By Paul Kavieff w/ contributions from Scott M. Burnstein: THERE was little evidence in Harry Millman’s childhood that he would one day become one of the most feared gangsters to ever walk the streets of Detroit. Millman was born in the Motor City in 1911. His parents were recently immigrated Russian Jews. Harry was the oldest of five children and attended Detroit public schools, but finished high school in a Kentucky military academy. As a youngster, Millman acquired a reputation as a star athlete and a champion swimmer.
When Harry returned to Detroit in 1928 he began hanging around the Oakland Avenue pool halls and blind pig hangouts of the Purple Gang. By 1928 the Purples were near the height of their power in the Detroit underworld. According to one early acquaintance, “The older hoods liked Harry and let him hang around because he was good looking and attracted the ladies.”
Millman was also good with his fists and liked to drink. He soon developed a reputation as a barroom brawler and a mean drunk. Because of his fighting skills, Harry was noticed by the Purple Gang leadership and employed as a hijacker, gunman and bodyguard for the Jewish mob elite of the era. The strapping and muscle-bound Millman was personable and gregarious when sober but dangerous and totally unpredictable when drinking.
Once he was hired on as a Purple Gang enforcer, he pursued his underworld career with determination and was quickly identified by police as one of the leaders of the “Junior Purples”, the gang’s eager and able youth brigade. First arrested in 1928 at the age of 17 on suspicion of armed robbery, he was later released for lack of evidence. In approximately nine years of activity in the Detroit underworld, Harry Millman was arrested 28 times on charges including assault, armed robbery, kidnapping, carrying a concealed weapon, extortion, murder, and operating a gambling place, however never spent a night in jail. The charges that ever stuck to the fledgling gangster were convictions for a couple of minor traffic offenses and for carrying a concealed weapon – for which he paid a small fine.
On January 14, 1931, Millman and four other Purple gangsters broke into the home of Frank Kaier, a freelance hijacker who had stolen a truckload of whiskey from Purple Gangster Harry Keywell. A Detroit police officer on his way home from work saw Millman pistol whipping Kaier through a window in Kaier’s home. The officer ran in and quickly arrested the five Purples, who tried to hide their pistols under the cushions of a sofa in Kaier’s living room. On January 16, 1931, all five thugs were indicted by a Wayne County grand jury. The men were well defended during their trial by Purple Gang attorneys Edward Kennedy Jr. and Sidney Sherman. They were all found not guilty of assault with intent to kill and released.
In October of 1931, Millman was arrested with Morris Raider, a well-known Purple Ganger sitting in a car at Warren and Twelfth Street in Detroit. Both men were held as disorderly persons under the new Public Enemy Act. Raider at that time was out on bail pending the outcome of an appeal on a manslaughter conviction. Both cases were thrown out once again on insufficient evidence. The Public Enemy law was later struck down as unconstitutional because under its statutes a suspect could be convicted on notorious reputation alone.
Not more than two months later In December of 1931 Millman found himself in trouble with the law once again, when him and four other Purples were arrested on kidnapping charges. This time they snatched a known Oakland Avenue bootlegger and attempted to extort several hundred dollars from the terrified man at gunpoint. The victim later failed to positively identify any of the gunmen at the trial, and once more Millman and the other Purples walked out of the courtroom free men.
Check out more about Detroit’s early days of organized crime in Detroit Mob Confidential
By 1932 Harry Millman was suspected by Detroit police of being involved in a wide variety of rackets. As Millman grew more successful, he became the real life version of a Hollywood gangster, sporting expensive tailor-made suits and flashing a large bankroll. By the early 1930s, Millman had a well-known reputation for violence, especially when he was drinking. According to one account, he once physically beat a girlfriend in front of a dining room full of shocked people at the Cream of Michigan restaurant in Detroit. An observer to the incident reflected, “You could have heard a pin drop in the restaurant.”
