The Sugar House Gang
"They're rotten, purple like the color of bad meat"
The Purple Gang: Detroit’s Notorious Prohibition-era Syndicate
During the tumultuous era of Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, organized crime burgeoned across the United States, and few groups epitomized the lawlessness of the time as vividly as Detroit’s infamous Purple Gang.
Comprising predominantly Jewish members, the Purple Gang wielded influence and terrorized the streets of Detroit with a ruthless reputation that left an indelible mark on the annals of American organized crime.
The gang’s roots can be traced to a group of teenage friends in Detroit’s predominantly Jewish neighborhoods.
Led by the Bernstein brothers—Abe, Joe, Raymond, and Izzy—the gang earned its name, the Purple Gang, due to their adoption of purple shirts as a distinctive identifier.
What began as youthful mischief and petty crimes soon evolved into a sophisticated criminal enterprise, exploiting the lucrative opportunities created by Prohibition.
As the production and sale of alcohol became illegal, the Purple Gang seized the opportunity to dominate the bootlegging trade in Detroit.
They established strong ties with the Detroit Mafia, forming a formidable alliance that allowed them to control much of the city’s underworld.
The gang’s ruthlessness and strategic alliances positioned them at the forefront of organized crime in the region.
The Purple Gang’s criminal repertoire extended beyond bootlegging to include a variety of illicit activities, including racketeering, extortion, and labor union infiltration.
Their influence reached into legitimate businesses, allowing them to maintain a veneer of respectability while engaging in nefarious activities behind the scenes.
One of the gang’s most infamous incidents occurred on St. Valentine’s Day in 1929, echoing the more well-known Chicago massacre of the same day.
The Purple Gang, allegedly at the behest of Chicago Outfit boss Al Capone, participated in the murder of seven rival gang members in what became known as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of the North.”
The Purple Gang’s reign of criminality, however, was not destined to endure. Internal conflicts, rivalries with other criminal organizations, and increased law enforcement scrutiny began to erode their influence.
In 1931, the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed Prohibition, removing the primary source of the gang’s illicit wealth. The shifting landscape of organized crime further marginalized the Purple Gang.
The demise of the gang was accelerated by internal power struggles and the imprisonment of key members.
In 1931, Abe Bernstein was sentenced to 10 years in prison for income tax evasion, marking a significant blow to the gang’s leadership. Other key figures faced similar fates, and by the mid-1930s, the Purple Gang had disintegrated.
The legacy of the Purple Gang persists as a symbol of Detroit’s tumultuous Prohibition-era underworld. Their rise to prominence, marked by violence and cunning, exemplifies the criminal response to the social and economic upheaval of the time.
While their reign was relatively short-lived, the impact of the Purple Gang on organized crime in Detroit endures as a cautionary tale of the consequences of unfettered criminal ambition and a society grappling with the consequences of Prohibition.