Prohibition & The Detroit Underworld

Jewish Gangsters Purple Gang Detroit

In 1927 Detroit, Michigan was the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of more than 1.5 million people. The rapidly expanding automobile industry and the major manufacturing plants were attracting job seekers from all over the world. This prosperity, coupled with National Prohibition, also made the Detroit area a hot bed for underworld gangs. During this period both the Chicago and New York underworlds often grabbed the headlines of major newspapers with their own beer wars and gangster escapades, yet the Detroit underworld in many ways was worse.

When statewide Prohibition became law on May 1, 1918, Detroit became the first city in the nation with a population of over 250,000 to go dry. Detroit went from approximately 1,800 licensed saloons before state Prohibition in 1918 to a conservatively estimated 25,000 blind pigs by 1925. Detroit’s proximity to Ontario, Canada made it an opportune place for rumrunners and smugglers. By the mid-twenties an estimated 500,000 cases of Canadian whiskey were coming across the Detroit River every month.

Despite this staggering figure, more whiskey and beer than that was actually being made in Detroit by an extensive alley brewing industry. Opium dens operated openly throughout Detroit. The illegal Detroit gambling industry, which included everything from alley crap games to fancy roadhouses, was actually making the Detroit underworld more money than the $250,000,000 a year alcohol rackets. Detroit was a wide open city. Literally anything legal or illegal could be easily purchased there.

With the advent of National Prohibition at midnight January 16, 1920, the soon-to-be infamous Purple Gang and the men who would soon together create the traditional Detroit mafia began to claw their way to the top of the city’s underworld. While the future Purples were still in short pants shaking down hucksters and rolling drunks, local Mafia gangs were already well established on Detroit’s lower eastside.

During the great wave of immigration between the years 1880 and 1920, many Italian and Sicilian people left their homelands for U.S. shores. After arriving at eastern ports they were attracted to Detroit and its industrial prosperity. Along with these many hardworking and law abiding new Americans came Old World criminals. These Italian and Sicilian gangsters were either looking for greener pastures or were forced to leave their homeland because they were wanted by the authorities.

This new breed of criminal first came to the attention of local police as the result of the Black Hand extortion racket. Although organized underworld groups such as the Mafia and the Cammora engaged in this racket, it was an extremely popular form of extortion often carried out by small time criminals with no affiliation to any organized crime group. All that was required was to write an anonymous letter to a prosperous individual in the community threatening to murder him or his wife, kidnap their children, or destroy their place of business if certain extortion demands were not met. Crude drawings of daggers dripping with blood, skull and crossbones, or a black handprint would complete the letter.

The victims of Black Hand letters often attributed them to be the work of the Mafia or Cammora. Not trusting local authorities and superstitious, they paid. There were always examples in the Italian community of what happened to people who ignored these letters. This extortion racket became so widespread that most large U.S. cities had special Black Hand squads or Italian squads in their police departments to investigate and deal with these crimes in the Italian community.

The Black Hand racket was sometimes used by Salvatore and Vito Adamo, immigrant brothers from Alcamo, Sicily who arrived in Detroit around the turn of the 20th Century. Starting around 1905, the Adamo brothers were leaders of a Mafia gang on Detroit’s lower eastside that preyed on the Italian community and that most likely constituted the first semblance of modern day organized crime in the Motor City. The Adamo mob was involved in the typical ethnic underworld rackets of the time, which included making beer and wine, extorting protection money from local citizens, and the Italian lottery. Vito resided in Wyandotte, while Salvatore, known as “Sam” headquartered his operations out of Eastern Market.

The first serious threat to the Adamo brothers’ rackets came around 1910 from the arrival of three Sicilian-immigrant brothers; Antonino, Salvatore, and Gaetano Gianolla. Soon after coming to Detroit, from Tersini, Sicily, the Gianolla brothers began plying their old country trade in the Italian community. For a short time there was a shaky peace agreement between these two Mafia factions. The Gianolla brothers, however, who became known in local underworld circles as the Triumvirate of Terror, and controlled all rackets downriver from their produce business, the Wyandotte Fruit Company, were quick to start chafing under the Adamos’ rule. By 1911, the Gianolla brothers were expanding their burgeoning empire into the Eastern Market district and other Eastside neighborhoods the Adamos’ had been controlling for over half a decade.

It was not long before open warfare broke out between the Adamo and Gianolla factions. The gang war lasted for approximately two and a half years, from 1911-1913, and left dozens of bodies in its wake from both sides of the conflict. The Gianollas eventually claimed victory in the vicious street battle by murdering both Adamo brothers as they walked together at the corner of Mullett and Russell Street in Eastern Market in November of 1913.

