Saturday, December 29, 2018

Detroit's Numbers Racket

Today's state run lotteries are first cousins to the illegal policy rackets of the early twentieth century--known by players as the numbers game. Curious how things once illegal become legal when the government gets involved. The grass-roots game had much better odds but much lower payouts than today's state-run lotteries. To win, a player needed to match only three numbers rather than the six or seven used today with astronomical odds against winning. Then as now, some of the most avid players were the people who could least afford it.

Beginning in the 1920s, the Purple Gang-controlled numbers game in Detroit was a profitable money machine for the Bernstein Brothers and their associates who were many. Numbers runners, bag men, and accountants kept the money flowing. There was a fortune to be made from the pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars of working-class immigrants--particularly Italians, Jews, and the Irish. Members of Detroit's black community developed into major players in the innercity numbers racket where the game was popular.

Many people made tax-free extra bucks running numbers. Seemed like everybody had a favorite number or several numbers they played daily if they had some small change. Playing was convenient, bets could be taken over the phone. People could also place more costly combination bets of any permutation of their three numbers. For example, 127 could win with 127, 172, 217, 271, 712, and 721. Every place where liquor or soda pop was consumed became a numbers drop. Every grocery store, barber shop, beauty shop, candy store, and virtually every business within a runners assigned territory was a potential numbers drop. The more money a numbers runner collected, the more money he or she made. 

The numbers game appealed to people who were not habitues of the “high-class” gambling establishments of Detroit’s high rollers, social climbers, and underworld figures that mingled nightly with unsettling familiarity. The urge to gamble was not limited to the well-heeled public and wealthy industrialists. Everyday people wanted to place bets. If they couldn’t afford to chase Dame Fortune, they were content to wink at Lady Luck.

Spare change and small bills made up the bulk of the daily take. The game was easy to play—pick three numbers ranging from 000 to 999 and wait for the daily winning number. Players placed bets with a numbers runner who collected the money and recorded the bets in a handbook with the bettor’s name and date written in. A receipt with a serial number printed at the bottom was given to the bettor to prove he or she placed the bet in the event they won. A more sophisticated version of the game we known as Keno had greater payouts but greater odds.

The odds for the basic game were one in a thousand. If you were the only person to hit that number that day, your payoff could be 600 to 1, otherwise the jackpot was split among the winners. Bagmen collected the money from the runners and took it to a central location called a numbers bank where a group of accountants processed the bets, counted the money, and passed it on to a central drop at a secret location.

At first, the numbers were drawn from numbered balls in a ball cage or three spins of a wheel of fortune. These methods could be manipulated and soon fell out of favor. Players wanted three numbers that were certified random. Bernstein’s game used the last three numbers of the United States Treasury Department balance which was printed daily in the business section of newspapers. When the Treasury Department began to round off their numbers—so they wouldn’t be a party to illegal gambling schemes—the three last digits of the number of shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange became the daily winning number. That number was found conveniently in the daily papers. Choosing today's lotto number picks have gone back to the numbered-ball drops which are televised to prevent fraud.

Accounting books seized by treasury agents in a 1940 raid of a Paradise Valley numbers drop revealed as many as 6,000 men and women were employed by Detroit numbers operators. The average payout was 16% of the take divided among the winners. The number runners who took the bets filled out the betting slips and got 25% of their daily take. The bagmen who collected the money and betting slips from the bookies took them to a secret central location. They made 10% of what they brought in. Finally, the promoters took 49% for themselves and their overhead. All of those accountants needed to be paid—not to mention the occasional bail bondsman.

Because of the large territories where the game was played, the profits were huge. But this scheme was not without its dark side. Anyone skimming money off the top, holding out on winners, compromising the operation, or attracting unwanted attention from the authorities would be quickly eliminated.

Link to the wine brick racket;postID=2979020335839039617;onPublishedMenu=postsstats;onClosedMenu=postsstats;postNum=5;src=postname

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Elusive Purple Gang

Purple Gang lineup in 13th Precinct--the Canfield Street station.

