Bootlegging was big business during the Prohibition era and in Detroit a group of men put together one of the biggest bootlegging operations in American history. They would eventually become known as the Purple Gang.
In 1917, three years before the start of Prohibition, the state of Michigan passed a law named the Damon Act that forbade the sale and possession of alcohol (except for medicinal purposes). The law was strongly backed by prominent citizens like Henry Ford who desired a sober workforce but it instantly opened up the Detroit area to bootleggers from Chicago, Ohio and Canada, and a few years before most of the rest of the country. The law was declared unconstitutional in 1919, which put an end to the bootlegging, but when the entire country went dry a year later, the smuggling operations were already in place and were easily started up again.
The Purple Gang was made up of sons of Jewish immigrants from Detroit and was led by four brothers: Abe, Joe, Raymond and Izzy Burnstein, all of whom grew up in poverty. The actual origin of the gang’s name is unknown but it may have come from a boxer in the gang who used to wear purple shorts, or possibly because locals compared the gang members to tainted meat. The gang started out as petty thieves but quickly moved into armed robbery, kidnapping and extortion. They recruited “muscle” from other gangs and eventually made quite a name for themselves, particularly with their flare for extreme violence.
Rather than battle them for territory, Chicago’s Al Capone established a business with the Purple Gang and they supplied him with whiskey that was usually stolen from other gangsters. By the late 1920s, the Purple Gang was the top criminal empire in Detroit and they were known to dabble in liquor, drugs, horse racing, extortion, kidnapping and even hired themselves out as hitmen. The FBI even mentioned them as possible suspects for the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby.
In 1927, nine members of the Purple Gang were arrested and charged with extortion after the gang was allegedly hired by the cleaning industry union in Michigan. In what is now referred to as the Cleaners and Dyers War, the Purple Gang bombed, burned, beat and murdered both non-members and members in order to keep compliance with union laws. When they were arrested, an owner of a Cleaning and Dyeing shop in Detroit claimed he had to pay the gang $1,000 every week in order to receive “protection” but the feds couldn’t make the case stick and all of the gang members were eventually acquitted of all charges.
Violence continually grew both around and within the organization. The gang became so violent that most law enforcement officers wouldn’t touch them and, even if they did, witnesses would usually refuse to testify anyway. The Purple Gang murdered three of their own members who they suspected to be working against them in 1931 and they are also believed to have taken part in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago during which they took the side of the famous gangster “Bugs” Moran who was battling with their former cohort, Al Capone. In addition, the Purples publicly killed a cop, a radio personality and terrorized much of Detroit.
By the end of 1931, inter-gang disputes left six gang members dead and multiple others under arrest. A massacre in Chicago in September resulted in the three top gang members, Irving Milberg, Harry Keywell and Raymond Burnstein, all being convicted of third degree murder and given life sentences in the maximum security prison in Marquette, MI.
What was left of the Purple Gang self-destructed. Some members moved away, some were arrested and others were murdered. Infighting broke the organization’s back and their riches and glory quickly disappeared. The void left by the Purple Gang’s absence, however, created the perfect opportunity for a new group to take over Detroit’s criminal underworld and soon after, the Mafia arrived.
It’s good to know that ordering a beer in Detroit no longer feeds the world of organized crime and gang violence, but it’s also good to know that the Atwater Brewery hasn’t forgotten about their city’s past either. Purple Gang Pilsner is just one of many delicious brews from Atwater Brewery that pay tribute to the great city of Detroit.
From the Brewer: Brewed in strict German tradition, Purple Gang Pilsner is a steady reminder of the German domination of brewing before and during Prohibition. This beer features its light malty sweetness yields, to the fine flavor and aroma of the noble Tettnang hops. This classic lager style was prevalent in the myriad of German breweries throughout urban immigrant America. ABV 4.8%, IBU 32
Mark Rieth - Owner