The Purple Gang: Detroit's Most Ruthless Racketeers
Mark Grow

I was eight years old when a couple of friends and I were riding our bikes through one of the worst neighborhoods in Ypsilanti, Michigan. That neighborhood is West Willow. We were on our way to see a friend of ours. I was wearing a red Redwings t-shirt, and, as we passed a group of ten gang members, they started yelling at me, saying, "Hey, come here!" I said to myself "Yeah, right!" Then I took off as fast as I could to my friend's house. I later found out that red is the color used by a rival gang, and blue is the color for West Willow and for the rest of the North side of the city. I have been interested in gangs ever since that event. It fascinates me how a gang is a group of family members or friends that look out for and are loyal to one another. They have different signs and slang to separate themselves from other gangs. Today, gangs that wear the same color, although they are rivals, are affiliated with each other, by way of their colors.

Now, fifteen years after that event in West Willow, I find myself doing research on gangs, which are defined as three or more people who share a unique name, [ethnic background], identifiable tattoos, certain style of clothing, or colors ("Gang Definitions" 1). I learned that gangs that involve themselves in secretive, antisocial and criminal behavior have been around since biblical times ("History of Gangs" 1). Over time, gangs have been very influential in crimes committed, often on a ruthless standpoint.

During my research I found out that only twenty-five miles from Ypsilanti, in Detroit, mobs and gangs ruled the early 1900s. One of them was called the Purple Gang, one of the most ruthless gangs of that time. The Purple Gang originally started back around 1902 when Harry Bernstein arrived in Detroit with his wife and six children (Kavieff 1). Five of the Bernstein children, Sam, Raymond, Abe, Isadore, and Joe, along with the other members of the Jewish Gang, met in reform school. On the days the "Boys" chose to attend class, they would stay after and watch the crap games in the school yard put on by the older mob figures. The Sugar House Gang was the group the "Boys" idolized. During their younger years of racketeering, they wished to someday wear the suits, make the money, and have the power--like the Sugar House Gang did. They hung around the Gang, running errands and making a few dollars to do their dirty work for them in their neighborhood. Some of the Gang's fading history is still intact. Many parts of the original neighborhood have been taken over by new businesses and entertainment facilities, like the Detroit Tigers Comerica Park and the Detroit Lions Ford Field, along with Motor City and Greektown Casino.

According to Gribben, who is an undergraduate in journalism at Michigan State University, rumor has it the gang received its colorful name as the result of a conversation between two Hastings Street shopkeepers of the era. Both of the men's shops had been the target of the youngsters' shoplifting and vandalism forays (5). One day in disgust one of the shopkeepers exclaimed, "These boys are not like other children of their age, they're tainted, off color" (5).

"Yes," replied the other shopkeeper. "They're rotten, purple like the color of bad meat; they're a Purple Gang" (Gribben 5).

However on January 2nd, 1919, Michigan ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to an the sale of liquor, and that is when the Gang really started, by bootlegging liquor across the Detroit River from Canada and selling it to other mob figures such as Al Capone. Al Capone was the major boss back in the 1920s when the Gang was gaining power in Detroit. The Purple Gang and Capone each had a piece of Michigan. The Purple Gang ran everything East of U.S.131, while Capone, also known as "Scarface," had everything west of 131, which runs from the Indiana border right through Grand Rapids, through Cadillac and almost to the top of the mitten into Petoskey (Gribben 2).

The Purples were the most dominate gang in the flow of liquor, and according to the police, were responsible for some 500 murders (Whitall 1). There were also three major hits through the late 20's and early 30's the Gang had been linked to. One was called the Milaflores Massacre in 1927 at the Milaflores Apartments. While doing my research I could not find any information that the apartment complex still exists. The massacre was named for three bullet-riddled bodies near the doorway of Apartment 308 (Kavieff 42). Amongst those who were shot was the barely-alive body of Frank Wright. He moved from Chicago to Detroit in 1926. It was believed that Wright was hired to murder an associate of the Purple Gang by Mike Dipisa, who came from Chicago to Detroit in 1923. The associate Johnny Reid ran a kidnapping scheme for the Gang to make money from wealthy gamblers and racketeers. There was a feud between Dipisa and Reid. When word got out that Wright was responsible for the murder of Johnny Reid, the Purple Gang set a trap. The Gang made Wright believe his friend Meyer Bloomfield had been kidnapped. When he arrived at the Milaflores Apartments, waiting in the same hallway were his friends Isaac Reisfield and William Harrison, who got caught in Detroit's first Machine gun slaying (Kavieff 34-37).

Another big hit that the Gang had been allegedly apart of was the St. Valentines Day Massacre. On February 14th, 192, a siren-fitted black Cadillac with five men inside stopped at the S.M.C. Cartage Company in Chicago (Kavieff 67). Four of the men walked to the door of the garage, two dressed as police officers and two in trench coats. Inside were six gangsters from George "Bugs" Moran's North side Gang. The Gang thought that it was a routine police raid, and they all formed against the wall. Then the four men pulled out their machine guns and opened fire on the gangsters, shooting the back of their heads, back and legs. Leaving the bloody bodies on the floor, the two trench coat gunmen then gave their guns to the uniformed men. As if it was a real police raid, the men raised their hands over their heads and left at gunpoint by the officers (Kavieff 68).

