Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Spirit of Detroit, The Fist, and Detroit Time Capsule

History is fascinating in what it shows and tells and what it does not. My newest nonfiction book is a collection of seventy-five of my best Detroit blog posts called Detroit Time Capsule, which will be coming out this fall. Each chapter tells the story of some of the people who left their mark on Detroit history or its culture.

For the front cover, I chose a visually striking closeup view of The Spirit of Detroit by gifted Detroit photographer Chris Ahern. Searching for information about the building of the sixteen foot bronze statue and its dedication on September 23, 1958, I came across this color film I have linked below that tells the whole story.

To present a broader view of who and what the City of Detroit represents, the back cover photo will be a black & white closeup photo by Chris Ahern of Joe Louis' fist. I am anxious to see what my bookcover designer comes up with.

The Creation and Placement of The Spirit of Detroit 1958

Monument to Joe Louis "The Fist" 1985

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Fleisher Brothers--Louis: Unlucky or Stupid? (Part 1 of 2)

Alcatraz--the Rock.

Two bonus posts to supplement The Elusive Purple Gang: Detroit's Kosher Nostra. The Fleisher brothers, Harry, Louis, and Sam struck out on their own after the Purple Gang imploded. Part two is linked below.
Despite Abe Burnstein disbanding the Purple Gang in 1935, former members Harry and Louis Fleisher were directly responsible for keeping the defunct gang's name in the local press from the late 1930s through Harry's death in 1978. Those boys couldn't stay out of trouble. Every time their names appeared in the press--and there are hundreds of citations--the tags "former Purple Gang members," "alleged Purple Gang members," or "Purple Gang leaders" preceded their names.The Fleisher brothers may hold the record for the most family members to do hard time on the Rock--Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary off the coast of San Francisco.

Harry, Louis, and Sammy grew up in the same Paradise Valley neighborhood as the Burnstein brothers and other tough street kids who eventually coalesced into the Purple Gang. They learned their street smarts by preying on handcart operators at the Eastern Market and harassing shop owners on Hastings Street with petty crime and vandalism.

Harry Fleisher began his underworld career as a driver and bodyguard for Oakland Sugar House Gang leader Charles Leiter in the 1920s. Harry was a trigger man and shakedown artist of legal and illegal businesses like speakeasies and disorderly houses (brothels). For unknown reasons, Harry interacted as little as possible with younger brother Louis.

Louis began his professional crime career as a trigger man, a labor "organizer," and a hijacker for the Sugar House Gang. When the Sugar House Gang suffered a devastating bust of their leadership in the late 1920s, Louis gravitated to the Purple Gang.

When Louis was only twenty-two years old, he was the first of the three Fleisher brothers to serve hard time. Lou Jr.'s day job was helping his father Lou Sr. run an auto junkyard. Their side-job was retrofitting touring cars with hidden compartments for smuggling illegal liquor or concealing guns.

Louis Fleisher mug shot--1927.
In 1927, Louis and three other men hijacked a semi-truck in Flat Rock, Michigan, loaded with 400 new automobile tires bound for Detroit from Akron, Ohio. A green Studebaker sedan swept in front of the semi blocking it at a stop sign. Four men jumped out of the car with shotguns and machine guns commanding the drivers to get out of the truck. They were bound and shoved into the back seat of the Studebaker.

Two of the hijackers took the truck and the other two drove off with their captives. The bound men noticed there was some chrome trim damage on the passenger side of the car. One of them took the added precaution of spitting on the rear window to mark the car as the one they were abducted in. The truck drivers were released unharmed twelve hours later. The empty semi-truck was found two days later, and the green Studebaker with the faulty trim was tracked down shortly after that. The car's serial number revealed the owner to be Louis Fleisher.

Louis was located and arrested, but he refused to identify the other hijackers he was working with. After an initial plea of "not guilty," Louis changed his plea to "guilty," reasoning that he was safer in prison than on Detroit's streets. If he took the rap and served his time, he would prove himself to be a stand up guy and survive. If he was released on bail, he would be considered a risk to the gang and sooner than later he would be found dead on a city street someplace. A federal judge sentenced Louis to ten years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. He served a minimum sentence of six years and three months before being paroled for good behavior.

Sam Burnstein
Nine months after being paroled, Louis went into business with former Purple Gang speakeasy operator Sam "Fatty" Burnstein--not blood-related to the Burnstein brothers--reputed leaders of the Purples. Sam and Louis were brothers-in-law; Sam's sister Nellie was Louis's wife. Fleisher and Burnstein opened a scrap metal and auto junkyard in the autumn of 1935 far from Detroit in Albion, Michigan. The business was named Riverside Iron and Metal Company. Both men needed to demonstrate to their parole boards that they had gone "straight" and had a steady source of income.

These guys must have loved crime because their junkyard was a front for a safe cracking operation in central Michigan. The parolees went into a partnership with the Lizard Gang--a Hamtramck burglary ring. A nine-month crime spree ensued.

