Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"Kosher Nostra"--Detroit's Purple Gang Origins

Russian immigrants waiting on Ellis Island.
Detroit's slums were the breeding ground for crime and violence when waves of European immigrants settled in the city between 1881 and 1914. The Purple Gang members were second-generation Jewish-Americans of Russian and Polish descent. Their Hastings Street neighborhood was on Detroit's Lower East Side known as Black Bottom. These young men were born into poverty and received little education barring them from desirable jobs. Mob life offered them everything but respectability.

Street punks waiting for some action.
Before they were known as the Purple Gang, they were part of a neighborhood mob of delinquent youths who became thieves, pickpockets, and shakedown artists primarily in the Eastern Market area just north of their home turf. Under the mentorship of older neighborhood gangsters--Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr--the Purples began to commit armed robbery, hijacking, bootlegging, loan sharking, kidnapping, extortion, and murder for hire. Soon, gang members ran gambling rings, speakeasies, and a numbers racket (lottery) among Detroit's black population.

Purple Gang members avoiding a press photograph at the 13th Precinct police station.
The Purple Gang was exceptionally violent and ruled the Detroit underworld from 1927 until 1935. Authorities estimate that the gang murdered over 500 members of rival bootlegging gangs during Detroit's bloody turf wars. They were virtually immune to police interference because of payoffs to city officials and local beat cops. When known Purple Gang associates were arrested, witnesses were terrified to testify against them.

The Purples came about through the merging of two groups--Oakland County's Sugar House Gang led by Leiter and Shorr, and a mob of Jewish street hoods led at that time by nineteen-year-old Sammy Coen, who assumed the alias Sammy Purple. Detroit detective Henry Gavin claimed the gang was named after Sammy. Once the police tagged the group as the Purple Gang, the press took up the drum beat. Gang members hated the label. There are several urban legends about how the gang's name came about, but Henry Gavin's explanation is the most credible.

Canadian liquor being smuggled on the Detroit River.
The gang grew into manhood with the emergence of Prohibition. Three years before the Volstead Act and national Prohibition became the law of the land, Michigan passed the Damon Act in 1917 prohibiting the sale of liquor within the state. Henry Ford supported and financed the movement because he wanted a sober workforce, but the Damon Act was declared unconstitutional in 1919.

By the time the whole country entered Prohibition with the Volstead Act in 1920, Detroit was already a haven for bootleggers and hijackers of Canadian liquor shipments. Detroit was the gateway for the illegal distribution of alcohol to larger cities like New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. By the mid-1920s, Detroit was home to an estimated 25,000 illegal drinking establishments called speakeasies which were full-service bars. For people who couldn't afford cafe society, blind pigs developed which sold liquor by the shot in private homes and after-hour businesses.

Legend has it that a church in Walkerville, Ontario installed a neon cross on their steeple to signal bootleggers that a shipment of booze was coming across. The neon beacon could be seen through the fog which was when the boats would leave. Pint bottles were developed so they would sink in case bootleggers had to ditch them in the Detroit River. Fifth-sized bottles would often wash up along the shoreline.

The four Kaminski brothers grew up in Delray on Thaddeus Street. They would hang out along the river and watch the rumrunners try to outrun the Coast Guard. If a shipment was in danger of being seized, the "Little Jewish Navy"--as they were called--would throw the booze overboard to ditch the evidence. The brothers knew the river currents and would dive in to retrieve as much product as possible--then sell it. Seems like virtually everyone in Detroit was in the liquor business.

Boats were used on the water, and trucks were used on the ice to transport booze.
Seventy-five percent of the liquor smuggled into the United States during Prohibition passed through Detroit. The Purple Gang's liquor, gambling, and drug trade netted the gang hundreds of millions of dollars annually providing the "grease" to make hefty payouts to city officials and police who agreed to look the other way. Turf wars were inevitable, and it wasn't long before Detroit streets ran with the blood of would-be rivals. The Purples became overextended and began to import hoods from New York and St. Louis to work as "muscle" for the gang.

