The Purple Gang

by Allan Myers

When I was just a little kid, my father said to me, “Son, everyone in our family is not of a kind and gentle nature as you and me. I have a first cousin, Joe Myers, who married Becky Regowsky, AKA Bessie Rogers. They were gangsters in Detroit during the 1920’s and 1930’s, belonging to the notorious Purple Gang.”

The Purple Gang started in the lower east side of Detroit, just before World War I. The members were children of recently immigrated Jewish parents from Russia. It is rumored that the name, “Purple Gang,” came from a story of two merchants who had been victims of the gangs’ shoplifting and vandalism. One of the merchants said, “These boys are not like other children of their age, they’re tainted, off-color.” “Yes,” replied the other, “They’re rotten, purple like the color of bad meat, they’re a Purple Gang.”

When Prohibition began in Michigan on May 1, 1918, the young Purple Gang escalated from crimes of vandalism on the streets to armed robbery, extortion, bootlegging and hijacking liquor. They were used as terrorists by corrupt labor leaders to hold union members in check.

The Purple Gang was taught well in the ways of the rackets by two of the “older and established” mobsters, Henry Shorr and Charlie Leiter. The Purples’ leaders at the time were the four Bernstein brothers, Abe, Joe, Ray and Izzy. They were ruthless, prospered and soon branched out into vice, gambling and narcotics. The gang ruled the Detroit underworld after a machine gun massacre in March, 1927. Three hired gunners suspected of shooting a Purple Gang distributor, were shot by Fred “Killer” Burke, who was hired by the Purples’. Burke was famous for the part that he played later in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in Chicago in 1932.

The Purple Gang remained in power in the Detroit underworld from 1927 to 1935. They controlled the wire service to all of the Detroit bookies and eventually became the illegal liquor suppliers to Al Capone’s Chicago mob. Capone thought it was better to make the Purples’ his bootleg agents than to go to war with them to take over the Detroit operations.

The Purple reign ended in 1935 when most of the members were either killed off by other gangs or arrested to serve long prison terms. Joe and Bessie Myers spent many years in the pen. They were eventually released and then moved to Denver. As I was not born until 1935, the year that the Purple Gang was dismantled, I can not in any way, be held responsible for the acts of my ancestors.

Allan Myers