One of the Gianollas’ top lieutenants was Giovanni “Bloody John” Vitale, an integral enforcer for the gang in its war with the Adamos. Vitale was allowed to run a crew independently from the Gianollas and in a lot of ways was perceived as an equal to the gang’s namesake and official leaders. This arrangement lasted without a hitch until 1917 when a falling out between Bloody John and his bosses led to another all-out street war for supremacy in the Detroit underworld.

The war was jumpstarted when Antonino “Tony” Gianolla ordered the murder of Sam Bosco, a close friend and trusted associate of Vitale’s over a dispute regarding a joint business venture that Gianolla was accusing Bosco of stealing from. When the Vitale faction attempted to hijack a load of liquor belonging to the Giannola brothers, the Giannola/Vitale gang war officially began.

Over the next three years, more than 100 men were killed in the gang war. Tony Gianolla was killed by Vitale gunmen in January of 1919 by his bodyguard and surrogate son Tony Alucci as he was entering a wake. Striking back with intense ferocity, on February 28, 1919, Salvatore “Sam” Giannola and several of his henchmen staged a daring attack, ambushing three Vitale thugs in the corridors of Detroit’s Wayne County Jail.

The Vitale gangsters, including the boss’s son Joe, had gone to visit John Vitale, who was in the Wayne County Jail locked up on a murder charge. When Sam Giannola got this information he and several of his men went to the jail and waited quietly for John Vitale’s visitors. When the Vitale thugs appeared, the Giannola gunmen opened fire, fatally wounding Vitale lieutenant Vito Renda and seriously wounding John Vitale’s son, Joe and Salvatore “Big Sam” Evola, another Gianolla strong arm, who both survived the attack.

They had originally planned to shoot down John Vitale as he lay trapped in his cell but could not gain access to the cellblock. Vitale retaliated by having Sam Gianolla murdered in October of 1919 after lulling him into a sense of comfort and security by agreeing to a peace agreement two months prior he never intended on honoring. Shooting from a moving car, Vitale assassins hit Gianolla 28 times, killing him on the spot as he exited a downtown bank after just cashing a $200 check.

On August 17, 1920, the gang war that had been raging for the better part of four years, finally started to catch up with John Vitale when him and his son Joe were ambushed by Giannola gunmen with shotguns outside their Russell Street home on Detroit’s east side. Joe Vitale was killed instantly in the barrage of buckshot. Somehow John ducked behind a car and survived. It would only be a short reprieve though and on October 2, 1920, Vitale was set up by his own men, shot to death as he returned to his residence in the early-hours of the morning from a night on the town. The Giannola-Vitale war was finally over. All of the major leaders of both gangs had been killed.

A peace conference was called right after Thanksgiving in 1920 with the city’s remaining Mafia factions in attendance. Salvatore “Singing Sam” Cattalanotte, a respected Giannola advisor, presided over a meeting of the minds and helped forge a peace agreement. Territory was divided among what would become known as the Eastside and Westside Mobs, with former Gianolla lieutenants Joe Zerilli and William “Black Bill” Tocco leading the Eastsiders and Chester “Big Chet” La Mara, a longtime counsel to Cattalanotte, headed the Westsiders. The final remaining Gianolla brother, Gaetano, the eldest sibling and least involved in the violence sparked by the preceding conflict, was allowed to retire, his life spared by Singing Sam, who felt loyal to him from their previous business relationship.

By 1925, the all-Jewish Purple Gang, led by the four Burnstein brothers, as well as the Eastside-aligned “River Gang”, led by St. Louis transplant Pete Licavoli had become major factors in the city’s bootlegging industry too. Like the Eastsiders and Westsiders had done before them years before, the Purples and the River Gang agreed to Catalanotte’s territory restrictions and were welcomed into the city’s underworld with open arms.

Along with Zerilli and Tocco’s Eastside Gang, the Purples and Licavoli’s river rats controlled most of the large-scale rum running on the Detroit River north and south of the city. LaMare, whose headquarters were in his opulent Hamtramck, Michigan restaurant known as the Venice Café, and the Westsiders controlled the rest of the bootlegging through a pair of offshoot downriver gangs that worked as LaMare’s proxies in the liquor smuggling rackets.

Hamtramck is a city that lies within the City of Detroit. At that time it was dominated by the huge Dodge Main auto plant. The City of Hamtramck was notoriously corrupt. So corrupt in fact that in 1923 Michigan Governor Alex Groesbeck sent the Michigan State Police into the city to impose Marshall Law and take over the city government. The mayor and a number of city officials were arrested, later convicted of Prohibition law violations, and sent to prison. Police duties in Hamtramck were temporarily taken over by the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. More than 400 soft drink parlors, which sold everything but soft drinks, were closed, 150 brothels shuttered, and many gallons of alley brew destroyed. For a ruthless gangster like La Mare, Hamtramck was heaven on earth.

