Troublemakers from an early age, Abe, Ray, Joe and Izzy Bernstein formed a street gang who terrorized local merchants. Supposedly one shopkeeper described the brothers as ‘tainted’ like bad meat turned purple. With the state’s alcohol ban, the young Purples tried their hand at rum running. Driving cars with false floorboards and second gas tanks, they headed south to Toledo, Ohio where legal booze was plentiful. These sordid trips, however, were just practice runs for the real deal, which began in 1920 with the advent of national Prohibition.American laws were meaningless in Canada, and with only the Detroit River separating Windsor from the Motor City, rum running came naturally for the Purples. Not only did the Bernstein Brothers and their bad boys control liquor prices in Detroit, they became the major supplier of illegal booze to the New York and Chicago underworlds. For the next five years, the Purple Gang ruled with a strong arm and deadly bullets. Known for their violent methods, even Chicago-boss Al Capone didn’t dare cross them. As much as he wanted to expand his territory and cash in on the liquid loot, he held back. Capone knew better than to risk the rage of the Purples.
The Bernsteins wasted no time taking over most of Detroit’s blind pigs and cabarets. They never thought twice about shooting up a joint if a proprietor refused to cooperate. They even perfected a method of cutting liquor. For every bottle of smuggled whiskey, they produced two and a half bottles of diluted brew. By 1928, there were over 100 cutting plants operating in Detroit. The illegal liquor trade became second only to the city’s auto industry. While the Purples cashed in, their booming business also caused their downfall.Stressed by the huge demand of their customers and the government’s crackdown on the city’s criminal element, the Purple Gang slowly unraveled. In 1931, their infighting resulted in a triple killing known as the Collingwood Manor Massacre—one of Detroit’s worst gangland murders. Three Purple leaders were convicted and sent to Marquette Prison in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with life sentences. Although they remained a relatively strong force in Detroit’s underworld until 1935, the national crime syndicate eventually absorbed the remnants of what was once the powerful Purples.