One of Millman’s favorite pastimes was shaking down Mafia protected brothels and busting up blind pigs and nightclubs owned by members of the Detroit Mafia. Millman carried a violent grudge against the Italian mob and took every opportunity to display his vengeance. He would walk into a nightclub either alone or with several of his men, knock customers off their barstools, slap around the owner of the place, break up furniture, smash bottles, and generally create havoc. Anyone foolish enough to protest received a beating or a pistol whipping.
Being called to answer for his erratic behavior many times by the Burnstein brothers and other leaders of the Purple Gang did little to deter Millman’s antagonistic antics. If it wasn’t for the Burnstein brothers, specifically Abe, who seemed to have a soft spot in his heart for the young thug, Millman would have been targeted for death by the Italians a lot sooner. The mob had too much respect for the Jewish Godfather to move on his favorite protégé without his blessing. However as the 1930s went on, Millman’s behavior towards the city’s ruling underworld authority became increasingly insolent and even Abe Burnstein himself would no longer be able to help save him from the wolves.
The Purple Gang and the Detroit Mafia always had a cordial relationship. Millman was a loose -cannon in this respect and on numerous occasions, usually after one of Millman’s latest outrages, bosses of the Detroit Mafia met with the Burnstein brothers and demanded that Harry Millman be eliminated. At these meetings Abe Burnstein would always use his charm and considerable diplomatic ability and promise to “straighten him out.” It was of little use. Like many other gangsters before and after, Millman began believing his own press clippings. He came to think that the reason no one tried to kill him was because they were thoroughly terrorized by him. In reality it was only Abe Burnstein and his protection from the Detroit Mafia bosses that kept Millman alive and on the street for so long.
Millman was a prime suspect in the sensational murders of Purple Gang lieutenants Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher, Detroit’s Public Enemies 1 and 2 in the early-1930s. Axler and Fletcher, a pair of New York imports to the Motor City’s underworld, were found shot to death in the back seat of Axler’s brand new Chrysler sedan the morning of November 26, 1933. An Oakland County constable found the bodies on a lonely country road approximately fifteen miles north of Detroit in Bloomfield Hills by the intersection of Telegraph and Quarton Roads.
The two Purple assassins had been shot at point-blank range by .45 and .38 caliber pistols. One of the shooters sat next to Axler in the front seat and another sat next to Fletcher in the back seat. The faces of both men were unrecognizable as the result of the heavy caliber bullets fired at close range into their faces. As a sign of contempt, the bodies were placed together in the back seat of the car holding hands. It was rumored in the underworld that Axler and Fletcher had double-crossed Millman, the Burnstein brothers and their top lieutenant, Harry “H.F.”Fleisher, in a business deal.
Police would later reveal that they had specific information that Harry Millman had phoned Axler and set up a meeting with Axler and Fletcher at a Pontiac, Michigan beer garden the night before they were found murdered. The murders were never solved, but made papers across the nation with headlines claiming the death of the Purple Gang.
On June 13, 1934, George “Eddie” Dorn, the owner of a Detroit speakeasy known as “Eddie’s Hideaway,” was found shot to death. The bar was a Purple Gang hangout. Harry Sutton, Dorn’s bartender, was also wounded in the incident. Sutton was a former Purple who had served time in Federal prison with other members of the gang for a 1929 conviction for bootlegging. Detectives found Dorn’s body in the rear of the blind pig about 4:30 a.m. and surmised that Dorn had evidently been running from someone who shot him in the back.
Police believed that Eddie Dorn’s murder was the result of a drunken argument between him and Harry Millman that occurred a few weeks before his slaying. Millman and another Purple named George Harris had been seen in the club shortly before Dorn was killed.
Later that morning Harry Sutton staggered into Detroit’s Providence Hospital. He refused to give police any information about the shootings. Sutton had been shot in the groin and was in critical condition. Investigators came to the conclusion that Sutton had been fighting with someone before he was shot as his shirt was torn. When questioned by detectives later that morning, Sutton told the police, “Santa Claus shot me.”
