Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Part 4:
Gangs Aren't New

"Gang culture among young people, in itself, is nothing new. Indeed, youth gangs have been a major part of the urban cultural landscape since at least the 1830s, when Charles Dickens described Fagin's pack of young boys roaming the streets of London in Oliver Twist."  (Burnett, 1994)

Gangs have been around much longer than that. For example, "The word thug dates back to India in the year 1200 A.D. and refers to a gang of criminals (Thugz) that roamed the country, pillaging towns along their path. These Thugz had their own symbols, hand signs, rituals, and slang. In the United States, we grew up with tales of our own form of thugs like pirates and gangsters, therefore, gangs, undoubtedly, are not a new concept." (Savelli, 2001, page)   

One of my colleagues, a native of Goa, India, told me the word "thug" is used in India today to refer to children who are "mischievous and always getting into trouble." (Dr. Robin Amonker, Missouri State University, personal conversation, July, 2001)

Youth gangs have existed in Western and Eastern societies for centuries. As early as the 1600's, London was 'terrorized by a series of organized gangs calling themselves the Mims, Hectors, Bugles, Dead Boys ... who found amusement in breaking windows, demolishing taverns, [and] assaulting the watch ... The gangs also fought pitched battles among themselves dressed with colored ribbons to distinguish the different factions. (Pearson 1983, p. 188)   

The wearing of colors is not new, as Pearson noted above, nor is the wearing of gang-related garb. "In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, English gangs wore belts and metal pins with designs of serpents, hearts pierced with arrows, animals, and stars." (Source: Spergel, p. 3)

Throughout the 1800s, Americans were fascinated by gangs and gang members. The James Gang, Billy the Kid, and other outlaws ruled the Wild West according to legend. As the late 1800s roared in, the new generation of gangs and gang members was created by the new immigrants.  

Irish gangs like the Whyos, Dead Rabbits, and Plug Uglies, and Jewish gangs like the Monk Eastman Gang terrorized New York City streets. The most notorious gang during this era formed in New York City during the late 1890s and early 1900s. This gang, called the Five Points Gang because its home turf, was situated in the Five Points (Bowery) section of lower Manhattan, would change the mold of the American outlaw.

The Five Points Gang, led by Italian immigrant Paolo Antonini Vaccarelli, also known as Paul Kelly, and his second in command, Johnny Torrio, was the most significant street gang to form in the United States to this point. Johnny Torrio, who became a significant member of the Sicilian Mafia (La Cosa Nostra), recruited street hoodlums from across New York City to the Five Points Gang. Five Points Gang became the 'major league' to many young street gangsters, and a farm club for the Mafia. 

The most notorious recruit into the Five Points Gang was a teenaged boy of Italian descent who was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1899 to immigrant parents. His name was Alphonse Capone, but he was better known on the streets as 'Scarface.'  He became a member of the James Street Gang, which was a minor league, of sorts, to the Five Pointers. One of Capone's childhood friends, and a fellow member of the Five Points Gang, was another street thug named Lucky Luciano.

In 1919, while being sought by authorities in connection with a mob-related murder in New York, Al 'Scarface' Capone moved to Chicago when summoned by Johnny Torrio, who needed his assistance in maintaining control of Chicago mob territories. Capone eventually became the most violent and prolific gangster in Chicago, if not the United States, of that era. The 'Al Capone' style of gangster has molded the American gang experience, and continues to influence America's street gangs.

As street gangs, influenced by mobsters such as Capone, flourished during the 1920s and 30s, gangs became a symbol of lower income neighborhoods and ethnic ghettos. America's new immigrant communities and ghetto neighborhoods saw their youth forming gangs. African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics made up the majority of street gangs that sociologists studied during this period, but the majority of large American cities were experiencing street gangs to some degree.  

During the early 1900s, Mexican street gangs formed in the western U.S., and during the 1940s and 1950s, gangs like the Latin Kings and Vice Lords were formed in Chicago. During the 1960s, street gangs, with names like the Savage Skulls, La Familia, and Savage Nomads, formed in New York City." (Savelli, 2001, page)   

While preparing to speak to a regional gathering of law enforcement commanders about gangs I found a set of 1950 encyclopedias in the hotel's library. Curious as to what the authors would have said about gangs in 1955, I pulled down the "G" volume and this is what I found.