Throughout the twenties Detroit’s underworld factions enjoyed a period of relative peace. Although many bodies still piled up in the city’s morgues, as a result of Singing Sam’s peace agreement, a majority of the homicides were rooted in intra-gang disputes, opposed to battles over turf between warring sides. Cattalanotte, a man who gained his nickname from his love of Italian Operas and skill at replicating their music for his friends and family at small, intimate gatherings, was a highly-respected and much beloved don and Detroit’s first modern day Godfather.

This delicate peace treaty Cattalanotte helped craft started to fall apart at the seams when on February 17, 1930 he died suddenly of complications from pneumonia. Relations between the Eastside and Westside Mobs quickly deteriorated and resulted in what they local press dubbed, the “Crosstown Mob War.”

It was during this period that murders in Detroit reached their zenith. By July 1930, a month referred to by the press for years after as “Bloody July,” there was a gangland murder literally every day. Things came to a head on July 23 with the murder of WMBC Radio commentator Gerald Buckley in the lobby of the LaSalle Hotel on.

Buckley was an immensely popular radio personality who was reported to be on the payroll of the Detroit underworld. He had supposedly been bankrolling Mafia still operations in certain parts of the city. In July 1930 a recall election movement was underway for Detroit Mayor Charles Bowles. Bowles was reported to be doing business with the underworld. The escalating gang wars and murders were directly blamed on the mayor. It was reported that Buckley, who was originally against the recall campaign, made an about-face and came out in support of it. Some journalists suggested that his change of heart was to put pressure on his underworld partners to get a bigger piece of the take. Whatever the underlying facts were, Mayor Bowles was recalled on July 22, 1930, the only mayor in Detroit history to be voted out of office.

Gerald Buckley was promptly shot to death in the lobby of the LaSalle Hotel early that morning by local Mafia gunmen. Three Detroit Mafia thugs were later tried and acquitted of the murder. Historically, journalists and police officers are off limits to underworld gunmen unless they are dirty. Although none of the charges against Buckley were ever proven, the circumstances surrounding his murder are shrouded in mystery.

After the murder of Gerald Buckley, the Crosstown Mob War took on a much lower profile. In the spring of 1930 LaMare feigned interest in attempting to broker a seize fire with his rivals and set up what he said would be peace meeting between the top leaders of the two factions at the Vernor Avenue Fish Market on May 31.

It was all an elaborate ruse. Never intending to compromise from the outset, LaMare planned to have two gunmen waiting at the market that would rush into the meeting and murder the Eastside Mob hierarchy on a given signal. The Eastsiders caught the play though and Angelo Meli, a former La Mare lieutenant that had recently switched sides in the war, suspected a double cross and advised Joe Zerilli and Bill Tocco to send emissaries to the meet-up instead of them attending in person themselves. The savvy gangsters took Meli’s advice and assigned Gasper “The Peacemaker” Milazzo, a New York bred wiseguy sent to Detroit in the 1920s to aid Zerilli and Tocco’s Eastside Gang, and his bodyguard Sam “Sasha” Parino, to attend in their stead. It was the smart move and LaMare’s two gunmen executed both Milazzo and Parino as soon as they entered the front door of the fish market.

Big Chet LaMare’s downfall ended up coming from within his own inner circle. He was murdered in his home on the evening of February 6, 1931 by two of his own men. The gunmen, both bodyguards to La Mare, had been ordered to murder their boss by the Eastside Mob leadership, who had supposedly found out that they had been the triggermen in the fish market slayings six months prior. The choice was simple: Either kill LaMare or die in his place.

With La Mare finally dead, the Eastsiders came out of the war victorious and sat firmly atop the Motor City underworld, unquestioned holders of the throne. When a similar-themed mob war concluded in New York around this same time, Sicilian-born East Coast gang leader Charles “Lucky” Luciano called a mega conference of all mob leaders across the country and created a nationwide organization called “La Cosa Nostra” or “This thing of ours,” that would have 26 regional “Families” and an overall board of directors known as “The Commission” make policy and mediate disputes.

Black Bill Tocco was named the first official Boss of the Detroit Mafia family in late-1931 and the criminal conglomerate that was subsequently formed would be known as “The Partnership” or “The Combination,” a nod to all of the city’s mob factions coming under one banner. Tocco and Zerilli, first cousins, best friends and brother-in-laws, would be the founding fathers of the present-day Detroit Mafia. Others former Italian bootlegging powers like Pete Licavoli, Angelo Meli, Giovanni “Papa John” Priziola and Pietro “Machine Gun Pete” Corrado would all join Tocco and Zerilli as future leaders of the syndicate, which would eventually grow to be over 100 members and 500 associates at its peak in the 1960s.


