By Thom L. Jones
Whatever they amounted to as a bunch of criminals, the derivation of their name is intriguing enough in itself. There seems to be more versions of its origin and meaning, than combinations of a Rubik Cube.
One story goes that two Hastings Street shopkeepers, whose places had been targets for the gang, said something like:
'These kids, they’re tainted, they’re rotten, purple, like the colour of bad meat, they’re the Purple Gang.'
Detroit Detective Henry Gavin claimed the gang was named after an early leader, Sammy Purple. Another theory that went around suggested that one of the group called Jacob 'Scotty' Silverstein was wearing a purple sweater when they chose the name. One of their more boisterous members, Eddie Fletcher, fought as a featherweight at Harry Harris’s Fairview Club, and he and his seconds wore purple tops, and so this is how the name stuck, or so the legend goes.
There was a particularly complex explanation that emerged during the Detroit Cleaners and Dyers Wars. Dyers had always been connected to purple dye, since it originated during the Phoenician period, and purple has long been the symbol of dyers. So the 'Purple Gang' became a 'dyers' gang as they operated their protection racket during this 1928 dispute.
Lou Wertheimer, a gang member, claimed the name originated from a taxi-cab war in Detroit, resulting in attacks and bombings on cabs and depots. One company known as the Purple Line, were successfully protected by a gang of toughs, who became known naturally, as the Purple Line protectors, or the Purple Gang.
A wag claimed they were called 'Purple' because they were not quite straight, and some gang members even said the name was dubbed on them by the cops. My favourite analogy has to be that some of the men wore purple swimsuits on their week-end breaks away from mugging, hijacking and killing each other. It’s tempting to contemplate where they stashed their .45’s as they frolicked in the swimming baths, or on the shores of Lake St. Clair.
A group of the gang interviewed in 1929, unanimously agreed to denying the name. Joe 'Honey' Miller told a reporter 'This Purple Gang stuff makes me sick... who got up that name?'
Probably the same kind of guy who originated 'Murder Inc.' and 'The Good Killers,' a newspaper reporter.
Whichever way the name came about, that’s what they got tagged with, and it stuck with them until the end. The beginning was somewhere in and around Hastings Street, which lay about six blocks west of where the GM Cadillac Assembly Plant now stands, in Detroit’s lower East Side, and perhaps was sometime around 1915-1917. For some weird reason, this parish became known as 'Paradise Valley.'
The Detroit News reported that the gang didn’t start up until 1919, but some sources allege origin dating as early as 1908. The Purples came about through an amalgamation of two groups- the Oakland Sugar House Gang, operating out of the Holbrook and Oakland Avenue district and lead by Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr, and a mob under the control of nineteen year old Sammy Coen, who was also listed as George by the DPD, and carried the nickname of Sammy Purple. He, along with Sam 'Sammy K' Kert, subsequently become the overseers of the Purples speakeasies and blind pigs, which numbered over one hundred in and around the city.
At their peak they numbered less than a hundred, out of a Jewish citizenry of over 35,000, so could hardly be called a significant demographic profile in the population of Detroit. Oakland Avenue was a run-down thoroughfare near the Eastern Market in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. Until the Purple Gang came along, nothing of any consequence ever came out of here, an neighbourhood known primarily for its drunks, bums and deadbeats. This Jewish quarter of Detroit, sometimes called, New or Little Jerusalem, or more aptly 'The Ghetto', by the city press, was regarded as so bad, as being unfit to live in. It's not that difficult to comprehend how a gang like this could have developed in the dark, fetid apartments and filthy rubbish strewn streets and alleys that composed this area.
Irrespective of where they came from, they grew into an extremely effective group. The Detroit police department credited the gang with over 500 killings, a lot more than the Capone mob over in Chicago. Herbert Asbury, the highly respected author of 'Gangs of New York,' called them the most efficiently organized gang of killer in the United States.
They might easily have left the alleged infamous 'Good Killers Society' for dead. Literally.
