THE PURPLE GANG – Part II
by Albion Historian Frank Passic – used with permission
Frank Passic’s – Historical Albion Series
Morning Star, December 1996
The Fleishers also rented an auto stall in the “Frog Pond” building still standing in the Market Place [2001 update--building now houses the Leisure Hour Club]. Originally built by Allen J. Wilder, it contained several parking stalls, and a small auto-repair shop. The structure was acquired by the Albion Depositors Corporation (a group of local investors) during the 1930s, and later by George Bohm, owner of the Bohm Theatre. After Sam Fleisher was sent to prison in April, 1936, the stall lease was taken over by Clair Case, a junkyard employee.
During 1936 there had been numerous safe robberies and burglaries across Southern lower Michigan, including the local March 9 burglary of the Kroger grocery at 223 S. Superior Street, in which the store’s safe was removed. Local residents became particularly suspicious form that time onward.
The get-away car had been a specially armored gun-metal colored Graham-Paige sedan, that was secretly stored in the garage stall here in Albion. 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 West Erie Street on a Saturday night in late May.
At 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday June 3, 1936, a massive raid by 25 law enforcement officials at the junkyard and the garage stall resulted in the capture of the car and the arrest of Louis and Nellie Fleisher, and Sam and Lillian Bernstein. Sam was well-known by Detroit police as being a “safe man.” One of the east windows over the end stall where the car was stored was not completely covered, allowing an officer to peek in and identify it. A south window was covered with tar paper.
The car was “the most completely equipped burglar’s automobile we have ever seen,” stated a Michigan State Police officer at the time. It had a 3/4 inch bullet-proof glass (the Gang would have their car serviced at what is now Bilicke’s on Austin Avenue, and workers there would wonder why the glass was so thick), a metal flap in the back window that could be pulled down to deflect bullets from the rear, metal shields on other car parts including the tires, holes to position firing guns, removable doors and seats so a large safe could be inserted. A two-wheeled hand cart was also stored inside, used for transporting the safe.
Articles found in the car included nitroglycerine, dynamite and electric caps, drill punches, a sledge hammer, chisels, tongs, rubber wire, soap, bank bags, screw drivers, other burglar’s tools, a .38 Colt army revolver, a .38 automatic pistol, a .45 army revolver and one regular one, a Winchester .30 rifle, a Marlan 30-30 rifle, a 12-guage Winchester pump-gun, and a Remington sawed-off shotgun, along with a bag of ammunition, and guns fully loaded. The gangsters had the car wired so that wires ran from the car to the safe which was blown up with nitroglycerine.
The front and back of the car had double revolving license plates, which could be quickly turned with the hand. The auto also had over a dozen bullet holes in it, evidence of running battles with Southern Michigan police. The sedan had been stolen from Ferndale in 1935, and Jackson police said it had attained a maximum speed of 120 miles per hour during their chase with it in late May, 1936.
Also arrested in the raid was Irving Schuman, 25, a junkyard employee who attempted to flee and was caught near Jackson. Schuman subsequently attempted to escape during a prisoner transfer, but was caught trying to leave by local fireman John Passick, uncle of yours truly.
Hundreds of persons thronged the police department end of City Hall following the raid, hoping to get a chance to see the “super auto,” and the prisoners being transported away by State law enforcement officials. Did anyone ever get a photograph of the Purple Gang’s car?
As a result of the raid, the investigation and trials that followed, for example, Louis and his wife were subsequently found guilty of possession of unregistered firearms, and were sentenced to 36 years in prison.
As I mentioned in the first installment, there are numerous families here in town that have their own personalized stories about the Purple Gang which I am welcome to receive by mail. I hope these two articles have wet your appetite. If I get enough recollections sent to me, perhaps I can write another article about the Purple Gang in Albion, sharing some of the information sent by our readers.
From our Historical Notebook this week we present a photograph of the Frog Pond [2001 update--now the location of the Leisure Hour Club] building, which served as the storage place for the Purple Gang’s armored car.