Around 1917, a predominantly Jewish mob began to form on the old Hastings Street section of Detroit’s lower eastside. The original 18-20 boys met at the old Bishop School and quickly became a neighborhood nuisance. They rolled drunks, beat up other youngsters, and extorted money from local merchants. This teenage street gang would eventually evolve into one of the most notorious underworld groups of the Prohibition era.

No one knows for sure the origins of their colorful name, the Purple Gang. One story had it that two Hastings Street shopkeepers were complaining to each other about the depredations of these juvenile gangsters.

One said, “These boys are not like other youngsters, they’re tainted. They’re like the color of bad meat, purple.” “Yes,” said the other shopkeeper, “They’re a purple gang.” Another rumor had it that they were named after two delinquents who ran with the gang when they were kids, Sam and Ben Purple.

The name most likely evolved during a period of labor strife known as the Cleaners and Dyers War. One of the Purple Gang’s terror tactics was to throw purple dye on clothing to force tailor shops to join the union. With the advent of statewide Prohibition on May 1, 1918 and national Prohibition on January 16, 1920, the Purple Gang was catapulted into becoming the rulers of the Detroit underworld by 1927.

The young Purples went to work for two local mobsters who were secret owners of a legitimate corn sugar warehouse, which sold supplies to people who wanted to make beer and wine for personal consumption only. A certain amount for personal use was allowed under the 18th Prohibition Amendment. In reality, Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr became the mentors of the juvenile Purples, who quickly graduated from childhood nuisance crime to hijacking and the extortion rackets. The Purples made their early reputation in the Detroit underworld as vicious hijackers who would take whiskey from other mobs and kill everybody who was hauling the load. They also cut themselves in on the profits that other gangsters made from gambling, prostitution, and drug dealing.

Charlie Leiter and Henry Shorr were experts at setting up brewing plants in old barns and warehouses around the city. These “alley” breweries could produce thousands of gallons of product a week. Using the young Purples as muscle, Shorr and Leiter began to push into the territory of other mobs. The young Purples divided their time between working with Shorr and Leiter extorting money from local businesses legal and illegal and sometimes working as guards in the local gambling houses.

At this early point in the mob’s evolution, they were known as the Oakland Sugar House Gang. Under the tutelage of Leiter and Shorr, the Purples set up and ran their own alcohol cutting plants. By cutting hijacked whiskey with water and other ingredients, one bottle could be made into five bottles. This whiskey was then sold by the case as the original product. Original manufacturers’ labels were removed from the bottles and “tickets” or bootleg labels affixed. One of the Purple Gang’s bootleg labels became widely known as Old Log Cabin Whiskey.

Although the Purple Gang was made up of several different leadership factions, the four Burnstein brothers, Abe, Joe, Ray, and Isadore, were always considered to be the leaders. Abe Burnstein often played the underworld diplomat while Joe and Ray were the main enforcers.

Other core Purples of the era included: Joseph “Joe Honeyboy” Miller Harry “H.F.” Fleisher, Louie Fleisher, Sam Fleisher, Harry Keywell, Phil Keywell, Hyman “Two Gun Harry” Altman, Harry “The Hat” Sutton, Sam “Fatty” Bernstein, David “Davey Boy” Feldman, Michael “One Arm Mike” Gelfand, Abe “Abie the Agent” Zussman, Jack “The Enforcer” Budd, Jack “Yonkel the Pollack” Selbin, Zigmund “Ziggie” Selbin, Sam “The Gorilla” Davis, Irving “Little Irv” Shapiro, Isadore “Uncle Izzy” Kaminsky, Sam “Sammy Purple” Cohen, Ben “Benny Purple” Cohen, Sam “Sammy K” Kert, Eddie Fletcher, Abe Axler, Harry Millman, Myron “Young Mikey” Selik, Morris Raider, Harry Kirshenbaum, Sam Soloman, Lou Gellerman, Ben Marcus, Harry “Chinky” Meltzer, Abe “Buffalo Harry” Rosenberg, Jake Levittes, John Wolf, Leo “The Killer” Edelstein, Irv Feldman, Sam Drapkin, Sammy Abramawitz, Lou Jacobs, Joseph “Monkey Joe” Holtzman.

