Life

The Purple Gang's bloody legacy

Detroit News file photos

Purple Gang members teased photographers by doffing their hats to hide their faces as they waited to be booked by Detroit police.

By Susan Whitall / The Detroit News

They are unlikely souvenirs from the bloody Purple Gang portion of Detroit’s history: European porcelain so delicate you can see through it, fine-cut glass, and a teapot painted with pink roses and lined in gold.

The porcelain and china, handed down to Carol Long of Washington Township from her grandparents, was gang barter, what the Purple Gang sometimes used to pay her grandfather George VanInwagen to fix their bullet-ridden Fords. He was a mechanic at the Keystone Garage on Larned Street in downtown Detroit.

“He did good work, and they’d bring their cars to him,” Long says. “That’s partly how he made his living. My grandmother said he got along with them because he didn’t ask any questions.”

In the annals of crime, Detroit’s Purple Gang didn’t have a long ride, but it was colorful enough to inspire books, get them name-checked in an Elvis song (“Jailhouse Rock”) and even prompt a Hollywood movie in 1960 starring actor Robert Blake, who ironically is a suspect in the murder last month of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.

The fact that the Gang dominated the flow of liquor in Detroit for most of the 1920s, were judged responsible for some 500 murders by the Detroit police and were largely Jewish has helped hone their mystique some 70-plus years later.

Look around Detroit and there are fading remnants of gang history.

This includes the still-vibrant shvitz (bathhouse) on Oakland Avenue the Gang used to frequent; the former blind pig in the basement of the Woodbridge Tavern; and a slew of hollow-eyed mugs shot by Detroit News photographers on file at Wayne State University’s Reuther Library.

Other cities had bootlegging gangs in the ’20s, but there were few American cities as “wet” as Detroit, which got a jump on the production and distribution of bootleg liquor when all nonmedicinal alcohol was banned in 1919, a year ahead of most states. Instead of prohibiting the flow of alcohol into Detroit, it instead opened up the floodgates and created a new sort of gangster to swagger around Hastings Street and Oakland Avenue on the city’s east side.

The young men who came to be known as the Purple Gang lived in the Jewish neighborhood near Eastern Market. They earned the nickname the “Third Avenue Navy” or the “Little Jewish Navy” from their nighttime excursions back and forth across the river carrying booze from Canada, or just as frequently, hijacking the booty of other bootleggers.

The Bernstein brothers; Abe, Ray and Izzy; Harry Fleisher, Abe Axler and Phil Keywell were just a few of the names that became infamous to Detroiters during the years when most of America was forced by the 1919 Volstead Act to buy wine, beer and liquor from the underworld.

Police mug shots of Purple Gang members Sammy Millman, from left, Phillip Keywell and Harry Keywell.

Police mug shots of Purple Gang members Sammy Millman, from left, Phillip Keywell and Harry Keywell.

 

 

Prohibition provides opportunity

While Detroit in the early ’20s was starting to stir with its first automotive boom, it was a different story in the back alleys and crowded tenements of the east side.

The near east-side neighborhood the Gang sprang from was an incubator for trouble, teeming in the period between 1910-1920 with just the right mix of poverty, ethnic rivalries and the business opportunity created by Prohibition.

The youngsters who came to be known as the Purple Gang started out bullying Eastern Market fruit and vegetable merchants. Soon, they graduated to providing thug services for an older gang that ran the Oakland Sugar House at Oakland and Holbrook avenues.

The Sugar House was a legitimate business on its face, providing corn sugar for home brewers who were still allowed to make a set amount of liquor for personal use. The sugar houses were a valuable resource for illegal stills and breweries, and the Oakland Sugar House was controlled by mobsters. The men known as the Purple Gang were younger, but came to assimilate a portion of the older Sugar House Gang.

The Purple Gang moved on to start up and take over alley breweries and stills, and wrested control of the alcohol flowing into blind pigs in many areas previously controlled by Italian gangs.

On the river, Purple Gang members would tow rowboats filled with liquor behind their speedboats. If they saw government agents, they could cut the rope and take off, free of the illegal stash.

However, the gang became arrogant, even sloppy to the point where they were terrorizing Detroit with street executions of their enemies, killing a police officer and in bloody 1930, murdering a well-known radio personality Jerry Buckley right in the lobby of a downtown hotel.

Joe Newman, 99, of Southfield, knew two Purple Gang cohorts and grew up in the same neighborhood near Eastern Market with the nucleus of the Purple Gang.

John T. Greilick / The Detroit News

Joe Newman, 99, of Southfield, knew two Purple Gang cohorts and grew up in the same neighborhood near Eastern Market with the nucleus of the Purple Gang.

 

Who’s left to remember?

The Purple Gang’s brief, but vivid reign of terror — Al Capone traveled from Chicago to import his liquor from them — was so long ago that it’s hard to find Detroiters who remember the days when gang shootings and murders were commonplace.

One who remembers is Joe Newman, 99, who grew up in the same neighborhood as many Purple gangsters. He can pinpoint the site of the Oakland Sugar house and many other gang hangouts. He knew Purple Gang mentor Harry Shorr as well as Solly Levine, a bookie who worked for the gang. Newman also remembers frequenting countless speakeasies as if it were yesterday.

