Michigan's Legendary Mobsters and Gangsters Michigan's Legendary Mobsters and Gangsters

Al Capone. The Purple Gang. These are some of the six gangs and mobsters all Michiganders should know.

MICHIGAN—It’s July 30, 1975. Jimmy Hoffa, a renowned unionist in southeast Michigan, paces back and forth near his car. The 62-year-old Hoffa is upset. He was stood-up for a 2 p.m. dinner appointment with two associates at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township. 

Around 2:30 p.m., Hoffa calls his wife. He asks her to prepare dinner for 4 p.m. He says he’ll be heading home shortly. But Hoffa doesn’t make it home, and while there are conflicting statements about when and where he was last seen, he was never heard from again. 

Hoffa’s disappearance is a popular conversation among Michiganders interested in mysteries and the unknown. Adding to the speculation and conspiracy theories that surround Hoffa’s disappearance is the former International Brotherhood of Teamsters union President’s connections with Detroit-area mob groups.

It’s a common theory that Hoffa’s death was tied to mob relations in Michigan, and while most organized crime stories are set in the northeast portion of the country in New York and New Jersey, Michigan has its fair share of legendary gangsters and mobsters. 

Hoffa may be one of the most well-known, but he certainly isn’t alone. Southeast Michigan’s history is riddled with organized crime activity, including everything from small groups of bandits to large organizations committing serious crimes. 

Below are some of Michigan’s notable gangsters and mob groups, as well as some mobsters and gangs with ties to our state. 

Michigan’s Mobs and Gangs

The Associated Press
A photo of the Purple Gang of Detroit is pictured outside The Mob Museum in Las Vegas.

The Purple Gang

Michigan isn’t without its own groups of organized crime, either. Mobster families may be more well known on the eastern side of the country, but Detroit and its surrounding communities were home to various groups of gangsters, mobsters, and others conspiring in criminal activities. 

Take, for example, the Detroit Purple Gang, or, as it was known to some as, the Sugar House Gang. A group of bootleggers made up of primarily Jewish Americans, the Purple Gang was active in Detroit throughout the 1920s, during America’s prohibition era. 

There were several facets to the Purple Gang’s rise in Detroit. Mark Gribben writes in his book, “The Purple Gang: The Color Purple” that its origin rests in immigrant communities throughout Detroit generally turning to crime because of their struggles with poverty. These small factions grouped together, forming the first variation of the gang. 

As for its name? There remains debate over how that came to be, too. One theory is that an early member of the gang was a boxer who wore purple shorts

But it wasn’t always large-scale crime that the Purple Gang was involved with in the Detroit area. For the most part, the gang began as a small entity, taking part in petty crimes and small-scale extortion. But that soon changed, with the gang quickly evolving to armed robbers and cargo truck hijackers.  

The reputation of the gang grew as did the seriousness of its criminal activities. Other gangsters began to recognize the gang and even fear them, in some instances. Al Capone, the renowned Chicago gangster, went so far as to go into business with the Purple Gang, using them to help import liquor from Canada during the prohibition while also avoiding a gang war that likely would have ensued had he decided to expand his gang activity to the Detroit area. 

The collapse of the Purple Gang came soon after the gang became the target of police, which had long turned a blind eye to many of the gang’s criminal activities. In time, several of the gang’s key members were facing serious charges. Others were killed in shootouts and others fled the city. 

Organized activity attributed to the Purple Gang continued for a while, but it was never as potent as it once was. By the end of the 1930s, the gang was essentially no more. 

The Detroit Partnership

While most of the large scale organized crime operations we think of when we hear or read about mobsters or mafia families existed on the eastern side of the country and were vanquished or at least mortally wounded by former US Attorney Rudy Giuliani’s prosecution of the “Five Families” in the 1980s, mafioso syndicates existed elsewhere. In Detroit, that mafia entity is the Detroit Partnership, or the Detroit Mafia, which is technically still in operation today in parts of Greater Detroit and Ann Arbor, as well as Lansing. 

Beginning in around 1908 with the Gianola family, the Detroit Mafia was involved in small- and large-scale racketeering, gambling, killings, drug trafficking, and money laundering, to name some of its organizational dealings. 

The gang was involved in several bloody Detroit Mafia wars in the early 1900s, creating Mafia factions across the greater Detroit area. But eventually, a loose peace agreement was reached between these entities. 

The group didn’t get its first official “mob boss” until the late 1930s, when Joseph Zerilli took over. He held this position until 1977. By then, members of the Detroit Mafia became well-known during the investigation into Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance. 

