Of all the legendary gangsters who have passed through Michigan at one time or another (Al Capone, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, etc.), the ones who possibly spent the most time in our state was The Purple Gang.

The Purple Gang’s reputation as Detroit’s most notorious crime organization was solidified in the 1920s and 1930s. The boys were led by the Burnstein brothers: Abe, Isadore, Joe, and Ray. The Burnsteins and their gang members were from Little Jerusalem, a section in Detroit’s lower east side.

If you ever saw the James Cagney 1931 movie “Public Enemy”, you’ll notice the similarities on how the boys went from juvenile delinquents to mobsters. Most of the gang were enrolled at Bishop School, beginning their careers as troublesome students. From there, they became enamored with two Detroit mob members, Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr, owners of the Oakland Sugar House. The boys would do favors for these two like run errands, do drop-offs, etc. and were soon collectively called the Sugar House Boys.

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So how did the name “Purple Gang” originate?

According to the Detroit Historical Society, different theories abound:
1) named after a member’s purple sweater
2) named after the Purple Line Taxi cab company who they were allied with
3) purple dye used to ruin clothes during the Cleaners & Dyers War
4) ‘purple gang’ meant they were a group of ‘tainted’ individuals

I tend to lean toward Number Three.

The Cleaners & Dyers War was a skirmish between launderers and its union leaders. Abe Burnstein therefore founded the Wholesale Cleaners and Dyers Association. In other words, now you either had to become a member or get yourself beaten…or worse. Another tactic was to completely ruin clothes with purple dye as a way of persuasion…or retribution.

During Prohibition, the boys kicked off their new ‘Purple Gang’ by raiding alcohol smugglers and robbing them of their illegal booze. Capone ended up using them himself for supplying him with whiskey, instead of fighting over it.

The Purple Gang’s legend kept growing with more tales being spread – some true, some not. Like, were they or were they not involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre?

Authorities tried and failed a number of times, trying to get these guys behind bars, but they just couldn’t jail ‘em. Victims were too afraid to testify, not enough evidence came forth (or was destroyed), and their lawyers knew the tricks. For a good number of years, these guys were seemingly invincible – by now they were in command and controlled Detroit’s underworld, including distribution, selling, and extorting alcohol, drugs, gambling, and prostitution.

Finally, it had to come to an end. In the early 1930s, bickering among gang members was reaching a peak. A few Purple Gangers being squealing on their comrades to authorities – and paid the price by being executed by the others. It was in September 1931 when the gang murdered Hymie Paul, Isadore Sutker, and Joe Lebowitz for rattin’ them out. The three thought they were going to a peace negotiation, but when they got to their meeting destination, they were shot and killed. This happened at the Collingwood Manor Apartment building and soon the murders were being known collectively as the “Collingwood Manor Massacre”. This killing, along with other gang members giving information to authorities, marked the end of the Purple Gang’s reign. When 1935 rolled around, most of the gang was dead and the rest in prison.

But the stories continue…..in fact, check out a couple more tales about the Purple Gang, HERE and HERE.

The Purple Gang


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