Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Cleaners and Dyers War

Between 1925 and 1928, a gang-controlled labor union for professional laundry services wreaked havoc on the city.  Professional laundry companies that refused to join the union were harassed and bombed by members of Detroit’s famous Purple Gang, which controlled the union.  Union dues paid for the Purple Gang’s criminal activities including rum running, kidnapping and murder.  The “Cleaners and Dyers War,” as it was known, ended when several members of the Purple Gang were charged and tried for extortion in 1928. 

In 1924, Detroit’s professional laundry industry was unstable.  Competing businesses vied for customers by keeping prices too low to make a profit.  In addition, tailors often didn’t pay their cleaning bills, opting instead to take their business to a different cleaner.  As a result, cleaners and dyers were struggling, and they looked for an opportunity to organize and set pricing standards and other necessary industry controls.

Seeing an opportunity to bring organized crime to Detroit, Francis X. Martel of the Detroit Federation of Labor asked Chicagoan Ben Abrams to establish a cleaner’s organization that could be used as a front for the Purple Gang.  Abrams founded the Wholesale Cleaners and Dyers Association, which pledged to stabilize the market by controlling prices and prevent tailors from switching cleaning companies without cause.  Before returning to Chicago, Abrams named Charles Jacoby Jr. as the president of the new association.  Jacoby was the brother-in-law of the Bernstein brothers, key members of the Purple Gang. 

The Wholesale Cleaners and Dyers Association did little for the laundry industry in Detroit.  Instead, it collected money to fund the Purple Gang’s illicit activities.  Dues “protected” association members from the Purple Gang’s violence.  Cleaners and dyers who refused to join the association were harassed by gang members.  They tossed stink-bombs into laundry facilities, damaging goods.  Thrown bricks shattered windows and battered properties.  Gang members often left partially burned sticks of dynamite as warnings at plant doors.

Business owners who openly opposed the Association were often physically assaulted.  On October 26, 1925, two opposing businesses, Novelty Cleaners and Dyers and Empire Cleaners and Dyers Company, were bombed.  Two vocal opponents, Sam Sigman and Samuel Polakoff, were murdered.

In 1928, Charles Jacoby Jr. and twelve Purple Gang members were charged with conspiracy to extort money.  However, all defendants were found not guilty and acquitted of their charges.  Although the trial marked the end of the Cleaners and Dyers War, it was the beginning of the Purple Gang’s golden period of influence in Detroit. The Cleaners and Dyers War funded the Purple Gang’s illicit activities and gave them valuable experience working with corrupt labor leaders and fraudulent businessmen. The Purple Gang dominated Detroit until the Collingwood Manor Massacre marked their decline in 1931.  

Written by Shawn Fitzpatrick