Since May 2018, I've been researching Detroit's Prohibition-era kingpins--the Purple Gang--for an untitled book I'm writing. As helpful as the Midtown Detroit Public Library Burton Historical Collection and the Walter Reuther Library were to my early research, a couple of trips to the Windsor, Ontario Library, Biblioasis bookstore, and landmarks where the liquor trade flourished were information-rich finds. Seems like the Canadians have done a better job documenting their Prohibition history than Americans have.

One thing I've learned is that Al Capone had more to do with smuggling on both sides of the international border than most people realize. He was the larger than life figure who defined the Big City gang boss. Capone ruled from Chicago and his organization financed affiliates in Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Cleveland.

Rather than muscle in on the Purple Gang's Detroit territory, Capone cut a fat deal with the gang to take all the uncut liquor they could hijack or smuggle across the Detroit River. The Purples were not the only gang in the liquor acquisition business. They competed with the Italian Dago Mob to the east and the Italian Moustache Pete's to the west for control of the illegal booze business. The Jewish Purple Gang worked with anybody who could help them make money. They worked with members of both gangs and acted as a buffer between them until the 1931s.

Some background reading.
In addition to reading books on the various aspects of the liquor trade and scouring the Internet for information, my most fertile area for details on the gang is coming from The site carries Detroit Free Press archives dating to the nineteenth-century. Patient navigating brings up the original headlines and articles. The gang's bloody history reported on by the yellow press of the time is well-known--their arrest records, acquittals, convictions, murders, and assaults. What isn't known is much about their personal lives.

Tommy's Bar 1928 Purple Gang roundup at the height of their power.

I'm struggling to find out some factual information about gang members families. Obtaining death certificates should be routine, but these are proving difficult to get. Purple Gang members I'd like to know more about are the Bernstein brothers Abe, Ray, Joe, and Isadore; the Keywells Harry and Phil; Harry Millman; Irving Milberg; Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher. If any of these wise guys have relatives with some basic information, contact me at I want to portray them as accurately as possible.

Right now, I'm most interested in Joe Bernstein's wife. One source says she was Marguerite Ball--a dancer with the George White Follies based in Chicago. disputes this. She may be the Yoko Ono of this story. After her husband took a slug in the spleen in 1930, she gave him an ultimatum, "Either the gang or me." I know there is more to that story than is readily apparent.

The Purple Gang members were real people beyond the headlines but little documentation is available. I have two theories why so little personal information is available about these "well-known" underworld figures. The first and most obvious reason is they fiercely protected their wives and kids and kept them out of the public eye. Reporters who harassed or threatened the security of family members soon felt the wrath of a gang inspired beating. My other theory is that their Jewish families were ashamed and embarrassed by their hoodlum sons. Photos and other memorabilia must exist, but they are surely closely guarded family artifacts. After eighty years, it would be wonderful if some of that history were preserved and shared.

Tough street kids with a rifle.
Many immigrant children from Detroit's lower east side worked as hard as their parents to rise above poverty and squalor to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, rabbis, priests, policemen, firemen, and tradesmen. But others were too smart for that. These boys saw how tough life was for their struggling immigrant parents. They wanted to short-circuit the system and snatch the American Dream rather than work a real job. The Purple Gang developed into one of the most feared, wealthy, and successful crime organizations in the country. They were the only Jewish gang in the country who dominated a large American city. But in time, most of the gang members pushed their luck and ended up in either prison or the cemetery. By the mid-thirties--after a bloody Italian mob war--the Mafia consolidated and took over the Detroit underworld. The Purple Gang was finished as an organization.

I'm surprised how many Detroiters have never heard of the Purple Gang. There are some people who maintain there never was a Purple Gang--that they were only a media creation of the yellow press looking for headlines. Back in the day, whenever alleged Purples were questioned by police about the gang, their answer was always the same, "The Purple Gang? Never heard of them." One thing is for certain, every one of them broke their mother's heart.

The Las Vegas Mob Museum

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Las Vegas Mob Museum

Al Capone--CEO of the Chicago Organization from 1925-1931.