They weren't however invincible. In 1928, a group of them attempted to take over the bootlegging business in Rochester, New York, and were violently repulsed by the current liquor kings- the Staud brothers, Midge, George, Carl and Ed- who allegedly tossed two of them from the seventh story of the Seneca Hotel, and chased the rest of the crew out of town.
There has been much speculation as to the head of the group, but most consensus has it, that if they actually had a leader, it was one of the four Bernstein brothers, Abe (right). He was probably Detroit's first and only Jewish godfather. He was close to Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis, respectively, two of the biggest hoodlums in America, representing the Jewish and Italian-American fraternities.
One of the early associates of the Bernstein brothers was Morris Barney Dalitz, best known as 'Moe,' who subsequently moved across to Cleveland and helped organize the Mayfield Road Mob. Dalitz of course, is best known for his Las Vegas connection, and no one every seriously doubted how tough he was. An apocryphal story has it, in 1964, he got into an dispute with Sony Liston at the Beverly Rodeo Hotel, in Hollywood, and told the fighter, 'You better kill me, because if you don’t, I’ll make one phone call and your dead in twenty-four hours.' Liston departed with his tail between his legs.
Like so many of them, Abe was small, almost dainty in appearance, with soft, feminine-like hands, and delicate features.
At its peak, in 1932, Detroit Police Department Inspector Charles C. Carmody, had 49 'known' members of the Purples listed on his files. When you look at their mug shots and read the vital statistics, you are struck by the sameness of them all. Most were smallish in stature, hardly any reached six feet, youngish in age, between twenty-three and twenty-eight, and light in weight. Seventy years or more down the track, they stare out on the world with vacant, bleak stares, posing almost like mannequins, for the harsh lights of the police photographer’s bright bulbs.
The heaviest was Sam Bernstein, a squat five-five but solid two-twenty five pounds, referred to by the gang, not unnaturally as 'Fat Sammy,' and the smallest was the dainty Sam Davies, 24 years old, barely five feet and a paper weight one hundred pounds, who for some reason was referred to incongruously, as 'The Gorilla.' Sammy was a tough Jew, with a lengthy police record that included robbery, armed extortion and the ubiquitous 'violating the U.S. Codes!' He also murdered one Harry Gold on the evening of February 17th., 1932, and was clearly a lot more violent than he appeared.
Most of the crew were children of immigrant Russian Jews, with names like Ziggie Selbin, Abe 'Abie the Agent' Zussman, Jacob Willman, Jack Budd, Charles 'The Professor' Auerbach, Hyman 'Two Gun Harry' Altman, Jack Stein, Issac Reisfield, Michael 'One Arm Mike' Gelfand, Isadore 'Uncle Izzy' Kaminski, or Sam Potasink; what a name to conjure around. I wonder if he ever shot out a basin in rage, against the cruel irony of a gangster with a moniker like that?
You can image Abe the boss telling him, 'Hi Sammy, go shoot out that porcelain basin that’s late with the vig.'
Starting out as small-time hustlers, thieves and malcontents, the Gang grew into manhood with the emergence of Prohibition, an act of political madness that was the alchemy turning the streets of concrete into pathways of gold for the mobsters of the 1920’s.
The 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, to take effect from January 16th, 1920. It had been passed in 1917 through the Senate by a one-sided vote after only thirteen hours debate. A few months later, the House of Representatives debated it for a full, whole day!
A poem in the New York World newspaper summed up America’s reaction to one of the most pathetic acts of any American federal administration, an bill that would create more damage and dislocation to America than almost any action of any government before or since:Prohibition is an awful flop. We like it. It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop. We like it. It’s left a trail of graft and slime, It’s filled our land with vice and crime, It don’t prohibit worth a dime, Nevertheless we’re for it.
The Act closed down Detroit’s 1500 saloons, but by 1925 there were over 15000 speakeasies, or 'blind pigs' as they were called, and many of them came under the control of the Purples.
According to reporter Malcom Bingay, 'it was absolutely impossible to get a drink in Detroit, unless you walked at least ten feet and told a busy bartender what you wanted in a voice loud enough for him to hear you above the uproar.'
