Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.
Albion Recorder, February 28, 2002, pg. 20
The Purple Gang was a group of notorious Detroit gangsters during the 1920s and 1930s. Brothers Louis, Sam and Harry Fleisher were involved with the group. The latter two were convicted of conspiracy to murder Senator Warren G. Hooper in 1945. The Fleishers came to Albion in the 1930s and operated a junk yard in the Market Place between present-day Thompsons Brakes and the new Leisure Hour Club as a “front” for their criminal activity. The business was called the Riverside Iron and Metal Company.
Albion was a perfect site between Detroit and Chicago for gangster meetings, which were held in places like the balcony of the Bohm Theatre, the Parker Inn where gangsters lodged, and at the Streetcar Tavern west of town where mobster Abe “Buffalo Harry” Rosenberg and his brother Louis owned the apartment house attached to the tavern. Purple Gang members would also purchase home-made liquor manufactured on the “west end” of town.
The late Helen Sharp, long time ticket booth operator at the Bohm, once told this writer that Sam Fleisher and his crew would always come to the Bohm on Sunday evenings. He would be accompanied by a woman whom they called “flapper Susie,” name so because of the way she dressed. They would have some strangers with them, and not all would stay for the entire movie. One time they stationed a small Italian look-out man named Joe outisde the Bohm during the show. Helen stated to me that Fleisher would always have a large wad of bills with him to pay for this theatre tickets. Perhaps the New Bohm Theatre should hold a “gangster night” and show the 1932 classic “Little Caesar” starring Edward G. Robinson.
During 1936 there was a rash of safe robberies and burglaries across Southern lower Michigan, including a March 9 heist of the safe of the local Kroger market at 223 S. Superior St. Local residents became particularly suspicious from that time on. The getaway car had been a specifically armored gun-metal colored stolen Graham-Paige sedan that was secretly stored in the far east end garage stall in what today is the Leisure Hour Club building in the Market Place. The car had been chased by various Southern Michigan police in some of the robberies. It was suspected as being part of the crimes when Albion police officer Walter Burns observed the car driving out on W. Erie St. on a Satruday night in late May, 1936.
At 3:00 a.m. on June 3, a massive raid by 25 state and area law enforcement officials at the junkyard resulted in the capture of the car in the aformentioned garage, and the arrest of Louis and Nellie Fleisher, Sam (well-known by Detroit police as being a “safe man”) and Lillian Bernstein, junkyard employee Irving Schuman, and two others.
The car was “the most completely equipped burglar’s automobile we have ever seen,” stated a Michigan State Police officer at the time. The custom-equipped car had a variety of unique custom-made features, some of which were obtained/manufactured by private individuals in Albion and Homer. This included revolving licenses plates that could be switched by the turn of the hand, designed to “throw off” authorities. The Albion Evening Recorder listed the features of the mobile fortress in its June 3, 1936 edition: “The automobile had bullet-proof glass, three-quarters of an inch thick, in place over the side windows, a metal flap that could be dropped in front of the back window to keep bullets of possible pursuers from hitting occupants, and metal shields on numerous other parts of the vehicle.”
“There were metal plates extending downward from the rear fenders to protect the rear tires from being punctured by pursuers. The flap on the back window had loop-holes through which persons in the car could stick guns for firing at pursuers.” Officials discovered more than a dozen bullet holes from previous running gun battles with law enforcement authorities.
The Recorder continued, “The auto was fixed so that it was a comparatively simple job to load in a safe. The post between the front and back doors was removable. Inside the auto was a rubber-tired two-wheel hand cart. Wires found in the auto indicated that wiring was run from the auto to safes which were blown open with nitroglycerine.”
The items found inside the car included: One .38 spcial revolver; one .38 Colt army revolver; one .28 automatic pistol; one .45 army auto revolver; one Winchester .30 rifle; one Marland 30-30 rifle; one 12-guage Winchester pump-gun; and one Remington 12 guage sawed-off shotgun. A bag of ammunition was included in the firearms bonanza. A short-wave radio receiver was also seized.
No burglar should be without tools, and the purple gang had a complete set. This included: two drift punches, a sledge hammer, one claw hammer, one wrecking bar, a small bar, two cold chisels, a pair of tongs, five screw drivers, hammer, punch, two pairs of pliers, monkey wrench, and six flashlights.
A bank bag from the Old Merchants National Bank in Battle Creek was found in the car, not containing money, but blasting materials such as six electric caps, six dynamite caps, 15 feet of rubber wire and two cakes of soap. For the record, the soap was Fels-Naptha, the official soap of the Purple Gang.
The gang members were temporarily lodged at the Albion Police Department before being transported out-of-town for trial and prosecution. One of the seven prisoners tried to escape through deception through the front door as the other members were being led through the police garage for transport to Jackson. He was stopped by an Albion fireman who was suspicious when the man remarked, “The man in the brown suit said I could go.” A quick check by the fireman, John Passick (uncle of yours truly), put an end to that escape attempt.
From the Archives this week we present a classic photograph showing law enforcement officials in the Market Place standing around the seized armored car, with the various aformentioned tools-of-the-trade found therein exhibited alongside, including the revolving license plates. Study the picture carefully. Notice the cake of Fels-Naptha soap on the hood. The view looks west towards the old Sharp’s Construction Company building which once stood behind the Albion Meat Locker. The old Eslow Mills smokestack is on the left.
This photograph is courtesy of the late Custer T. Carland (1913-2002) of Frankfort, who passed away on January 18. Mr. Carland is the Michigan State Trooper in uniform in this photograph standing in the center right to the left of the man holding the rifle. Carland was an uncle of Polly S. Moore (wife of local attorney J. Donel Moore). This author graciously thanks the Moores for their help in obtaining this photograph for our readers.
1936 Photograph of the Purple Gang car, impounded
All text copyright, 2014 © all rights reserved Frank Passic