Eventually, as with most large-scale crime operations, police chipped away at its mass through a series of indictments and investigations. But as of 2016, the Detroit group is still considered a significant criminal operation in the state. It is believed the gang consists of around 50 “made” men, as of 2011. 

The Flathead Gang

Probably on a lesser tier than the Purple Gang and Detroit Partnership find themselves, the Flathead Gang also is a Detroit-area criminal organization that existed in the early 1900s. The gang also committed crimes in Pittsburgh and other midwest cities, going wherever the opportunity for crime was. 

Led by a Polish-American gangster, Paul Jaworski, the gang was really a band of bank robbers that gained notoriety after committing the first armored car robbery in the US. The gang also grabbed the attention of people across Michigan when it stole nearly $15,000 from the Detroit News payroll office. During the heist, the gang shot a cop to death and wounded another. 

The gang was also responsible for similar heists in other midwest cities. A heist in Pittsburgh led to the demise of the Flathead Gang, as the killing of a mine payroll guard in Pennsylvania landed Jaworski behind bars. He was later executed for the murder. 

Michigan’s Notorious Gangsters and Mobsters

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Former American labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, then the President of the Teamster’s Union, is pictured while testifying at a hearing investigating labor rackets.

Jimmy Hoffa

To some, Jimmy Hoffa was a man deserving of great admiration. As a central cog in the rise of the Teamsters union in Michigan and across the midwest, the union grew rapidly, eventually topping 1 million members in 1951

Hoffa was integral to the use of “quickie strikes” as a way of leveraging the strength of the union against a company, bolstering contract demands. His popularity helped pave his way to eventually becoming the president of Teamsters, a role he held from 1957 to 1971. He replaced Dave Beck, who was under indictment for fraud

It was at the end of Hoffa’s tenure with the Teamsters that landed him on our list. First, Hoffa faced criminal charges throughout the 1960s for attempted bribery and jury tampering, as well as mail and wire fraud. Hoffa’s charges were connected to his involvement in organized crime. 

Hoffa was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1967 but saw his prison term commuted by then-President Richard Nixon. He was released in 1971 but was barred from union activities until 1980. After prison, Hoffa tried to rebuild his reputation in the Detroit area on a much smaller scale. But these plans were opposed by members of his organized crime affiliates, leading to some threats against his life, according to media reports at the time.  

It was this opposition, persisting prior to Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance, that led many to believe his vanishing was the result of his ties to organized crime. But that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to theories surrounding Hoffa’s death. Other popular theories include being burned in an incinerator, buried under an NFL team’s stadium, and being buried under a horse barn

Paul Jaworski

Paul Jaworski was the leader of the aforementioned Flathead Gang. Born in Poland, Jaworski and his family immigrated to the US around 1905. He spent much of his time throughout the midwest with the Flathead Gang, partaking in heists in Detroit and Pittsburgh, among other cities. 

Jaworski and his gang were credited with committing the first armored car heist, stealing more than $100,000 from an armored vehicle in transit outside Pittsburgh in 1927. They executed their plan by planting 500 pounds of black powder under the road the armored vehicle was traveling, disabling the vehicle, and taking off with the money. 

Jaworski was shot and captured following a heist in Pittsburgh. He was executed via the electric chair in 1929. 

Al Capone

The Associated Press
Chicago gangster Al Capone has his photo taken while in custody in Philadelphia in May 1929.

Al Capone is probably one of the names most commonly associated with gangsters and mobsters in US history. He gained fame for leading a band of Chicago-area gangsters during the prohibition era. He eventually was brought down through tax evasion charges and died when he was 48 due to complications with syphilis. 

But with Chicago’s close proximity to Michigan, it makes sense that the Chicago gangster had tied to the Great Lakes State. For starters, Capone was known to have had hideouts in parts of southwest Michigan, including the communities of Paw Paw and Constantine. Capone is also rumored to have frequented other parts of Michigan, such as Lansing and its surrounding communities

This isn’t uncommon, either, as Michigan was frequently visited by a number of popular gangsters, as described in a book written by Robert Knapp, the author of the newly released “Gangsters Up North: Mobsters, Mafia and Racketeers in Michigan’s Vacationlands.”

“Gangsters just joined the millions of others who came north,” writes Knapp. “Sometimes they, too, simply sought rest and relaxation at a cabin, a gangster-friendly retreat or a resort hotel.”