Some of the aforementioned men were considered “Junior Purples”, since they were just teenagers at the start of the gang’s reign, working their way up the syndicate’s latter acting as gofers, drivers and bodyguards before reaching full-member status towards the end of Prohibition. Charles “The Professor” Auerbach acted the gang’s primary advisor and Jacob “Scotty” Silverstein was the Purples chief financial officer. Sam “Uncle Sammy” Garfield, a close friend of Joe Bernstein’s, acted as the gang’s go-between with the East Coast mobs, specifically through his relationship with New York Jewish Godfather, Meyer Lansky.

One of the gang’s favorite meeting places was the Oakland Avenue Bath House in Northeast Detroit, known around town until this day as simply “The Schvitz,” an establishment owned by Chinky Meltzer. The Schvitz was an ideal place to meet and discuss schemes without having to worry about the people you were doing business with wearing a wire, since everyone is in towels and the humidity prevented the government from bugging the place.

In 1925 Abe Burnstein teamed up with Francis X. Martel, president of the Detroit Federation of Labor, and formed a racketeer controlled Wholesale Cleaners and Dyers Association. Every cleaning plant, dyeing plant, and tailor shop was invited to join the new association. The argument was that this union would stabilize prices in the Detroit cleaning and dyeing industry. Armed Purple Gangsters would attend the monthly association meetings and collect the dues. If a cleaning plant joined the association and paid their dues on a regular basis, there would be no problem. If a plant owner refused to join, things would begin to happen in their plant.

Chemicals were put into clothing that would cause the garment to burst into flames when pressed. Truckloads of laundry were hijacked, the drivers sometimes beaten to death. If these tactics failed to work, the cleaning plant owner might disappear or the plant reduced to rubble by dynamite. Sometimes dye was thrown into piles of laundry. Between 1925 and 1928 hundreds of thousands of dollars was extorted from the Detroit area cleaning industry. At least two union business agents were taken for rides and shot in the back of the head. Their bodies were then tossed into the street.

Martel became unhappy with his cut of the profits. He was also fearful that a connection would be made between himself and the Burnstein brothers. In 1928 Martel persuaded a number of cleaning plant owners who had lost everything to file a complaint with the Wayne County prosecutor. This resulted in the Purple Gang trial of 1928.

Thirteen Purples including several leaders of the gang were tried for extortion in the Detroit area cleaning and dyeing industry. The trial dragged on through the summer of 1928 and ended with the acquittal of all thirteen Purples. Francis “Frank” Martel, who was conveniently out of town when indic tments were handed down, returned to Detroit after the trial and was later tried for extortion and acquitted.

The reason for the Purple Gang’s courtroom victory was that they had better legal representation than the state’s prosecutors. This courtroom victory, coupled with the machine gun murders of several gangsters by the Purples a year earlier, gave the gang a veneer of invincibility.

On March 27, 1927, a Chicago gunman named Francis “Frankie the Pollack” Wright and two of his friends were mowed down in the hallway of the Milaflores Apartments in downtown Detroit. Wright had been hired by a freelance hijacker to kill Johnnie Reid, an important Purple Gang liquor distributor. Reid had the audacity to smack around two gunmen who worked for local stickup artist Mike Dipisa. Dipisa had tried to shake down Reid for protection money. Dipisa hired Wright to kill Reid as a result of the insult. Wright killed Reid with a single shotgun blast to the head. He then made the mistake of staying in Detroit. Wright was lured to the Milaflores Apartments to negotiate the ransom of a kidnapped gambler he had worked for.

It was also in 1927 that legendary Chicago mob boss, Al “Scarface” Capone came to Detroit with the idea of setting up a Capone organization liquor franchise. Capone was called to a meeting with the Purples and representatives of the River Gang at the Pick Fort Shelby Hotel downtown. Here he was told that the Detroit River belonged to the Purples. Any business that Capone wanted to do in Detroit would either be through the Purple Gang or not at all. Capone then contracted with the Purples to purchase shipments of Old Log Cabin, which the Purple Gang would haul to Chicago. This business arrangement lasted approximately two years.

Once the shipments arrived in Chicago, Capone sold a consignment of his Purple Gang liquor to George “Bugs” Moran, the leader of the Northside Gang, a primarily Irish-dominated crime syndicate which had always a thorn in Capone’s side. Moran decided to purchase his whiskey from a cheaper source. When his customers complained, Capone refused to give Moran his Purple Gang liquor consignment back out of mere spite. Responding with ferocity, Moran’s Northsiders began hijacking truckloads of Purple whiskey as they made their way from Michigan to Illinois, sometimes even killing the Capone who were hauling the barrels of booze. The aggressive tactic succeeded in starting a gang war would go down in infamy around the world.

