Whenever I mention the Purple Gang many people ask me who they were because they never heard of them, which surprises me since they were one of the most ruthless and violent gangs in America. In 1916 Michigan adopted the Damon Act, which prohibited liquor effective in 1917, three years before national Prohibition, prompting bootleggers to smuggle booze from Canada to Detroit and the Purple Gang (sometimes referred to as the Sugar House Gang) was the mob that monopolized the flow of alcohol in Detroit. After prohibition was the law of the land about 40% of the illegal liquor came into the U.S. From Canada and the Purples distributed it with Capone being one of their many customers. The Gang was one of the most violent in America and it is rumored that the Purple Gang had a hand in the St Valentines Day Massacre. They were also suspects in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
The part of the Purple Gangs history that always interested me is their connection to central Michigan.
In Clare, the murder of gangster attorney Isaiah Leebove in 1938 was indirectly due to the Purple Gang. Oil promoter Jack Livingston had a disagreement with Leebove who was a Purple Gang associate. Convinced Leebove was going to have the Purple Gang kill him, Livingston shot and killed Leebove in the tap room at the Doherty Hotel before the Purple Gang could come after him.
A popular hangout for the Purple Gang was The Graceland Ball Room in Lupton. The building was built in the late 1920’s by “One Arm” Mike Gelfand a member of the Purple Gang, no one knows where the money came from to build it but many speculate it was from the Purple Gang. Al Capone was had visited it several times to do business and supposedly the rustic log interior had bullet holes in a few of the logs, sadly it burnt down in the early 1980s.
Not far from the south branch of Au Sauble river in northern Michigan on property once owned by William Durant, the founder of General Motors the “Detroit Partnership” a group of Detroit Mafia families built one of the largest ranches in Michigan history and the members of the Purple Gang were frequent visitors. The various barns surrounding the primary residence resembled modern day airplane hangars. They included an indoor horse riding area, dance parlor, interlinking tunnels and hidden rooms The property spanned acres and included a private runway, hunting area, servant quarters, junkyard, and an Olympic-sized pool. The house itself was involved in gang related activities for years. frequently visited by Jimmy Hoffa and is believed to be by some his “final resting place”. It was even searched upon his disappearance., and it was rumored to be the site of dozens of mafia-style executions. After being seized for tax evasion, the ranch laid dormant for years and eventually demolished. The property is now part of Forest Dunes Golf Club.
The purple gang was also rumored to have used Grousehaven Lodge which was built by auto magnate Harry Jewett which is currently part of the Rifle River Recreation Area. you can read the interesting story of Grousehaven HERE
There were also Ties to the J G Schemm Brewery in Saginaw. After the repeal of Prohibition, a group of investors from Detroit tried to get a license to brew beer at the old brewery. The state would not issue them a license, because of suspected connection to the Purple Gang. you can read about the brewery HERE
If you love reading about odd and strange Michigan history Lost In Michigan books are available HERE
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