Little Harry's Speakeasy

A prohibition-era Speakeasy and Purple Gang hangout called Little Harry's. Located under present-day Tommy's Bar

Location: 624 Third Street, Detroit. Currently known as Tommy’s Bar. Today the building at 624 Third Street is called Tommy’s Bar.  The unassuming brick building has a very colorful history. 

Building History

Records indicate that the first iteration of the building was constructed of brick and was a one story structure set back from the street in 1869. It replaced older wooden structures that once stood here as part of the Cass ribbon Farm. One of these wooden structures may have hosted an earlier version of the establishment, which would be consistent with oral histories of the bar’s existence as far back as the 1840s, but these details remain elusive in historic maps and records.  By 1897 the Sanborn map shows that the brick building had been expanded to a 2-story structure, with an additional room attached to the front of the building sometime between 1884 and 1896. At the time that the front 2-story addition was added in the 1890s, the bar was called the Andrew Healy Saloon. It would have been a popular stop for train travelers on their way to or from the Union Depot train station, which operated directly across the street between 1893 and 1913. Many changes have also been made to the back of the building over the course of its history.  Traces of past windows, doors, and decorations are still visible if you look closely at the side of the building along the alleyway. The building was home to a cigar-maker and barber in the early 1900s, but it has also been a place to eat and drink for most of its history - sometimes called a bar, or saloon, or a restaurant that served only soft drinks. Tommy’s Bar, as it is known today, and the businesses that preceded it in this building have always had strong ties to Detroit’s immigrant communities. The bar is tucked behind the Second / Fort Presbetaryian Church and is visible in a historic photo of the church, taken sometime between 1885 and the turn of the 20th century. At the time the bar was known as the Andrew Healey Saloon. The historic photo shows an advertisement for Kling’s Beer painted on the exterior side wall of the bar. Kling’s beer was brewed by Philip Kling and his family between 1856 and 1919. Philip Kling was one of the earliest German Settlers in Detroit – he arrived in 1836 at age of 18. Twenty years later he opened his first brewery at 1424 Jefferson Ave. It operated under several names until the effects of Prohibition ended his business in 1919.  The motto for Kling’s beer was “Prost – the beer for guest and host!”.  

The Purple Gang

There are no records of any violent crimes taking place during Prohibition here, but it is popularly said that a speakeasy  - aka blind pig - existed in the building’s basement during the era (1917-1933). It’s suspected that Detroit’s infamous Purple Gang frequented the illegal bar, which was then named Little Harry’s. Prohibition started in Michigan in 1917– two years earlier than the rest of the country. It was repealed in 1933.  During Prohibition bootleggers smuggled enormous quantities of alcohol across the Detroit River from Canada. They distributed the alcohol to local speakeasies and to merchants nationwide. Some historians estimate that the Detroit River crossing brought 75% of all smuggled alcohol into the US during the time. The Purple Gang originated on Hastings Street in Detroit’s Paradise Valley neighborhood in the early 1900s. They rose to the status of a vicious criminal gang by 1918, shortly after Prohibition began. The Purple Gang were a group of young men who had grown up together in Detroit. They first or second generation immigrants from Russia and Poland; most of the gang were also Jewish. Nobody really knows how the Purple Gang got its name; theories dispute whether Purple may have been a reference to the gang’s “off color” activities, or the color of a popular boxer’s shorts, or perhaps a tribute to a criminal mentor – Samuel Morris Cohen – whose alias was Purple. The Purple Gang controlled most of the bootlegging and other underground criminal activities in Detroit during Prohibition. They were such a powerful and ruthless group that even famous mob leader Al Capone cooperated with them and used them to supply his Chicago outfit.  But because of a series of arrests and in-fighting, the Purple Gang’s stronghold diminished by 1933. 

Little Harry’s Speakeasy

Over the years visitors to Tommy’s Bar have told stories about their memories of the speakeasy.  The details are fuzzy, but they are consistent in recalling three things. 1 – it was underground; 2 – it was accessed by an underground tunnel that had a staircase in it and 3 – it was a well-furnished wood-paneled room. In 2013 a team of archaeologists from Wayne State University examined the building and discovered convincing evidence of the speakeasy. The evidence included an underground tunnel and staircase. The tunnel is now bricked up at the end of the staircase, so it’s difficult to tell where the tunnel led or where people entered it. But the tunnel still runs about 10 feet and leads to a basement room. The tunnel leads to a small room tucked away in the front corner of the bar’s basement. It still has traces of wood paneling on the walls and ceiling. Another intriguing clue supporting the speakeasy’s existence is a brick wall right next to the speakeasy room – separating it from the rest of the basement. Archaeologists discovered that the wall was actually a false room – it is four brick walls with no doors, windows, or other entrances. Inside of the walls is a deep pile of dirt and debris. You can still see the mound of dirt in the false room between the missing boards along the staircase that leads up to the bar. Why build a false room? What purpose would it have served? Is it a coincidence that the amount of dirt within the room was about the same as the amount of dirt that would’ve come from digging a secret tunnel? 

One intriguing connection between Tommy’s Bar and the speakeasy is found in the building’s ownership at the height of the Purple Gang’s power and towards the end of Prohibition.  During the first years of Prohibition the building was owned by an Italian-American Detroiter, Louis Gianetti, who allegedly served only soft drinks here. But between 1927 and 1929 – when the Purple Gang was at its height Harry Weitzman took over ownership of the bar. Weitzman was a Russian-born Jew. He amassed wealth and connections from his business as a loan agent in the 1920s. At the time he owned the restaurant he was also funding the construction of the famous Grande Ballroom. There is no evidence to suggest that Weitzman was a member of the Purple Gang but there are details of how he conducted business with gang members. As an entrepreneur and businessman he was, in his own right, a well-connected and powerful member of Detroit’s Eastern European, Jewish business community. The ways in which he conducted business do raise suspicions, however, considering that Weitzman registered businesses under several aliases during these years – most notably changing his name to Italian-sounding surnames, including Santoro. The “smoking gun” proving there was a speakeasy in this building during the period comes from the combination of the material remains and oral history with a “guest card” found in the collections of the Detroit Historical Society. Guest cards were issued by speakeasies to trusted patrons and were shown in order to gain entry. This one clearly list’s the building’s address – 624 Third St – and its owner – “Little Harry”. Given the evidence from historical, archaeological, and personal sources, we suspect that “Little Harry” may have been named after the infamous Harry Weitzman who owned and operated the speakeasy at Tommy’s Bar during prohibition and, after its repeal, went on to open the famous Little Harry’s Restaurant on East Jefferson, which was demolished in 1991. 

 

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