Feature Articles

July 10, 2000

The Purple Gang: An interview with Paul Kavieff

By John William Tuohy

John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washingon, D.C.

     Paul Kavieff has a refreshing Midwestern likability, and as well he should, born and raised in Detroit. He holds an undergraduate degree in Political Science, and is currently enrolled at Wayne State University, where he is completing a Master's degree in History.
     When you speak to Paul Kavieff about the Detroit underworld, you can feel the excitement in his voice, and you know that this is a man who has a complete grasp on his subject. That same enthusiasm and authority comes across in his new book "THE PURPLE GANG," which has just been released by BARRICADE BOOKS and is available on AMAZON.COM.
     Paul has written for Detroit News and is widely regarded as the authoritative source of Detroit gangland in the 1920s. He was also the consultant to the screen play "The Purples."

TUOHY: Paul, in broad terms, who were the Purple Gang, and where do they fit in the history of gangland?

PAUL KAVIEFF: The Purples were really a very loose confederation of mostly, but not exclusively, Jewish gangsters. Well, the gang started as a group of juvenile delinquents on the lower east side of Detroit, a group of about 16 or 17 children from the same neighborhood. Mostly they were involved in the usual petty crime of juveniles. . .rolling drunks and stealing from hucksters. It was the advent of prohibition that really got them organized, prohibition started in Michigan on May 1, 1918.
Detroit was really the first US City with a population of over 250,000 to have a prohibition law. The opportunities provided by that, early prohibition, are what helped to escalate these kids into mobsters. Remember, Detroit is a mile away from Windsor, Canada and beer was easily available there from their export docks. Strangely, Ontario, where Windsor is, had a prohibition law but not a law against exporting liquor to countries that didn't have prohibition, so just about anybody with a rowboat could go over there, and tell the export people they were picking up a shipment that was to go to Cuba. Nobody asked a lot of questions.
The money was fantastic, by 1923 the bootleg business in Detroit was estimated to be over $250,000,000 a year, but the Purples weren't so much involved in bootlegging liquor as they were hijacking liquor and that was really how they made their reputation.
They were a predatory group and they were known for their ruthlessness, I mean they shoot everybody during these hijackings, even the guys who were simply driving the trucks. What that resulted in was that if you were making a beer delivery and were robbed by the Purples, you fought to the death, because you knew that the Purples were going to haul you out of the truck and kill you anyway.
By 1925, the Purples had established themselves as strong-arm guys, bodyguards and the like, for gamblers in Detroit. But what gave them life as a gang was that they had an enormous payroll, they had cops on their payroll, city officials, newspaper people, really they could not have operated the way they did without the official nod.

TUOHY: How did the name, the Purple Gang, originate?

PAUL KAVIEFF: Well, there isn't a lot of available to clearly explain the origins of the name, but it was probably a journalistic adventure because I found no reference to any operation called the Purple Gang until 1928. One story was that when they were kids and were stealing from shopkeepers, one of the shopkeepers said that "those kids are off-colored, they're purple, purple like the color of bad meat." Another story is that there had been two brothers, Sam and Ben Purple, who had been associated with the gang when they were juveniles, but had nothing to do with the adult organized crime group. But I don't believe that has anything to do with it. Again, my best guess is that the name was a media invention.

TUOHY: Paul, I'm almost obligated to bring this up, the gang is mentioned on the Elvis Presley record Jail House Rock, aren't they?

PAUL KAVIEFF: The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang, lets rock. . . yeah! They were mentioned in the song and several members lived to hear it on the radio.

TUOHY: The Zerilli's, the family that allegedly has run the Mafia in Detroit for all these many decades, got their start during prohibition, didn't they?

PAUL KAVIEFF: The Zerilli family, or William Tocco, known as Black Bill, his son, Jack was recently indicted and convicted, was the head of the Detroit Mafia family with Joe Zerilli and a gangster named Papa John Pretizola. They ran the so-called River Gang, an Italian Mob operation that reached its peak in the 1920s, as a rum running operation, and that was what really bankrolled organized crime in Detroit and elsewhere.

TUOHY: What was Detroit's lower east side like just before prohibition?

PAUL KAVIEFF: The area where the Purple Gang came from was the Hasting Street neighborhood, it ran for three miles. The Jewish section, where the gang came from, took up only a portion of that course.
The area was surrounded by heavy industry on one side and an Italian section on the other. The Jewish portion of Hastings Street was working class, working poor. Lined on both sides by street hucksters and booths, very similar to New York's lower east side but on a smaller scale.

TUOHY: And so, for the most part, the gang members were the children of poor Russian Jews, weren't they?

PAUL KAVIEFF: The Purples were, for the most part, the sons of recently immigrated Russian Jews, although some of the members were actually born in the old country and brought here as infants, all of them were the sons of the working poor.

TUOHY: Among other misadventures, like murder for hire, and extortion, the Purple Gang also sold protection to Detroit narcotics dealers, is that right?

PAUL KAVIEFF: The Purples did sell drugs, actually I should say, what they did was to create a protection racket for the hoods who did sell drugs as a main source of income. So a dealer could operate in the city and make a lot of money selling drugs in so long as they kicked back to the Purple Gang, if they didn't kick back to the Purples, then the Purples brutally put them out of business.
The same was true for the Handbook industry. Once there was one Handbook operator who refused to pay the Purples so they took him and brought him out to the Lake, cut a hole in it and dunked him in the ice a couple of times, after that, he paid.

TUOHY: You wrote in "The Purple Gang," that the gang was never a tightly organized criminal syndicate, but a loose confederation of predominantly Jewish gangsters. So was there one central gang?

