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Detroit isn't the first city that comes to mind when you think of the roaring twenties, bootlegging, and gangsters. But in 1923, Detroit was as alive with the glitz and glitter of prohibition era crime as any other metropolis. Speakeasies and blind pigs lined every block, and bootlegging was more profitable than every other business in town, with the exception of the auto industry.
This was the first year a group of native Detroiters called the Purple Gang came to the attention of the Detroit police. The police quickly discovered that the Purples were notorious in Detroit's underworld for stealing other gangs' shipments of liquor. The police snooped into the history of the gang and found its origins in the east side, in a Jewish neighborhood, on a dingy street called Oakland Avenue. Until the Purple Gang, nothing of note had ever come out of Oakland Avenue, which was known only for its drunks, bums and the high rate of unemployment among its residents.
Purple Gang leaders Abe and Ray Bernstein grew up on Oakland Avenue. They and their pack of friends were a little too young to fight in World War I, and eager to make something of themselves as it ended and prohibition began. They made their move to become serious gangsters sometime before 1923, when they became members of the Oakland Sugarhouse Gang and quickly became its leaders. Within a few months of the take-over, the Bernsteins lead the Oakland Sugarhouse Gang in forcing all the other local gangs to combine with them.
Nobody really knows how they got to be called the Purple Gang. No individual member could remember who'd come up with it, and some even speculate that it was probably an invention of the police. One way or another, they came to be called the Purple Gang as they went about their initial business of bootlegging and then began selling "protection" to local businesses, Mafia style. They were the only serious mob operating in Detroit in the early 20's, and they were known for being incredibly brutal and violent.
They ran the city, but not for long. They were never as careful as Capone's mob, and the police were able to acquire substantial evidence against them without really working at it. The Purples started out as thugs, and remained thugs: their crimes never really became anything that could be called "organized." The were the best thugs Detroit had, but that was the extent of their talent. The Purples weren't known for the size or the wealth of their illicit empire, instead they were notorious for successfully leeching off the success of other criminals. They hijacked shipments of booze, kidnapped other local mobsters, and set up brutal hits on gangsters in Detroit and abroad.
Within a few years, they were a cause for genuine concern, wrecking havoc in town, known on the streets for their willingness to do just about anything: extortion, arson, blackmail. In 1925, their resume was exactly what a conspiratorial group of businessmen were looking for.
A group of dry cleaning business owners, lead by Sam Polakoff and Sam Sigman, decided they wanted to raise their prices from fifty cents to $1.50. They realized that this would only work if all the cleaners in town raised their prices at the same time, and nobody dissented. When it became apparent to the conspirators that not everyone was interested in joining them, they hired the Purple Gang to terrorize stores into joining. The dry cleaning business owners had unwittingly started the legendary Cleaners and Dyers War, which lasted for years. It was mostly over by 1930, but occasional episodes still appeared in the newspapers.
The war was famous because it was so vicious. They were paid $1,000 a week to use any means necessary to force dissident cleaners into joining the conspirators. The means they chose included stink bombs in cleaning stores, kidnapped owners, and even murder. Within a few months, Polakoff and Sigman regretted contracting their services and tried to remove them from the payroll. They discovered that a gangster doesn't take kindly to the loss of a steady income. After refusing to pay the Purples several times, Polakoff and Sigman were found bullet-ridden in their cars. The remaining conspirators subsequently decided it was in their best interest to keep the Purples on the payroll. The war finally ended when it was essentially won: the non-compliant cleaners gave up and raised their prices.
Long before the Cleaners and Dyers War actually ended, the Purple Gang found itself at liberty to get into new kinds of trouble. Already famous for the war, the Purples involved themselves in three mass murders, which sent their name into the headlines, but ultimately lead to their downfall. The more famous they became, the more they felt untouchable by the law and other gangsters, and the more careless they were in committing their crimes. In March 1927, four Purples, John Tolzdorf, Sam and Abe Axler, and Honey Boy Miller, decided it was high time they dealt with a group of St. Louis mobsters who'd moved to Detroit to help them, and then double-crossed them by operating independently.
The Purples planned a brilliant new crime. They had just bought themselves Thompson submachine guns, and they planned to use them to mow down the St. Louis gangsters. The Purples went home and invited the St. Louis crew to their own apartment. The other gangsters arrived and the Purples riddled them with 110 bullet holes. The police quickly arrested two purples and a friend of theirs as suspects, but the charges were dropped. The police didn't believe the Purple Gang was stupid enough to commit murder in their own apartment. No one was ever brought to trial for the crime.
Despite their ill-planned crime, the gang escape and continued to lead Detroit's underworld for a few years. They were involved in more massacres of other mobsters, including some of Bugsy Moran's gang, and then they began to lose their leadership to the law. Several prominent Purples, including Abe Axler, were convicted of violations of the liquor laws and sentenced to 22 months in prison. Two others went to prison for life for shooting a little boy who was spying on them for another gang, and two were killed.
The Purples continued, essentially unchanged by the loss of leadership, until 1931, when a repeat of the incident with the St. Louis gangsters took place. Former allies of the Purples, the Third Avenue Navy gang had grown strong and begun operating independently. They were notorious for not paying their debts and double-crossing everyone they worked with. The Purples decided to show them who was boss in Detroit.
The week before a huge national convention was to take place in the city, Ray Bernstein called a local bookie, Sollie Levine, who was connected with the Third Avenue Navy gang, and asked him to bring them over to an apartment on Collingwood Avenue that belonged to some of the Purples, to discuss a peace treaty for the duration of the convention. All the extra people from the convention were expected to hit Detroit's speakeasies and blind pigs after hours, liquor sales were going to be enormous. The Third Avenue Navy and Levine were eager to meet up with the Purples.
Sollie and the gang showed up, and the two groups sat across from each other and chit-chatted until Bernstein and the other purples suddenly took out guns and shot them to death, leaving only Levine alive. The bookie was dragged into the getaway car and released by Bernstein a little while later. Bernstein gave Levine a few hundred dollars and told him he'd come back later and pick him up. Apparently, Bernstein planned to use Levine to find out where some of the Third Avenue Navy's goods were stashed, then kill him.
Luckily for Levine, the police picked him up first. He agreed to testify and was given police protection from the Purples, before and during the trial. On the strength of his testimony, Ray Bernstein and two other Purples were convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life in state prison. Levine had managed to cross the notorious Purple Gang and keep his life. It was sign that the end was near for the Purples.
The police cracked down even harder on them, now the Bernstein brothers were both in prison, and other leaders were dead. Seeing a chance to eliminate what was really no more than a short-term pest, the Sicilian Mafia also moved against the Purple Gang. The Mafia picked off the Purples one by one and in small groups between 1933 and 1937.
No one rose up out of the Jewish community in Detroit's east side to take their places. The Purple Gang was a collection of oldest brothers and youngest brothers, who had narrowly missed the World War I, and yet remembered it. Their veteran brothers and younger brothers had no interest in anything but respectable lives, even if they did idolize their Purple relatives. The people around them realized that the Purples had failed to remain intact and out of prison because they were no match for the Sicilian Mafia, or the police.
Like many other gangster stories, this one ends in tragedy. The Purples learned the hard way that it takes more than muscle to be a successful criminal. They lacked the brain power and organization of the Sicilians. There has never been another competing mob in Detroit; when the Sicilians moved in, they did a very thorough job of it.