Unlike the Italian-American gangs who pioneered organized crime, the Purples were a loosely structured gang with shifting allegiances that came together and drifted apart when the need arose. After Sammy Purple's leadership, Raymond Bernstein ruled the gang until his murder conviction. Ray's soft-spoken brother Abe became the boss thereafter.

Author Robert A. Rockaway wrote in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies (2001), "Italian gangsters tended to involve (cross-generational) family members in their criminal activities. With the Jews, it was that one generation, the children of immigrants, and it ended with them." As a postscript, the Purple Gang reigned over Detroit's underworld for only five years. Most of the gang were either gunned down or died in prison.

My next post will cover the rise and fall of the Purples in Detroit.


Part Two: https://fornology.blogspot.com/2018/03/the-rise-and-fall-of-detroits-purple.html 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Henry Ford's Electric Railroad - The DT&I

Near Oakwood Boulevard
Arguably the most recognized icon in Allen Park next to the Big Wheel off I-94 are the concrete arches which straddle the tracks of the Detroit, Toledo, and Ironton (DT&I) railroad that cuts through town west of Allen Road and east of Pelham Road. Everyone in town has walked or driven across the tracks at Champaign Road on their way to Allen Park High School and wondered about these silent sentinels.

I remember gazing out the second floor windows of my geometry class and daydreaming where those tracks could transport me away from the drone of Mr. K. and the tapping of chalk on his blackboard, charting out axioms and postulates. Phewy!

Students who lived southeast of the school took the shortcut home through the hole in the fence and walked down the tracks and crossing over wherever they needed to. I remember the diminishing perspective of the arches as they stretched into the distance. The DT&I went about five miles north of Allen Park to the Rouge Plant, and it stretched south through most of Ohio, connecting with major east/west lines along the way.

The Rouge Plant
The Ford Motor Company (FMC) at Henry Ford's behest purchased the bankrupt and poorly run DT&I in 1920 for a mere five million dollars. Frustrated with shoddy rail service, assembly line production delays, and exorbitant shipping charges, Henry Ford recognized the strategic importance of affordable and reliable supply lines for the uninterrupted mass production of his Model T. Henry Ford was determined to control every aspect of production at the Rouge Plant, from the shipment of raw materials into the plant to the shipment of the finished product from the plant.

Henry Ford announced on July 1, 1923 that he would convert the DT&I from steam locomotion to electrical power. The steam locomotives FMC bought in the acquisition were slow, dirty, loud, and required continual maintenance. The rolling stock acquired was in disrepair after two and a half years of neglect at the end of World War I, so Ford engineers were set to the task of improving the rail line from stem to stern.

On June 1, 1925, trial runs were made with two electrified locomotives made from components designed and built by Westinghouse Electric Company. The power was supplied to the new locomotives by an overhead electrical cable strung from one concrete arch 300 feet to the next one. The power line ran for the original seventeen miles of electrification. At first, power was generated at Ford's Highland Park plant, but later the Rouge Plant generators came online when more power was needed. The top speed of the dark green and red locomotives was 43 mph. Both locomotives entered limited service in 1926.

The concrete arches carrying the power line were designed at the Fordson concrete plant within the Rouge Plant complex. They were in active use until March 1, 1930. Each arch, called a catenary, was built with 95 cubic feet of Ford concrete and 257 feet of rebar made at the Rouge Plant steelworks.

The DT&I was now showing a profit, but Henry Ford was frustrated with interference and regulation from the Interstate Commerce Commission. FMC decided to sell DT&I on June 27, 1929 to Pennroad Corporation for approximately thirty-six million dollars making FMC a thirty-one million dollar profit over their initial five million dollar investment. But more money than that went into the research, development, and maintenance of the line to transform it from a "streak of rust" into a profitable operation.

FMC sold the DT&I line four months before the stock market crash on "Black Tuesday" October 29th, 1929. In March of 1930, the two electric locomotives were scrapped and the overhead power line was taken down. In 1947, some of the concrete arch supports were removed and re-purposed to form an embankment at Mosquito Lake in southern Ohio. These arches were made to last. It took a large crew two days to remove just one of them. Most of the arches are still in place between the Rouge Plant in Dearborn and just beyond Flat Rock, Michigan.