PAUL KAVIEFF: The core group of the gang was composed of the Bernstein brothers, Abe and Joe, who were the leaders of the gang. Abe was more or less the diplomat, Joe was the mover and shaker on the street.
He later became a legitimate businessman. The core was ten or twelve guys who grew up on the lower east side of Detroit. Sometimes the gang numbered as high as eighteen or slightly more.

TUOHY: The so-called "Little Jewish Navy," what was it?

PAUL KAVIEFF: The Little Jewish Navy was a fraction of the Purple Gang and was led by a guy named One Armed Gelfin. Gelfin and several others in the group were Chicago gangsters who were thrown out of Chicago by the Capone mob, were the core of the group. Again, there were about ten or twelve members in all.
They were bankrolled in this venture by the Purples. The group also did enforcement work for the Purples too. Otherwise, they had about a dozen fast boats and they hauled liquor from Canada into Detroit.

TUOHY: It's been my understanding that Moe Dalitz ran the Little Jewish Navy, not true?

PAUL KAVIEFF: Well Moe Dalitz's parents owned a laundry in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is about forty miles outside Detroit and for a very short time in or about 1910-1919, Dalitz did live in Detroit. Probably near the Hasting Street area, but that's about the only connection to the area and to the Purples. I'm sure that during the prohibition the Purples knew Dalitz, but to my knowledge, Moe Dalitz was never associated with the Purples of the Little Jewish Navy.

TUOHY: And the gang worked as labor terrorists too, which led to them becoming a dominant power in the Detroit underworld, correct?

PAUL KAVIEFF: Absolutely. They came to prominence in that field during the Cleaners and Dyers war, where the Purples and several Chicago hoods organized the Detroit Cleaners and Dyers by creating trade associations that they controlled and then extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars a year out of the industry, which was a lot of money in those days. The Purples' brutality in this is what helped them to make their mark in the underworld.

TUOHY: Lets go to another massacre where they played a role, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The gang supplied Canadian whiskey to the Capone organization in Chicago? How did that come around?

PAUL KAVIEFF: Well originally there was so much liquor coming through Detroit that Al Capone decided he was going to set up a base of operation here; well, in 1927 he came here and had a meeting with the Purples and the Italian mobs and told them what his idea was.Well, they told him, basically, "That river belongs to us" and that he wasn't moving in here. And Capone, who was an astute businessman, realized that instead of going to war with the Purples, it would just be easier set them up as his agents in Detroit. So the Purples put a label on Canadian Club whisky and called it Old Log Cabin, a really good quality liquor that they were selling to the Capone's.
One of the people that Capone sold Old Log Cabin to was Bugs Moran. Bug Moran decided that he wasn't making enough money off his liquor sales and decided to buy from some hijackers who had an inferior product which Moran was actually selling at a high profit, but his distributors started complaining about the quality and when Moran called Capone and said that he wanted to start selling Old Log Cabin again, Capone said that he was sorry, that he had already sold Moran's consignment to somebody else. So Moran started hijacking the Purple Gang supplied trucks, which probably brought the Purples in on the murder as conspirators. Three of the Purples rented rooms across the street from Moran's warehouse in fact and Abe Bernstein, acting as an anonymous hijacker, set up a deal with Moran to sell Moran a load of hijacked Purple gang liquor that he was willing to sell for a very low price and Moran agreed to meet him at his now famous garage.
The role of the Purples were the spotters, they watched the Moran's enter the garage and then tipped off a group of hitmen from a gang called Egan's Rats. That was why Moran lived, the Purples mistook Al Wienshank as Moran.

TUOHY: They were rulers over the Detroit underworld for only five years. You wrote that jealousies, egos, and inter-gang quarrels would eventually cause the Purple Gang to self-destruct. Tell us about that, Paul.

PAUL KAVIEFF: Basically, if you look at the age of the Purples, they were all kids, all in their twenties with a lot of money. Aside from the core group who grew up together, there was really no loyalty among the gang, so they self-destructed, they killed each other off in inter-gang disputes.

TUOHY: And what's the legacy of the Purple Gang in the underworld and for Detroit?

PAUL KAVIEFF: Well, as strange as it seems, the name, the name is still out there, people all over the world know it. They are a sense of pride and embarrassment to the Detroit Jewish community. A sense of pride, not so much that these guys were gangsters and they were Jewish but that they were tough and they stood up. And of course there is a sense of embarrassment in the fact that these were Jews and many Jews in Detroit feel that they brought a lot of bad publicity to the Jewish community here.
I personally don't feel that way, I mean this group was just a small percentage of the whole, and these are choices people make. But anyway, the legacy? I suppose the legacy would be that they were really Detroit's first organized crime group of any power, that they were one of the first organized groups in the history of the mob, overall, in an era when the Italians were coming into power.

TUOHY: What's next for Paul Kavieff? You'll continue writing I hope.

PAUL KAVIEFF: Sure, I absolutely intend on writing. Right now I'm in partnership with another gentleman who has written a screen play called The Purples, which is loosely based on the Purples, which he's marketing right now and I've recently started research for a new book about a New York organized crime group that was very dominant during the 1930s. I intend to continue to write the history of different organized crime groups throughout the United States. That's really my main interest, I consider myself an organized crime historian with an interest in 20th century organized crime, as it developed during the prohibition era because that was, as far as I'm concerned, what bankrolled organized crime.

TUOHY: Paul, it's been a pleasure, I'm glad I made your acquaintance.

PAUL KAVIEFF: Thank you, John, I appreciate your time and I really do hope that people enjoy the book, it was difficult to write because so little has been written about the Purple Gang until this point, I really want the readers to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

Questions and comments to Mr. Kavieff can be addressed

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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