In the late 1920s, Detroit was a boomtown with a flourishing economy, newly built skyscrapers, and a burgeoning population. But those seemingly halcyon times were marred by bloodshed and terror caused by the Purple Gang, a loosely organized but ruthless group of predominantly Jewish racketeers, headed by the Burnstein brothers. Citizens were petrified to testify against them. Corrupt police officials, their hands greased by bribes, looked the other way. During the apex of their power, 1927-32, the Purples were the kings of the underworld. The group is perhaps most notorious for the 1931 Collingwood Massacre (at Collingwood and Twelfth streets), in which the gang killed three members who were trying to start their own rackets.
Royal Oak writer Paul R. Kavieff recounts those lawless years in Detroit’s Infamous Purple Gang (Arcadia, $19.99), crammed with vintage photos of the thugs and their crimes. Kavieff sat down with us recently.
This is your second book on the Purple Gang. What fueled your interest in organized crime?
I always had an interest in outlaws and social deviants. My interest stems more from the connection between the upperworld and the underworld — crime and politics, corruption. And the Purple Gang in particular because I’m Jewish and grew up in Detroit’s Jewish community, on Collingwood.
Originally, the Jewish enclave in Detroit was on Hastings, on the lower east side, then migrated west.
Exactly. The first group of recently arrived immigrants lived in the Hastings Street area, which is where most of the Purples grew up. As teens, they terrorized that area.
Where did the name come from?
There are lots of theories, but I think the name was a journalistic invention in the late ’20s when 13 members were tried on extortion charges in the cleaning and dyeing industry. They used to throw purple dye on clothes to destroy laundry, and I think that’s where the name came from. But these guys didn’t call themselves the Purple Gang; this was a very loose confederation of gangsters that, more by accident than by design, controlled the Detroit underworld for two reasons. The first is they had a lot of people paid off. The second reason is they had the city of Detroit completely terrorized. Nobody would testify against anyone the newspapers called a reputed Purple Gangster.
And certain members of the police department were enabling the gang to thrive.
Absolutely. The police and city officials were doing a lot of business with the underworld, especially police department brass. That really didn’t come out until the Ferguson grand-jury investigation, which started in 1940, and showed the connection between public officials, the Detroit Police Department, and the underworld.
What was the undoing of the Purple Gang? Was it the repeal of Prohibition?
No. The Purple Gang self-destructed. Jealousy, betrayal, not being cohesive — they weren’t like the Italian Mafia, a very tight group — were all reasons they imploded. Between 1927 and 1935, 18 Purples were murdered, and I could find no evidence of them being murdered by anyone else except by other Purple members. One of the important things about the Collingwood Massacre is that the guys who were killed were [fellow] Purple Gang members. These were Purples cleaning house.
Also, the Purples did very little rumrunning. They had a group called the Little Jewish Navy that did some rumrunning, but the Purples controlled the rackets. They controlled all the horse-betting parlors, and there were about 700 of them in the city. They controlled all the bookmaking operations in Detroit. They controlled prostitution, narcotics, and gambling, which was a huge financial boon.
Did the Italian Mafia and the Purple Gang lock horns?
No. I think it’s a Hollywood myth that the Jews, Irish, and Italians all fought. There were fights among individuals, but in the Detroit underworld, there was a tremendous amount of ethnic cooperation.
But Harry Millman was an exception.
Millman was a wild card. Millman came along later, during the closing years of the Purples’ power. He was an enforcer, a strong-arm guy, and he had a bad alcohol problem. He hated Italians. Why that is, I don’t know. Maybe it was because by 1935, the Mafia controlled things the Purples once had. He was kind of a lone wolf in the Detroit underworld. He was going into cocktail lounges owned by the Mafia, slapping people around, and robbing Mafia-protected brothels and handbooks. … In 1937, Millman started hanging out at Boesky’s deli at Twelfth and Hazelwood, in what was then a nice family neighborhood. On Nov. 25, 1937, in the crowded restaurant — there were probably 100 people in there — hitmen fired on him at point-blank range. The Mafia set that out. Two guys from Brooklyn, N.Y., were on contract.
For law-abiding citizens, this must have been a harrowing time in which to live, seeing this carnage all around them. People talk about how violent Detroit is now, but it was like the Wild West then.
It’s interesting. Maybe the black-market commodity changes, and the ethnic group changes, but the violence is still there. But I don’t think the level of violence in Detroit today is anywhere near what it was in the ’20s and ’30s. In many ways, Detroit was worse than Chicago or New York. Anything you wanted to get illegally in Detroit, you could get it. And the police knew where all these places were. But they were on the payroll. Detroit was a wild, wild place.