The Purple Gang: How Detroit Supplied Liquor to the United States During Prohibition

Created by: Oliver Marcel
Time Period: 20th Century, Prohibition
Topic: Community and Reform, Crime, Culture, Immigration, Infrastructure, Politics, Prohibition, Race and Ethnicity, Remaking Urban Space

Gang members would often hide their faces half way or fully in photographs as a nod to their illegal activities, and the knowledge that the FBI was using them to find their suspects. Photo via Michigan Archives

The Purple Gang was the most notorious gang in Detroit during the years of 1917-1932, more commonly known as Prohibition. The Gang was made up of all first and second generation Jewish-American men, and was predominantly located in the Lower East Side of Detroit. It was created by Abe, Ray, Joe, and Isidore “Izzy” Bernstein, four brothers from New York City, and who immigrated to America with their parents from Eastern Europe, when they combined two previously existing Jewish gangs into one. In the early days of the gang, they were known for smaller crimes like petty theft and light extortion, however as they grew in prominence (and Temperance laws started being passed throughout the US), alcohol smuggling from Canada became their most important money-maker.

In the winter, rum runners would drive across the frozen Detroit River to smuggle goods from Canada. Photo via Michigan Archives

Detroit was special during the Prohibition because of its very close border with Canada. Unlike other cities along the Great Lakes, Detroit only had a two mile-long river between it and Canada, which allowed for easy and fast smuggling of alcohol from the country. “Rum-runners” would be tasked with taking small boats across the river late at night, collecting gallons of liquor and taking it back to Detroit in just a couple of hours. During the winter when the lake was frozen over, this only made things easier, as they were able to drive across the river and load that way. Because of this closeness to Canada, Detroit gangs – and in particular the Purple Gang – became very important to the broader United States, becoming wholesalers to other gangs in other cities. The most famous example of this being Al-Capone in Chicago, for whom the Purple Gang sold most of their whiskey to.

This whole-sale role during the Prohibition was made possible by the Jewish-Canadians who predominantly controlled the distillery business in southern Canada. These distillery owners would often give discounts to their Jewish counterparts in Detroit, which would mean the Purple Gang could make a higher profit margin from these business transactions. Ultimately, the Purple Gang was able to acquire most of their power through this trade, eventually going on to control the entire city, and even getting famous along the way.

Within Detroit itself, the Gang was both celebrated and feared. For the other members of the Jewish community, the Purple Gang brought in much needed income to their streets in the Lower East Side. These streets, much like the entirety of the neighborhood, were very run-down, and many

the houses did not have water or electricity. The Purple Gang was known for improving the infrastructure around the Jewish parts of the lower east side, as well as protecting them from other gangs and petty crimes. To the rest of Detroit though, they were very much feared. The gang would frequently be involved in assaults, murders, kidnappings, and violent extortion schemes that allowed them to control the city with fear, as most of the gangs during that time. However, just because their ways of business were violent, did not mean they were not effective, and they ruled Detroit up until the very end of Prohibition, turning Detroit into the most important city in the United States during that time.

Mugshot of final Purple Gang leaders. Photo via FBI Records