Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Purple Gang

The Big Time

The first act laid against the new Purple Gang was the triple slaying in the Milaflores Apartments, in March 1926, when Frankie Wright, Reuben Cohen and Joseph Bloom were killed by machine gun fire in an apartment occupied by Axler and Fletcher. Fred "Killer" Burke, famous for his role in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929, was hired by the Purples as the machine gunner.

Wright, Bloom and Cohen were gunned down as they waited to enter the Axler-Fletcher apartment, where they had been invited to a "peace conference." The St. Louis gunsels were slain, it was reported at the time, because of a double-cross laid on the Purple Gang in the kidnapping of Fish Bloomfield. Although arrests were made, no one was ever convicted of the Milaflores slayings.

In the killings, the Purples became the first criminals in Detroit to use Thompson submachine guns. After they mowed down their three rivals, newspaper reporters counted 110 bullet holes.

As the gang grew in size and influence, they began to hire themselves out as mercenaries, taking part in the Cleaners and Dyers War, keeping union members in line and harassing non-union independents. Bombings, thefts, beatings, and murder were all methods employed by the Purples to enforce union policy. They were paid handsomely for their services.

Virtually all the bombing outrages in that warfare were ascribed to the gang by the police.

Purple Gang Arrested During Cleaners & Dryers War
Purple Gang Arrested During Cleaners
& Dryers War

In 1928, Charles C. Jacoby, vice-president of Jacoby's French Cleaner's & Dyers, Inc., and nine alleged members of the Purple Gang, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to extort money from Detroit wholesale Cleaners & Dyers. Besides Jacoby, the defendants included Abe Bernstein, Raymond Bernstein, Irving Milberg, Eddie Fletcher, Joe Miller, Irving Shapiro, Abe Kaminsty, Abe Axler and Simon Axler.

When the police concentrated their efforts on the Purple Gang, shutting off its source of revenue, it formed an alliance with the Oakland Sugar House Gang which had engaged in bloody warfare with other gangsters over tribute from distillers and bootleggers and others associated with the liquor racket.

The Purples ordered the Sugar House Gang to raise money for their defense fund by putting a tax of 55 cents on every 100 pounds of sugar sold to distillers. Other merchants were terrorized into paying tribute when the sugar tax did not raise enough revenue. Then the police raided the Sugar House Gang. Joseph Bernstein, brother of Abe Bernstein, alleged leader of the Purple Gang, was one of those arrested.

In explaining why the police had been unable to break up the Purples, Garvin said that the gangsters preyed only on racketeers and had the underworld so terrorized that no one dared to "squawk." Hence, he said, the police were unable to get anyone to sign a complaint against them.

Taking of testimony in the extortion trial relating to the Cleaner and Dyer wars started before Judge Charles Bowles and a Recorder's Court jury June 4, 1928. The State called 42 witnesses. A month's adjournment was necessitated by the illness of Judge Bowles. Early in September, 1928, the case came to an end when the jury acquitted Jacoby and the alleged gangsters. Then Frank X. Martel, president of the Detroit Federation of Labor, was charged with extorting money from the Jacobys, and he, too was acquitted.

An acquittal wasn't surprising in the case. After all, "someone" had broken into the Cleaners and Dyers Union offices shortly before the trial and stolen the documents that could have proved the extortion case. No arrests were made in the break-in.

"Also to members of the gang the police ascribed the deaths of Sam Sigman, of the Perfect Cleaners and Dyers, two and a half years ago, and of Sam Polakoff, of the Union Cleaners and Dyers, whose bullet-riddled body was found one morning at Dexter Boulevard and Grand Avenue a little more than a year ago," according to a 1929 Detroit News article about the gang.

Police also blamed the gang for the slaying of Patrolman Vivian Welsh, "who was taken for a ride."

"Welsh according to the Homicide Squad, had been 'shaking down' blind pig owners and in doing so had unwittingly invaded the field of the Purple Gang," the News wrote.

During the late twenties, the Purple Gang reigned supreme over the Detroit underworld, controlling the city's vice, gambling, liquor, and drug trade. They also controlled the local wire service which provided horse-racing information to all of the Detroit horse betting parlors and handbooks.

The gang members, now at the top of the food chain in the Motor City, cavorted with some more infamous mobsters, branching out into other cities, as well. Abe Bernstein was a friend of Meyer Lansky and Joey Adonis, with whom he owned several Miami gambling casinos. Bernstein also did a big favor for Capone.

On February 13, 1929, Bernstein called Bugs Moran and told him a hijacked load of booze was on its way to Chicago.

Moran, who was in the middle of a turf war with Capone, had only recently begun to trust Bernstein, who had previously been Capone's chief supplier of Canadian liquor.

The two hoods agreed on a price of $57 a case, according to Jay Robert Nash in his book Bloodletters and Bad Men.

"Deliver it to the garage," Bugs told Bernstein. "All the boys will be here. We're short and they'll want a cut."

The next day, instead of delivering a load of liquor, five men dressed as cops went to S.M.C. Cartage on North Clark Street Bugs' Northside hangout and opened fire with machine guns, killing seven men in what has become known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

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