By 1929, smuggling, making and distributing booze had become Detroit's number two industry, after motor car production. Larry Engleman in his book 'Intemperance,' estimated its gross revenue worth as in excess of $300 million a year. Using the C.P.I as an indicator, that's over $3.5 billion dollars in to-days money!
Estimates suggest that 75% of all liquor smuggled throughout the United States, during Prohibition, first passed through Detroit. Not only did the gang play a vital part in controlling liquor supplies and prices in Detroit, they became the leading supplier of illegal alcohol to the New York and Chicago underworld. The Purple's principal link man into the Big Apple underworld was Samuel 'Uncle Sam' Garfield.
An academic study of ethnic groups involved in bootlegging operations in the United States at this time, found 50% were Jewish, 25% Italian, and the remaining 25% split between Irish, Polish and other minority groups. The Italians, although they had a minor percentage compared to the Jews, had the major advantage in that they were evolving into regional organizations based on Mafia affiliations, which would give them enormous power and leverage.
The FBI reported the Purples as,' a group of choice racketeers and hoodlums who derived the greater part of their income through bootlegging, shakedowns, and hold-ups of gambling house, bookies and places of prostitution.' They also made a lot of money by controlling the malt industry, owning breweries, smuggling whisky from Canada and dope trafficking.
In all likelihood the Gang was never a structured crime family such as the kinds operated by the Mafia, but more a loose, shifting allegiance of professional, career criminals, who came together and drifted apart when the needs arose. Although primarily Jewish in makeup, there was at least one Gentile in among them, Salvatore Mirogliotta. He'd found his way into the Purples from his association with the Oakland Sugar House Gang. He came originally from Ohio, where he was wanted for the murder of a police officer.
In January, 1927, the Gang were the prime suspects in the murder of another police officer Vivian Welsh, shot nine times either in, or next to a Chevrolet coupe. Welsh, a crooked cop, had been putting the squeeze on a bootlegger allied to the Purples. Abe and Ray Bernstein were arrested. The Chevrolet belonged to Ray. However the case folded for lack of evidence.
In March 1927, Eddie Fletcher and Abe Axler, two of the Gang who had joined it from New York, rented a suite at The Milaflores Apartment Building at 106 East Alexandrine Avenue. It was to be a meeting place, convened to settle a dispute between the Gang and three men who had set themselves up in opposition to the Purple’s activities. The men-Frank Wright, Reuben Cohen and Joe Bloom-were ex-members of the famous St. Louis mob, known as 'The Egan’s Rats.' They had moved to Detroit, and started muscling in on the Purple Gang’s local interests, becoming such a pain, that soon, people were referring to them as 'The Third Avenue Terrors.'
When the three men arrived at the apartment building, they were machine-gunned to death, over 100 shots perforating them and the apartment. Fletcher and Axle, along with Fred 'Killer' Burke, were subsequently arrested, but no charges where ever laid. Burke, also at one time, part of 'Egan’s Rats,' was most likely one of the gunners at the infamous Chicago St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, two years later; it is also quite possible, that the other killers in this Detroit 'massacre,' were Phil and Harry Keywell and George Lewis, all part of the Purple Gang at one time or another. Some sources maintain this was the first time the Thompson sub-machine gun had been used in s gangland killing in Detroit. There may well have been more to the killings that just the settling of business disputes. Three months earlier, in December 1926, Wright had allegedly killed Johnny Reid, a good friend of Abe Bernstein's.
It was rumoured that the killing of the Moran gang that day in North Clark Street, Chicago, in 1929, was triggered by them hijacking a load of Capone’s Old Log Cabin Canadian whiskey which had been supplied by the Purples. Another version has it that Abe Bernstein set up the hit by telephoning George Moran the day before the killing, and then arranging to deliver a shipment of liquor into the garage that day, hoping Moran would be there himself, to receive the delivery. Some sources contend that Police records confirmed that four members of the Purples, the Fleisher and Keywell brothers stayed at a boarding house at 2119 Clarke Street, directly across from the garage where the killings took place, before, during and after the shooting. They were there for a reason, that's for sure. Assuming of course they were there.
