The word "gang" comes from "gonge," a term originally meaning a journey, but later referring to a "gonge" of sailors in the fifteenth century. "Gangs" of outlaws or wild young men came into common usage by Shakespeare's time. The "Father of Gang Research," Frederic Thrasher, gave the word its industrial-era meaning in the 1920s and made “gang” into a term which meant kids of the street. But US gangs had other predecessors than unsupervised street urchins.

There are four kinds of "gangs" which were predecessors of the street gangs of today. 1. Secret Societies; 2. Gangs of Outlaws in the Wild West; 3.Racist gangs like the Klu Klux Klan; and 4. "Voting Gangs" tied mainly to the Democratic Party in large cities.


Two Secret Societies are especially important for US gangs, as well as gangs around the world. Both the Chinese Triads and the Italian Mafia and Camorra have existed at least since the early 1800s.

Chinese Triad member . Is he representing?

Triads had their origin in anti-Manchu resistance in China, the term "triad" coming from the three dots which form part of the Chinese character for the Ming Emperor Hung Wu. Triads began as "Men of Hung." The were both part of the political resistance of the Han Chinese to the Manchu dynasty, as well as outlaws who "Ta fu — chih p'in" (Hit the Rich and help the poor).

Triads spread all over the world and control much of the illegal and informal economy in overseas Chinese communities. Thrasher wrote about "tongs" in Chicago, defining tong as "protective society." The largest was the On Leong, that also had chapters in New York and San Francisco

The movie, Gangs of New York, was taken from Herbert Asbury's sensationalist stories of New York City thugs.(see NYT Review; and a Gotham Gazette review with a list of books on the gangs of New York City; and the review in the New Yorker).It shows one important type of gang in the early years of the US.

Like all gang movies, the violence is wildly over-exaggerated, except for the depiction of the civil war draft riots, which turned into a racist pogram.

How do these gangs compare to Chicago's. Click here

The Dallas Morning News of January 1, 1912 reports on Chicago's wave of Black Hand terror.

The Mafia also are made up of extended kinship groups. These groups originally maintained an ideal of manliness developed during the 1600's, when Sicily was ruled by Spain. The ideal called for refusal to cooperate with authorities and self-control in the face of hardships. In personal quarrels, a mafioso took the law into his own hands and gained respect by using violence. Any offense might trigger a campaign of vengeance called a vendetta.

Mafiosi unofficially ruled part of western Sicily in the 1800's and early 1900's. Similar crime groups, such as the Camorra in Naples and the Onorata Societa (Honored Society) in Calabria, developed in other parts of Italy. The Black Hand was a secret society which practicied extortion on Italian immigrants.

The Black Hand were responsible for large numbers of murders in Chicago in the early 1900s: 10 in 1910; 40 in 1911; 33 in 1912; 31 in 1913; and 42 n 1914. The Mafia never really developed in Chicago, as it did in New York or Boston. By the mid-twenties, Capone had turned Torrio's vice operations into what is know today as the "Outfit."


As the cities were growing in the 19th century, the wild west spawned a male culture of violence. This male culture included the gold rush of 1848 where 90,000 men poured into California with a ratio of twenty men to every one woman. Rates of violence were astronomical, and an outlaw culture soon formed alongside the rough male culture of the gold fields.

The James Gang and many others have been the prototypical "gang" for America, up until the Capone years. Hollywood has had made a deep impression on Americans. The tough guy, cowboy culture of "shoot first and ask questions later" has been drilled into the American psyche.

The outlaw has a long history in other cultures as well. Gangs of “highwaymen” are written about in Ireland and elsewhere. Often people were seen as being forced to become bandits by "bad guys,", especially foreign oppressor. “Social bandits” like Robin Hood or Zorro were part of national resistance

Jessse James in 1876 at the
height of his career


Many gangs of armed young men were racially mortivated. Racial tensions in cities, like New York, were constant, and racist conflict was almost everywhere more violent and vehement than nativism. During the civil war, “draft riots” in NYC were thinly disguised anti-black Irish gang violence and about a thousand people were killed or injured and over a million dollars damages.

While competition for jobs was a source of hostility between many ethnic groups, no other group was so brutalized and dehumanized as Black people. Gangs of young men who fought each other over turf and honor, turned vicious and murderous when fighting Blacks. The "draft riots" were little more than a pogram.

After the civil war, the Ku Klux Klan arose as a “secret society “ of men, and in the beginning not poor men, but former Confederate officers. The KKK institutionalized in the south as an extension of the power of the planters, part of the overthrow of reconstruction. The KKK was the violence of armed young men enforcing segregation and a racial order of domination in the south.

"Draft" rioters lynch a Negro in 1863.
New York Public Library Picture Collections





Voting Gangs in New York City
New York Public Library Picture Collections

Racism was not the property of just the South. The final predecessor of gangs were what Eric Monkkonen calls “voting gangs” in New York City and the east. This was an Irish invention, using the pub culture of males to help the Irish become politically dominant. Gangs of roughs, were encouraged, organized, paid by politicians to “help” in elections. Opponents were beaten up, voters intimidated, and voting booths destroyed (see left) and votes stolen.

It was these mainly Irish“ gangs” which were the core of the draft riots of 1863. Chicago's Democratic Party formed "Social Athletic Clubs" modelled after New York's Tammany Hall thugs.

It was at this time that Hull House was working with young boys (and girls) to keep them off the streets. The writings of Charles Dickens, especially Oliver Twist (1839) were widely read and Hull House, founded in 1889, was fashioned after London’s Toynbee Hall which had started in 1884 and which Jane Addams visited in 1888.

In Chicago, the Democratic Party, already dominated by the Irish, borrowed the New York "Voting Gangs" custom and took them to new heights, or lows. “Social Athletic Clubs” were groups of young men, oftened organized in sports and sometimes had clubhouses. Politicians used the SACs as they had in New York, to make sure the favored candidate won. In doing so, they built clubhouses for their favorites, and sometimes named the gangs after themselves such as the Ragen’s Colts at right.

1919 was an ominous year. In cities around the US, returning soldiers used their weapons to put the blacks who had been recruited to the factoris in the north as the war ended immigration, in their place and took their jobs back. Blacks, many of whom had seen social equality in France and had also kept their weapons, responded to violence by violence.

Major riots rocked East St. Louis and Chicago as Irish and other white ethnic gangs spear-headed the murderous assaults in both cities.Black gangs formed defensively and actively defended the Black Belt.

The famous clubhouse of the Ragen's Colts


To summarize, before Thrasher, there were four types of predecessors to his gangs. 1. Secret Societies, like the Mafia, Camorra, and Triads; 2. Gangs of the Wild West and the tradition of highwaymen; 3. Racist gangs, like the KKK, which persisted from the end of the civil war to today;; and 4. Voting gangs, began in NYC and taken to violent heights in Chicago.

From this discussion, we can conclude that gangs then and now roughly fall out into four categories. 1. There are gangs of oppressed groups, which form because of lack of opportunity, and often take it by outlaw means (original Mafia; western outlaws); 2. There are gangs which are used by dominant or rising groups to enforce their power by violence or terror (KKK, voting gangs; some Triad and Mafias); 3. There were gangs which lasted only a short time, usually until the leader is killed or grows up (James Gang; most social athletic clubs and urban gangs) and 4. Those gnags which persist for decades, and sometime longer (Triads; Mafios; Chicago’s SACs, the KKK). These gangs are said to have institutionalized, or taken permanent form.