Louis used his mechanical, fabrication, and body shop skills to convert a 1935 Graham Paige sedan into a rolling fortress.The Graham Paige was stolen from a Dodge dealership in Ferndale, Michigan. This particular car was desirable because it was wider than other makes and was equipped with an eight-cylinder Blue Streak supercharged engine that could reach speeds of 100 mph. The car was bulletproofed, the passenger side doors were retrofitted to open extra wide, and a ramp was welded to the undercarriage which rolled out to load stolen safes quickly.

The Michigan State Police were baffled. Fifty businesses had been burglarized over a vast section of central Lower Michigan. Robberies occurred in Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Jackson, and Ionia. The burglary team stole safes from businesses and either blew their doors off with nitroglycerin or took the safes to the junkyard and burned off the combination locks with an acetylene torch.

On May 11, 1936 at 2:30 a.m., night clerk Jack Kane at the Capital Hotel next door to the Isabell Seed Company in Jackson, Michigan, heard men struggling to load the company's 500 pound safe through the side doors of the Graham Paige sedan. The burglary was reported to the State Police, but troopers were too slow on the scene to make an arrest or give chase. Then on May 30th, a local Albion resident reported to state police that a suspicious Graham Paige sedan was being stored in a barn across from the junkyard in Albion.

Officers from the Michigan State Police and the Albion Police Department descended upon the barn, broke in, and found the car with its left side strafed with bullets. The police also discovered two sets of stolen license plates, weapons, and burglary tools. Nitroglycerin, blasting caps, and fifteen feet of wire were concealed in the side panels of the car. State Police quickly arrested Fleisher and Burnstein along with their wives. Two junkyard employees were also brought in for questioning but later released for lack of evidence. After a brief investigation, Louis and Sam were indicted and posted bonds of $5,000 apiece. While awaiting trial, Louis jumped bail and remained at large for a year.

On the night of April 8, 1938, Louis Fleisher's car was pulled over by the Highland Park police. His wife Nellie tossed a .38 calibre automatic pistol out the passenger window which police soon found. A clumsy attempt had been made to etch out the gun's serial number. Louis and Nellie were arrested with a twenty-two-year-old man who gave his name as Jack Sherwood but was soon found to be Sid Markham--a first-degree murder fugitive from Brooklyn, New York. Markham was extradited to New York where he was convicted and sent to the electric chair in Sing Sing Correctional Facility on January 18, 1940.

Samples of weapons found in Fleisher apartment.
Louis and Nellie's arrests led to a search of their Highland Park apartment where police found what they described to reporters as "the largest underworld arsenal ever found in the Midwest." The unregistered arsenal was neatly packed in a trunk containing submachine guns, automatic pistols, revolvers with silencers, brass knuckles, tear gas shells, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The Fleishers were held in Milan Detention Farm under a $50,000 bond each. On April 7, 1939, Louis Fleisher was sentenced to thirty years in Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary; Nellie received ten years in a Federal detention home. After serving nineteen years of his original sentence, Louis was released for good behavior from Alcatraz at the age of forty-one.

As a moth is drawn to a flame, so was Louis drawn to crime. On midnight Sunday, October 26, 1958, Fleisher and partner in crime Joe Anielak were caught red-handed trying to torch Dorsey's Cleaners on East Seven Mile Road. Anielak climbed on the roof with a length of rope. He threw one end down to Fleisher who attached a five-gallon gas can to the rope and Anielak pulled it up. They did this twice.

Little did the pair know they were under police surveillance on the ground and hidden on the roof tops of adjoining buildings. Anielak drilled several holes in the roof with a brace and bit auger. He inserted a funnel and was about to pour gas through the hole when police scout cars turned their floodlights on the roof. Anielak tried to flee, but when a detective fired a warning shot at him he surrendered. Fleisher was arrested in the alley. Because Fleisher had broken the terms of his parole, he was sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary to serve out the rest of his original thirty-year Federal sentence while awaiting trial on the Michigan charges.

The two men were charged with three counts: conspiracy to place explosives, breaking and entering, and intent to destroy property with explosives. Each of the counts carried a fifteen-year sentence. Detroit defense lawyers Joseph Louisell and Ivan Barris delayed proceedings for two years until they plea bargained for an attempted arson charge which carried a maximum five-year jail term. It was unlikely that a jury would convict the defendants on the original charges because no explosives were found at the crime scene. The prosecutor didn't want these men acquitted. On October 17, 1960, the men pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of attempted arson and were given a three to five year sentence.

Louis Fleisher was transferred from Leavenworth to Milan Federal Prison to serve out his sentence. On April 3, 1964, he died of a heart attack in his jail cell just nine weeks and two days short of serving out his Detroit conviction for arson and leaving prison a free man. He was fifty-nine-years-old.


Louis' older brother Harry and his younger brother Sam also had checkered underworld careers which is the subject of part two of this post.

The Fleisher Brothers (Part 2)