Scarface Capone saw this as his opportunity to eliminate his major rival and cement his legacy as one of the most fearsome gangsters in American history. Working with the Purples, Capone devised a trap to eliminate Moran once and for all. A phony liquor deal was set up with the Moran Gang, to meet at their headquarters to purchase a recently hijacked shipment of Old Log Cabin.

The Moran Gang would meet the truck the morning of February 14, 1929. Several Purples were reportedly used as spotters before, during and after the crime took place, and renting out rooms in boarding houses across the street from where the hit would take place. Mistaking another Northsider for Moran, the spotters, named in reports as Louie Fleisher and brothers, Phil and Harry Keywell called in the gunmen. The assassins were dressed as Chicago policemen. They went into the garage and machine-gunned down six Moran gangsters and a dentist who hung around with the gang. The murders were never solved, but became widely known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

As the new decade dawned, Purple Gang ruled the Detroit underworld unfettered, achieving heights that far exceeded those of its contemporaries. They centered their operations at the Book Cadillac Hotel, located in a hub of activity downtown on Washington Avenue and Monroe Street, and drank in their newfound status, many by cavorting with movie stars and dating showgirls. Their success was due to the solid protection they received from city hall due to a series of weekly payments made the doorsteps of certain highly-placed government officials and their raw ferocity. Between the years 1927 and 1935, eighteen Purples were brutally murdered by their own gang. The self-destruction process was accelerated on September 16, 1931 as the result of an incident known as the Collingwood Manor Massacre.

During the mid-twenties gangsters from all over the United States flocked to Detroit. Around 1925 three Chicago gunmen, Joe “Nigger Joe” Leibowitz, Harold “Hymie” Paul, and Isadore “Izzy the Rat” Sutker, came to the city after being forced out of Chicago by the Capone organization. They had been sticking up Capone-protected speakeasies and essentially given a choice to leave Chicago horizontally or vertically. Because of their Jewish heritage, once they arrived in Detroit they were introduced to the Burnstein brothers. The Purples were rapidly expanding their operations and needed muscle. The three Chicago gunmen went to work for the “Little Jewish Navy” faction of the Purple Gang that got its nickname due to being in charge of using speedboats to ferry liquor into the county from Canada up and down the Detroit River.

The three new gunmen quickly became uncontrollable Purple gangsters who would backstab anyone, including their own mentors, to get what they wanted. In September of 1931 they were called to a peace meeting, after having a falling out with the Burnstein brothers. The meeting was set for 3:00 p.m., September 16, 1931 at the Collingwood Manor Apartments on Detroit’s near westside. In reality, the peace meeting was an ambush. The three Purple Gang outlaws were shot to death by Harry Fleisher, Irving Milberg, and Harry Keywell. Ray Burnstein drove the getaway car. Burnstein, Keywell, and Milberg were later tried, convicted, and sentenced to life terms for first-degree murder. Fleisher escaped prosecution in the murders. The self-destruction of the Purple Gang had begun.

With inter-gang murders and lengthy prison sentences mounting, by 1935 most of the significant leadership of the Purple Gang was either dead or in prison after committing what police say were over 500 murders in a decade span. Around this time, a meeting was called between the Detroit area Mafia bosses and the Burnstein brothers. It was agreed at this conference that the Italian mob would take over the former Purple Gang’s rackets, including Joe Burnstein’s highly-valued race wire service.

This was a peaceful transition of power. There was very little ethnic rivalry in the Detroit underworld, the Italian mob in the Motor City much more willing to delegate and cooperate with non-Italian gangsters than as is the case in other cities. As the result of this power shift, Abe Burnstein was out of the boss’ chair, but still a very powerful player in the Detroit underworld, running bookmaking and loansharking operations and often looked to as a de facto “consigliere” by ruling mob powers Joe Zerilli and Black Bill Tocco until his death of a heart attack in 1968. Hotel receipts from the era that Detroit Police recovered after his passing indicated that Zerilli and Tocco had been fitting the bill for him to reside in a penthouse suite at the Book Cadillac since the 1940s.

Joe and Izzy Burnstein would both retire to California with their earnings from the gang’s glory days and go semi-legit, dying of natural causes in the 1980s. Ray Burnstein was released from prison on his Collinwood Massacre conviction in 1964 and died three years later in a nursing home, debilitated by a stroke he had experienced behind bars.


Although the Purple Gang controlled the Detroit rackets in the later twenties, they had no control over other less organized, renegade outlaw gangs. These notorious bank robbing and kidnapping mobs paid tribute to no organized crime group. These gangs were based out of Hamtramck, Detroit, and the surrounding suburbs. One of the most violent gangs of safecrackers, bank robbers, and heist artists was the infamous Hamtramck, Michigan mob led by Paul Jaworski. This gang not only operated in southeast Michigan but in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, where they were known as the Flathead Gang and specialized in robbing mine company payrolls. Paul Jaworski would eventually die in the electric chair in 1929 for the murder of a payroll guard committed during one of the gang’s many holdups.

