The History of Gangs
Since biblical times criminal organizations that engage in secretive, antisocial and criminal behavior has continued to plague society. These criminal groups have been apart of history for thousands of years and their roots run deep into America’s past and culture. Gangs are not a new phenomenon nor are the problems associated with them, however, they have never touched a greater segment of society as they do now.
The birth of America’s gang problem can be traced to the dawn of the country, a time when many Europeans migrated to the East coast with the intent of making a better life. After arriving their savings was quickly depleted and many were forced to take out loans with local merchants and colonization companies, who charged steep interest rates. Life for many was more difficult than they imagined and death due to poverty and disease was common. There were many who died orphaning their children. With no money to send the children back to their homeland and with no relatives to care for them in America was a common problem in many cities.
1700 – 1790s
During the mid-1700s in most towns had an orphanage managed by the local church. Even cities with populations as small as 1,000 people had an orphanage. Most families had their own trials and tribulations and to worry about someone else’s children was too much to expect, as a result adoptions were rare. To see children wandering the streets was so common that the orphanages’ philosophy was to keep the children separated from the rest of society, not to find a home for them. With little funding and no operational rules or guidelines, children housed in these institutions lived in despicable conditions.
To better prepare the children for entering society an apprentice program was created which could be described as the predecessor to the country’s foster care programs. Starting as early as 10-years-old, a boy was taken out of the orphanage and placed with the local blacksmith, butcher, shopkeeper or with someone who could teach them a trade. The boy was taught a trade and received food and shelter. In exchange, the business owner had an employee at a fraction of the cost of hiring an adult. It was hoped that once the boy entered manhood, he would start his own business and become a productive member of society. In reality, community leaders found that the boys were receiving little care and guidance. They quickly discovered that after the boys completed their daily chores, they received no additional supervision or guidance.
Juvenile delinquency became a major concern as scores of homeless children strolled the streets in nearly every large city. Children and teenagers stealing food and clothing was a common problem. Night watchmen had difficulty keeping the youngsters from engaging in minor acts of mischief. Although the youth were banded together, they were more of a nuisance for the communities rather than feared violent organizations. Crime rates quickly rose and by 1790, slave labor was in such abundance that the apprentice program was abandon.
1791 – 1849
As residents of the country were burdened with heavy taxes, organized smuggling and robbery gangs were found in every major costal city. These adult gangs such as the Doane Gang were known for committing vicious acts of robbery. The Doane Gang existed for nearly 10 years until they were caught and executed. In 1791 gangs were such a problem that city officials in Philadelphia had an emergency meeting to decide how to deal with their city’s gang problem. They determined they had numerous groups of disruptive youth engaged in organized criminal acts.
The early 1800s brought a definite distinction in social classes and the gang problem continued to grow touching all age groups. Gangs were generally comprised of members of the same race and ethnic background, who banded together for protection, recreation and financial gain. In Manhattan, the Forty Thieves Gang operated as professional murderers, muggers, burglars and pickpockets. Their younger auxiliary, the Little Forty Thieves Gang was soon created which consisted of juvenile delinquents as young as 10-years-old. In 1825, the Little Forty Thieves Gang and the many other youth gangs caused New York City officials to announce their city had a gang problem.
1850 – 1860
By the 1850s gangs such as the Plug Uglies Gang, the Dead Rabbits Gang and the Chichesters Gang were formed. The Plug Uglies Gang received their name from the giant plug hats they wore. The hats were filled with rags, wool and leather and were worn over their ears as helmets to protect them during gang fights. They required all members to be of Irish decent and to be at least 6 feet tall. The Dead Rabbits Gang specialized in mugging, pickpocketing and robbery. This gang existed for nearly twenty years and was known to carry a spear with a dead rabbit mounted on it during all conflicts with rival groups. The Chichesters Gang got their name from their homeland, a city in Ireland.
