Detroit's Notorious Purple Gang

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When Prohibition began in Michigan on May 1, 1918, the young Purple Gang escalated from crimes of vandalism, petty thievery, and pick pocketing on Detroit’s lower east-side Paradise Valley located within the Hastings Street neighborhood to armed robbery, extortion, bootlegging, hijacking liquor, and even murder. They were used as terrorists by corrupt labor leaders to hold union members in check. The Purple Gang was led by four brothers. Abraham (Abe), Joseph (Joey), Raymond (Ray), and Isadore (Izzy) Bernstein were ruthless, but prospered and soon branched out into strong arming, gambling, and narcotics. The Purple Gang remained in power in Detroit’s underworld from about 1927 to 1935. They controlled the wire service to all Detroit bookies and eventually became the illegal liquor supplier to Al Capone’s Chicago mob. The Purple’s reign ended when most of the members were either killed off or arrested to serve long prison terms.

Detroit’s Notorious Purple Gang
“Prohibition is an awful flop. We like it. It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop. We like it. It’s left a trail of graft and slime, it won’t prohibit worth a dime, it’s filled our land with vice and crime. Never the less, we’re for it” (Adams, F. 1931). Prohibition by definition is an act of prohibiting. In Michigan, the sale, distribution, and consumption of alcohol were prohibited on May 1, 1918, over a year sooner than the rest of the country. Enter the young Purple Gang, a gang of Jewish juveniles disrupting Detroit’s lower east-side neighborhoods. These juveniles quickly learned to profit from the nation going dry by hijacking and strong arming bootleggers and rum runners. The Purple Gang was notorious for being ruthless, vicious, feared, and was used by other gangs as gunners and protectors.

The Purple gang was led by the four Bernstein brothers, Abe, Joey, Ray, and Izzy. The brothers were juvenile delinquents that went to school at the Bishop Ungraded School on Winder Street with other child ruffians, Harry and Lou Fleisher, Sam Davis, and Philip and Harry Kewell. The youngsters robbed local merchants, victimized street peddlers, and rolled drunks for easy pocket change (Kavieff, P. 2008, p.9). The Purple’s were mentored by Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr, who ran a corn sugar business located on Oakland Ave. named the Oakland Sugar House. The Oakland Sugar House was a legitimate business, providing corn sugar for home brewers still allowed to make a set amount of liquor for personal use. The Sugar House became a valuable resource to illegal stills and alley breweries and was run by mobsters. They used the Purple gang to strong arm and extort businesses (Gribben, M. n.d. par.10).

There are different theories on how the gang received its colorful name. Rumor has it that the gang inherited the name as a result of a conversation between two shopkeepers terrorized by the juveniles. The shop keepers claimed the boys were “tainted, off color, rotten, purple, like the color of bad meat” (Gribben, M. par. 7). Another theory is that Purple Gang member Eddie Fletcher, a featherweight boxer, always wore purple boxing shorts during matches. Yet, another story is that Sammy Cohen, A.K.A. Sammy Purple, was an originator of the Purple Gang (Jones, L. 2008, par. 4). In all likelihood, the name was invented by a local journalist. However the name came about, that’s what they got tagged with and it stuck with them until the end.

When the Prohibition took effect in Detroit, in May 1918, the Volstead Act closed down Detroit’s 1500 saloons, but by 1925 there were over 15000 speakeasies or “blind pigs” as they were called, and many of them came under the control of the Purples. The Purple’s, merging with the Oakland Sugar House Gang, had control of the illegal liquor distribution and sales. They preferred hijacking to rum running. With the Detroit River less than a mile across in some places, and 28 miles long with thousands of...
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