2 – The Purple Gang
During the Prohibition Era, Chicago is historically known as one of America’s hotbeds of criminal activity. The infamous North and South Side Gang feuds involving the likes of Johnny Torrio, Al Capone, Dean O’Banion and Hymie Weiss left a trail of bodies throughout the Windy City. However, there were criminal gangs operating in all of America’s major cities and the Purple Gang controlled the Detroit Underworld scene for over a decade.
Also known as the Sugar House Gang, this group of mainly Jewish immigrants caused terror throughout the city of Detroit during the 1920s and early 1930s. Led by Abe and Ray Bernstein, the Purple Gang killed an estimated 500 members of rival bootlegging gangs during their existence.
Detroit was like most American cities of the era; it was rife with poverty, especially the neighborhoods containing newly arrived immigrants. Most members of the Purple Gang comprised of the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived in the United States between the early 1880s and 1914. The four Bernstein brothers; Abe, Ray, Joe, and Izzy were the leaders, and they began their career with petty crimes.
However, they soon moved into the criminal big leagues by specializing in armed robbery, extortion, and hijacking. The Prohibition Era allowed the gang to expand its enterprise by hijacking alcohol smuggled over the Canadian border. Their reputation was such that Al Capone chose to use them as a supplier instead of fighting them for control of territory in Detroit. They apparently got their name from a conversation between two market owners in Detroit; both men were victims of the gang. One of them claimed the gang was rotten, purple like the color of bad meat.
The gang was involved in the Cleaners and Dyers War between members of the cleaning industry and their union. Several members were tried for their role in the conflict in 1928, but all were acquitted. That they escaped punishment on this occasion was hardly a surprise; the Purple Gang was at the height of its power in Detroit by the late 1920s and was almost immune to criminal prosecution. Witnesses were too scared to testify against them in criminal trials, and rival gang members were murdered without a second thought.
There is even a suggestion that the gang was involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Apparently, on the day before the execution style killings, Abe Bernstein told Bugs Moran that a cargo of hijacked booze was on the way to Chicago. However, instead of delivering the illicit alcohol, five men dressed as police went to Moran’s hideout on the North Side of Chicago and killed seven gangsters in cold blood.
By the early 1930s, the gang was brazen in the way it dispatched enemies. It ruthlessly cut down any perceived enemies including Vivian Welsh, a police officer, on February 1, 1929. Welsh made the mistake of trying to extort money from the gang. They were also linked with the murder of a radio personality named Jerry Buckley in the lobby of a hotel in 1930.
The gang began to disintegrate due to internal disputes. On September 16, 1931, the Purple Gang murdered three of its own members; gangsters brought in from Chicago to help them out. Apparently, the trio violated gang rules by operating outside their territory. Ray Bernstein was one of the men arrested for the triple homicide; known as the Collingwood Manor Massacre. Sol Levine was the man who lured the three into the apartment where they were shot, and he agreed to testify against the gang.
Three Purple Gang members were jailed for life (including Ray Bernstein) and the aura of invincibility the gang enjoyed eroded soon after. Police arrested more gang members in connection with other crimes, and Abe and Joe were given lengthy prison sentences. Other Purple Gang members were murdered by rivals, and while the gang continued its operations, it did so in a diminished capacity as Sicilian gangsters started to take over Detroit’s Underworld. By 1935, the Purple Gang was virtually an irrelevance.