In April 2011, the FBI’s website launched “The Vault”, its revamped online reading room containing more than 6700 digital files mostly scanned from old newspapers. These included historic files on infamous characters like Al Capone, Murder Incorporated, and The Purple Gang.
The Beginning of the Purple Gang
Unlike the Mafia, Detroit’s Purple Gang was never an organized cohesive group. At their peak, they were a loose confederation of about 150 gang members, mostly of Russian Jewish origin. The Purple Gang’s Prohibition reign was from 1928 to 1932, a short span compared to Mafia gangs.
Around 1918, the Gang started as teenagers robbing pushcarts and offering paid “protection” to small merchants on Hastings Street, then the center of Detroit’s Jewish community. Most weren’t over 5-foot six; but what they lacked in size, they made up for it with ferocity and brutality. The original core members began with the four Bernstein brothers: Abe, Izzy, Joe, and Raymond.
Other core members included Irving Milberg, “loose cannon” Harry Millman, brothers Harry and Philip Keywell, and the vicious duo of Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher.
They all met at Old Bishop School, a separate public school for unruly children who were expelled from other Detroit schools for fighting and/or truancy.
When Prohibition began in 1920, the Purples learned the bootleg business from Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr, older gangsters who owned a “legitimate” business, monopolizing (by force) the sales of corn sugar and malt to illegal brewers and distillers. The older gangsters were then known as The Oakland Sugar House Gang.
Eventually, the older gang merged with The Purple Gang.
Detroit gamblers also hired the Purple Gang as on-site protection for high stakes poker games. A St. Louis gang called “Egan’s Rats” had been kidnapping wealthy gamblers for ransom. Eventually, it was suspected that the Purples had eventually teamed with Egan’s Rats in the kidnappings.
The Purple Gang’s main source of criminal income, however, was hijacking booze from the whiskey smugglers who had driven their illegal cargo across the frozen Detroit River in winter. Most of these smugglers were murdered.
Origin of the Gang Name
These are among several theories on the origin of the Purple Gang’s name:
- When gang member Eddie Fletcher was a prizefighter in Brooklyn, his corner seconds wore purple jerseys.
- When shaking down local Detroit dry cleaners for protection money, the gang would destroy clothing by throwing purple dye on it.
- Two of the gang’s victimized Hastings Street merchants were quoted as follows: One said, “These boys are not like other children of their age, they’re tainted off color.” “Yes,” replied the other merchant. “They’re rotten, purple like the color of bad meat, they’re a Purple Gang.”
Even though Ontario, Canada’s provincial government had outlawed the retail sale of liquor, licensed distillers and breweries were still legal. In 1920, there were 45 operating in Ontario alone.
Most of the Canadian liquor was transported illegally across the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and the St. Clair River. The Detroit River was less than a mile across in spots. And a pipeline under the river was actually constructed between a Canadian distillery and a Detroit bottler.
Notorious gangster Al Capone struck a deal with the Purple Gang, where they supplied and transported Canadian liquor to his Chicago turf. Capone could have tried to forcefully take over the Gang’s lucrative bootlegging and hijacking business, but he chose not to start a war in Detroit because of the Purples’ fierce reputation.
The Little Jewish Navy was a part of the Purple Gang. They owned their own small fleet of rum-running boats. They were also river hijackers. Eventually, they would lock horns with their fellow gang members.
Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher were two lethal best friends from Brooklyn, New York. Even though Fletcher was a veteran prizefighter, Axler was more dangerous. Other than the Bernstein brothers, this duo was the most lethal members of the gang.
In 1927, the two Purple Gangsters had set a trap for three recently arrived gangsters from St. Louis who had killed one of their friends and had kidnapped several Purple Gang-affiliated gamblers. The Purples then arranged a meeting with the three gangsters to retrieve their kidnapped friend. It was to take place in a suite at the Miraflores Apartments in Detroit. The Purple Gang members, allegedly including Axler and Fletcher, ambushed the trio, mowing them down with Thompson submachine guns, the first lethal use of this type of weapon in Detroit gangland. The police found 110 bullet holes in the apartment.
The police arrested Axler, Fletcher and Fred “Killer”Burke, a member of the Egan’s Rats gang. Because there was no direct evidence, the three were released.
Cleaners and Dyers War
The Cleaners and Dyers War was a bloody labor fight in Detroit’s laundry industry that lasted from 1925 to 1928. The Purple Gang worked both sides of the dispute between employee truck drivers and cleaning plant workers versus dry cleaning establishment owners. They formed a “union” that extorted money from the owners and workers alike. They used bombs and other strong-arm tactics to get owners and workers to join their so-called “union”, the Wholesale Cleaners and Dyers Association. They also “collected” dues from “members” and unpaid bills from business owners’ clients, mostly tailors.
In 1925, two business owners, Sam Sigman and Samuel Polakoff, were murdered after taking a stand and refusing to join the Association. In 1928, twelve Purple Gang members were charged with extortion, but were subsequently acquitted of all charges. The trial marked the end of the so-called Cleaners and Dyers War.
In September 1931, the Purple Gang murdered three of their own, members of the “Little Jewish Navy”, a rebellious faction of the Gang. They were ambushed at the Collingwood Manor apartment building in Detroit. The police arrested Purple Gang members. While Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher were released for lack of evidence, Ray Bernstein, Harry Keywell, and Irving Milberg were tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in Marquette Prison in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
These convictions of core members marked the beginning of the end for the Purple Gang. The Collingwood Massacre itself highlighted the inner strife that would break the group apart.
The End of the Purple Gang
In November 1933, the bodies of Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher were found in the back of Axler’s car parked in the tony Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. At the time, the dangerous duo was on the lam as Michigan’s “Public Enemies #1 and #2.” It was suspected that they were murdered for taking over the distilleries of two jailed gangsters, and wouldn’t give the bootlegging operation back when the gangsters were released.
According to FBI Vault files, in 1938, Abe Bernstein and others had left Detroit to seek his fortune in Miami Beach, partnering with Italian mobsters among others in the operation of gambling nightclubs like The Royal Palm Club, and Club Bali.
After sticking up gambling operations run by Detroit Italian mobsters, Harry Millman was murdered by hitmen at Boesky’s Deli in 1937.
In the early 1950s, Harry Fleisher served time in Alcatraz for armed robbery.
In 1985, Harry Keywell was released from Marquette after serving 34 years for his role in the Collingwood Massacre. Partner-in-crime Ray Bernstein had a stroke in 1963, and was released from Marquette in 1964. He died in 1966. After serving seven years, Irving Milberg died in Marquette Prison.
Other Purple Gang members faded into obscurity.