Detroit’s Purple Gang

Bootlegging, fraud and murder by a gang of Detroit Jews

Detroit’s Purple Gang, which operated during the 1920s and 1930s, 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 moved to Detroit from New York. Beginning with shoplifting and extortion, the gang moved up into the distilling and brewing business.

Gang Merger

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 robbing 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 Street.

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 It 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 whiskey — 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.

The Downfall

Because they were flamboyant and well-known in the city’s night spots, and because many of them liked to dress well, be seen in public and live in fine houses, a romantic aura surrounded the Purples that distinguished them from other gangs in Detroit. The gang was destroyed from two sides: The police moved against them when gang members left behind too much evidence of their crimes, and a rival Sicilian gang, tired of competing with the Purples, decided to eliminate them.

One by one, the Purples were murdered until most of them were either dead or afraid to remain in the Detroit area. So stealthy was the Sicilian move that neither the Purples nor the public realized what was going on.

In July 1929 four members of the Purple Gang — Eddie Fletcher, Harry Sutton, Abe Axler, and Irving Milberg — were sentenced to 22 months in Leavenworth Penitentiary for conspiracy to violate the prohibition laws. In 1930 Morris Raider was sentenced to 12-to-15 years in Jackson State Prison for shooting a boy he suspected of spying on members of the gang who were cutting whisky.

And in 1931 Ray Bernstein, Irving Milberg, and Harry Keywell were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the ambush-slaying of three members of a rival gang.

Remaining leaders of the Purple Gang were systematically and mysteriously executed. In July 1929 Irving Shapiro was taken for a ride and slain. In November 1933 the bodies of Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher were found in a car on an isolated country road. Each man had been shot numerous times in the face from close range. The murder of Harry Millman in November 1937 signaled the end of the Purple Gang in organized crime in Detroit.

‘Reprinted with permission from

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