The Mob Museum in Las Vegas is a must-see destination for anyone who wants to understand the extent of underworld influence in the United States. Every dollar spent on consumer products and/or services in America has a hidden mob tax built into it. The cost of hijacking, extortion, labor racketeering, theft, payoffs, protection, and influence peddling are all factored into the final price of doing business. The main reason the underworld exists is to make large amounts of tax-exempt money for its members who disdain holding a regular full-time job where people have to work for a living. Gangsters consider working people "suckers."

National and international crime organizations have woven their way into the fabric of our economy, our law enforcement agencies, and our hallowed halls of government. When politicians take campaign money from lobbyists--over and under the table--it is given with the understanding that the government official will vote in a certain way on their issues. The underworld considers these people "stooges."

Politicians roundly deny it, but they are addicted to the life blood of politics--dirty money. When we hear about the "deep state," organized crime should be its synonym. "We're even bigger than U.S. Steel," boasted racketeer Meyer Lanksy before government officials.

The Mob Museum at 300 Stewart Avenue in Downtown Las Vegas.

My wife and I enjoyed our visit to the Mob Museum. We saw a ten foot section of the actual St. Valentine's Day Massacre wall, replete with bullet holes and many other gangland artifacts including a Thompson machine gun. The museum also offers two interactive law enforcement workshops.

The first workshop was on use of force. We were outfitted with a police utility belt and a 9 mm firearm which shoots electronic impulses that sound and feel real. First, they checked us out on the use of the gun and police procedure, then we did a full-scale video simulation of a convenience store robbery. The goal was to make the thief drop his gun. I was slow on the trigger and the bad guy shot me.

Next, we had a simulation with a real person in a confined space. The guy had a gun and an indignant attitude. He turned and started running. My wife virtually shot him in the back. She felt terrible afterward; the pretend gunman gave her a dirty look which made her feel worse. Knowing when to shoot or not is a split second decision that could result in the death of a suspect or your death. What a sobering object lesson in use of force!

Fred "Killer" Burke on his way to Marquette Prison.
The other workshop was a crime lab where I used a stereo microscope to match crime bullets with test bullets--the science of ballistics. That was right up my alley as I was researching for my new book project on Detroit's Purple Gang.

The first scientific crime lab in America was established at the University of Chicago in response to the rampant mob warfare in Chicago and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in particular. Investigators were able to match the bullets from the St. Valentine's Massacre to test bullets fired from two Thompson machine guns belonging the Fred "Killer" Burke placing him at the scene. The same "choppers" were used in the assassination of New York mafioso Frankie Yale and the Milaflores Massacre in Detroit which cut down three men.

We also were able to do some DNA matching which doesn't help me on my current project but was fascinating nonetheless. I passed on the simulated cadaver investigation exhibit, but my wife--a former nurse--was all over it. I can recommend both workshops. The rest of the museum tells the narrative of organized crime in America and internationally.

Gangsters have fascinated Americans since the early 1930s when Hollywood produced the film Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson, followed closely by Scarface with Paul Muni and real-life former gangster George Raft. Warner Brothers Pictures specialized in the crime genre that launched the careers of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Later actors to benefit from this public fascination with the mob are Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Robert Deniro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, Al Pacino, and many others. With the advent of cable television, the popularity of crime films and true crime programming continues today and shows no signs of abating.

"I'm innocent. I didn't see nothin'."
America's first television event was the Kefauver Crime Committee Hearings in 1950. Most of America had never heard the word mafia before. Now, those lucky enough to own a television set were able to see the United States Congress question real-life gangsters. The homily, "Crime doesn't pay" was the government's mantra, but apparently many Americans never got the message. Corporate crime is alive and well.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Prohibition Loophole--Wine Bricks

Wine Brick

Once Prohibition became law on January 16, 1920, many wine producers in California got out of the wine business and converted their vineyards to orchards or sold their land. A constitutional amendment had never been repealed before, so the drastic move seemed like a reasonable way to cut their losses.

But other vintners began to promote and sell grape juice and other non-alcoholic products. Some enterprising vintners began producing non-alcoholic wine bricks. The compressed and concentrated brick was to be rehydrated with one gallon of water to make reconstituted grape juice.