During my search I learned that there are a couple theories as to why the Massacre had happened. One of them is that Al Capone had been selling part of his supply to Moran's North side Gang. Moran allegedly found a cheaper distributor and cancelled his deal with Capone. After he realized his liquor was not selling as well as his other stock, he tried to revive his partnership with Capone. Capone told Moran he would not make another deal, and then Moran knew what he had to do. He started hijacking Al Capone's and the Purple's shipments. Both gangs found out that Moran was stealing from them, and they set him up. The gangs made him think he was picking up his usual shipment, but then they busted in and gunned the men down. Another reason believed for the Massacre was that Moran was trying to get rid of Capone. Capone knew what he was up to, and set it up with the Purple Gang to do away with Moran and his men (Kavieff 71-72). Many of the sources I searched through had no information connecting the Purple Gang to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, however
Soon after the Massacre, the power of the Purple Gang rapidly diminished. That summer four major figures in the Gang, Axler, Milburg, Sutton and Fletcher, were sentenced to twenty-one months in jail for conspiracy to violate Prohibition. Also another figure, Morris Raider, was sentenced twelve to fifteen years in Jackson State Prison for shooting a young boy for spying on the Gang (Engelmann 144). In addition, on September 16th, 1931, on Detroit's West side, there was hit where three men affiliated with the Gang had been gunned down. The men, Isadore Sutker, Joseph Lebovitz and Herman Paul5were minor thugs engaged in bootlegging and extortion during the mid-twenties, when Chicago mobs had begun to establish themselves and Capone was competing for control of them (Kavieff 109).

Sutker, Lebovitz, and Paul were threatening speakeasy owners for protection money. Some of the owners were business partners with Capone. Capone got word what the men were doing and had a meeting with them. He told them if they do not leave Chicago, they would be leaving in a box. They then left for Detroit. When they arrived, they met up with the Purple Gang. The Gang let the men run a small area in Detroit racketeering, in return of customary kickbacks (Kavieff 110). After awhile the men became known as the Third Avenue Terrors. They were a clique of the Little Jewish Navy that stole liquor from Canada for the Purples. The Terrors then started stealing shipments from the Purples and other Mob organizations (Kavieff 112).

When Ray Bernstein of the Purples found out the Third Avenue Terrors were undercutting the gang, he decided to use an associate of theirs, Sol Levine, as an unknowing accomplice (Kavieff 112). Bernstein talked to Levine and told him the Gang decided to let them be partners. He told Levine the specifics would be settled in a meeting. Ray Bernstein called Levine and told him to bring his three partners to Apartment 211, at the Collingwood Manor Apartments. When the men arrived for the meeting they started talking about the business with Bernstein and his fellow Purples Harry Keywell, Harry Fleisher, and Irving Milberg. Soon thereafter Ray decided to go down stairs to the car. He was to start the car and make the engine backfire to cue his men. As soon as the engine backfired the Purple members opened fire on the men, killing the Terrors and leaving Levine alive. This event became known as the Collingwood Manor Massacre.

On November 11, 1931, Levine said, "I sat there in a daze while they killed those boys. It was awful. I lived a thousand lives. I walked out of there in a daze." The Collingwood Manor Apartments are still in existence. I have seen pictures of the complex in books of when the Massacre had happened. While I was researching I tried to find the apartments, and found out that the apartments are located in a rough area on Detroit's West Side.

Only one month later, in November, Ray Bernstein, Irving Milburg, and Harry Keywell were charged with first-degree murder and life imprisonment in the Collingwood Manor Massacre case. The remaining members of the Gang were killed off by more organized criminals of the underworld. Young Irving's body had been left in downtown Detroit with four bullets in the back of his head. Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher's bodies were found on an Oakland County road, shot in the face several times (Engelmann 145). Most of the members died throughout the early 1960's and late 70's of a heart attack. The last member was Mike Selik, who, in 2000, was known to still be alive and living in a nursing home in Southfield, Michigan (Kavieff 204).

Throughout history, the Purple Gang became one of the most ruthless gangs to ever roam the earth. They lived a lifestyle that most people would never dream of living. They were among the greatest pioneers of illegal rum-running of our country. Gangs in present time, 2005, compared to gangs back in the 1920's, are no comparison. After the many Prohibition gangs fell out, many new law enforcement agencies began to control illegal activities. It seems gangs will never be totally controlled; they will always be around. Maybe we will see another era where mobs and gangs are as ruthless as the Purple Gang.

Works Cited

  • Engelmann, Larry. Intemperance: The Lost War Against Liquor. New York: Macmillan, 1979.
  • "Gang Definitions." Knowgangs.com. 2002. 20. Apr.2005.<http://www.knowgangs.com /gang_resources/gngs 101 /info_008.htm>.
  • Gribben, Mark. "Bootlegger's Paradise." Court TV's Crime Library. 8 Apr. 2005. <http://wwvv.crimelibrary.com/gangsters/purple/purplemain.htm>.
  • ---. "The Color Purple." Court TV's Crime Library. 8 Apr. 2005. <http://www.crimelibrary.com/gangsters outlaws/gang/purple/2.html>.
  • "History of Gangs." Knowgangs.com. 2002. 20 Apr. 2005. <http:www.knowgangs.com /gang_resources/gangs 101 /info_001.htm>.
  • Kavieff, Paul R. The Purple Gang: Organized crime in Detroit. New York: Barricade, 2000.
  • Whitall, Susan. "The Purple Gang's bloody legacy." The Detroit News 19 Dec. 2002. 28 Mar. 2005. <http://info.detnews.com/history/story/index.cfm?id=8category=life>.



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