Helmer and Bilek in their book 'The St. Valentine's Day Massacre claim that only one of the Keywell brothers was 'partially' identified by a witness, from a police photograph, but subsequently, the woman, Mrs. Michael Doody, changed her mind.
The triple Detroit shooting in March 1927, was incredibly, the first of two such incidents that involved the Purple Gang, helping to create part of the myth about their savagery and lawlessness.
Fletcher, known also as 'Honey Boy,' ( which always confused the cops, because there was another Gang member called Joe Miller, alias Joe 'Honey' Miller, who was really Sal Mirogliotta,) was one of the most proficient killers found in the Purples. He had served his apprenticeship in New York, and was particularly well known for a killing he supposedly carried out there in 1921. On March 19th., he allegedly stabbed to death one Eddie McFarland in a movie theatre called The Para Court, in Brooklyn.
'Honey Boy' had been commissioned for the job by Frankie Uale (Yale,) a leading mob boss in New York's Italian underworld. 'Charleston' Eddie McFarland had been part of a group that had killed five people at a dance hall on Coney Island a few weeks earlier, which in turn was retaliation for a shoot-out at a ballroom on Smith Street, in Brooklyn. It all revolved around in-fighting between Yale’s Italian mob and the Irish toughs led by William 'Wild Boy' Lovett.
There is a wonderful description handed down about the sartorial elegance of Fletcher, who was described as dressed in a dark gray Chesterfield overcoat, pearl-gray spats over patent leather shoes, wide-brimmed gray fedora and snazzy mauve double-breasted suit, whose lapels where made from pale purple satin. To finish off the outfit, he had a 4 carat diamond stickpin securing a yellow silk ascot in place. And this is what he wore to go to the movies and kill a guy!
In the what-goes-around-comes-around philosophy, more commonly referred to these days, as degrees-of-separation theory, Fred Burke, who could have shot down the ex Egan Rats at the Milaflores Apartments along with Eddie Fletcher, may well have been the man who gunned down Frankie Yale, (who had once employed Fletcher as a hired killer,) on a Brooklyn street, in July 1928.
It is indeed, a small world.
The Purple Gang consolidated its reputation in the late 1920’s with their involvement in what came to be known as 'The Cleaners and Dyers War.' In 1925, Sam Polakoff, president of the Union of Dyers and Cleaners, and another cleaner, Sam Sigman, led a group that wanted to increase their charges. They knew it would only work provided all the other cleaners in Detroit joined in with them. Those that rejected, had their premises attacked, and sometimes bombed, by members of the Purples. The 'War' dragged on for over two years. Polakoff and Sigman were murdered, and after this, the whole thing spluttered out. A number of Gang members, including two of the Bernstein brothers, Irwing Milberg, Harry Keywell, Eddie Fletcher, along with one of the militant cleaners, Charles Jacoby, were indicted and tried in 1928, but acquitted.
Towards the end of the 1920's, the Purples were steaming.
From May 3rd., until the 16th., 1929, reports claimed them as being attendees at the Atlantic City Crime Conclave. Along with the top men from Chicago, Kansas City, Cleveland, Boston, Rhode Island and New York, and probably other places as well, they spent hours in discussion with their peers trying to work out some kind of franchise of consent-divvying up liquor and gambling concessions, and trying to work out ways to reduce the inter-gang violence that was causing them all so much aggravation from law and order. Ignoring the Cleveland Meeting of two years earlier, this may well have been the first major meeting of the mob held in America, and The Purple Gang were there in all their finery. They had truly arrived!
In 1930, Philip Keywell murdered 15 year old Arthur Mixon, an ice-peddler, who they found poking around in one of their 'cutting plants,' buildings where liquor was watered down to produce higher volume. Arrested and indicted, he was possibly the first Purple gang member to be convicted of murder.
