The Awesome Mitten- Detroit Underground History

Detroit Underground History: Prohibition and the Purples

Did anyone attend the Detroit Drunken Historical Society’s meet-up on January 30 at the Dakota Inn Rathsekller? For those who missed the presentation, our friends at WDET captured it here.

The Awesome Mitten- Detroit Underground History
Diagram of landing alcohol from Canada at the foot of Riopelle St. in Detroit (1929). Photo by Detroit News staff, courtesy of Wayne State U’s Walter P. Reuther Library.

In the excitement leading up to the event, I wrote this piece about Detroit’s brewing history. As a result of this story, I had a chance to learn that lots of people are interested in reading more about the Purple Gang and Detroit’s Prohibition-era history. This month, I’m happy to oblige them.

The Violent Purples

The Purple Gang was Detroit’s most infamous organized crime group, ruling the city’s illicit underworld during the late 1920s and early 1930s.  The gang consisted mostly of Jewish members whose parents migrated from Russia and Poland around the early 1900s.  Led by the Bernstein brothers (Abe, Joseph, Raymond, and Isadore), most members grew up in the Hastings Street neighborhood (known as Paradise Valley) on the lower east side, and attended the Old Bishop School. The school was treated as a repository, where unruly students were sent to complete their schooling. Many members of the Purple Gang learned their trade in violence from Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr, of the Oakland Sugar House Gang.

The Awesome Mitten- Detroit Underground History
Purple Gang tommy gun and bottles, on display at the Detroit Historical Museum. Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem (Flickr: Bruno_VZ)

Through violence, the gang exerted a great deal of influence. Their signature move was to hijack vehicles that were moving liquor over frozen Lake St. Clair, kill the drivers, and steal their cargo. As their business became increasingly lucrative and their violence became known, the Purple Gang approached untouchable status. No one would testify against them for fear of their wrath. At the same time, since they stole from rival outlaws, the police often turned a blind eye.

Rather than incite a war, Al Capone chose to engage in a business agreement with the Purples who supplied Old Log Cabin Whisky for distribution throughout Chicagoland.  It was, in fact, the hijacking of a shipment of Old Log Cabin by the Bugs Moran gang in Chicago—Capone’s rival—which led to the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Eventually, as Prohibition ended, the Purples’ business model was no longer relevant. They had a difficult time diversifying, which incited in-fighting and eventual dissolution.

Why Detroit?

It’s possible that a group like the Purple Gang could have existed anywhere in the US. So, why Detroit?  For a couple of reasons (at least):

1)      Michigan was “dry” before the 18th Amendment. The Damon Act of 1916 prohibited the use of alcohol beginning in 1917. Prohibition across the US didn’t begin until 1920. Plenty of time to practice rumrunning.

The Awesome Mitten- Detroit Underground History
A beer-smuggling truck falls through the ice on Lake St. Clair. Photo by Detroit News staff, courtesy of Wayne State U’s Walter P. Reuther Library.

2)      Detroit’s proximity to both Canada and Ohio allowed bootleggers and rumrunners to produce, procure and/or distribute alcohol with comparative ease. After 1920, frozen Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River were frequently used to illegally procure alcohol from Canada.

By some accounts, around 75 percent of the alcohol distributed in the U.S. during Prohibition came through Detroit. Detroit was nicknamed “Whiskeytown,” and boasted over 25,000 speak-easys. Is Tommy’s Bar part of Purple Gang history?  Read this article to learn more about an awesome Wayne State anthropology research project associated with the bar.

Why are we interested?

Why are people so interested in a group that’s reputed for its violence in executing a multitude of illegal activities? Perhaps it’s because we love Detroit and its history. Maybe some of us like stories about outcasts who become bad-asses. Still others are curious about group power dynamics. The reasons are many. Personally, I’m interested in the details—in individuals’ stories, motivations, and behaviors. What about you? Why are you interested in learning more about the Purple Gang?