What fascinates me about this man is why did he change his name? Family lore has it he was involved in running liquor from Canada. I do not know whether this is true. However, Ken Burns’ series on PBS this week, “Prohibition,” certainly got me thinking. The Detroit “Purple Gang” was quite active in Toledo. While we have no connection for John to the Purple Gang, his name change and exit from Toledo coincides with the organized crime and violence that stemmed from Prohibition.
A couple of good reads to introduce us to what and who composed the “Purple Gang” is Detroit’s Infamous Purple Gang by Paul R. Kavieff and Unholy Toledo by Harry R. Illman.
When Prohibition was in effect, it was pretty easy for bootleggers to use the narrow waterways of the Detroit River, St. Clair Shores, and also Lake Erie to transport liquor from Canada. One theory existed that it was quite easy to do so as a recreational fisherman or during winter when one could cross the frozen Detroit River into Windsor with little problem. Usually, the booze went to Chicago where Al Capone sold it under the “Log Cabin” label but market demand was strong too in Toledo. The Purple Gang seemed to be in direct competition with Capone–in essence, trying to tell Capone to keep his hands off of the eastern Michigan market. Toledo seemed to be strategically located as a stopover and hideout for gangsters.
A United Press article located in The Southeast Missourian on March 24, 1936 summarizes the situation:
I don’t think we’ll ever find a documented reason for John’s movements and name change. I don’t know if he were ever involved in bootlegging. But history does provides some interesting insight and this situation certainly does give credence to the family lore. My guess would be John Przybylski was not a violent person and the name change was due in part to avoid the violence and from being sought out. Rather because liquor was a commonly consumed without shame or guilt in Polish Catholic families (it is not a “sin” according to the Catholic Church and vodka is a cultural drink for Poles), a theory could be that John likely was seeking sources for personal consumption or possibly playing the role of transport for a while. He certainly was living in Detroit at the time, the 1920 census places him there. But by 1927, we find evidence of him living in Miami.
Prohibition was in effect in the US for 13 years–1920 to 1933. It produced an empire built on crime and violence and created unique and colorful characters in our history such as Carrie Nation. (An interesting observation: A slogan used during Carrie Nation’s tirades was: “All nations welcomed except Carrie.”)
A basis used to justify Prohibition was “immorality”–to combat drunkness and poverty. Instead, it created a monster composed of violence and crime. Reading about the Purple Gang certainly opened my mind–these gangs at first were primarily composed of immigrants who were combating severe poverty and discrimination.