In 1931, an inter-gang dispute resulted in the second triple murder committed by members of the Purple Gang. Three of the gang worked together in a separate clique that associated itself with another group that was known as the 'Little Jewish Navy.' They owned and operated several power boats that they used for rum running across from Canada. They and the three other men, formed a group that went into competition with the Purples, who came to believe that the trio were hijacking shipments of alcohol that was destined for Al Capone in Chicago. They were also selling off bootleg into territory that was claimed by the Purples and in addition, extorting 'blind pigs' and bookmakers that were under the protection of the Purple Gang. The three men were Herman 'Hymie' Paul, Joe 'Nigger Joe' Lebovitz and Isadore Sutker. They had all originated out of Chicago, before linking in to the Purples in 1926.
Ray Bernstein got a local bookmaker, Solly Levine, a long time acquaintance of the Purples, and the man who originally brought Sutker, Lebovitz and Paul into the gang, to take the three men to Apartment 211 at 1740 Collingwood Avenue, a few blocks from the Gang’s home base on Oakland Avenue. There was a big business convention on in Detroit, and the meeting was seemingly called to discuss liquor supplies. Ray got the guys comfortable. They lit up cigars and were puffing away merrily when three of the Gang present, blew them into eternity. The shooters were Irving Milburn, Harry Fleischer known to the gang as 'H.F.' and young, eighteen year old Harry Keywell. They made sure they missed out on Solly, who made his own way from the apartment at a rapid pace.
Leaving their victims sprawled in death-- one had tried to crawl under a bed as bullets were pumped into his back, and the other two lay face down in the hall way between the main room and the bedroom—the killers rushed out, down the back stairs, colliding with young Frank Egan and his pal Chick, who were on their way into the building to deliver groceries from the local A&P store. When the two young boys walked down the hallway of the second floor, they came across the open door of room 211, its entrance pooling blood into the passage, and saw the three bodies scrunched over like broken, discarded dolls. When the cops arrived, they found the murder weapons in the apartment kitchen, dumped into a pail of green paint, with the serial numbers filed off, and any finger prints, well and truly erased.
Although Bernstein and his boys had been extra careful in getting rid of the guns, they were less than circumspect in their treatment of Solly Levine, the patsy who had set up the hit. For some unknown reason, they let him go. He was soon arrested, and coughed up the quartet as the killers. Little Frank was more than anxious to help the cops and quickly laid the finger on them from police mug shots.
Bernstein and Keywell were arrested on September 15th., and Irving Milburn was caught four days later. Harry Fleischer disappeared, resurfacing some months later. In November, with Solly Levine as the main prosecution witness, the three Purples were found guilty of the triple homicide and sentenced to life by Judge Donald Van Zile, who commented: 'The crime which you have committed was one of the most sensational that has been committed in Detroit for many years. It was, as has been said, a massacre.' He sentenced them to life. Fleischer was subsequently charged, but never convicted of the Collingwood Avenue shooting.
The judge had a short memory, or perhaps he was new to Detroit. It was only four years since the Purple Gang had carried out a similar 'massacre,' only three miles to the east of where they had whacked their three latest victims. Six in four wasn’t a bad score by any underworld reckoning.
In 1932, the Purple Gang were even suggested as a possible link in the infamous March kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby. The baby’s nurse, Betty Gow, was the sister of Scotty Gow who was one of the Gang’s ace fences. In addition, on March 4th., 1932, newspapers announced that the baby had been kidnaped for the purpose of helping in the release from prison of Al Capone, and the Purples were representing Al in the kidnap plot. However the investigators in the crime could not come up with any evidence directly connecting the Purples. The newspaper reports were simply speculation or hot air, no doubt hoping to increase circulation because of the huge interest the baby's disappearance had generated.
By now however, the mob was starting to implode under the weight of its own momentum.
Irving 'Little Irv' Shapiro (photo below) had been killed and dumped from a car onto Taylor Avenue. It was thought he was being turned by the police and would become an informer. Another theory had it that he'd threatened some other members of the gang over a a scheme that had turned sour.
He was only twenty three, but was one of the toughest of the gang. On one occasion, involved in a dispute with a man, he sorted the problem by simply gouging out one of the man's eyes. Small in size, he made up for that with a violence out of all proportion to his build. His forte was 'putting the muscle' on the blind pigs, and he made the gang thousands each year from this. At his death, he had a police record that included twenty-four arrests for almost everything, including murder. He'd extorted construction sites through control of a plumbers union, earning up to $8000 a month from this one scam, alone. He ran a kidnap gang, specializing in seizing businessmen, and a protection racket that was another huge earner for the gang. He may well have been the first Purple to be taken for a one-way ride, getting three behind the ear for aggravating someone.