The Jaworski mob was best known for the June 6, 1928 holdup of the Detroit News business offices in downtown Detroit. During this robbery a Detroit police officer was brutally shot to death as he lay wounded on the steps of the Lafayette Street entrance to the Detroit News building. This murder was committed by Jaworski gang members in front of at least 100 witnesses. Another one of the gang’s infamous capers was the dynamiting of an armored car at Coverdale, Pennsylvania on March 11, 1927, in which $104,000 was taken and a guard murdered. While gangs such as the Jaworski mob, the Shotgun Gang, and the Lizzard Gang robbed banks and individuals, other Detroit area gangs specialized in the “snatch racket” or kidnapping.

One of the most successful kidnapping gangs was the predominantly Irish Joseph “Legs” Laman mob. This gang specialized in kidnapping wealthy Detroit area racketeers and gamblers. From 1926 until the gang was destroyed by a task force of Detroit and Michigan State police in late 1929, the gang kidnapped local gamblers and rumrunners at will. They reasoned that underworld characters would quietly pay their ransom without going to the police. This system worked well until the gang became overconfident and greedy and started kidnapping legitimate businessmen.

Joseph Laman, known as “Legs” because his limbs were out of proportion with the rest of his body, was a career criminal. He once threatened to use a shotgun on Ford Service Department Head Harry Bennett when Bennett attempted to get information about one of the mob’s victims. The gang was comprised of more than twenty thugs, and the “snatch racket” as it came to be known was well organized.

Kidnapping gangs developed their own terminology. A “finger man” was someone who pointed out a potential victim to the gang. Laman would then send “pickup men” to grab or snatch the unsuspecting racketeer at his place of business or near his home. A bag would be pulled over his head, and the prisoner would be picked up and thrown on the floor of a touring car. He would then be taken to the kidnapper’s “castle.” The “castle” was an apartment or house used by the mob to imprison the victim. The Laman mob had “castles” in Detroit, Dearborn, and Ferndale, Michigan as well as Toledo, Ohio. Waiting at the castle were the “keepers” or gang members who would provide meals for the victim and if necessary, torture the unfortunate racketeer if he failed to comply with the orders of the mob. The prisoner was bound, blindfolded, and locked in the castle. No one would speak to the victim for several days. Food would be brought in and placed next to the prisoner. After several days, a gang member would approach the blindfolded victim. This thug was called the “voice,” as that is all that the “package” or kidnapped gangster could identify. The voice would negotiate a ransom and get the victim to name an intermediary, usually another racketeer, to go to the family and pick up the ransom money.

If the package refused to go along with the gang’s request, torture was resorted to. Cigarettes and cigars were placed behind the prisoner’s ear or pushed into his body. Eyebrows were pulled out a hair at a time, “plucking.” Sometimes a red-hot poker was used. This method of torture was known as “playing poker.” “Fancy shooting” involved tying a victim to a tree and taking shots at him with pistols and revolvers. The idea was to come as close to the body as possible without actually wounding the prisoner. With these methods cooperation was not a problem. Ransoms were negotiable according to how much money the gang thought a victim was worth.

In 1929 the Laman mob began kidnapping legitimate businessmen. On July 21, 1929, David Cass, the 23-year-old son of a wealthy real estate dealer, was kidnapped from a Detroit blind pig. The young man’s father, Gerson Cass, was contacted by the gang on July 25 and given instructions to meet someone at a westside Detroit location. The man Cass was supposed to meet was “Legs” Laman. Gerson Cass did exactly what the kidnappers had told him to do. He did not contact the Detroit Police. Through an informer, detectives found out about the ransom pickup and were staked out on the scene. When Laman walked up to Cass and took the suitcase full of ransom money, the police appeared and yelled for Laman to stop. The gangster took off running and was felled by several bullets from the detectives’ revolvers. Near death, Laman was taken to Detroit Receiving Hospital. To everyone’s surprise, the plucky mobster slowly recovered. With Laman in police custody, the kidnapping gang panicked. David Cass was driven out to a field in Lapeer County, Michigan and executed.

“Legs” Laman was later tried for extortion in the Cass kidnapping case and sentenced to the maximum two-year sentence. At this point, prosecutors could not prove that Laman had actually participated in the Cass kidnapping. Prosecutors obtained more information and Laman was brought to Detroit on another kidnapping charge and convicted. On December 14, 1929, Laman was sentenced to 30 to 40 years in state prison. Shortly before Laman’s conviction, a trapper along the Flint River found the partially decomposed body of David Cass. Ballistics tests were made on the bullets taken from the body of Cass by the Detroit Police. The bullets proved to be from the guns of Laman mob thugs Frank Hohfer and Edward Wiles. Both of these men were later positively identified as the slayers of David Cass.

