The Jewish gangsters came out of the ghettos of New York, Cleveland, Detroit. We took on anyone and everyone—the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, the corrupt Irish cops. We feared no one. Except maybe our mothers, who did not know (or would not admit knowing) what we were up to.
Everyone knows about the New York guys, because they got all the attention. Jacob Levinsky… “Dopey” Benny Fein and Joe “The Greaser” Rosenzweig… Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, who got his name because he was so good at twisting people’s necks. Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, the ugliest SOB you ever saw (right). And of course, Arnold Rothstein, who was credited with being the first to run a mob like a corporation. (Personally, I think my brother Max was doing the same thing around the same time. But we were in Detroit, so nobody noticed.)
In Detroit, the Sugar House Gang, headed by Buster Weintraub, ran things until we knocked them off. (The Sugars had a factory that produced corn syrup, but what it really made was bathtub gin that tasted as if Buster had taken a bath in it.) After we wiped out the Sugars, everyone was scared of us and rightfully so. Capone himself referred to us as “those crazy Jews” and did not wish to mess with us.
But with all our toughness and our smarts, the Jewish gangsters did not last and this raises some interesting questions. Was it because the law went after us much harder than the other gangs? Were there other reasons? In the Marquette prison yard, I asked John Livoli about this: Why did your gang stick around, whilst mine did not?
“It’s because you guys were ashamed of what you were doing and shame is a real killer,” Livoli told me. “You couldn’t get it in your heads that this was a business like any other. You all worried what the neighbors would think or what Uncle Moe might say. You walked around your own community with your heads down—cut off from local support.” Then he added, “Of course, on top of all that, we did shoot a hell of a lot of you.”
Click below to explore more of the Purples’ world:
Arthur Nix • Back stabbings • Elvis Presley • Good old Detroit • Harry Riley • Henry Ford • Rachel and the Palmer Raids • Saying bad things? • Speakeasy queen • The babies • Why purple? • WWJBD? • Buy the book