Zigmund 'Ziggie' Selbin, one of the gang's enforcers, was gunned down in the doorway of a blind-pig on 12th Street in April 1929. No one really cared too much about 'Ziggie,' he was over the top even on a good day. He had been drinking one night with a good friend, admiring the man's ring. When he refused to surrender it, Jackie solved the problem by decking the man and simply slashing off the man’s finger with a razor sharp knife he always carried.
Sid Markman was one of the few Purples who got it from the law. He was executed in New York in 1930 for the murder-robbery of a Jewish merchant, Isadore Frank, in Brooklyn. Moe Raider shot down Earl Passman on Oakland Avenue in July 1931 and went to prison for life.
Henry Schorr disappeared in December 1933, after having dinner with Harry Fleischer at a restaurant on 12th. Street. He may have been killed by Izzie Swartz and Charlie Leiter as a favour for Harry.
In 1934, according to the FBI, Tony Frigi, Bill Mylan, Johnny Gallo, Al Paradis and Joe O'Donnel fled to California and set themselves up in business there. They formed the Co-op Dairymen’s Loan Association and a dry-cleaning association, intimidating other cleaners to join them by blowing up the premises of those that refused. A classic example of transferring business skills, interstate. The Los Angeles police kept them under close observation and noticed that they often frequented Al Lang’s Gymnasium where they seemed to spend more time exercising their drinking skills than their muscles.
Lou and Al Werheimer had also moved west, earlier, in 1930-31, opening up the Clover Club, one of Los Angels’ finest gambling houses, with a branch of their activities in Palm Springs, called 'The Dunes.'
Harry Fleischer, who had started his career as a driver for George C. Goldberg, one of the leaders of the Oakland Old Sugar House mob, finally got his, along with brother Sam, in 1936. They each got eight years in the slammer for liquor violations. Convicted again in 1944, not long after his release, ( you can’t keep a good dog down,) he eventually came out of prison in 1965, aged sixty-two. The third brother, Louis, went away in 1938, and was paroled in 1957, but was back inside again by 1958, where he died in 1964. He had long been looked upon as the court jester of the Purples. One of his pranks was to drive his car at his friends walking across Twelfth Street, near to where the Purples favourite restaurant was located, pretending to knock them down. If that didn't work, he would career after them, sometimes down the sidewalk.
Must have been a hoot to watch.
Harry Millman was blown all over the place, as he stood drinking with some friends at Boesky’s Deli on Hazlewood and Twelfth, perhaps the gangs favourite drinking place in Detroit, one November night in 1937. It was said that his two killers who strolled in and really shot up the place, perforating not only Harry, but five other people, were the Mutt and Jeff of Murder Inc., Harry Strauss and Happy Maione. According to a report in the Detroit Press, dated November 28th., Harry was clipped, it was rumoured, because he was knocking off whore-houses under the protection of the Detroit Mafia, and they had arranged his removal.
In fact, the thing that got Harry killed, was a dispute he'd created with Pete Licavoli. He was a hoodlum, who would eventually become a major power in the Italian-American underworld of Detroit. With a record dating back to 1912 for everything and the kitchen sink, he was hardly a man to be trifled with. He was close to a man called Joe 'Scarface Joe' Bomarito and the two got into a beef with Harry who mistakenly thought he was entitled to a piece of their action. Abe Bernstein tried a number of times to smooth things over between the three men, but it all came to a head when Millman sucker punched Bommarito in a bar scuffle, creating a deep gash on the right corner and upper lip of Joe's face, and hence the lifelong knick name. The two Italians got the okay from Abe. They would never had gone ahead without his sanction, and the hit was in.
The newspaper also stated that Millman was the last survivor of the Purple Gang. He wasn’t of course.