There were reported to be more than twenty witnesses to the shooting incident. Detroit police questioned a number of people who had been in the blind pig, but nobody had seen anything. Homicide detectives began a fruitless search for a piano player who worked at Dorn’s bar and supposedly saw Dorn’s killer take a cloth and wipe a .32 automatic pistol clean of fingerprints and place it on a table. Police later found the gun but nothing ever came of this lead in the case. Harry Millman left for Chicago immediately after the Dorn murder and did not return to Detroit until early-1935. On January 7, 1935, Millman was arrested by Detroit police and held for questioning in the Dorn murder case. Witnesses, however, could not or would not positively identify Millman, and he was released.
When Harry Millman returned to Detroit he immediately went back into the protection racket, shaking down disorderly houses (brothels) in Ecorse, Hamtramck, Mt. Clemens, Detroit, and other southeastern Michigan cities. Millman and his men would make the rounds of these locations on a weekly basis and pick up various amounts of protection money from the madams.
The imposing enforcer had a very effective technique for convincing disorderly houses to pay protection. He would walk into a brothel, beat up or pistol whip the johns, and generally disrupt business. Sometimes Millman or his men would rob the customers of a brothel on a daily basis until the business would drop off to nothing.
Whether or not a disorderly house was under the protection of another mob meant little difference to Millman. In fact, he would sometimes target a particular underworld operation solely because it was protected or owned by the Detroit Mafia, which by that time had become the dominant power in the local underworld with the unheralded disbandment of the Purples.
The year 1935 also saw Millman get involved in the area labor union rackets. With the growing trend of unionization in the Detroit manufacturing industry, the relationship between the mob and organized labor was a natural fit. Labor bosses used gangsters for strike breaking purples, leverage at the negotiation table and general employee -intimidation after the repeal of Prohibition in December of 1933 with mafia syndicates around the county looking to cultivate new and fresh sources of Illicit income . Due to his growing financial prosperity, he opened several handbooks (horse race betting parlors) on Twelfth Street in Detroit. By 1936 Millman’s underworld operations were bringing in a considerable amount of money.
Millman and his crew, which included his brother Sam, Harry Cooper, Harry Gross, and several former Purple Gang members, soon began muscling into the local illegal lottery racket. At that time, the illegal lottery, known on the street as the numbers business, was controlled by the Detroit Mafia working in conjunction with several African-American gangsters. Police feared that tensions created by Millman’s bold and subversive move could wind up exploding into a major gang war across the city. This racket was also sometimes referred to as, “policy”, stemming from the Italian word polizza, meaning lottery ticket and took bets from players on three-digit number codes that would be compared to any agreed upon tabulation, like all the money bet at a given race track which would always be reported in the next morning’s paper. Usually the odds were about 10000 to 1 to guess correctly, but the vice served as a lot of poor black families only chance of hitting it big in an otherwise bleak financial existence.
Detroit police believed that Harry Millman’s move to take over the Detroit policy rackets created a serious rift between him and Joe “Joe Scarface” Bommarito, the man in charge of all of the Detroit Mafia’s vast street operations as well as the brother-in-law of local Mafia boss Pete Licavoli.
When the Detroit Mafia took over the former racket operations of the Purple Gang in 1935 it was a peaceful transition. By the mid-thirties the Purple’s power had been seriously weakened by inter-gang sniping and long prison sentences. Abe Burnstein had quietly turned over former Purple Gang operations to the Detroit Mafia. Individual Purples and associates often worked as partners with various Detroit Mafia members in the rackets, but not Millman. He was the only Purple gangster of any significance who continued to challenge the Italian mob authority after the Purple Gang lost its dominance in the Detroit underworld – the final holdout from the city’s first and last all-Jewish crime conglomerate. Growing more insubordinate by the day, Millman was totally fearless and had no intention whatsoever of ever bowing to or cooperating with the Detroit mob.
Late one winter evening in December of 1936, Harry Millman strutted into Salvatore “Little Sammy” Finazzo’s cafe at Eighth and Fort Streets in Detroit and stoked the flames of discontent even further. Finazzo was a soldier in the Detroit Mafia and the brother-in-law to recently-inducted mob Don Joe Zerilli who controlled the prize fighting industry in Detroit for well over 50 years. His cafe was a hangout for Italian gangsters and a frequent socializing point for Scarface Joe Bommarito. Barging into the establishment after a night on the town boozing it up, Millman confronted Bommarito and the pair broke into a heated fistfight.