These arches stand as a silent monument to the vision and determination of Henry Ford and his forward looking genius. It wouldn't be long before trolley cars and subway cars would be running on generated electrical energy in cities across the globe. Eighty years later, battery powered and solar powered electric automobiles have become a reality in our twenty-first century world. It seems like an oversight that Ford's concrete arches are not listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.

For a more detailed history of Henry Ford's involvement with the Detroit, Toledo, and Ironton (DT&I) railroad line and the development of the electric freight train, view the following link:

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Allen Park's Missing Champaign Park Train

Courtesy of Images of America - Allen Park.

Every time I visit Allen Park, I find a reason to drive past the high school and look on with approval at improvements made by the district. The remodeled high school has a pleasing facade, the windows throughout the school have been upgraded, and a Performing Arts Center has been added onto the west end of the building. I get into town a couple of times a year but usually make the pilgrimage and reminisce about the old days.

While I was thinking about my upcoming trip to the Detroit area, I flashed on something I hadn't thought about for decades. Whatever happened to the steam locomotive and tender car that was once on display in Champaign Park next to the high school? I remember the train having a cyclone fence built around it topped with barbed wire which did little to deter anyone who wanted to climb over. What started out as a public school hands-on exhibit became an attractive nuisance and a public liability risk. 

I looked into the subject further and discovered that the train was built in Buckley, Michigan by Alco and owned and operated by the Detroit Edison Line. It was in service from 1923 until 1961, when it was driven under its own steam power to its display site in Champaign Park. A special track spur was built off a nearby railroad line. The Buckley No. 207 and its coal tender were removed in 1970 because the floor boards were rusting out and kids playing on it often got hurt. Old No. 207 was cutup with torches and hauled out of the park in trucks for scrap, said Arnie Ciupka, who was an eyewitness to its dismemberment.

On the day of its installation, a crowd of local youth, community members, and dignitaries watched the train roll in. Former Allen Park City Schools Superintendent John Sturock played trumpet at the steam locomotive's dedication when he was in sixth grade.

One of the more notable moments in the train's decade long history in Champaign Park was when it was painted pink by some rapscallions as a Halloween prank in 1965. Two unnamed high school kids from Dearborn Heights and George Jolokai from APHS Class of 1966 decided to turn themselves in and went to the Allen Park Police Station. Reading George's account of the incident makes me wax nostalgic and want to be young and stupid again. What follows is George Jolokai's reminiscence of the train painting incident in all its charming innocence.


"Appropriately, the idea to paint the train in Champaign Park pink came to us while we were sitting on the roof of the engine of the train. It was early October, 1964 and some guys I knew from Dearborn Heights had come by. They were seniors, this was junior year for me. I lived across the street from the park, one house off the corner of Champaign and Buckingham. The train had been moved there a few years earlier and eventually the city put up a fence and locked gate, but going over there, hopping the fence and hanging out was not all that unusual. It was a few weeks before Halloween, somehow the talk had turned to pranks.

"The notion of “Hey, we could paint the train!” was obvious and it would have died there except I hadn’t tumbled to the fact that blurting out things that just popped into my brain wasn’t always a good idea. Things like “Hey, my dad’s got a bunch of pink paint down in the basement that he forgot all about!”.

"On a Friday night within a week of our rooftop epiphany we did the deed. I grabbed a couple gallons of pink paint and some black paint from our basement and we headed over to the train in the dark. My folks were out of town, I’m sure it was after 10:00 PM when we started. Maybe spent two hours painting at most. We were more into transforming the train and getting a reaction to the whole thing being pink instead of just painting initials or slogans. (An early Heidelberg Project?) We used rollers and big brushes, got a lot done before we ran out of paint, and stuffed all the paint cans in a park trash can.

