A Fine Man Once Said:

"Part of the 10 million I spent on gambling, part of it on booze, and part of it on women. The rest I spent foolishly."

- George Raft

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Purple Gang: "Rotten . . .Like the Color of Bad Meat"

Fedoras Aplenty: An old photograph from the Detroit Times shows various members of the Purple Gang awaiting arraignment on extortion charges as a result of their involvement in the Cleaners & Dyers War of 1925-1928. Left to right: (first row) Abe Bernstein, Irving Milberg, Harry Keywell, Joe Miller; (second row) Ray Burnstein, Simon Axler, Edward Fletcher, Abe Axler, Irving Shapiro.

          As with many stories from American history, no one knows for sure exactly how the Purple Gang acquired its colorful moniker. What is known is that many of its members met as juvenile delinquents at the Bishop Ungraded School on Winder Street in the old Hastings Street neighborhood of Detroit's lower east side. The gang, led by the Burnstein brothers (Abraham, Joseph, Isadore, and Raymond), originally started out by rolling drunks, extorting money from other children, and forcing street vendors to pay protection money. It is said that during this period, shopkeepers described the youths as "off-color" or purple. Neighborhood butchers, often victims of the gang's strong-arm tactics, were said to have described the delinquents as purple, "like the color of bad meat." Still others attribute the name to the period when the gangsters were used to strong-arm Detroit cleaners and dyers into a racket-controlled trade association - anyone who refused to join the organization had purple dye thrown on their laundry.

          What is also known is that the gang was ruthless - responsible for over 500 unsolved murders, the Purple Gang controlled the rackets in Detroit through Prohibition until about 1935. Until 1929, gang members were essentially immune from prosecution. Witnesses forgot their previous statements when confronted with testifying against a reputed Purple Gangster in court.

           As is often the case, the gang's veneer of invincibility began to crack by 1931 due to internal strife and dissension. Three members, Joseph "Nigger Joe" Leibowitz, Herman "Hymie" Paul, and Isadore "Izzy the Rat" Sutker, decided they weren't going to take orders from the Burnstein brothers anymore and began encroaching on the territory of other Purple Gangsters. A peace meeting was set up with Raymond Burnstein at an apartment at the Collingwood Manor Apartments on September 16, 1931. But the meeting was actually an ambush - Purple Gangsters Harry Keywell and Irving Milberg gunned down the three turncoats. At the subsequent trial, all three defendants were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in November 1931 (justice seems to have moved a bit quicker in those days).

For the Uptown Dandy, news coverage of the Collingwood Manor Massacre trial provides a unique opportunity to see one of the more notorious racketeers of the day in all his sartorial splendor. In this case, Joe Burnstein attended the trial as a show of support for his brother Raymond, who was alleged to have driven the getaway car after his co-defendants had done the deed.

In this photo we see the Wayne County prosecutor chatting with Burnstein, who is striking a rather rakish pose in his dark suit, camel colored overcoat, and ubiquitous pearl-grey fedora, during jury selection for the trial, October 27, 1931.

A few days later, Burnstein had his picture taken again (wearing a similar outfit) during a recess in the trial at Detroit Recorders Court on November 4, 1931. Pictured with him are his brother Isadore Burnstein (left), who controlled the gang's handbook and wire service operations (wearing his own light-colored fedora), and defense attorney Edward Kennedy Jr.

By the late 1930s, the Purple Gang was supplanted in the Detroit underworld by the Italian mob. The metaphorical "passing of the torch" moment most likely came on November 25, 1937, when Harry Millman, the last of the Purple Gangsters who refused to kow-tow to the Italian mob, was shot at least 10 times by unknown assailants at Boesky's Restaurant in Detroit (the prime suspects were Murder, Inc. gunmen Harry "Happy" Maione and Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" Strauss, another noted dandy previously discussed in some detail by The Uptown Dandy).*

Succumbing to the changing times, Isadore and Joe Burnstein "retired" to California (allegedly with an interest in the Detroit rackets granted in perpetuity by the Italians), where they became senior consultants to various West Coast racketeers.

We can only hope Joe Burnstein took his sense of style with him to more hospitable climes.

*Of course, Lieber & Stoller immortalized the gang in popular culture forever when the song-writing duo dropped the gang's name in the 1957 Elvis Presley hit "Jailhouse Rock."

Photos from Paul R. Kavieff's Images of America: Detroit's Infamous Purple Gang.


  1. Writing a book on the Bernstein brothers and their struggle to control the Detroit Rackets. When and where did he die? My best guess is Eldorado Hills, California. Help! Searching for vital records.