July 10, 2000
The Purple Gang: An interview with Paul Kavieff
By John William Tuohy
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 to:MobStudy@aol.com
Mr. Tuohy can be reached at MobStudy@aol.com
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