The Volstead Act made it against the law to produce, distribute, or sell alcohol products. But the law had a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. Under Section 29 of Volstead Act, consumption of alcohol was not expressly prohibited. Up to 200 gallons could be produced privately for consumption at home.

To protect themselves from breaking federal Prohibition laws, vintners printed a disclaimer on their packaging. They warned consumers not to place their grape juice in a cool, dark spot for twenty-one days, or add yeast lest it convert to wine. That the products were labeled Claret, Port, Muscatel, Burgundy, and Riesling underscored the intended use of the product.

Wine was culturally the drink of choice for many Italian and French Americans and wine bricks became a legitimate business opportunity for Chicago and Detroit racketeers acting as distributors. They cornered the market. The underworld began buying the bricks by the ton and distributing them nationwide by rail. The pre-Prohibition price was $9.50 per ton; by 1924, the price was $375.

The wine brick trade became big business and was one of the Detroit's Purple Gang controlled rackets. It was a factor that played into the Collingwood Manor Massacre of 1931. Three leaders of the Little Jewish Navy gang were lured to an apartment with the promise that the Purple Gang would give them the wine brick concession for the customary kickbacks. Instead, Izzy Sutker, Joe Leibowitz, and Hymie Paul got paid off in lead for trying to muscle in on Purple Gang territory. 

In 1933, the Volstead Act was repealed and America went wet. The bottom fell out of the bootlegging business and the thirteen-year-long nightmare of gang warfare on America's streets ended. Those winery owners who weathered the storm and supplied organized crime with their raw material became rich, increased their landholdings, and saved America's wine industry.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Richard Streicher Jr. Murder--Literary Classics Book Award Finalist

I'm pleased to announce that The Richard Streicher Jr. Murder--Wheatmark Inc. was chosen a finalist in Literary Classics 2018 Book Awards. Among other finalists is Arlo Guthrie for his book Monsters--Rising Son International, Ltd.

Gold, Silver, and Top Honor awards will be awarded from the field of finalists in a range of fiction and nonfiction categories on November 15th. Winners will be invited to a reception held in Rapid City, South Dakota in May. I look forward to attending the writers conference, awards ceremony, formal gala, and book signing.

The Richard Streicher Jr. Murder was intended to be a legacy project for the Ypsilanti Historical Society. I'm very surprised my true crime title has been singled out for this important international award.


Release Date: November 1, 2018

Literary Classics

Literary Classics Announces Youth Media Book Award Finalists

Rapid City, SD - The 2018 Literary Classics Book Award Finalists and Top Honors Book Awards Finalists have been announced. Selected from submissions by entrants around the globe, these distinguished honorees are recognized for their contributions to the craft of writing, illustrating, and publishing exceptional literature for a youth audience. In this highly competitive industry these books represent the foremost in literature in their respective categories.

The competition this year was tremendous, and we congratulate all of the finalists for their outstanding and inspiring work. Final award levels and categories will be announced November 15, 2018. All Silver, Gold and Top Honors award recipients will be invited to attend a writers’ conference, awards ceremony, formal gala, and authors’ book signing to be held in conjunction with the Great American Book Festival, May 10, 11 and 12, 2019 in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota.

The Literary Classics selection committee is proud to recognize this year’s titles in literature which exemplify the criteria set forth by the Literary Classics award selection committee. The Eighth Annual Literary Classics Book Awards will be presented in May, 2019 in conjunction with the Great American Book Festival in the City of Presidents.

Richard Streicher Jr. school friend remembers him:

Tuesday, October 16, 2018 Marching Toward a Million Hits

When I started my blog in May 2011, my goal was to promote and build readership for my debut book, Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel. After a year, if I got 100 hits a day or 1,000 hits for the month, I was pleased. Once I developed a core audience, I started experiencing the instant gratification of posting. In seven years, I've written over 400 blog posts and amassed over three-quarters of a million hits globally. 

