Gangs that Thrasher described were hardly new. Here's Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn discussing the nature of his pre-civil war gang.

"Now we'll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer's Gang. Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood." Everybody was willing.

So Tom gave out a sheet of paper that he had wrote the oath on, and read it. It swore every boy to stick to the band, and never tell any of the secrets; and if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he musn't sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band. And nobody that didn't belong to the band could use that mark, and if he did he must be sued, and if he done it again he must be killed. And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot, for ever.

Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath, and asked Tom if he got it out of his own head. He said, some of it, but the rest was out of pirate books, and robber books, and every gang that has high-toned had it."

Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn in 1884.For the complete electronic text, click here.

FREDERIC THRASHER was a sociologist at the University of Chicago. He was a colleague of Robert Park and was one of the most prominent members of the Chicago School of Sociology in the 1920s. Thrasher's epic work: The Gang: a study of 1313 gangs in Chicago may still be the best study of gangs ever written. (Look for a digitized version of the original book, complete with maps, on this site soon)

Thrasher was a social reformer and believed that gangs were part of the psychological and group processes of adolescence in poor communities. He was a firm believer in Children's Court as a means to handle misguided youth and gang delinquency.

He defined gangs by the process they go through to form a group:

"The gang is an interstitial group originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict. It is characterized by the following types of behavior: meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result of this collective behavior is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory." (1963/1927, p. 46). At right is Thrasher's famous sketch of the process of gang formation.

Click here for references to social science definitions of gangs.





By the 1950s and 1960s, gangs were no longer seen as imaginative, trouble-making Tom Sawyers. Neither were most white ethnics, but most gangs were Black and Hispanic. Rather than seeing gangs as "our kids" as did Thrasher, many criminologists of that era, who all white and male, began to define gangs as fundamentally criminal GO TO NEXT PAGE .


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