Detroit's Purple Gang
Bootlegging, fraud, and murder by a gang of Detroit Jews
Just as Jewish culture and religion spread westward throughout the United States, so did some of the less seemly aspects of Jewish society of that era. The following article looks at an organized crime gang in Detroit. Reprinted with permission from the Gates of Jewish Heritage.
Detroit's Purple Gang was a local Jewish gang. The "Purple Gang," which operated during the 1920's and 1930's, had its beginnings in the Jewish section of Detroit's East Side.
Originally formed around Samuel "Sammie Purple" Cohen, the leadership of this group of petty criminals was initially assumed by the three Bernstein brothers--Abe, Isadore, and Ray---who had emigrated to Detroit from New York. Beginning with shoplifting and extortion, the gang moved up into the distilling and brewing business.
At the same time, another gang was also emerging on the East Side, known as the "Oakland Sugar House Gang." Several of this gang's members had gone to the same school and had begun associating together as adolescents. After school they would engage in petty crimes that often included stealing fruit, candy, and other small items from Jewish merchants.
Later they graduated to rolling drunks and shaking down Jewish shopkeepers for money. Eventually the boys went into business for themselves, manufacturing alcohol for bootleg liquor out of their base of operation, the Oakland Sugar House located on Oakland St.
The original members of this gang were Harry Fleisher, Henry Shore, Eddie Fletcher, Irving Milberg. Harry Altman, Harry Keywell, and Morris and Phil Raider. In time, instead of competing, the two groups joined forces as "The Purple Gang" under the leadership of Abe Bernstein. They branched out into the business of importing liquor across the Detroit River from Canada.
How They Operated
The Purple Gang was loosely organized, and instead of concentrating on a single racket, the individual members of the gang were generally for hire, going wherever the price was highest. As a result, they were often overextended. They were also careless in selecting jobs, slipshod in carrying out the work, and indiscreet in whom they double-crossed. This negligence in the end contributed to their disappearance.
For several years, however, the Purples managed the prosperous business of supplying Canadian whisky--Old Log Cabin--to the Capone organization in Chicago.
Despite its relatively high price, this brand could be sold easily because of its well-known quality. It was the hijacking of a shipment of Purple Gang Old Log Cabin whisky by the Bugs Moran gang of Chicago that led to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of seven Moran gangsters in 1929.
Although their major source of income was bootlegging whisky, the Purples branched out into other fields in order to earn additional money. They hijacked prizefight films and forced movie theaters to show them for a high fee; they defrauded insurance companies by staging fake accidents; they kidnapped people; and they accepted contracts for killing the enemies of various hoods who did not want to do the job themselves.