I've blogged about topics related to my books Zug Island, Terror In Ypsilanti: John Norman Collins Unmasked and The Richard Streicher Jr. Murder: Ypsilanti's Depot Town Mystery. My current project is about the battle for the Detroit River during Prohibition. Not wanting to blog my book while writing it, I do blog about topics related to the general research I'm doing--for instance, my post on the Thompson Machine Gun. It plays a part in my treatment of the era but only as a tool for murder and mayhem.

My latest project is about the Purple Gang, the Mafia, and the federal government's attempts to control the flood of bootleg liquor crossing the Detroit River. The United States Treasury Department estimates that 75-80% of the booze smuggled into the country crossed the river between 1920 and 1933--the Prohibition years.

As an independent author starting late in the game at sixty-one-years old, my original goal was to write a memoir and see it through to publication. The positive response and initial success of Zug Island prompted me to write a second book, and then a third. Those books have won six writing awards and two of them are Amazon best-sellers.

My current goal is to finish my fourth book within the next two years. Once that book is published, I plan to promote it for a year and then wind down my writing career. When that happens, I hope to have reached over one-million hits--less than 240,000 to go.

A special thank you to all of my readers, especially those who wrote reviews and posted them on Amazon. Reviews provide valuable word-of-mouth exposure and promote sales. If you like any of my books and have yet to write a review, it's not too late. That said, I'm pleased with the level of success I've achieved as an independent author and hope readers will embrace my next project.

To write a review, click on my Amazon author site, then click on the book icon, and scroll down:  You can also click on the book icons in the right sidebar of this page.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Motown Memories

The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, and The Miracles in 1965 beginning their twenty-one city tour of the United Kingdom tuning the British ear to the Motown sound.

One of the must-see attractions in Detroit is Hitsville USA--the Motown Museum on West Grand Boulevard--also named Berry Gordy, Jr. Boulevard. The museum was opened in 1985 by Berry's sister Esther Edwards and has been going strong ever since.

Everyone knows the Motown music and the legendary performers, but the thing that fascinated me most about the guided tour was Berry Gordy's story and his original business model.

When I went to Hitsville USA, I heard the story of how Berry got started in the music business. From a modest $800 Gordy family business loan and a two-story frame house, he built a music empire that shaped the history and direction of pop music and helped integrate American culture.

Musical magic was born in a converted garage called Studio A, while the Gordy family lived in the second floor flat. I went upstairs and saw the small apartment where Motown records was born. The kitchen table where the family ate, often found Berry Gordy with his friend Smokey Robinson stuffing newly pressed warm vinyl into record jackets and rushing them off to local Detroit DJs and record stores. Gordy's first big hit was "Money." Motown's business was literally built from the ground up. Not bad for what started as a
cottage industry that developed into a corporate colossus.

One of Gordy's early jobs was on the assembly-line at Ford's Lincoln-Mercury plant, wrestling with automobile upholstery. He would get ahead on his production quota to create small pockets of time to compose songs and develop melodies in his head. If Berry liked what popped into his mind, he wrote it down in a spiral notebook he kept in his back pocket. Once the mind-numbing repetition of the assembly-line became second-nature, his mind was free to create and dream about creating a music factory that brings in raw talent at one end and produces a seasoned performer at the other end. Motown was not so much an assembly-line as a hit factory of skilled craftsmen and women turning out a consistently high-quality product known the world over as the Motown Sound.

Berry Gordy outside Hitsville USA--2648 W. Grand Boulevard.

For anyone who is a Motown fan, the documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" tells the behind the scenes story of the Funk Brothers from their first-hand accounts like nothing else can. This small band of studio musicians played on all of the Motown hits. The documentary won four film awards and two Emmys in 2002.

Here is a recent link to Motown song writer Lamont Dozier reminiscing about writing some of the greatest Motown hits ever recorded:

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Thompson Submachine Gun--World War I era "Trench Broom" Becomes Prohibition-era "Street Sweeper"

Thompson Submachine Gun and black jack on display at Detroit Historical Museum.

