Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Purple Gang

Bootlegger's Paradise

The Detroit River, representing the border between Ontario, Canada and the United States, is one of the busiest waterways in the world, with freighters bringing iron ore from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the bustling automobile factories of the Motor City. Timber barges from northern Michigan and Wisconsin pass through the narrow waterway which separates Windsor, Canada and Detroit, Michigan en route to Lake Erie and the East Coast and hordes of recreational boaters and weekend fishermen use the river for their pleasure.

In the winter, traffic on the narrow flow (less than a mile across in some places) comes to a halt as the river freezes over.

During Prohibition, rumrunners and bootleggers used the frozen river as an easy way to get booze from Canada into the United States. From Detroit liquor went to Chicago (where Capone sold it under his "Log Cabin" label), St. Louis, and points west.

It was a well-known fact that if you were bringing a load of hooch across the Detroit River that you had better show up armed to the teeth. Because in the 1920s, Detroit belonged to the Purple Gang, a group of killers and thugs as vicious and bloodthirsty as any racketeer in New York or Chicago.

The Purples ran the rackets in Detroit for much of the 1920s and early 30s until the Syndicate boys from back east moved in and wrested control from a gang that had seen its numbers decimated by infighting and prosecution.

Detroit may not have been New York, but make no mistake: the Purple Gang was tough. They were strong enough to tell Capone to keep his mitts off eastern Michigan and managed to hold on to control of most of the state when Scarface was at his peak (U.S. 31, which cuts the gut of Grand Rapids and runs from the top of the mitten to the Indiana border was the territorial line. West of 31 was Capone's territory but east belonged to the Purples). Capone coveted Detroit, with its huge number of hardworking, hard-drinking laborers, but wisely decided it was better to buy booze from the Purple Gang than to fight them.

Bootleggers in Detroit had a jumpstart on much of the nation, when Michigan passed a state prohibition on liquor in 1916 effective the next year. Henry Ford, whose River Rouge plant employed more than 100,000 people at its peak, was a leading proponent of a sober workforce. His workers, however, had other ideas.

What Ford and the other teetotalers didn't take into account was the city's close proximity to borders with Ohio and Canada. When Prohibition went into effect in Michigan with the passage of the Damon Act in 1917, the spigots on illegal booze were turned on. Anyone with a boat could get to Canada and friendly Toledo, less than 60 miles south of Detroit, was more than willing to meet the needs of thirsty Detroiters.

"False floorboards in automobiles, second gas tanks, hidden compartments, even false bottomed shopping baskets and suitcases, not to mention camouflaged flasks and hot water bottles were all employed as the entrepreneurial and the thirsty navigated the Dixie Highway between Detroit and the Ohio border," wrote Jenny Nolan in The Detroit News. "It was a sort of dress rehearsal of ingenuity and audacity for the much larger operations to come."

Judges took a lenient view of offenders, and in 1919 the Damon Act was declared unconstitutional. Traffic between Michigan and Ohio returned to normal and for a short time the tables were turned as Ohio outlawed the manufacture and sale of liquor.

But anti-liquor fever ran high in those days. When the Volstead Act became law in 1920 and Prohibition was the law of the land, rumrunners in Detroit were ready.

Canada replaced Ohio as the favorite travel spot for Detroiters. Although Ontario had outlawed the retail sale of liquor, the federal government approved and licensed distilleries and breweries of which there were 45 in Ontario alone in 1920 to manufacture, distribute, and export.

"With the Detroit River less than a mile across in some places, and 28 miles long with thousands of coves and hiding places along the shore and among the islands, it was a smugglers dream," wrote Nolan. "Along with Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River, these waterways carried 75 percent of the liquor supplied to the United States during Prohibition."

Cargo was towed beneath boats, old underground tunnels were built, sunken houseboats hid underwater cable delivery systems, and even a pipeline was built. Between Peche Island and the foot of Alter Road, an electronically controlled cable hauled metal cylinders filled with up to 50 gallons of booze. A pipeline was constructed between a distillery in Windsor and a Detroit bottler.

Illegal liquor was the second biggest business in Detroit at $215 million a year in 1929, just behind automobiles. During Prohibition, the trade in alcohol employed about 50,000 people in the Detroit area, according to The Detroit Free Press. There were as many as 25,000 blind pigs operating in the Detroit area, and authorities were not only helpless to stop it, many were part of the problem.

Nick Schaefer ran a blind pig across the street from Police Headquarters, above a bail bondsman's office. Reporters and police alike frequented the place for its famous potato soup and free lunch.

When the state police raided the Deutsches Haus at Mack and Maxwell, they arrested Detroit Mayor John Smith, Michigan Congressman Robert Clancy and Sheriff Edward Stein. From St. Clair Shores' Blossom Heath on Jefferson to Little Harry's downtown, to the Green Lantern Club in Ecorse, Detroit's most upstanding citizens fed the coffers of the gangs that were reaping huge fortunes from their appetite for alcohol.

With such a demand for booze, it wasn't long before organized groups took over from informal rumrunners. The Licavolis, Bommaritos, Lucidos and Zerillis brought a Sicilian flavor to east side efforts, while the Tallman gang led the West Side.

The one group who had the run of the town was the Purple Gang.

 

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