The Purple Gang is Michigan’s Most Notorious Gangster Family You’ve Never Heard About
It's amazing that growing up, in history courses, watching the History Channel, I've never heard of the Purple Gang. Al Capone, yeah. John Dillinger, Of Course. All the families of New York, New Jersey, and Chicago, absolutely.
But how is it possible, that one family of gangsters from Michigan could have ties to ALL of the above heavy hitters, and I've never heard of them before?
The Purple Gang is not a household name for most. During the rise of the Gangsters during Prohibition, the Purple Gang was already working in the Detroit area. Most of the country's eyes were on Chicago and New York, so that might explain why this family of brothers were able to fly under the radar of many Federal Bureaus.
Brothers Abe, Joe, Raymond, and Izzy Bernstein moved from New York City to Detroit sometime before 1914. They were still young, barely teenagers, and into their early 20s, but already had a knack for what to do for money in Michigan.
"Paradise Valley" was a poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Detroit, and many of its residents turned to crime to make money, and in the mid 1910s, crime became a booming business.
Three years before National Prohibition in the U.S., Michigan had already adopted it as a state Law (You can largely thank Henry Ford for that). So rum-running, bootlegging, and smuggling were already big business in The Mitten.
The Purple Gang saw what was happening, and quickly cornered the market. Like most gangsters, they started with petty thefts and extortion, but moved to armed robbery and truck hijacking, gaining a reputation as the "muscle" for Gangsters outside the city, like Al Capone.
Booze was pouring into the Mitten State through borders with Ohio and Canada. In fact, once Prohibition went national, they became one of the main suppliers of Canadian Whiskey to the Capone Organization in Chicago.
It's clear they were organized, and powerful - practically owning all of the alcohol movement in the city of Detroit. But what amazed me the most is how many of the MAJOR Gang-related incidents during the time period they might have been involved in... and yet, I've still barely heard of them.
Notable Mob Events Involving The Purple Gang
Aside from the Cleaners & Dyers War in Detroit (they were extorting dry cleaning businesses to be under their protection, and to keep union workers in line, while harassing non-union workers), they were likely involved with the Milaflores Massacre - a Mob war between the Italian, Irish, and Jewish Bootleggers in Detroit over the territory.
The Purples fought heavily against the Licavoli Squad. One incident left three men dead, after its rumored the Licavoli Squad hired them out of town to be assassins of Members of the Purple Gang. No one was ever convicted of the murders, but was possibly the first use of a submachine gun in a Detroit underworld slaying.
But the Purple's didn't stop there. They were reportedly involved with the St. valentine's Day Massacre. It was Abe Bernstein who called Bugs Moran to say he'd hijacked a shipment of booze, and was headed to Chicago to deliver it. Capone had just started working with, and trusting the Purples, but Moran didn't know. It's likely, the four men who killed Seven of Moran's men that day in 1929 were Purple Gang members.
The End of the Purple Gang
What eventually did them in, though, was the Collingwood Manor Massacre. The gang was becoming more brash and open with their executions - one of which was a dirty cop who allegedly tried to extort money from the Purples.
In 1931, they were meeting with three gangsters from Chicago who had violated an underworld code by operating outside the territory set by the Purples. The Purples opened fire, killing all three, but authorities were able to catch up with the members responsible (Abe Axler, Irving Milberg, and Eddie Fletcher), and also arrested Ray Bernstein and Harry Heywell.
Three of the highest ranking Purple Gang Members were now in custody, and convicted of first-degree murder, and practically severed the organizational backbone of the crew.
All told, their reign on the Bootlegging, and crime underworld in the Detroit area lasted from about 1910 to 1932 - 22 years of major high crimes, murder, and organized crime in one of the major cities in our country.
There's so much more to the story of the Purple Gang, which makes me question even harder... how have I never heard of them until just now?