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Encyclopedia Of Detroit
The Purple Gang was Detroit’s most notorious organized crime gang in the 1920s and 1930s. Led most often by members of the Bernstein family (most notably brothers Ray and Abe) the Purple Gang was made up of immigrants from Detroit’s lower east side.
The gang, which originally was a loose confederation of independent criminals, began by hijacking alcohol smuggled by others across the Canadian border during prohibition. Al Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster, chose to use the Purple Gang to supply whisky rather than battle them for Detroit territory.
In the 1920s, the Purple Gang was known for their involvement in the “Cleaners and Dyers War,” a dispute between the cleaning industry and its union. The union hired the Purple Gang to keep its members in line and harass non-members who worked in the industry. In 1928, several members of the Purple Gang were tried for extortion for their role in the war, but all were acquitted.
Around the time of the trial, the Purple Gang was in its heyday. They controlled all of Detroit’s underworld, including the city’s gambling, liquor, and drug trade. The Purple Gang of the late 1920s was nearly invincible to law enforcement, since witnesses were too terrified to testify in murder and criminal trials.
Nonetheless, the Purple Gang began to dissolve in the early 1930s through inter-gang strife and warfare. In September 1931, the Purple Gang murdered three of their own members who were working against the gang in their own interests. The three men, Hymie Paul, Joe Sutker, and Joe Lebowitz, were invited to a peace negotiation at the Collingwood Manor Apartment building in Detroit. When they arrived, they were shot. Sol Levine, the man who transported the three gentlemen to the apartment, was later caught by Detroit Police and pressured into testifying against the gang. As a result, three out of four of the men involved with the murders, including Ray Bernstein, were convicted of the third degree murder and sent to jail for life sentences.
The “Collingwood Manor Massacre,” as the event came to be known, marked the downfall of the Purple Gang. By 1935, the alliance had splintered and the Purple Gang no longer reigned over Detroit’s underworld.