Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He teaches classes on the history of organized crime at Cuyahoga Community College. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
The Purple Gang / Encyclopedia of Organized Crime In the United States
By Allan May
Paul R. Kavieff gives us a gem in his well-researched account of Detroit’s infamous Purple Gang. This is a book that has been long over due. The Purple Gang is one of the best known of the Prohibition Era gangs and the least written about. Kavieff gives us a year-by-year, blow-by-blow of the entire history of the gang.
The book is well laid out. Beginning with “Origins of the Purple Gang,” where Kavieff discusses the elusive theories of how the gang got their famous nickname, he traces the activity of the gang in chronological order giving us in detailed chapters a history of the gang’s activity and biographies of all the major players. Almost every character is fully described and Kavieff follows them to their end leaving no stones unturned. Major incidents such as the Milaflores Apartment Massacre, the Cleaners and Dyers War, and the Collingwood Manor Massacre are discussed in depth and well presented.
The Collinwood Manor Massacre took place on September 16, 1931. Purple Gang members Irving Milberg, Harry Keywell and Harry Fleisher slaughtered three men who were believed to have been hijacking liquor shipments. Solly Levine helped set the men up and Ray Bernstein drove the get-away car. Police arrested Levine who squealed. Bernstein, Keywell and Milberg were quickly arrested. Levine testified against the three who were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Fleisher was later charged, but not convicted because Levine had gone into hiding and changed his story.
Levine then claimed that police had forced his testimony and that the four men were not the killers. Defense attorneys called for a new trial and presented a number of affidavits to prove the innocence of their clients. Here is my favorite part of the book. Kavieff dissects each of the affidavits as an aggressive Wayne County Prosecutor, Harry Toy, destroyed them. The killers remained in prison.
In addition, Kavieff provides us with 32 pages of photographs – some chillingly graphic – of all the main players.
The only negative thing I found about the book is the sub-title, “Organized Crime in Detroit.” Perhaps this wasn’t even Kavieff’s decision to add that, it could have been the idea of the publisher. Kavieff’s work focuses almost entirely on the activities of the Purple Gang and little is discussed regarding the Licavolis, Jack Tocco, Joe Zirelli and most other Italian mobsters.
However, this minor discrepancy hardly takes away from what I consider to be the best new Mob Book of 2000.
For more information about the book and the author see my writing colleague, John “The Terrible” Tuohy’s interview with Paul Kavieff in “Feature Article 50.”
Encyclopedia of Organized Crime in the United States
Have you ever read a book and then wondered what the motivation was for the author to write it? This is one of those books.
Robert J. Kelly is a Broeklundian (?) Professor of Social Science at Brooklyn College and a professor of criminal justice at the graduate School, City University of New York. An obvious academia, in whom, according to Celeste Morello, “we place more trust,” Kelly has edited many books that deal with the scholarly aspect of organized crime, and in 1997 co-authored “African American Organized Crime,” with Rufus Schatzberg, a former New York City police detective.
Perhaps if he had stayed with his strength, which seems to be a fuller understanding of today’s ethnic crime, this book would not seem to many to be such an expensive waste, being priced at $60. It’s not that I feel Jay Robert Nash’s “World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime,” and Carl Sifakis’s “The Mafia Encyclopedia,” are superior products. They are not! But it is extremely difficult to put a product like this together and include enough subjects and material to truly make it “encyclopedic” in nature.
What has happened in Kelly’s book is that many important organized crime topics and personalities have been left out. For instance there are no entries for Joe Aiello, Felix Alderisio, Vincent Alo, Louis Alterie, Samoots Amatuna, Pretty Amberg or Albert Anselmi – and those are just the “A”s.
In addition, how can you write a comprehensive entry for the likes of Capone, Costello, Gallo, Gotti, Lansky, Schultz, etc., when there have been volumes of biographies written on these people. This is an impossible task. For instance in Kelly’s information on Frank Costello he discusses the “Prime Minister’s” role as a political fixer, but fails to even mention the Judge Aurelio affairs one of the most notorious incidents in Costello’s career. Many of Kelly’s entries on more established individuals contain mistakes, albeit minor ones – not the colossal blunders which appear in the other two “Encyclopedias.”
As I have mentioned before, my personal library has now topped the 530 mark. Yet I am still dumbfounded when I find “facts” in Nash’s and Sifakis’s encyclopedias that I can’t verify any place else. Perhaps part of this reason was divulged to me by an AmericanMafia.com contributor. Not long ago he informed me that he heard through a bookstore owner, who knew Nash, that Nash had told him he “makes up” parts of his entries so he knows when people copy his work. I want to believe that this is just a bad rumor, but I’ll let readers judge for themselves.
In Kelly’s encyclopedia what he does bring to us is a source with the latest information on the new ethnic and “urban” underworlds. Kelly’s expertise provides us with up to date data on such topics as Dominican drug trafficking, Columbia drug cartels, Chinese street gangs and Triads, the Cali cocaine cartel, and of course African American organized crime. In his coverage of these areas he provides us with in depth detail and several charts.
In addition he provides us with biographies on the likes of Jose Miquel Battle (Cuban American crime boss), Johnny Eng (leader of the Flying Dragons, drug traffickers), Jose Santacruz-Londono (a leader of the Cali cocaine cartel), and Casper Holstein (Harlem policy racketeer).
I commend Kelly for his effort. To produce a work like this must truly be a labor of love. But with RussMcDermott.com driving the cost of out of print organized crime gems into triple digits, it’s tough to shell out $60 for a new release. Perhaps Kelly can to see to a second printing – in paper back!
Copyright A. R. May 2000