Bernstein and Keywell in their pajamas. They arrested Irving Milberg the following night, after he tried fleeing the city.

In the end, Milberg, Keywell and Bernstein were convicted of first-degree murder and were sentenced to life in prison. Fleisher was never convicted in connection with the massacre.

At the time, Detroit Police Chief of Detectives, James E. McCarty, said the convictions, "broke the back of the once powerful Purple Gang, writing finis to more than five years of arrogance and terrorism."

MORE: The fall of Detroit's Purple Gang: Collingwood Manor Massacre of 1931

The Downfall of the Purple Gang

As time progressed, following the convictions of three high-ranking gang members, the Purple Gang began to collapse. It became sloppy, and eventually large egos and inter-gang rivalries brought it to an end.

Police found it easier to connect crimes to the gang because members were leaving behind too much evidence.

More and more infighting occurred, with high-ranking members being killed, including Abe Axler, Henry Shorr and Eddie Fletcher.

The double-murder of Axler and Fletcher still stands as unsolved. The two high-ranking members were found shot to death in the back of a Chrysler in Bloomfield Hills, at the corner of Telegraph and Quarton.

Eventually, a rival Sicilian gang eliminated the once-powerful Purple Gang. By 1935, the Purple Gang's reign over Detroit's underworld was over.

Modern-day organized crime in Detroit

Today, the Detroit Partnership, an American mafia crime family, is the best-known criminal organization in the state of Michigan, although the membership has diminished greatly.

The Partnership, most recently known to be suspected in the death of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, currently stands at around 40-50 made members.

Source: DetroitHistorical.org

Watch more Feature Stories from ClickOnDetroit:

About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.