The gang problem was virtually described as an Irish and Welsh problem. For many years Irish, Welsh and Chinese immigrants migrated to the country and were used as a source of cheap labor. The Chinese moved into communities and quickly isolated themselves from the American culture. Tong and Triad groups quickly formed in every Chinese-American community. Criminal groups controlled by the Chinese received little attention from the media, but they were credited with bringing opium to the country. It was the Irish gangs who had membership numbers in the thousands and it was they who received all the attention in the media.
In large cities gang membership continued to increase until the gangs gained powerful control over many neighborhoods. As citizens became more concerned, government officials blamed unwed mothers and the perils of illegitimacy as the cause of their increasing gang problems. This 1850s report was unsurprisingly familiar to a 1989 report by the U. S. House Committee. The committee blamed the breakdown of the family structure as the cause of violence in a statement released to the New York Times. It was not until 1853 that a New York City police captain organized the Strong Arm Squad to combat their growing gang problem. The squad consisted of the bravest and strongest men who daily assaulted and arrested gang members whether or not they were currently engaged in criminal activity.
1861 – 1869
Problems continued to increase until the beginning of the Civil war in 1861. At the end of the war in 1865, the founding year of the Ku Klux Klan, gang problems rapidly resurfaced. The Whyos Gang was created by former members of the Chichesters Gang. They consisted of several hundred members and were believed to be the most vicious and terrifying of the time. They were so brazen in their criminal activity that they printed up a list of services, “Punching – $2, Both Eyes Blackened – $4, Nose & Jaw Broken – $10, Jacked Out (knocked out with a blackjack) – $15, Ear Chawed Off – $15, Leg Or Arm Broken – $19, Shot in The Leg – $25, Stab – $25, Doing the Job ( murder) $100 and up.” Several years later the gang required all prospective members to have committed a murder before receiving admission into the group.
Following the Civil War many soldiers returned home addicted to morphine because of their wartime injuries. Drug abuse was a common problem among young and old. Most gangs recognized the needs of the public and quickly took advantage of the demand for drugs. There was easy access to morphine, cocaine and laudanum, a popular depressant. These drugs quickly stripped away what little values, ethics or remorse that a gang member had. Jacob Riis, a photographer and journalist of the time, documented an incident in which two members of the Montgomery Guards Gang were arrested for murder. Reiss said that after the two young suspects robbed a Jewish peddler, they bragged how they tried to cut off the victim’s head. When questioned about the attempted decapitation, the suspects smugly replied that it was “just for fun.”
1870 – 1890
The first Boys Club of America was founded in 1870 to help “pavement children” like the young members of the Nineteenth Street Gang. The all Catholic gang had the reputation of preying on shopkeepers, disabled people and children. The gang, consisting of all teenagers under 16-years-old, was blamed for several attacks on Protestant missions and schools. As gangs continued to expand in inner-city areas, membership in rural areas grew as well. It was during this time the government recognized the need of a law enforcement organization that would span the entire nation. Shortly later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation started with just one employee. In 1887 the Red Sash Gang was notorious for numerous acts of murder and cattle-rustling. Each member of the gang wore a red sash to show their affiliation to the group. That same year the Burrows Gang robbed dozens of trains and stagecoaches.
1891 – 1899
In the summer of 1895 in the Arkansas-Oklahoma territory Rufus Buck and his friends started a gang. The young teens began their criminal reign with the murder of a deputy sheriff who they believed was looking at them suspiciously. They later found a widowed woman and after gang-raping her, they killed her. The young teens then did a home invasion robbery. After raping the woman of the home, they murdered her husband and children. The gang was soon caught after a shootout with police and were later hung.
1900 – 1910
In the early 1900s, keeping up with technological advances, the organization level of gangs took a dramatic increase. In one city, the Car Barn Gang posted a sign on every street-corner reading, “Notice-COPS, KEEP OUT! No policemen will hereafter be allowed on this block. By order of the Car Barn Gang.” They had such control of the neighborhood that police had to move through the streets in squads of at least six men to avoid showers of bricks and attacks from gang members. Patrolmen who did enter this forbidden area were commonly stabbed or beaten with blackjacks. By the early 1900s, Irish citizens were no longer considered second-class citizens and Italian and Jewish controlled gangs were in nearly every large city. Gangs were no longer just a problem among the Irish community. Drunkenness and immorality plagued the entire country.
