The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Purple Gang
|Purple Gang roundup by Detroit police: Sam Axler, Eddie Fletcher, Sam Goldfarb, Phil Keywell, Abe Zussman, Willie Lake, Harry Fleisher, Jack Stein, and Abe Axler (seated)|
There is an oft-repeated story about how the Purple Gang got their name. When an Eastern Market butcher was assaulted and his shop vandalized, he reported to police that “These boys are not like other children, they’re off-color. They’re rotten purple like tainted meat. They’re the Purple Gang.” Whether the anecdote is accurate or not, the street thugs made their presence known to merchants and street peddlers from Paradise Valley to the Eastern Market–anybody they could squeeze a buck from was a target.
The Bernstein brothers–Raymond, Abe, Joe and Isadore “Izzy”–were young teens who ran with the gang of street toughs in their Hastings Street neighborhood on Detroit’s lower East Side. The gang started off as petty thieves and skakedown artists. By 1919, they branched out to armed robbery, extortion, protection, hijacking, and murder under the tutelage of more experienced neighborhood gangsters from the Sugar House Gang. As their reputation for ruthless savagery grew, so did their power and grip over Detroit’s underworld.
In 1927, Frank Wright, a Chicago-based jewel thief, along with Joseph Bloom and George Cohen, New York based burglars, began to kidnap Detroit gamblers for ransom. Among the gamblers snatched were some Purple Gang members. The Purples plotted against the interlopers. One of Wright’s men–Meyer “Fish” Bloomfield–was kidnapped by the Purples to lure Wright into the open. The ploy worked. A ransom was agreed upon and a hostage exchange for money was to take place at the Milaflores Apartment on 106 East Alexandrine Ave.
At 4:30 am on March 28th, 1927, Wright showed up with Bloom and Cohen and knocked on the door of room 308 as prearranged. Three men at the end of the hallway opened the stairwell door and fired at point-blank range with pistols and a Thompson Sub-Machine Gun. The first known use of the Tommy Gun in Detroit. The trigger men escaped down the back stairway.
Charles Givens, a reporter for the Detroit Times wrote, “In nine out of ten unsolved cases, investigators are virtually certain who the murderer is. Proof is another thing. Ask detectives who handle these cases and you get the same answer: ‘We knew who the murderer was, but there were no eyewitnesses or evidence’.”
The Milaflores Apartment murders did result in a Michigan ban on hardware stores and other retail outlets selling submachine guns and multi-round magazines to private citizens. Only police and the military could legally buy them.
Abe Bernstein was essentially the gang’s behind the scenes business manager. In 1925, Bernstein and corrupt American Federation of Labor president Francis X. Martell went into a business partnership to control prices in the cleaner and dyers industry. The Cleaners and Dyers Association was formed and the city’s independently owned cleaners were forced to join or pay the consequences. Shops were dynamited or burned down. Laundry plants were destroyed, owners and employees were beat up, and some people were gunned down.
A brave businessman stood up and filed a complaint in 1928 with the Wayne County prosecutor. In all, nine Purple Gang members (Raymond Bernstein, Irving Milberg, Eddie Fletcher, Joe Miller, Irving Shapiro, Abe Kaminski, Abe Axler, and Simon Axler) were indicted for extortion. Several days later, Abe Bernstein surrendered and paid a $500 appearance bond. All the Purples were acquitted. The gang was at the height of its power with a feeling of invincibility. The huge amount of money the Purples skimmed from this labor racket allowed the gang to dominate the city’s underworld until 1931.
The Collingwood Manor Massacre on September 16th, 1931 marked the beginning of the end of the Purple Gang’s stranglehold over Detroit’s underworld. An inter-gang dispute erupted when three Purple Gang members violated the underworld code of poaching outside their operating territory. Herman “Hymie” Paul, Isodore “Izzy” Sutker, and Joseph Leibowitz were members of a Purple Gang faction called The Little Jewish Navy (LJN). They owned and operated boats transporting liquor across the Detroit River. The trio wanted to break away from the gang and establish their own organization and territory.
|Collingwood Manor at 1740 Collingwood Avenue|
A bookie go-between named Sol Levine brokered a meeting between gang factions and transported the LJN men to the apartment on Collingwood Avenue. The LJN, thinking they were going to cut a deal with the gang’s leaders. Ray Bernstein ordered the hit and stayed outside in the car acting as the wheel man. After a brief discussion with Purple Gang members Harry Fleisher, Irving Milberg and Harry Keywell, Fleisher stood up and brutally shot the three unarmed men to death. Fleisher dropped his gun into an open can of green paint as he and his men ran down the stairs and out a back entrance to the alley where Bernstein was waiting in the get-away car.
In the heat of the moment, Sol Levine was left behind in shock and was arrested when the police arrived. In fear of his life because he was the only eyewitness to the murder, he turned state’s evidence placing himself under police protection. Milberg, Keywell, and Bernstein were arrested and convicted of first-degree murder and sent to Michigan’s maximum security prison in Marquette. The trigger man Harry Fleisher left town and was never convicted of the crime. In those days, criminals had a much larger and less-documented world to move around in. It was still possible to simply vanish.
|Eddie Fletcher and Abe Axler–“The Siamese Twins”|
The Sicilian Mafia–called the “Moustache Pete’s” in Detroit–began to fight the Purples over territory they could no longer control. The bodies of Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher were found shot to death on November 27, 1933 around 2:00 am in the back seat of a brand new Chrysler at the corner of Telegraph and Quarton roads in Bloomfield Hills. The bullet-ridden bodies of the so-called “Siamese Twins” were placed side-by-side, their hands intertwined as a sign of disrespect.
Purple Gang gunman and loose cannon Harry Millman was brutally shot to death on Thanksgiving Day, November 24th, 1937. Radio crime reporter Walter Winchell described the hit this way:
In a big Midwest metropolis yesterday, another gang member met justice at the end of a gun. Prominent Detroit Purple Gang member Harry Millman was enjoying a drink in the bar of Boesky’s Restaurant, on 12th Street (and Hazelwood), when four men entered brandishing guns and shot the hoodlum ten times. His body was still warm on the floor when the Detroit Police arrived. His killers were rumored to be members of Brooklyn’s notorious Murder, Incorporated. Millman’s death signaled the end of the Purples as a force in organized crime in the Motor City. Because of his repeated escapes from convictions for kidnapping, robbery, and extortion, Millman earned the nickname “Lucky.” Yesterday, his luck ran out. This is Walter Winchell reporting.
Millman was whacked for feuding with the Detroit Mafia and extorting money from their brothels and gambling operations. The predecessors of Detroit’s modern day Mafia simply stepped in to fill the void once the Purple Gang was neutralized.
Abe Bernstein was spared because he had friends in high places–namely New York gangsters Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis–with whom he co-owned several Miami gambling casinos. Abe Bernstein was allowed to live out his life bookmaking from his suite at the Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit until his death from a stroke in 1968.
Detroit Police Chief of Detectives James E. McCarthy credited the Collingwood Massacre for “(breaking) the back of the once powerful Purple Gang, writing the end to more than five years of arrogance and terrorism.”