"The reaction after that was kinda cool, but I knew I couldn’t tell anyone, so in school it was a lot of listening to other folks tell me they “knew who really did it.” It ran in the Mellus newspaper, folks came by the park to look and pretty quickly it was just there, no big deal.

"Until a few weeks later. My uncle was over, he and my dad were talking in the dining room about it. I was in the kitchen. My uncle was into building Heathkit electronic stuff and figured the guys who did it must have had a police scanner. And a lookout. And a whole bunch of guys painting and they must have worked until almost dawn. He and my dad started talking about tipping over outhouses and what a good prank the painting had been since the train looked better, and at least folks came to look at it now.

"They are almost dropping the topic when my uncle says “Hey, so what was George up to that night?” Har, har. Choke, choke in the kitchen when my dad answers, “Oh you don’t have to worry about that kid. He was with us up at…no wait, he was home that weekend. Yeah, but ya don’t have to worry about him.”

"Phew, it’s sounding like I’m in the clear. Until he adds, “Of course I do have all that pink paint down in the basement. Maybe I better count the cans!” Bigger har, har. Blam! The kick to my chest as I realize “of course”, it’s not like my dad was so stockpiled with paint he wouldn’t know the inventory was down by three or four gallons. I just knew he had never used it. It had been there forever bought from some sale at Sears. Duh! How could I have ever thought he had “forgotten” all about it?

"Well, my uncle left and I figure I better confess before my dad goes and counts. Predictably dad does his real angry bit. Wants to know who I did the prank with. I wouldn’t tell him, so he made a simple declaration. I either go turn myself in, or I don’t leave the house. Forever. While I knew I might only serve three to five of that “grounded for life” sentence, that was still too bleak.

"I called the other guys, told them they didn’t have to come with me, but that I was going to go to the cop shop and turn myself in. They manned up and said they would come with me. Next day, we went down to the Allen Park Police Station, asked for the detective in charge of the case, like they must have had a special inter-departmental task force assigned to it. The guy at the desk asks if we want to give our names or not, thinking we were there to rat someone out. I say “Uh, I think you’ll want our names.”

"I seem to recall them not taking it too seriously, until they noticed we were being sort of too casual ourselves. Then the “We’ll turn this over to the D.A.’s office” started. Oh, and since I was fifteen, I was still a juvenile, but the other two guys had already turned sixteen, so “You guys could be in a lot more trouble!”

"My friends both glared at me, probably figuring it was a setup all along. One of them had applied to the Air Force Academy, so a possible arrest might not go too well. Then the cops blew their edge when they told us “You know, we were getting pretty close on this case. We had tracked down where you got the paint!”. Wow, ace detecting, that and the ability to read the “SEARS Weather Beater” label on the paint cans.

"The city soon contacted our parents, told us to be at the park the next Saturday at 9:00 AM sharp to repaint the train. We spent the next two Saturdays at it, painting all day with some guy supervising us who knew we were saving him a whole lot of work. He made sure we did a job that would last. A few weeks later, they sent my mom a bill for the paint and she went ballistic. No way was she going to pay. The city already had budgeted for the paint, they were going to repaint the train soon anyway, and we saved them the labor. So no way! The guy’s mom who was applying to the Air Force Academy, however, paid it immediately. Case closed.

George is to the right. Photo taken by his brother.

"That was it. No repercussions, no arrests, no court records. Simpler times, yeah, but then again it wasn’t like we were out to destroy capitalism or anything. We were just dumb guys with a dumb idea and an overactive sense of mission. The one friend of mine did eventually make it into to the Academy and graduated. I talked to the other guy a few years ago. He had made a career of the Army and had recently retired as a colonel.

"Me, I didn’t paint any more trains. It was a fairly thoughtless prank that didn’t take anything to pull off but might have been a whole lot more consequential. We were lucky. The repainting seemed fair, so lesson learned: Do something dumb and you could be held responsible. What a concept! Certainly wasn’t a bad take away lesson…though I still think the train was more interesting when it was pink."--G.J.

Images of America link: http://www.amazon.com/Allen-Park-MI-Images-America/dp/0738551090