It’s like the whole city has turned purple out in the Big Apple. New York’s notorious Purple Gang, a junior varsity multi-ethnic mob syndicate based out of East Harlem and the Bronx in the 1970s and early 1980s, specializing in drugs and muscle-for-hire jobs, has been back in the news lately. The New York Purple Gang was named in honor of Detroit’s iconic and bloody Purple Gang, an all-Jewish mob contingent during Prohibition known as much for its body count than its prowess in the bootlegging trade.

Former Bronx Purple Gang leader Mike Meldish’s alleged killers were indicted this year, two of the reputed shot callers in the 2013 hit busted late last month and just this past week the incomparable Gangland News broke the story that Meldish’s fate had actually been sealed a year prior with an unadvisable love affair he engaged in with fellow former Purple Ganger Michael (Mikey Nose) Mancuso’s girlfriend while Mancuso is away in prison. Then, on Thursday, one-time Purple Ganger Angelo (The Horn) Prisco died of natural causes.

When the New York Purple Gang disbanded in the mid-1980s, the syndicate’s 50-to-100 members dispersed to the city’s Five Families of the Italian mafia. The Bonanno, Lucchese and Genovese crime families brought aboard the bulk of the ex-Purples.

Mancuso, 62, is currently the reputed boss of the Bonanno clan, finishing up a sentence for a 2004 mob murder – he’s got a year and a half left to serve. The husky, dark-skinned 77-year old Prisco had been a capo for the Genovese Borgata stationed in New Jersey. Another former Purple Ganger, 75-year old Daniel (Danny the Lion) Leo, was the acting boss of the Genovese Family for a portion of the 2000s. Meldish, 62 at the time of his murder on November 15, 2013 and long sporting a reputation for ruthlessness and as an expert assassin in his own right, had worked mainly with the Lucchese Family.

Lucchese powers Matty Madonna and Steven (Stevie Wonder) Lucchese, the Family’s acting boss and underboss, respectively, were indicted for ordering Meldish’s execution back on May 31. According to Gangland News, Meldish refused to heed warnings to discontinue his relationship with Mancuso’s girlfriend and took a public beating administered by Mancuso’s men at a 2012 Harlem street festival to which he responded by trying to kill Bonanno soldier Enzo (The Baker) Stagno in an unsuccessful, poorly-executed attack that led to his own slaying.

Meldish and his brother Joe were two of the New York Purple Gang’s top enforcers and hit men. Unlike his east coast Purple Gang contemporaries Mikey Mancuso, Danny Leo and Angelo Prisco, the Meldishs could never be inducted into one of the Five Families because they weren’t full-blooded Italians.

Mikey Mancuso in a present day prison photo

Historians speculate New York roots held by the original Purple Gang in Michigan led to the East Harlem and Bronx-headquartered Purples a half-century later naming themselves in honor of the collection of murderous Jews from the Motor City.

“The New Yorkers took the name out of respect and admiration,” said Paul Kavieff, the foremost authority on the Prohibition era in Detroit and the Purples specifically. “They knew that the guys in Detroit traced some of their families to New York, some of them had spent their early childhood in Brooklyn and the Bronx before coming to the Midwest. They heard the stories….. and let’s face it, the Purple Gang is a pretty catchy moniker.”

Founded by the four Burnstein brothers (Abe, Joe, Ray & Izzy), Detroit’s Purple Gang sprouted up in the mid-1920s and quickly grew to dominate the Great Lakes bootlegging industry. Fresh off the boat from Russia at the turn of the 20th Century, the Burnstein family settled in Brooklyn before establishing a homestead on the eastside of Detroit. The Burnstein brothers and their friends who eventually became the Purple Gang had gotten their start in the local rackets as apprentices in the old Oakland Sugar House Gang, the first vestige of the Jewish mob in Detroit and early pioneers in the illegal-booze business, if only for the fact that Michigan was the first state in America to “go dry.”

Abe Burnstein, the undisputed boss of the Purple Gang until voluntarily merging the group with the city’s Italian mafia in the mid-1930s after the repeal of Prohibition, forged strong business and social relationships with not just the Italians in Motown, but with major mob powers in New York too, such as Meyer Lansky, Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel, Charles (Lucky) Luciano and Joe Adonis, as well as joining forces with Al Capone in Chicago. Headquartered out of the Book-Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit, Burnstein’s “gentleman gangster” demeanor belied a bloodlust responsible for either directly ordering or sanctioning hundreds of homicides in his reign that lasted less than a decade.

Eddie Fletcher and Abe Axler, a pair of hoodlum imports from New York, were the Burnsteins’ go-to team of hit men and became known on the streets of Detroit as the “Siamese Twins.” Fletcher and Axler were the prime suspects in the March 1927 Milaflores Apartment Massacre, the murder of rogue kidnappers and killers from New York in which was the first documented use of a machine gun in a gangland murder on Michigan soil. Two years later, Fletcher and Axler, at the behest of the Burnsteins, helped Capone carry out the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in the Windy City, acting as set-up men, location scouts and lookouts for Capone’s Southside Gang in his slaughtering of seven Capone rivals from the Northside mostly-Irish mob.

Ray Burnstein, Abe’s second-youngest sibling and the head of the Purples’ enforcement and shakedown units, was sent to prison in 1931 in the wake of orchestrating the Collingwood Manor Massacre, the purging of the three lead members of the Little Jewish Navy, a Purples’ subunit of booze smugglers looking to breakoff and start their own bootlegging syndicate. He wouldn’t be a free man again until 1964, dying of natural causes within months.

His three brothers all made it out of Prohibition alive, out of jail and incredibly rich. They all went into semi-retirement following the country “going wet” again, Abe remaining in Detroit, while Joe and Izzy relocated to California. With the advice and aid of their close ally Meyer Lansky, the Burnsteins invested much of their illicit gains from the bootlegging rackets into the oil business, simultaneously cleaning their dirty cash and making them vastly more wealthy than in their days as gangsters.

Harry Millman, Abe and Joe Burnstein’s protégé and one-time bodyguard, was the lone Purple who refused to take orders from his new bosses in the Italian mafia. Millman openly feuded with Detroit mob street boss Joseph (Joe Scarface) Bommarito and on Thanksgiving 1937, he was gunned down as he had a post Turkey Day feast drink at a local bar by Harry (Happy) Maione and Harry (Pittsburgh Phil) Strauss, two Murder, Inc. assassins brought in from New York for the job. At the time of his death, Millman was one of the main suspects in the murders of the Siamese Twins, Fletcher and Axler, four years earlier.

Harry Millman (center) attending a court hearing

Abe Burnstein died of a heart attack in 1968 in his penthouse suite at the Book-Cadillac Hotel, where he was known to hold court with local and national underworld luminaries alike for the years after hanging up his mob spurs. Joe and Izzy Burnstein both passed away peacefully on the west coast in 1984 and 1985, respectively.

For decades after it disbanded in the 1930s, the Purple Gang and its lore sustained as pop-culture touchstones in multiple mediums, including film, television, book and music. Elvis Presley sang about them in the song and accompanying movie Jailhouse Rock in 1957 and Purple Gang characters began appearing as villains in James Bond novels and films like 1935’s Public Enemy No. 1 starring Lionel Barrymore. In 1959, Robert Blake played Joe “Honeyboy” Willard in a movie called The Purple Gang – the character was based on the only non-Jewish member of the Purple Gang, Joseph (Joe Honey) Miller, sometimes called “Honeyboy.” Eddie Fletcher appeared as a character on the popular TV show The Untouchables.

Related Post

Leave a Reply