Detroit crime history author recalls legacy of notorious Purple Gang

May 11, 2016

We talk with Daniel Waugh, author of "Off Color: The Violent History of Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang."


A century ago, Michigan passed a law that would enact statewide prohibition.

The Damon Act would take effect three years before national prohibition. The booze ban led to smuggling, speakeasies and an organized crime free-for-all.

Few groups were as violent as Detroit’s infamous Purple Gang.

The ‘Purples’ were Detroit’s most notorious gangsters in the 1920s and 30s.  The criminal organization was led mostly by immigrants from Detroit’s lower east side.

Detroit native Daniel Waugh is fascinated with the history of Midwest organized crime. He joined WKAR radio’s Current State to discuss his book “Off Color: The Violent History of Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang.”

The author points to the immigration of two young Jewish boys from Russia as the catalyst for Detroit’s problems with the Purple Gang.

“The two oldest Bernstein brothers, Abe and Joe, set sail for America in the early 20th century,” says Waugh.

When alcohol in Michigan was outlawed in 1918, the Bernstein brothers were still in grade school. They lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Detroit called Little Jerusalem.

“There was a significant amount of older Jewish-American criminals that were present in the neighborhood while the Bernstein brothers were passing through adolescence,” says Waugh. “Almost all of them were transplants from the underworld of the lower east side of New York.”

The criminal background that these men carried would follow them to Detroit.

According to Waugh, the Bernsteins took the business over from the older mobsters once they grew up.

“It was these older men who first started bringing in alcohol across the river from Canada,” says Waugh.

The Bernsteins, however, knew better than to increase their risk of arrest.

“They let somebody else do the hard work of smuggling across the river,” says Waugh. “Once they did, they would steal it from them right on the water.”

This is a less violent example of the crimes that the Purple Gang were involved with.

“They were essentially jacks of all crimes.  There wasn’t a felony they wouldn’t commit,” says Waugh.

“Bootlegging, hijacking, narcotics smuggling, and extortion. They were also very involved with contract murder.”

The Miraflores Massacre is perhaps the most infamous instance of violence associated with the Purple Gang.

“The Miraflores Massacre came about as the result of two murders,” says Waugh.

Johnny Reed, one of Purple Gang’s main distributors, was murdered in 1921. The triggerman who killed Reed was a Chicago man, Frank Wright.

“In March of 1927, Fred Burke and the Purple Gang lured Frank Wright to the Miraflores Apartments in Detroit,” says Waugh.

Wright arrived at the complex with two pals as backup. No one appeared to be there when the three showed up.

“As they turn to leave, the fire escape opens and machine gun fire spews out of the door, mowing them all down in the hallway,” says Waugh.

“It turned out to be the first time that the Thompson submachine gun was used in the Detroit underworld. The Purple Gang gets credit for that.”

Article by Ethan Merrill, Current State intern