Abe Bernstein kept going for years. By 1939, he had a luxury suite at the Book Cadillac Hotel, where he lived until he died peacefully, in March 1968, well into his seventies. He and his brothers, Joe and Izzie, made big dough running a race track wire-service in Detroit.
Abe was highly regarded by the Italians, they used him as a kind of 'counsellor' within the various Mafia factions, and Joe Zirelli himself, thought so much of Abe, he arranged to have his Cadillac Hotel housing dues and personal effects charges sent to him for payment.
The fourth boy, Ray, was of course still doing time in Marquette state prison for his part in the Collingwood Massacre. He came out in January 1964, in a wheelchair, and died two years later.
In March 1950, the FBI interviewed ex Purple, Joe Arbus, who claimed that he was in retirement, but did admit that the gang originally formed around himself, Abe, Ray and Joe Bernstein, Eddie Fletcher, Abe Axler and Irving Willberg.
Off all the bodies falling down, the killings that fascinate me the most were the murders of Eddie Fletcher and Abe Axler. These two, who had set up and probably committed the 'Detroit Massacre, circa 1927,' both served time, getting two years in 1927 for liquor offenses. They had built up a fearsome reputation doing the crimes together and the jail times together. Fletcher, a New York hoodlum, had left Brooklyn and moved to Detroit in 1923. He had fought as a featherweight boxer at 118 pounds. Axler moved to Detroit in 1925.
In the Detroit underworld, they were known as 'The Siamese Twins,' and were considered the top hit-men for the Purples.
Fletcher had been a non-event as a boxer, but developed into a top gunman for the gang. Of the two, Axler was in fact the more vicious, a stone-killer, who could also be handy with his fists as and when it was required. Some reporter in the Detroit Times, described them as 'sawed-off Napoleons with dark, furtive, beady eyes and ears beaten out of shape (Fletcher,) or in Axler's case, overgrown by nature.' They had what was referred to as 'crazy nerve,' in other words, they were probably psychopathic, or more likely by to-days understanding, socio-paths.
At 3 a.m. on the morning of November 26th., 1933, Fred Lincoln was doing his rounds as the residential policeman of Bloomfield Township, to the north of Detroit. Down a quiet lane in Oakland County, near to the fashionable Bloomfield Hills estates, he came across a motor car parked by the roadside, close to the Quarton and Telegraph Road intersection.
Flashing his torch, Fred crept up to the vehicle expecting to surprise a couple of 'petters.'
At least that’s what his report said. Perhaps he got his late night kicks at what he found in the back of autos, down dark rural roads. What he found in this car must have been a major shock. Sprawled on the back seat, clutching each other’s hands, but more in morte than amore, were two men. According to Fred, when he touched the bodies, they were still warm. According to an autopsy, they had been dead maybe 30 minutes at this time.
They had each been shot numerous times, at close range, mostly straight into their faces, their bodies scattered with powder burns, indicating that they had been killed up close, probably by the driver and front seat passenger. The two men had only been back in the city ten days, after skipping bail on various charges.
The bodies were identified as Axler and Fletcher, Detroit's Public Enemies numbers one and two. They had spent the previous night drinking in a Pontiac beer garden. As they were leaving, they were joined by two other men and drove off into the night.The car belonged to Abe’s wife, Evelyn, and of course the identity of their killers has never been established, or why the two men died, holding each other in their final embrace, like lovers going off on one big, last adventure.
Which I guess, in a way they were. Not lovers in the sexual sense, but two gangsters who simply embraced the inevitability of one double cross too many, and held each other tightly into eternity. Friends in life and friends in death.
It was generally believed that the Detroit Mafia had set up the hit, using Purple friends, because the two men were muscling in on the mob's narcotic business. It's as good an explanation as any.
Although the Purple Gang were essentially based in Detroit, some of their members moved around. In August 1935, Louis Fleischer moved to Albion, a small, country town about 90 miles west of Detroit. He rented an apartment at 108 South Monroe Street. He and Sam Bernstein bought a junk yard, called Riverside Iron and Metal Company from a M. Pryor. Sam lived at 803 East Caso Street. Louis’s brother, Sam, also moved to the town, but in April 1936 went down on tax and liquor charges.