“They were all my favorites!” Newman jokes of the speaks, or blind pigs that in some neighborhoods numbered 150 to a block. While 1,500 Detroit saloons were closed by Prohibition, by 1923 there were 7,000 blind pigs, and by 1925 the number had grown to 15,000.

Adding to that number were neighborhood stills stashed away in bathtubs, basements and garages, and in candy stores or confectionaries. If you asked the right question, a bottle of whiskey would be brought out from the back room.

Newman also remembers “a conflict between the bootleggers,” when the Italian and Jewish gangs started fighting over territory, and that when anyone was shot, newsboys would hawk a special edition of the former daily newspaper the Detroit Journal with extra pages devoted to details of the killing.

In 1931, during the height of the Gangs’ reign, Detroit Mayor Chester Bowles dismissed the killings as just gangsters helpfully eliminating each other, but Detroiters weary of being caught in the crossfire disagreed, and recalled him from office.

A crowd quickly formed outside the Collingwood Apartments at 1740 Collingwood in Detroit, where three men were shot by Purple Gangsters in 1931 in one of their most daring crimes yet.

Detroit News file photo

A crowd quickly formed outside the Collingwood Apartments at 1740 Collingwood in Detroit, where three men were shot by Purple Gangsters in 1931 in one of their most daring crimes yet.

 

 

Feds target Purple Gang

The flouting of Prohibition was so blatant that federal agents targeted the city and the Purple Gang for prosecution. According to Robert A. Rockaway’s book on Jewish gangsters, “But He Was Good To His Mother,” FBI agents dressed as Hasidic Jews attended a service at B’Nai David on the Day of Atonement, hoping some wanted Purple gangsters would show up. The feds cover was blown when they stepped outside to smoke cigarettes, which is strictly forbidden on the holiday.

The demise of the Purple Gang began when government agents enlisted the help of the Italian mafia. Another turning point came when one of the gang’s acolytes testified against the organization following the Collingwood Apartments Massacre, one of the most-daring Purple Gang murders in 1926.

Bookie Levine had been asked by Purple Gang boss Joe Bernstein to bring three Jewish gangsters from Chicago — Herman “Hymie” Paul, Joseph Lebovitz and Izzy Sutker — to a meeting at Apartment 211 in the Collingwood Apartments on Detroit’s west side.

The three were imported to Detroit to work hired hands in the gang’s bootlegging operation. Once they decided to bypass the gang’s authority and go into business for themselves, their Purple bosses decided they had to go. It was during the meeting in Apartment 211 that all three were shot and killed. Although bullets whizzed by his nose, Levine was spared.

Believing that he had lived only to be knocked off at a later date, Levine agreed to testify against the three Purple gangsters who were charged in the murders. After his testimony, Levine set up residence in Detroit police headquarters.

Newman remembers Levine’s mother lived upstairs from him at the Cordoba Apartments. But there was no sign of Solly.

“She said he moved to Chicago,” he says.

Just a memory

Marcia Cron shows the narrow, short door in the basement of the Woodbridge Tavern, which led to a speakeasy run by her grandparents during Prohibition. The speak was a hangout for members of the Purple Gang.
David Coates / The Detroit News

Marcia Cron shows the narrow, short door in the basement of the Woodbridge Tavern, which led to a speakeasy run by her grandparents during Prohibition. The speak was a hangout for members of the Purple Gang.

 

Today there is little evidence left of the Purple Gang’s bloody heyday.

Downstairs from the shuttered Woodbridge Tavern in Rivertown, owner Marcia Cron shows the basement room where her grandparents ran a blind pig when their legitimate bar, Dick’s, had to close.

On the wall behind what was the bar is a faded painting of a flapper lounging in a seductive pose, as well as a more demure view of a flapper’s bobbed hairdo. The blind pig was just yards from the river and served as a frequent watering hole for Purple gangsters, Cron says. “My mother would drive a car to go pick up the liquor (from gangsters) when she was just 12,” she says. “She would deliver it here to the back cellar door.”

Today, Hastings Street is just a memory, the ghosts of its jazz musicians, gangsters and wild women lying under the concrete of I-75. While the Sugar House is gone, a rickety nearby commercial garage is almost surely the one that figures in Purple Gang history. And farther down Oakland Avenue, the Shvitz, a bathhouse used by Purple gangsters, is still open for business, circled by a barbed wire fence.

Newman remembers all the addresses for the Oakland Sugar House, Henry the Hatter (where his oldest brother worked), plus every address and phone number where he ever lived.

He can remember when Detroit was a bloodier and yes, a more colorful place, with characters like blind pig owner Lefty Clark walking down the street with a monkey on his shoulder and the German shepherds brought in by gangsters running the Ackmu Club to guard their liquor.

“The Irish, Jewish and Italians didn’t get along,” says Newman, modestly describing his former east-side neighborhood.

Read more

Here are two books that have a lot of detail :

* But, He Was Good To His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters by Robert A. Rockaway (Gefen, 1993). Out of print but available through Internet sources or at a good used bookstore.

* The Purple Gang: Organized Crime in Detroit 1910-1945 by Paul R. Kavieff (Barricade, 2000)