In the early years of Prohibition in America, the weapons of choice for the underworld were fists, black jacks, brass knuckles, tire thumpers, stilettos, hand guns, sawed-off shotguns, and rifles. With the first attempt on Al Capone's life on January 12, 1925, members of the late Dion O'Banion's North Side Gang--Bugs Moran, "Schemer" Drucci, and Hymie Weiss--had sworn a blood vendetta against Capone and his organization for assassinating their boss.

The trio raked .45-caliber bullets along the side of Capone's car with a weapon new to the streets--the Thompson submachine gun. Capone survived the attack. When he looked at the perforated driver's side of his Cadillac touring car and the damage done to the buildings in the line of fire, Capone remarked, "I need to get some of those." Big Al hastened to equip his arsenal with machine guns.

The press dubbed the weapon the "tommy gun," and it changed the rules of gangster warfare. The automatic weapon was co-invented by Brigadier General John T. Thompson in 1918. The first commercial models were made by the Colt Manufacturing Company in 1921, too late for World War I. The United States Army declined to adopt the weapon and law enforcement showed little interest in the weapon because the police were afraid of innocent civilian casualties.
Police were slow to recognize the impact these guns would make on their streets.

With the military and law enforcement markets closed to Thompson, he and several investors started the Auto-Ordinance Corporation in New York. They manufactured 15,000 of the guns in 1923 selling each for $175 with a 20-round clip or a canister drum that could hold up to 50 .45 cal rounds for an extra $50. Later on, 100-round drums became available.

Auto-Ordinance wholesaled the submachine guns to firearm retailers across the country and directly to the public through mail order. All the seller required was a purchaser's name and address. Because this hybrid weapon was entirely new and in a class of its own, it didn't fall under existing gun laws. Anyone could legally purchase as many submachine guns as he could afford.

Nobody planned for this military weapon to be available to civilians--much less fall into the hands of outlaws--but business is business and a sale is a sale. The weapon soon became a status symbol for gangsters. Once the government instituted strict controls in the late 1920s, black market guns sold for as much as $2,000 each. The only people who could afford them were gangsters. Attempts were made to etch out serial numbers or stamp small Xs over the serial numbers, but crime science developed an acid wash that could bring out the obscured numbers.

The Thompson machine gun--also known as the chopper, the Chicago Typewriter, the Trench Broom, and the Street Sweeper--changed the rules of gang warfare. The original assault weapon was light weight (under ten pounds) and portable; it came with a 20-round stock box clip or with an available canister drum holding 50 .45-cal cartridges; the gun had a 500 yard range with a rate of fire between 600 to 750 rounds per minute; and the muzzle velocity was 935 feet per second.

The original models were hard to control and next to impossible to aim accurately, but as weapons of mass murder and mayhem, the tommy gun had no rivals. The underworld was fascinated with its new plaything. The weapon's compact size allowed it to break down small enough to be carried in a violin case. The chopper became the signature weapon of several major crime syndicates and was involved in some of the most infamous murders of the Prohibition era.

Link to Detroit's Purple Gang post:

Friday, September 21, 2018

Ypsilanti District Library Hosts Booktalk on Richard Streicher Jr. Murder

On Tuesday October 2, 2018, I will be giving a book talk on The Richard Streicher Jr. Murder at the Ypsilanti District Library on Whittaker Road at 6:30 pm. This event is sponsored by the Ypsilanti Historical Society which will provide free donuts and apple cider. Please join us if you are in the area and bring a friend.

This Depot Town cold case project was the brainchild of Ypsilanti Historical Society docents George Ridenour and Lyle McDermott. From 2001 to 2007, they collected two boxes of documentation for this case from government agencies and interviews with several people who went to school with Richard Streicher Jr.

After an extended illness, George passed away. Lyle asked if I would complete the project. This crime was big news in Ypsilanti during the Depression but mostly forgotten about for eighty years. Now for the first time in print, the story is told from the point-of-view of the people who lived it. This missing part of Ypsilanti's lost history has been found. My only hope is that George would be pleased with the final result.

I plan to speak for about twenty minutes and then answer questions about either the Streicher book or my John Norman Collins book. Copies of my books will be available at clearance prices. They make great holiday gifts for the true crime or history lover in your life.

Streicher school friend makes an appearance in July: