Timeline and Narrative of Gang Activity: 1800 Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Timeline and Narrative of Gang Activity: 1800 -- 2000

Throughout history, humans have banded together for mutual protection and to pursue their mutual interests in ways that would not be possible individually. The historical record has shown that humans that succeeded in achieving this level of mutual protection survived while their counterparts perished, and the same processes continue today. When these collaborative efforts are used for criminal enterprises, though, they become gangs. Indeed, Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves and Robin Hood of Loxley and His Merry Men were gangs by any definition, just as Jesse James and the Younger Brothers in the 19th century American West and the gangsters that emerged during Prohibition. To gain some new insights into how gangs evolved over time and what factors contributed to this process, this paper provides a timeline of gang activity from 1800 to the present day, followed by an analysis of these trends. A summary of the research and important findings concerning gang activity during this 200-year period is provided in the conclusion.

Review and Analysis

Part 1: Background and Overview

What is a "gang," anyway? The term "gang" is certainly not modern, but rather dates back to Chaucer's writings in 1390, and a reference to a "gang" also appears in Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor": "There's a knot, a gang, a pack, a conspiracy against me" (quoted in Klein, 1997, p. 51). These allusions, though, do not provide the substantive definitional qualities needed for a modern operationalization of the term. In this regard, Black's Law Dictionary (1991) advises that a gang is "any company of persons who go about together or act in concert; in modern use, mainly for criminal purposes" (p. 679). This definition, though, is amplified by Klein (1997) who suggests that, "To be considered a gang, the criminal involvement of members must be openly known and approved of as such" (p. 24). Finally, the definition of gangs and the extent of gang activity in American history has been complicated by the lack of a consensus concerning what activities and membership levels are required to constitutes a gang. In the past, there was a distinction made by many researchers between youth gangs and adult gangs, but these groups have been consolidated in many of the studies in recent years (Howell, 2003).

Despite this paucity of formal definition, the timeline presented in Table 1 below uses the broad-based definition of gang developed above to identify the emergence of gang activity during the period 1800 to the present day in Part One (column one) and an analysis of these trends in Part Two (column 2).

Table 1

Timeline of Gang Activity: 1800-2000 and Analysis of Trends

Time Period

Part One

Part Two


During the late 1800s, gang activity was based on many of the same factors that contribute to gang activity today, including poverty, fear of others, and the need for an organizational framework in which mutual protection and collective goals could be achieved. For this purpose, the Italian Mafia became increasingly active in Northern Italy and the U.S., especially in major metropolitan centers such as New York during this period in history (Paoli, 2003). In addition, Irish and other nationalistic gangs became prominent in New York's notorious Five Points with criminal activity supporting their organizations and their goals, which included combating what they perceived as intrusions on their turf.

The tactics used by the Italian Mafia to exploit the minority community change in response to this lack of political influence. For instance, Paoli notes that, "Attempts to extort the successful residents of Italian immigrant communities were recorded from the late nineteenth century on, and at the beginning of the following century a wave of blackmail, allegedly orchestrated by the Mano Nera, swept Italian colonies in New York and other American cities" (2003, p. 7). By the fin de siecle, though, the political influence of gangs became less pronounced although their criminal activities remained. In this regard, Paoli reports that, "Italian-American mafia groups had to give up the claim of exercising a political dominion over a specific territory" (p. 7). Other minority groups were also targeted by gangs during this period in American history. In this regard, McCormack and Thomas (2003) report that, "As early as the 1834 riots which raged through the Five Points area and were the largest single action against African-Americans prior to the Civil War" (p. 313). Although minorities were targeted by gangs, there was a commonality involved in their activities: "The common denominator of the rioters was not that they were Irish, but that they were poor" (McCormack et al., 2003, p. 314). In fact, these historians do not characterize the Irish gangs in New York's Five Points in this way, and suggest that poverty and survival were the basis of their actions: "The prejudiced view depicts the Irish of the Five Points as racist, violent gangsters, rather than the impoverished people that they really were, fighting starvation, disease, prejudice and general exploitation" (McCormack et al., 2003, p. 314).


Gangs in Chicago emerged during the 1920s in response to the social stressors that were commonly experienced in poor and working class neighborhoods (Rosenthal, 2000).

Beginning in the 1920s, researchers such as Thrasher (1927) began evaluating youth gangs and identified a relationship between poverty and economic uncertainty and gang involvement (Rosenthal, 2000). Tertiary prevention approaches are for those individuals already involved in a gang or delinquent activities. Established in 1934, the Chicago Area Project (CAP) involved local community groups by providing supervised after-school and recreation programs (Sorrentino & Whittaker, 1994).


The seminal studies of the 1950s and 1960s in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles found that gang membership leads to more criminal involvement (Klein, 1997). In addition, growing numbers of disaffected and troubled young World War II combat veterans sought the reassurances of the brotherhood of gangs and used the American flag and patriotism as themes to cover their drug and other criminal activities, including violent encounters with competing gangs.

The lack of mental health resources for millions of combat veterans following the end of World War II may have contributed to the growth of gang activity among this segment of the population. According to Veno (2002), "In the U.S. veterans returned home from the war, looking for ways to spend their final army pay and let off some steam after years of military discipline. Many joined the motorcycle clubs of the American Motorcycle Association" (p. 27). Although most of these veterans went on to enjoy their membership in their associations in healthy and positive ways, other became disaffected and many decided to engage in criminal activities as part of their "business model" (Gannon, 2002). So-called "outlaw biker clubs" did not exist until around 1947 or so (Gannon, 2002).


Youth gangs become pervasive in many larger American cities, especially in inner-city neighborhoods where battles over turf and social unrest create a bloody background for the violence that would follow during this decade. African-American youths increasingly formed gangs in inner-city neighborhoods as well (Egley & Major, 2004). In addition, during the latter half of the 1960s, young women began to form and join gangs at unprecedented rates (Howell, 1998).

The gangs in the 1960s, together with their associated criminal activities, were influenced with the pervasiveness of inexpensive technology (Howell, 1998). Gang members had increased access to automobiles and guns that allowed them to commit crimes that were more lucrative but more serious and to expand their operations far beyond their own neighborhoods. This was an important development because gang members were able to commit more crimes against people that did not know them, and their anonymity helped them avoid detection and prosecution (Howell, 1998).


The U.S. Department of Justice reports that at the beginning of this decade, there was active gang involvement in less than half of the fifty states (Egley & Major, 2004).

African-American youths continued to organize themselves into gangs, ostensibly to protect their communities but increasingly to cover their criminal activities (Klein, 1997; Egley & Major, 2004).

During the early 1970s, law enforcement authorities in many large American cities generally acknowledged the existence of gang activity within their jurisdictions. During the 1970s, the public was recovering from the Vietnam War and dealing with a wide variety of important social issues and changes. At the time, gangs and crime did not assume the same level of concern as these other issues (Allender, 2001).


Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s (see below), there was a proliferation of gang activities across the country. During this period, so-called Skinheads, Aryan nations and other white power gangs become prevalent. According to Simonelli (1995), "The Skinheads, the National Socialist Vanguard, the Order, the Aryan Nation, the White Aryan Resistance, and the New Order, share a hatred of Jews and blacks" (p. 554). In addition, during the 1980s, there was another peak in overall youth gang activity (Curry & Decker, 2002). Several studies during this decade confirmed the relationship between youth gang…

Sources Used in Document:


Allender, D.M. (2001, December). Gangs in Middle America: Are they a threat? FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 70(2), 1-3.

Black's law dictionary. (1991). St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co.

Conway, K., McCormack, M. & Thomas, C. (2003). Gangs of New York. Social Education, 67(6), 313-315.

Craig, W.M. (2002). The road to gang membership: characteristics of male gang and nongang members from ages 10 to 14. Social Development, 11, 53-68.

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