Guest Author - Vance Rowe
Spider Murphy played the tenor saxophone;
Little Joe was blowin on the slide trombone.
The drummer boy from Illinois went crash, boom, bang,
The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang – Lyric from Elvis Presley’s song entitled Jailhouse Rock
The Purple Gang ran Detroit from about 1918 to 1935 but didn’t really come into strong power until a machine gun massacre at the Milaflores Apartments. Three hired gunmen were thought to have killed a Purple Gang liquor distributor so they were slaughtered in the ensuing ambush. Fred “The Killer” Burke was brought in by the Purple Gang to be the machine gunner in the ambush. Burke was also famous for his role in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The Purple Gang had always relied on violence to run their empire and no one would speak against them to authorities for fear of retribution.
They started out as a gang of young men when prohibition started and like many other mobsters, found that the Detroit River made a great highway to smuggle rum and whiskey from Canada to Michigan. However, they were not rumrunners as most mobsters were. No, they resorted to hijacking the illegal alcohol from other people when it came over from Canada. It didn’t stop there though. By the late twenties, the Gang had control of Detroit’s vice, gambling, drug and liquor trades and was the main suppliers of booze to Capone’s Chicago Outfit. In the early twenties, the young, predominately Jewish gang came under the auspices of two established mobsters in Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr.
Leiter and Shorr ran the Oakland Sugar House which was a legitimate business that was an outlet for corn sugar. The two men taught the young gang extortion and strong arming techniques. They soon became to be known as the Oakland Sugar House gang which was just their pre purple gang name basically.
The Purple Gang was soon used as terrorists in what would soon become known as the Cleaner and Dyers War. This was a period of discord in Detroit’s cleaning industry in which corrupt labor leaders to keep union members in line and to harass non union members. Their methods of union policy enforcement consisted of bombings, robbery and murder. In 1928, the wars ended with the Purple Gang Trial in which the whole gang was eventually acquitted. The gang then ruled the motor city until they fell apart in the early thirties. It started when three men who belonged to an arm of the Purple Gang called the “Little Jewish Navy”. This part of the gang owned several boats which aided in the bootlegging from Canada. The three men decided they wanted to break out on their own and were eventually killed in an apartment on Collingwood Avenue and this slaughter would become to be known as the Collingwood Manor Massacre. However, there was a witness to this and some of the gang were arrested and given lengthy prison sentences. It was these sentences and inter-gang turmoil that led to the end of the Purple Gang in 1935. Other established mobsters from Detroit stepped in and took over after the demise of the gang.