The gang members who came to visit, would hang out at the Streetcar Tavern on Austin Avenue, and two of the Purples, Abe 'Buffalo Harry' Rosenberg and his brother, another Louis, owned the apartment building that the bar was located in. The Purple Gang had been coming to Albion since the advent of Prohibition to buy homemade grog on Austin Avenue and at the Parker Inn. Albion was also a chosen drop off point for mobsters travelling to and from Chicago, a kind of gangster’s truck stop, where they could freshen up, grab some chow and check their side arms, prior to hitting the big city, whichever one they were heading for.
Sam Fleischer would often visit the local cinema called the Bohm Theatre, with his girl friend, who the locals called 'Flapper Susy,' along with groups of out of town strangers- hard looking guys, with snappy suits and well creased fedoras. The local police believed the Gang used the cinema to conduct business meetings, out of sight and sound of the law.
Early in the hours of Wednesday, June 3rd., 1936, a massive police raid by 25 officers at the junk yard, resulted in the recovery of a Graham-Paige sedan that had been used extensively by a gang of raiding burglars, roaming across southern lower Michigan. The police arrested Louis Fleischer and his wife Nellie, and Sam and Lillian Bernstein.
They found the car stacked with house breaking tools and weapons of all kinds and calibres. It also had a dozen bullet holes in it, evidence of running fire-fights with the Michigan police.
Following the raid, Louis and Nellie were both tried and convicted for various offences and sentenced to 36 years in prison.
By the end of the 1930’s, the Purple Gang had outlived its usefulness, fragmented and become simply a memory to lawmen and the people whose paths had crossed theirs.
The memory they evoked, would be rekindled in 1960, with the release of an Allied Artist’s movie about them, called, not surprisingly, 'The Purple Gang.' It starred Barry Sullivan, and Robert Blake, who hit the news in connection with the mysterious killing of his wife, Bonny, in 2001.
A reference to the gang turned up in one of Ian Fleming's immortal Bond novels. Helmut M. Springer, noted as a member of The Purple Gang of Detroit, is a character in 'Goldfinger,' hired to help with the Fort Knox robbery.
They even found immortality in of all places, a 1957 rock and roll song by Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, when Elvis Presley sang:
…The drummer boy from Illinois went crash, boom, bang,
the whole rhythm section was The Purple Gang.
A so called new Purple Gang emerged in New York in the late 1970’s, involved with large scale drug distribution and extortion in the South Bronx and Harlem. Membership was apparently mainly restricted to young Italian-Americans who came from Pleasant Avenue and its surrounding streets in East Harlem. Originally affiliated with the Luchese crime family, they had links into the Genovese and Bonanno families also, according to the NYPD, and had a membership at their peak, of over one hundred They were so vicious, they even intimidated mainstream Mafia mobs. Among other things, the new Purples became famous for pioneering the use of low calibre .22 pistols as hit weapons, as they went about killing and eliminating their rivals.
Daniel Leo who reportedly took over the leadership of the Genovese crime family in 2006 was one of its members, as was Vincent Basciano, who assumed the top role in the Bonanno family when Joe Massino was arrested and imprisoned. Arnold "Zeke" Squitieri, a powerful Gambino captain, was also a Purple Gang affiliate in the early 1970's.
One of its most notorious members was non-Italian, Joseph Meldisch, who police suspected of at least one hundred murders across the eastern seaboard.
No group ever rose up out of the East Side Detroit Jewish community to take the place of the Purples. Although they had plenty of muscle and weren’t afraid to kill, they lacked the essential organizational and management skills of the Sicilians who would replace them in the Detroit underworld for the next 70 years.
To-day, Hastings Street where it all began is gone, buried under Interstate-75, along with the memories of Jewish gangsters and their wild women, the scent of rot gut whiskey and the dreams of those who gave a whole new meaning to the colour purple.
Many thanks to Scott M. Burnstein, author and crime historian, for his usual invaluable help into the dark corners of Detroit.
© Thom L. Jones 2010