The Notorious Purple Gang: Detroit's All-Jewish Prohibition Era Mob

By A, Robert | Shofar, October 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Notorious Purple Gang: Detroit's All-Jewish Prohibition Era Mob


A, Robert, Shofar


The Notorious Purple Gang: Detroit's All-Jewish Prohibition Era Mob

During Prohibition (1920-1933), Jewish gangsters became major operatives in the American underworld and played prominent roles in the creation and extension of organized crime in the United States. At the time, Jewish gangs dominated illicit activities in a number of America's largest cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Newark, New York, and Philadelphia. One of the more notorious of these all-Jewish mobs was Detroit's Purple Gang. The gang dealt in bootlegging, gambling, extortion, drugs, and murder, and developed a reputation for being more ruthless than Al Capone's mob in Chicago. The Purple's decade-long reign of terror ended when most of the gang's members either went to prison or were murdered by rivals.

After World War I, Jewish gangsters became major operatives in the American underworld and played prominent roles in the creation and extension of organized crime in the United States. During the Prohibition era (1919-1933) 50 percent of the country's leading bootleggers were Jews, and Jewish criminals financed and directed much of the nation's narcotics traffic. Jewish gangs also dominated illicit activities in a number of America's largest cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Newark, New York and Philadelphia.(1) Perhaps the most notorious of these all-Jewish mobs was Detroit's Purple Gang.

The gang had its origins in the Jewish section of Detroit's east side. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, this district contained a turbulent and colorful mix of ethnic groups, including Italians, Poles, Germans, Russians, Hungarians, African-Americans and others. In 1920, Detroit's Jewish community numbered 34,727 persons, about 3.5 percent of the city's total population of 993,678. While Jews predominated in their quarter, other immigrants and ethnic groups lived there as well.(2) One former resident of the old neighborhood joked that it was easy to distinguish the Jewish dwellings from those occupied by non-Jews. "The non-Jews grew flowers in front of their houses," he said. "The Jews grew dirt."(3) Variously dubbed "New Jerusalem," "Little Jerusalem," and "the Ghetto" by the city's press, the Jewish district abounded with small synagogues and "Hebrew stores of every description: butchers, bakers, clothiers, shoemakers, printing shops and restaurants," as one observer wrote. "A Hebrew might live his lifetime in the quarter and never leave its confines."(4)

Detroit's east side differed significantly from the classic tenement districts of New York's Lower East Side in that it consisted of single and two-family dwellings. Although congestion existed, it never came anywhere near the pushcart-laden streets of New York.(5) Nevertheless, the east side was one of the least desirable areas of Detroit in which to live. It continually lagged behind the other districts in the number of water pipes laid, sewers installed, streets paved and streetcar lines extended. The district was also more crowded and had higher rents and higher disease and death rates than other parts of the city.(6)

The editor of the Jewish American, Detroit's English-Jewish weekly, ruefully admitted that the Jewish quarter contained "tenement houses that are actually unfit to live in: old, decrepit, polluted and infected hovels, where human beings endeavor to exist and where a young generation is reared."(7) Most Purple Gang members grew up in this environment.

The gang's members were the children of immigrants from eastern Europe, primarily Russia and Poland, who had come to the United States in the great immigration wave from 1881 to 1914.(8) Most of the boys had been born in the United States or came to the country as small children. For all intents and purposes, they were second-generation Americans.(9)

Their parents were working class and, strictly speaking, not Orthodox Jews in the exact sense of the term. That is, they did not obey all the religious dictates mandated by Orthodox Judaism. …

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