The Gangs of Philadelphia

Caption (PhillyHistory.org)

In Southwark – Front Street at Christian. Photograph by John Moran, 1869. (Free Library of Philadelphia/PhillyHistory.org)

“Armed to the teeth” with “pocket pistols, knives, or those horrible inventions known as ‘slung-shot,'” Philadelphia’s gangs dominated the streets of Southwark and Moyamensing in the 1840s, raining bricks and reigning terror.

How had it gotten so out of control? The lack of police beyond the city’s southern border – then South Street. And the give-and-take of street warfare. The cycle of violence begins when a gang member “escapes barely with his life, and mangled, wounded, and bleeding, makes his appearance among his confederates and companions, details a vivid account of the manner in which he was assailed…  A spirit of vengeance is kindled… threats of retaliation are uttered, and an early opportunity is sought, to pay back in the same coin, with bricks, bludgeons and knives, the attack upon their brother. When the fight is once commenced under these circumstances, the feelings become inflamed, the mind is maddened, the blood heated, and the scene is often of the most fearful character. This, we believe, is the whole story with regard to most of the collisions which have recently taken place.”

“What is the remedy?” asked the Inquirer in desperation during the the hot summer of 1849.

Meanwhile, all hell had broken loose. “We are told there are no less than five gangs of organized ruffians, either in the county, or on the outskirts of the city.” Seasoned columnist George Foster identified eleven “squads or clubs” in Southwark and Moyamensing populated by “loafers” who give themselves “outlandish titles.” The fiercer the better. Marauding the streets were Killers, Bouncers, Rats, Stingers, Nighthawks, Buffers, Skinners, Gumballs, Smashers, Whelps, Flayers “and other appropriate and verminous designations.” They marked their territories by fighting, rioting, and writing “in chalk or charcoal on every dead-wall, fence and stable-door.” They held their “nightly conclaves on the corners of by-streets or in unoccupied building-lots, sneaking about behind the rubbish-heaps, and perhaps now and then venturing out to assault an unprotected female or knock down a lonely passenger.”

Two of the Killers. ca. 1848. Lithograph by J. Childs. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

And worse. On Election Day, 1849, the Killers and the Stingers corralled a few hundred of their allies and attacked the California House at Sixth and St. Mary Street (now Naudain), a tavern operated by an interracial couple. The battle “raged for a night and a day” before causalities were counted . “Dreadful Riot,” read one of several headlines,” Houses Burned, and Several Persons Killed and Wounded.”

For years, the newspapers had been crying out for “the law efficiently and vigorously administered” no matter what the cost. “Is it not possible for the authorities of the immediate districts concerned, to secure one or two of the ringleaders?” they demanded. “Are the citizens of that district content to live in such a state of anarchy?”

Apparently, the citizens had little choice in the matter. According to David R. Johnson in The Peoples of Philadelphia, The Public Ledger reported on the doings of no less than 51 gangs. In an effort to be even more comprehensive—from sources listed below as well as the Inquirer—we located an additional 14.

Here are the gangs, the Philadelphia 65, listed in alphabetical order:

American Guards; Bleeders; Blood Tubs; Blossoms; Bouncers; Buffers; Bugs; Bulldogs; Centre Street Boys; Chesapeakes; Crockets; Darts; Deathfetchers; Dogs; Dog-Towners; Flayers; Fly-By-Nights; Garroters; Gumballs; Hyenas; Jack of Clubs; Jumpers; Juniatta Club; Kensington Blackhawks; Kerryonians; Keystone No. 2; Killers; Lancers; Molly Maguires; Neckers; Nighthawks; Orangemen; Pickwick Club; Pluckers; Pots No. 2; Privateer Club No. 1; Rangers; Rats; Reading Hose Club; Rebels; Red Roses; Reed Birds; Schuylkill Rangers; Shifflers; Skinners; Smashers; Snakers; Snappers; Spiggots; Spitfires; Sporters; Springers; Stingers; Stockholders; The Forty Thieves; The Vesper Social; Tormentors; Turks; Vampyres; Waynetowners; Weecys; Whelps; Wild Cats; Wreckers.

If these boys and men had heroes, these were the toughest of Philadelphia’s volunteer firemen who, according to Bruce Laurie, they “gazed upon and followed in awe and reverence.” But unlike the gangs, which more often than not served as firefighting farm teams, the city’s volunteer fire companies chose names without bite, or even growl. Fact was, the fire companies found resonance in their choices of civic-sounding names: Assistance, Diligent, Friendship, Good Intent, Good Will, Hand-In-Hand, Harmony, Hope, Humane, Perseverance, Reliance and Vigilant.

Ah, branding.

Sources include: The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Bouncers and Killers,” August 11, 1846; “Fireman’s Triennial Parade,” March 27, 1849; [News/Opinion, page 2, column 1] August 7, 1849; “Dreadful Riot,” October, 10, 1849; George Rogers Taylor and George G. Foster, “Philadelphia in Slices,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jan., 1969), pp. 23-72; David R. Johnson “Crime Patterns in Philadelphia, 1840-70,” pp. 89-110 and Bruce Laurie, “Fire Companies and Gangs in Southwark: The 1840s,” in Allen F. Davis, Mark H. Haller The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life, 1790-1940. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); Peter McCaffery, When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: The Emergence of the Republican Machine, 1867–1933. (Penn State University Press: 1993).

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3 Comments

  1. MadHungarian
    Posted February 12, 2016 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Wow. The more things change the more they stay the same. Except I don’t think there are any gangs called the Blossoms today. Kensington Blackhawks, though, it wouldn’t surprise me to find they are still around.

  2. Joe Clarke
    Posted February 13, 2016 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Let’s not forget the Protestant Irish (Scotts Irish) and Irish-catholic identity of these volunteer fire departments that created mayhem between them. (cf: The History of Philadelphia Poor and Working People from 1840-Present).

  3. Dee Glassman
    Posted February 12, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    My father talked about gangs in the 1930’s like the Ali Babas. They mainly did breaking and entering.

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