Like their fierce Jewish adversary, Bommarito, Pete Licavoli, and a downriver gangster named Joseph “Beach Bum Joe” Massei, who was the crime family’s representative in Florida for close to 40 years, had been steadily muscling into the Detroit labor rackets. All three Italian mobsters effectively worked their way into Local 299 of the Teamsters Union, the same local a young Kroger warehouse worker of the era named Jimmy Hoffa would soon use as his powerbase to climb to epic heights in the country’s labor movement. To put it mildly, the Italians, especially Scarface Joe, resented the fact that Millman was trying to exert his influence in certain unions that they already sunk their hooks into.
The fight in Sam Finazzo’s beer garden was only the beginning. Sometime in the early spring of 1937, Millman got word that Joe Bommarito was getting a shave and a manicure at an Oakland Avenue barbershop. Walking up on Bommarito, who was stretched out in a barber’s chair with a hot towel on his face, Millman lifted the towel off the Scarface Joe’s head and spat in his face.
This final display of complete and utter contempt and disrespect towards Joe Bommarito, and in turn, the entire Detroit mafia in general, was the beginning of the end for Harry Millman. Totally disgusted with his inexplicable, outright insane behavior, his mentor, Abe Burnstein turned his back on him. The period of “sit downs” and diplomacy to protect Millman was over. He was on his own.
On the evening of August 28, 1937, Millman arrived in Detroit from a short trip out of town. At about 10:00 p.m., he phoned Harriet (Hattie) Fleisher. Hattie was an old friend of Millman’s and the wife of Purple Gang lieutenant Harry Fleisher, who was then serving time in Alcatraz for a 1936 tax evasion conviction. Millman invited Hattie out for an evening of dinner and dancing at a favorite Purple Gang hangout known at the 1040 Club. The cabaret derived its name from the fact that it was located at 1040 Wayne Street in downtown Detroit.
Picking her up in his new 1937 LaSalle coupe – the new automobile reflecting Millman’s recent success in the handboook and policy rackets -, Millman escorted Mrs. Fleisher to the club and treated her to hours of dancing, drinks and food. Sending Hattie home around 1:00 a.m., he stayed on at the club, continuing to drink and cavort with his friends at the bar.
A man who kept late hours and sometimes would go days without sleep from excessive partying, Millman planned to go to a Hamtramck-based blind pig after the club closed. Shortly after 3:00 a.m., Millman handed the keys to his LaSalle coupe to Willie Holmes, the 1040 Club valet and doorman. Holmes hurried off to get Millman’s car, which was parked in a remote unlighted section of the Service Parking Lot Company across the street from Detroit’s Federal Courthouse building. At approximately 3:10 a.m., Holmes climbed into Millman’s coupe and turned the ignition key. A tremendous explosion immediately followed and the resulting shock wave blew out windows of nearby buildings and sent the hood of Millman’s LaSalle coupe onto the roof of a five-story building. A silent alarm set off by the shock wave created by the explosion sent three police cruisers to the F.G. Clayton Company opposite the parking lot where the explosion occurred.
Instantly torn to pieces in the explosion, Holmes was killed immediately and Millman’s car was completely demolished. Detroit police investigators later estimated that at least ten sticks of dynamite had been packed into the center of the engine block and wired to a spark plug. The bomb had obviously been meant for Harry Millman, but the assassins had not done their homework. Millman almost always gave the keys to Holmes or to his bodyguard Harry Cooper when he arrived or left the 1040 Club. Fortunately for Cooper, he had been home that night. The death of Willie Holmes was the first bomb slaying in the history of Detroit.
Seemingly unfazed by the near-death experience, Millman never even went back to look at his car. Instead, he hailed a cab and went on to the Hamtramck blind pig just as he had planned. When later questioned by police he pleaded ignorance to why anyone would want to kill him. By the fall of 1937, it was so widely known throughout the city that Millman was going to be killed that many hotels would not rent him a room for fear he might be murdered on the premises.