Fun with Purple

August 20, 2012

OK, the movie Purple: Organized Crime in aSmallTown, has come and gone leaving behind renewed interest in Clare’s gangster past.

I wrote a column a few weeks ago about Meyer Lansky, who was called “the chairman of the board” of organized crime inAmericaand his partnership with long time Clare resident Sam Garfield. Yes, Clare had a big time gangster operating here [at least some of the time] but no, he wasn’t a Purple. In fact Clare’s organized crime involvement came years after the Purple Gang had faded away.

The Purple Gang, however, sounds romantic while money laundering through oil leases is a snoozer.The result is an attempt to connect two separate historical happenings [The Purples & Clares gangsters] that were years apart to make a better story.

The Purple Gang was a short lived outfit. It came to prominence inDetroitabout 1927 and by 1932 had virtually disappeared. The Purples were unique in that they were the only Jewish gang to dominate an entire city. In other places the Irish, Jewish, and  Sicilian gangs either fought each other [Capone vs. O’Bannon, St. Valentines Day massacre] or combined in alliances like Meyer Lansky and Luck Luciano inNew York.

The Purples were a creation of Prohibition. They were largely a family operation. Ray Bernstein was the founder. When he was convicted of murder and went to prison his son Abe took over. The Bernstein’s, Abe, Ray, Joey, and Izzy were the core of the gang. Other family’s, the Kewell’s and Fleisher’s made up the balance. Compared to Capone and his organization the Purples were remarkably small.

The Purples were extraordinarily violent. They were predatory and went after other gangs, and even their own members. In 1931 a group of three Purples had broken away and formed what was called The Little Jewish Navy. They ran liquor across the Detroit River in small boats. Lured to an apartment by the Purples, the three were murdered in what came to be called The Collingwood Massacre. This was the last straw and the State ofMichiganand City ofDetroitcops came down on them hard. When they got through, most of the Purples were in prison and the gang was  a shadow of its former self.

With the Purples vulnerable, Joe Zirilli and the Italians decided to take over their territory. After killing a few Purples, they succeeded. By 1932 the Purple Gang as a meaningful force inDetroitcrime was gone.

While all of this was going on inDetroit, Meyer Lansky was operating a gambling operation out ofManhattan. He wasn’t a Purple and he wasn’t in the liquor business. He was partnered up with Lucky Luciano, not the Bernstein’s.

It wasn’t until 1964, 33 years after the Purples ended that Meyer

Lansky came to Clare and joined Sam Garfield in the oil business.Garfield’s money probably came from his association withLas Vegasmobster,  Moe Dalitz. Even though they knew each other fromDetroit, they were connected withClevelandandOhiomobs rather thanDetroit. Certainly not with thugs like the Purples.

Now there’s a website that claims that after prohibition gangsters “took over the Doherty Hotel.” They didn’t. A.J. Doherty likes to let people think that because it makes a more romantic story for the hotel. But no, gangsters never took over anything in Clare, let alone the Doherty Hotel.

And no,Livingstonkilling Isaiah Leebove didn’t have anything to do with the Purples or organized crime. These were just two shady oil guys, one of whom was nuts and a drunk. If the shooting hadn’t taken place in the Doherty Hotel Bar in front of people it wouldn’t have been noticed. Now it’s part of our folklore.

So, Clare did have a connection with organized crime on its very highest levels, but that was 33 years after the Purples and Prohibition. Did any of these people know each other back then?

Probably. One of the Bernstein’s worked for Sam Garfield at Mammoth Producing, his oil company. But mainly they operated in different cities and in  different criminal businesses. Lansky/Luciano [of Murder Incorporated fame] inNew Yorkgambling, and the Purples inDetroitsmuggling liquor.Garfield was in basketball gambling and various semi-legal enterprises inOhio. He was also an investor in the Havana Hilton.

I know that Forrest Meek, who died  two weeks ago, was researching a book he was going to call Purple Crude which would be about organized crime and the oil business. He never finished his research but I’m presuming a great deal of his work found its way into the documentary film many of you saw. I wish he’d finished the book. I’d have been first in line to buy it.

So, even if the connections are tenuous, and the facts a little shaky, the Purple Gang in Clare makes a great story and should provide us with years of entertainment. Thanks to Forrest Meek and moviemaker Ben Tigner for adding a little color and fun to our history.

Share This Post