A gang is a group of persons who join together and work toward the same goal. The word has been used for such groups as work gangs on railroads or roads, but in recent times it has come to mean persons grouped together for criminal purposes.

During the early days of the West in the United States, the forces of law and order were still very weak. Cattle thieves and other criminals who had been outlawed by the people of the towns and ranches would join together in outlaw gangs. These outlaw gangs often became so strong that they could rob and steal at will and fight off officers of the law.

Many years later, in the 1920s, the Prohibition Era developed a new kind of gang. This was the period in which it was a crime to make, sell, or transport alcoholic liquors in the United States. Many people wanted to buy liquor anyway, and the demand for it made a wonderful opportunity for criminals. The breaking of the law started with men called “bootleggers,” who made and sold liquor in a small way. Then bigger criminals went into the liquor business. They formed gangs, and the members of the gangs were called gangsters. They smuggled liquor from countries where it could be bought legally and sold it in the United States.

Bootlegging was such a profitable criminal business that there was great competition among the different gangs, and gag wars began. A great wave of murder swept over the country, with gangsters being found dead nearly every day. The gangsters used not only pistols but also machine guns and bombs. The expression “take someone for a ride” meant to drive a person out to a lonely spot and kill him, and this often happened. In 1933 the Prohibition law was repealed, but there was no way of repealing the gangs.

When the liquor business was ended the gangsters spread to many other businesses.  They started “protection racket,” which forced small businessmen to pay them a certain amount of money by threatening to ruin their businesses or even kill the owners. They smuggled many things into the country, especially narcotic drugs.  Many gang activities were turned into organized businesses.  Often the leaders of the gangs seemed to have close ties with the political organizations of the city or state in which they operated, so that it was very difficult to do anything to stop their crimes. At last the United States government stepped in, and government agents such as the “G-men” (agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice”, and agents of the Treasury Department, have been very successful in breaking up the gangs and sending their leaders to prison.

Juvenile Gangs 

Another kind of gang is the one formed by children and young people.  Many juvenile gangs are intended only for fun and social activities. The gang is a way of finding adventure, and it can develop loyalty and other good traits in it members.  This kind of gang is really a sort of club.

But some juvenile gangs turn into the same sort of bad group that the grown-up gangsters belong to. These young gangsters have their gang wars, and these wars often lead to serious injury and death. The gang members fight with stolen guns and homemade weapons and knives. They steal automobiles and use them for wild rides about the city or countryside, often causing accidents that injure or kill other persons.  Sometimes they organize bigger thefts from stores and find themselves in serious trouble. 

Most of these juvenile gangsters come from poor or unhappy homes, and their chief trouble is lack of love and understanding and proper training. The best way to prevent the crime that grows out of juvenile gangs is to provide good neighborhood centers for them, where they can have fun in useful and healthful ways. The principal thing such young gangsters need is some way to make use of their normal desire for a feeling of achievement and a feeling of being wanted and needed.  (Source)

It's fascinating to read about how the gang phenomenon was viewed in 1955 in light of the nature of gangs in the 21st century. The distinction suggested between "gangs" and "juvenile gangs" is one that is blurred today - more a continuum from one to the other than a distinct separation.

The reference to having or developing "good traits" is, as we know about some gangs and their members today, absurd. And the drug around which much of their social and criminal activity takes place has simply changed from alcohol to other controlled substances thanks, once again, to attempts to legislate morality.

Still, the suggestion that there is a need for "neighborhood centers ... where they can have fun in useful and healthful ways" still applies.

The fact that gangs have existed for many centuries suggests they may exist far into the future. Efforts to eradicate them may be foolhardy, although the level of their activity, in amount and kind, may be reduced through effective prevention, intervention, and suppression efforts. We will explore these approaches later in Solutions. For now, let's take a look at the kinds of gangs there are and the names by which they are identified.


Additional Resources: The US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's article entitled Modern Day Youth Gangs addresses the differences in a community's gang situation based upon when the gangs originally formed.

For an exceptional review of the gang situation in the United States since the mid 1970s, see Irving Spergel's Youth Gangs: Problem and Response

See the following sites for a history of Los Angeles' African-American gangs, Chicago's gangs, and the Doolin-Dalton gang.

You can also learn more about such gangs as the James Street Gang and Alphonso Capone, the Five Points Gang, and such notorious gang members as Johnny Torrio, Lucky Luciano (here's another good Luciano site), and other gangsters and the cops who chased them.

© 2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.