|Russian immigrants waiting on Ellis Island.|
Detroit’s slums were the breeding ground for crime and violence when waves of European immigrants settled in the city between 1881 and 1914. The Purple Gang members were second-generation Jewish-Americans of Russian and Polish descent. Their Hastings Street neighborhood was on Detroit’s Lower East Side known as Paradise Valley. It was anything but paradise. These young men were born into poverty and received little education barring them from desirable jobs. Mob life offered them everything but respectability.
|Street punks waiting for some action.|
Before they were known as the Purple Gang, they were part of a neighborhood mob of delinquent youths who became thieves, pickpockets, and shakedown artists primarily in the Eastern Market area just north of their home turf. Under the mentorship of older neighborhood gangsters–Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr–the Purples began to commit armed robbery, hijacking, bootlegging, loan sharking, kidnapping, extortion, and murder for hire. Soon, gang members ran gambling rings, speakeasies, and a numbers racket (lottery) among Detroit’s black population.
|Purple Gang members avoiding a press photograph at the 13th Precinct police station.|
The Purple Gang was exceptionally violent and ruled the Detroit underworld from 1927 until 1935. Authorities estimate that the gang murdered over 500 members of rival bootlegging gangs during Detroit’s bloody turf wars. They were virtually immune to police interference because of payoffs to city officials and local beat cops. When known Purple Gang associates were arrested, witnesses were terrified to testify against them.
The Purples came about through the merging of two groups–Oakland County’s Sugar House Gang led by Leiter and Shorr, and a mob of Jewish street hoods led at that time by nineteen-year-old Sammy Coen, who assumed the alias Sammy Purple. Detroit detective Henry Gavin claimed the gang was named after Sammy. Once the police tagged the group as the Purple Gang, the press took up the drum beat. Gang members hated the label. There are several urban legends about how the gang’s name came about, but Henry Gavin’s explanation is the most credible.
|Canadian liquor being smuggled on the Detroit River.|
The gang grew into manhood with the emergence of Prohibition. Three years before the Volstead Act and national Prohibition became the law of the land, Michigan passed the Damon Act in 1917 prohibiting the sale of liquor within the state. Henry Ford supported and financed the movement because he wanted a sober workforce, but the Damon Act was declared unconstitutional in 1919.
By the time the whole country entered Prohibition with the Volstead Act in 1920, Detroit was already a haven for bootleggers and hijackers of Canadian liquor shipments. Detroit was the gateway for the illegal distribution of alcohol to larger cities like New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. By the mid-1920s, Detroit was home to an estimated 25,000 illegal drinking establishments called speakeasies which were full-service bars. For people who couldn’t afford cafe society, blind pigs developed which sold liquor by the shot in private homes and after-hour businesses.
Legend has it that a church in Walkerville, Ontario installed a neon cross on their steeple to signal bootleggers that a shipment of booze was coming across. The neon beacon could be seen through the fog which was when the boats would leave. Pint bottles were developed so they would sink in case bootleggers had to ditch them in the Detroit River. Fifth-sized bottles would often wash up along the shoreline.
The four Kaminski brothers grew up in Delray on Thaddeus Street. They would hang out along the river and watch the rumrunners try to outrun the Coast Guard. If a shipment was in danger of being seized, the “Little Jewish Navy”–as they were called–would throw the booze overboard to ditch the evidence. The brothers knew the river currents and would dive in to retrieve as much product as possible–then sell it. Seems like virtually everyone in Detroit was in the liquor business.
|Boats were used on the water, and trucks were used on the ice to transport booze.|
Seventy-five percent of the liquor smuggled into the United States during Prohibition passed through Detroit. The Purple Gang’s liquor, gambling, and drug trade netted the gang hundreds of millions of dollars annually providing the “grease” to make hefty payouts to city officials and police who agreed to look the other way. Turf wars were inevitable, and it wasn’t long before Detroit streets ran with the blood of would-be rivals. The Purples became overextended and began to import hoods from New York and St. Louis to work as “muscle” for the gang.
Unlike the Italian-American gangs who pioneered organized crime, the Purples were a loosely structured gang with shifting allegiances that came together and drifted apart when the need arose. After Sammy Purple’s leadership, Raymond Bernstein ruled the gang until his murder conviction. Ray’s soft-spoken brother Abe became the boss thereafter.
Author Robert A. Rockaway wrote in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies (2001), “Italian gangsters tended to involve (cross-generational) family members in their criminal activities. With the Jews, it was that one generation, the children of immigrants, and it ended with them.” As a postscript, the Purple Gang reigned over Detroit’s underworld for only five years. Most of the gang were either gunned down or died in prison.