1911 – 1920
Drug abuse was a familiar problem in all large cities and to combat the growing drug addiction among the population the Harrison Narcotic Act was signed in March of 1915. This began the government’s first attempt at regulating narcotics. Within five years the Volstead Act was announced and prohibition began making the production and use of all alcoholic beverages illegal. Again, the concept of supply and demand was recognized and many gangs went into the business of producing and selling liquor.
1921 – 1929
Known as the Golden Era of Gangs, the roaring twenties produced the most notorious criminals ever known, such as Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and John Dillinger. Italian crime syndicates monopolized the criminal world and Chicago became the new home of the country’s gang problem. A special law enforcement organization was created and agents were issued a badge, grenades, a machine gun, a .45 caliber pistol with an extra magazine, and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. These agents were better equipped than most law enforcement officers of today.
Eventually the Italian controlled crime groups merged into one large organization known as the mafia, whose members called their group “La Cosa Nostra” or this thing of ours. Although the country’s fascination focused on these organized crime groups, youth gangs were still a problem in all large cities and nearly every one of these groups was involved in the illegal production and distribution of liquor. Youth gangs such as the Big Boom Gang was identified. The Big Boom Gang was known for using BB guns and shotguns loaded with rock salt during fights with rival gangs and the police.
1930 – 1949
During the1930s the F. B. I. began collecting and tabulating crime reports from across the nation. Social workers began their campaign after recognizing the problem of youth running the streets. Their solution was to produce a movie called The Dead End. Their goal was to show teens the perils of a life on the streets. Although the success or failure of the film was never mentioned, with the declaration of World War II several years later gang membership levels once again dwindled.
Throughout the war, racial tension increased in many parts of the country and following the example of the prior Irish, Jewish and Italian groups, Mexican gangs became more organized. In Los Angeles, the Zoot Suit Riots occurred after community leaders and military personnel focused their attention toward the growing number of Mexican-Americas who called themselves Pachucos. During this time, many innocent Mexican-American citizens were targeted in unjustified attacks and false arrests. At the end of the war in 1945, solders returned to their homes and displaced many women and minorities from their jobs causing the poverty and unemployment level to increase in many inner-city areas.
1950 – 1960
By 1950 the United States has the worst juvenile crime statistics in the Western world. Three years later, New York started the first youth curfew and warned defiant teens to expect to have their “skulls cracked” if found out past curfew. In several cities young Black men formed social organizations and rivalries quickly became apparent between many of these groups. Although many of the groups began for racial and social advancement, violent criminal activity soon followed and these groups became the seedlings for some of the most notorious gangs the nation has ever known. Within the same decade organized prison gangs were formed and across the country drug use took a dramatic increase. The next thirty years brought many gangs who focused their efforts toward the manufacturing, distributing and trafficking of controlled substances.
At the beginning of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, gang-related violence continued to increase to unprecedented levels. Many of the gangs formed during this time are still in existence today ending the supremacy of one racial group controlling organized crime. The gang problem now belongs to everyone-Asian, Black, Hispanic, and white. Gangsters of all races now share the underworld. The social and economical burden that gang members inflict upon society is not a new problem. Gang rapes, drive-by shootings, home invasion robberies and murders have been commonplace for hundreds of years. Although they may have ridden horses instead in cars, wore hats instead of bandanas and carried knives instead of automatic weapons, gangs are not a new tribulation facing the citizenry of this country. Since the beginning of civilization, gangs in one degree or another have always contributed to the decay of society and although the United States is the most technological advanced nation in the world, the gang problem continued to grow faster than any virus or disease.