Eventually Laman is persuaded to become a State witness against his gang in return for a reduced sentence. In June of 1930, Laman and another member of the gang named Henry “Ray” Andrews were brought to Detroit to testify. Laman named Wiles and Hohfer as being two of several gang members who had kidnapped and slain David Cass. By this time Wiles and Hohfer had been convicted of other crimes and sentenced to long terms in state prison. The testimony of Laman and others destroyed the kidnapping gang. During the trials it also came out that a plot had actually been formulated by the Laman gang to kidnap the children of Edsel Ford by gunning the children’s bodyguards and snatching the Ford heirs for a hefty ransom.

The Laman mob had always been out of control and deadly. A good example of their cowboy tactics occurred on April 8, 1929 when Andrew Germano, Frank Hohfer, and another Laman mob gunman stole a car at gunpoint from a Pontiac, Michigan doctor. The thugs then drove to Flint, Michigan, where they tried to rob a bank and failed. After a shootout with Flint police, they headed back to Detroit by way of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Driving aimlessly around Ann Arbor at 2:00 a.m., they were pulled over by an Ann Arbor policeman who thought the trio looked suspicious. They promptly shot the officer in the chest when he started asking questions. Fortunately, the policeman was saved because he was wearing a bulletproof vest. Several miles out of Birmingham, Michigan, the drunken thugs rolled the stolen car. Rumpled and bloody, they limped into Birmingham, where they inquired of a policeman where they could get a cab. They explained that they had been in an accident. The gangsters hailed a cab. To the surprise of the Laman gunmen, the officer climbed in after them and told the cab driver to take them to police headquarters to make out an accident report. The gunmen panicked, shot the officer in the arm, and threw him out of the cab. The driver was then thrown out of the vehicle. The car was later found partially submerged in a nearby lake.

Although the Laman mob was put out of business in 1930, several members continued to make the headlines.

Early in August of 1931, Eddie Wiles died of natural causes in Marquette Prison. Wiles had been one of the Laman gunmen who had shot David Cass. On the morning of August 27, 1931, Andrew Germano, a former Laman mob thug, and two other convicts got into the Marquette Prison sick call line. All of the men carried guns under their shirts. The weapons and ammunition had been shipped into the prison in sealed cans of chicken. When the prison doctor, A.W. Hornbogen, asked Germano to take off his shirt, he pulled a 32 caliber automatic pistol and shot the doctor and a trustee. The doctor was killed immediately, and the trustee died later in the prison hospital. The three convicts tried to shoot their way out of the hospital but were thwarted in their efforts. The prisoners then held off local and State police in the prison’s industrial building for several hours before committing suicide.

Another notorious gang that operated out of the Hamtramck, Michigan area was the Carson/Kozak mob. Jimmy Carson was considered to be the brains behind the gang and Philip “Russian Shorty” Kozak the muscle. This group robbed banks, gas stations, businesses, and even pedestrians. Nobody was safe from these predators. In early 1926 the gang planned to rob a Detroit bank and decided they needed to steal a car that could be used in the heist. On January 11, 1926, Kozak and Carson got into a cab in front of the Ford Motor Company Highland Park plant. The two gangsters politely waited for a young woman to get out of the cab before they assaulted the driver. Both Kozak and Carson pulled guns and tried to force the cabbie. The driver put up a ferocious fight until one of the thugs hit him on the head with the butt of his pistol and threw him out of the car. The commotion attracted the attention of a Detroit police officer, Andrew Rusinko. The policeman had just walked out of a nearby bank. Observing the robbery in progress, he ran toward the cab. Both Carson and Kozak fired at the officer, killing him instantly. It was Rusinko’s first day on the job after graduating from the police academy. The two gunmen drove off in the cab, which was late found demolished. Carson was later convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Kozak was also convicted and deported.

There were many smaller gangs that terrorized the Detroit area during the Prohibition years as well. The Green Sedan Gang operated out of a green touring car and stuck up pedestrians and other drivers at stop lights. The Lizzard Gang of Hamtramck, led by Chester Tutha, operated well into the thirties, robbing local banks and cracking safes. These groups of outlaws were even given a wide berth by local organized crime gangs such as the Purples and the River Gang. They were considered dangerous and uncontrollable. Because of their cowboy tactics, most of these high profile gangs lasted less than a year, their leaders ending up dead or in prison.