The Gory '20s



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Collingwood Manor
A victim of the Collingwood Manor Massacre (left), and the crowd that assembled after the Purple Gang violence.
Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

the milaflores massacre

The Thompson submachine gun, an assault weapon originally designed to sweep German trenches in World War I, was one of the iconic symbols of the Roaring ’20s, but it wasn’t until March 28, 1927, that the “tommy gun” made its murderous debut in Detroit. About 4:45 that morning, residents of the Milaflores Apartments at 106 E. Alexandrine were blasted out of their sleep by chattering bursts of automatic gunfire.

Those arriving on the scene encountered a grisly sight. In the hallway outside Apartment 308 were the shredded bodies of three men, later identified as Joe Bloom, George Cohen, and Frank Wright. The fusillade of .45-caliber slugs had produced a macabre Swiss cheese-like effect, tearing away chunks of wood, plaster, and flesh. Bloom and Cohen were nearly cut in half, while Wright, riddled by at least 14 bullets, managed to linger a short while in the hospital before dying. “The machine gun worked,” Wright said. “That’s all I remember.”

Even in the Wild West atmosphere of Prohibition-era Detroit, the city’s first tommy-gun murders stood out as a sickening new low. The police quickly identified the victims as second-drawer hoods and assumed the massacre was tied to yet another underworld beef. But who were the executioners?

Signs pointed to a loosely organized, up-and-coming band of thugs known to be involved in bootlegging, extortion, and kidnappings. The press had tagged them the Purple Gang. Items found in a search of Apartment 308 suggested several individuals associated with the gang used it as a hangout, including Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher, a pair of sociopath career criminals from New York who had set up shop in Detroit.

Detectives theorized the chain of events began with the shotgun murder of Johnny Reid, a liquor agent for the Purples, on Christmas night, 1926. Wright, an all-purpose punk from Chicago, was suspected of having been hired by local Italian mobsters to kill Reid. After Wright killed another known associate of the Purples a few weeks later, allies of both victims responded by kidnapping one of Wright’s friends, gambling hall operator Meyer “Fish” Bloomfield. A phone call lured Wright to the third-floor apartment at the Milaflores, where Bloomfield’s release would presumably be arranged. Bloom and Cohen came along. The three walked into an ambush. The assassins emerged from behind the fire door at the end of the hallway and blasted away. Reporters later counted at least 110 bullet holes.

The following day, police pulled over a car on Woodward. Weapons were found inside. Taken into custody were Axler and Fred “Killer” Burke. With his dead eyes, flat expression, and Hitler-style mustache, Burke was a particularly menacing figure. It took a special “feel” to handle a powerful weapon like the Thompson, and Burke was reputed to have a jeweler’s touch with the trigger. Police speculated that, aside from taking on the job of killing Wright for professional reasons, Burke would have had a personal motive, as he and Reid were close friends who had once belonged to a St. Louis gang known as Egan’s Rats.

Other Purples and their associates were interviewed. Nobody knew anything. The seized weapons proved not to be those used in the killings. At a habeas corpus hearing two days later, investigators could offer no substantial evidence to warrant the further detention of Axler and Burke. The judge had no choice but to order their release. Like so many other investigations of gangland killings, this one quickly dried up. The murders did, however, result in a state ban on hardware stores and other retail outlets selling tommy guns to private citizens. Henceforth, only the police and military could legally buy them. (“It’s the safest gun to shoot in city streets,” declared one advertisement.)

Nobody ever stood trial for the Milaflores Massacre, an act of brutality that established the Purple Gang as the lords of Detroit’s underworld. Four years later, another sensational triple homicide — this time of rivals at the Collingwood Manor Apartments — resulted in the murder convictions and imprisonment of several key Purples, effectively breaking the gang’s back.

Axler and Fletcher managed to stay out of prison, only to be found shot to death inside a parked car in Pontiac in 1933. Burke, who had a falling-out with the Purples before going to work for Al Capone in Chicago, was by then serving his own life sentence for killing a policeman in St. Joseph, Mich. A raid on Burke’s residence uncovered a small arsenal, including a pair of Thompsons that ballistics tests tied to the ultimate gangland rubout of the era: the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

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