The Purple Gang was the only Jewish gang to ever dominate the underworld in a major American city. But judging by their obscurity in the decades following their demise, you would hardly know it. A new book chronicles the gang’s rise, fall, and subsequent vanishing act. In The Elusive Purple Gang: Detroit’s Kosher Nostra, Gregory A. Fournier captures the fast and furious reign of the Purples as they ruled the fourth largest city in America.
At their height, the Purples counted no more than 50 members. But the gang’s power and influence extended far beyond their own ranks to City Hall and the Detroit Police Department through a network of bribes. This influence, along with a terrified citizenry, allowed them to operate with impunity for several years.
The gang was a confederation of independent crews controlled by Abe Burnstein and his brothers Joe, Ray and Isadore. Other core members included fellow students in the ungraded section of the Old Bishop School: Harry and Phil Keywell, Harry, Sam and Lou Fleisher, and Irving Shapiro. The boys grew up in the Hastings Street neighborhood on Detroit’s southeast side. Called “Little Jerusalem” by its Jewish residents, it was a rundown area populated by poor factory workers and shopkeepers, mostly immigrants from Russia, Poland, Hungary and Germany.
The group of friends got its start with petty theft, gambling and low-level street crime. Quickly graduating from rolling drunks to robbery, the juvenile gangsters were soon noticed by members of the Oakland Sugar House Gang, another emerging gang, and were given an education in extortion, hijacking and protection rackets. Under the tutelage of “Sammie Purple” Cohen (in the early years, police called them “Purple’s Gang”) the Burnsteins and their friends developed into an integral part of the larger Sugar House operation. The latter was ultimately subsumed by the Burnstein organization and effectively became known—at least to the public—as the Purple Gang.
The gang’s rise was propelled by the “noble experiment” of national Prohibition. A gift to organized crime, the Purple Gang was innovative in how it profited from the new law. While other gangs made money smuggling, the Purples made a greater profit hijacking their loads. The gang, however, remained associated with a crew of smugglers known as the Little Jewish Navy, which operated a fleet of boats on the Detroit river. Stolen loads were transferred to one of the many “cutting” plants the Purples operated. One bottle of bonded Canadian whiskey, cut with water and coloring, yielded three bottles for sale and distribution through the gang’s enormous network of blind pigs and speakeasies. Truck drivers were often killed on the spot, as was anyone who tried to cut in on the gang’s action.
The Purple Gang, like other criminal organizations, had diverse sources of revenue. But Abe Burnstein had a knack for creating monopolies. He and his brothers controlled a wire service that reported horse-racing results to which they forced more than 700 racing handbooks to subscribe. Anybody who refused did not remain in business…or alive.
Burnstein also partnered with a Chicago labor racketeer to organize Detroit’s cleaning and dye industry. Known as the Cleaners and Dyers War, wholesale cleaners and retail stores were forced to join Burnstein’s labor union. Those who refused were beaten, killed or had their businesses destroyed. In some cases, purple dye was dumped on garments to destroy them. This effectively put a shop out of business and might have been another source of the gang’s name.
But it was in March 1927 that the entire underworld took notice. A crew of mobsters from Chicago had tried shaking down a key Purple Gang liquor distributor named Johnny Reid. Their efforts failed but they ultimately got revenge, gunning Reid down in the street. The Purples, with fresh muscle from St. Louis and New York, created a ruse to draw the Chicago crew to the Milaflores Apartments on March 27th.When the three Chicago men arrived, they were torn to pieces by machine-gun fire, the first time an automatic weapon was used in Detroit. Less than two years later in Chicago, after “Bugs” Moran’s Northside Gang hijacked a shipment of Purple Gang liquor, machine guns were used in a more famous bloodbath, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It is believed that Abe Burnstein participated in the plot to kill Moran’s gang and provided the lookouts.
In 1929, the Purple Gang’s stature in the national underworld was such that Abe Burnstein was invited to attend the first organized crime conference in Atlantic City. There he met with the heads of crime families from cities across the country, including his partner in the liquor business, Al Capone. It proved to be the beginning of the end. Within two years, the gang’s violence increasingly turned inward. Izzy Sutker, Joe Leibowitz and Hymie Paul—chased out of Chicago by Capone’s mob—linked up with the Little Jewish Navy and were pushing for a greater share of the Purple Gang’s profits. In the process, they crossed Ray Burnstein. Under the pretense of negotiations, Burnstein, Harry Keywell and Ira Milberg murdered their fellow gang members at the Collingwood Manor apartments.
By 1935, more than 18 Purples had been killed by their own gang. The loss of street muscle created an opening for the Italian Mafia. Abe Burnstein, a superb businessman, knew the gig was up. He ceded the Purple Gang’s lucrative rackets and gambling operations to the Italians. In return, Burnstein secured for himself a Mafia-funded pension, which lasted until his death in 1968. It remains one of the only peaceful inter-gang transfers of power in mob history and an unlikely footnote to the short but incredibly violent reign of Detroit’s Kosher Nostra.
Timothy D. Lusch is an attorney and writer. His work appeared in the Toronto Star, Michigan History Magazine, and other publications.