New York City’s street gangs of the 19th Century included the Plug Uglies, Kerryonians, Dead Rabbits, Chichesters, Roach Guards, Whyos, Shirt Tails and others, all of whom committed robberies and engaged in turf wars. In 1863 such gangs also partecipated in the anti-Civil War draft riots, in wich hundreds died.
The 1890s saw a huge influx of European immigrants arriving in American cities to find work. What they found were low paying, dangerous factory jobs, slum housing and poverty. Primarily Irish, Italian and Eastern European, they were restricted to congested ghetto areas and crowded into small tenement apartments which often had no indoor plumbing or sanitation. The extent of the era’s racism can be gauged by the fact that in many places, landlords posted signs stating, “No Negroes or Italians allowed“.
Sweat-shop and factory jobs meant long hours and low pay. As a result, children were left unsupervised after school. The streets became battlegrounds for youth gang wars fueled by racial and ethnic hostility. Each ethnic group grabbed what territory it could and defended it. As old gangs faded, new ones replaced them; by 1900, the Five Points gang was dominant in New York.
Slum kids who banded together for self defense also turned to theft. Their gangs were a fertile recruiting ground for professional criminals, who provided training, weapons and protection from the police in exchange for fealty and a share of the spoils.
By the mid-1910s, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia were home to a new generation of professional urban criminals.
When alcohol became illegal in 1917, the stage was set for the entrance of Organized Crime.
(1992 Max Allan Collins & George Hagenauer)