Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Purple Gang

The Color Purple

Like most other big cities around the turn of the century, Detroit's ghettos were a breeding ground for crime and violence. The Purple Gang's evolution isn't much different from a dozen similar stories from any American city. They were really no different than the Five Points Gang in Brooklyn, the Northside Gang in Chicago or the Boiler Gang in Philly.

Rumor had it that the gang received its colorful name as the result of a conversation between two Hastings Street shopkeepers of the era. Both of the men's shops had been the target of the youngsters' shoplifting and vandalism forays. One day in disgust one of the shopkeepers exclaimed, "These boys are not like other children of their age, they're tainted, off color."

"Yes," replied the other shopkeeper. "They're rotten, purple like the color of bad meat, they're a Purple Gang."

In the beginning, the "gangsters" were nothing more than the sons of Russian Jewish immigrants who had come to the New Country in search of a better life. But like so many others, the immigrants found life in the United States wasn't that different and that the streets really weren't paved with gold.

The Purples, growing up in almost unimaginable poverty, began to prey on their fellow immigrants.

"The boys snatched ice cream, gum, candy, cookies and fruit from hucksters and stores," wrote one Detroit Free Press writer at the time. "They ganged up on children their own age, sometimes they strong-armed grownups."

The boys, led by the four Bernstein brothers Abe, Joe, Raymond and Izzy, were shakedown artists and jewel thieves, but thanks to Prohibition and the convenient location of Detroit, the young delinquents quickly graduated from nuisance types of street crime to armed robbery, hijacking, extortion, and other strong arm work. They became notorious for their high profile manner of operation and their savagery in dealing with enemies.

By the early twenties, the Purples had developed an unsavory reputation as hijackers, stealing liquor loads from older and more established gangs of rumrunners.

Purple Gang Handiwork
Purple Gang Handiwork

"The Purple Gang always preferred hijacking to rumrunning and their methods were brutal, wrote Paul Kavieff in his book on the gang, Off Color. "Anyone landing liquor along the Detroit waterfront had to be armed and prepared to fight to the death as it was common practice for the Purples to take a load of liquor and shoot whoever was with it. In the early years, the Purple Gang preyed exclusively on other underworld operators, insulating them from the police."

The young Purple Gangsters attracted the attention Charlie Leiter and Henry Schorr, two Mustache Petes who operated the Oakland Sugar House on Oakland Avenue. Leiter and Schorr used the Bernsteins and their compatriots like George F. Lewis, Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher for strong-arm work extorting businesses and leaning on back-alley brewers.

Inspector Henry J. Garvin, head of the Detroit crime and bomb squad, called the Purple Gang the ruler of the city's underworld through terrorism. The Purple Gang of 1928, however, was not wholly composed of the "off-color" gang of the Hastings street hoodlums of 1918. The new group had been in existence only two years. But its leaders, Inspector Garvin declared, were the same boys who ruled the gang that plagued the ghetto merchants and hucksters.

In its rank and file were recruits from New York, St. Louis and Chicago. It was organized in 1926, Garvin said, as a defensive measure against the "St. Louis Gang," which had invaded Detroit shortly before the kidnapping, in March 1926, of Meyer "Fish" Bloomfield, a stickman at the Grand River Athletic Club, Charles T. "Doc" Brady's casino. Doc Brady paid fifty grand for the return of his employee. This was the first of a long series of kidnappings of gambling house operators for ransom.

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