7 Violent Gangs That Terrorized the Streets in the 19th Century

People avoided these street gangs at all costs

While today we are witnessing perhaps the most turbulent time of our lifetime, this is not a new phenomenon to society. Throughout the history of civilization, there have been radical groups with a variety of objectives that dish out violence to whomever or whatever opposes them. Still, there are certain times in history when these gangs were much more active.

One such period was the 19th Century when thousands of street gangs began to appear in heavily populated urban areas. The Industrial Revolution was the primary cause for the birth of these gangs. There were two reasons why the Industrial Revolution is to blame for these violent groups. The first was that immigrants flooded into these urban areas in search of new jobs. This caused a lot of racial and cultural tension with the locals. The second was the extreme competition for available jobs, which led to violence more times than not.

Tension and division in any society will lead to the formation of radical groups. It is not a coincidence that, when most street gangs form, they are typically members of a group. Many of them belong to the same race or, can be more similar to some motorcycle gangs which started with a group of military veterans.

That said, let us examine seven of these violent street gangs from the 1800s.

The High Rip Gang

The High Rip Gang

The High Rip Gang roamed the Liverpool streets during the 1880s. Their influence was prevalent in the city’s poorest sections and the majority of their victims were dockworkers, shopkeepers, and sailors. If their victims did not die, then they were left beaten and disfigured. This group’s weapons of choice were heavy belts and knives, called ‘bleeders.’

The High Rips sprang up right after a local gang known as ‘the Cornermen,’ who were named after their tendency to sit on street corners and wait for their next victim. However, the High Rips were much more ruthless and organized than their local predecessors.

Members of this brutal gang were always armed to the point that police chose to leave them alone rather than confront them. While the gang’s activities tapered off at the end of the decade, many believe they were linked to Jack the Ripper.

The Forty Thieves

The Forty Thieves

While New York City has a vibrant history of street gangs, the Forty Thieves was its very first gang. Sometime around 1825, these thieves and pickpockets circulated shabby storefronts — the ones that offered cheap food, cheap vegetables, and even cheap rum.

They understood the power of the mob as they banded together to commit their crimes.
For over twenty-five years, this Irish gang operated under an organized system where each member had to steal a certain number of goods — or they would pay dearly. This rule was applied to everyone. When the wife of the gang’s first leader, Edward Coleman, did not meet her quota, he beat her to death. He later hanged for this murder.

Despite losing their leader, the Forty Thieves continued to flourish. They liked to recruit younger members who were impressionable and easily manipulated. These children would become their pickpockets and lookouts, as they were being groomed for more significant crimes. For many gang members, crime was the only way they could overcome the crippling poverty that had loomed over New York’s slums.

Peaky Blinders

Peaky Blinders

Many are familiar with this gang because of the BBC television series Peaky Blinders (2013). What most do not know is that this gang was not fiction: they were real. Stories claim that the name Peaky Blinders came from their favorite weapon, flat caps that featured razor blades that had been sewn into their brims.

This rowdy group came from the slums of Birmingham, England, during the late 1800s. Peaky Blinders was just one of many gangs that were terrorizing the city at that time. They could always be found in the middle of big street brawls that would last for hours, as rivals attempted to establish dominance over one another. Like with most street gangs, they ran rackets and sought out anyone that appeared vulnerable.

However, unlike other gangs, Peaky Blinders were very stylish. Members were recognized by their neat trousers and silk scarves. This won the admiration of the children they liked to recruit and groom for their organization. Arrest records indicate that gang members carrying weapons were as young as twelve or thirteen years of age.

The Rip Raps

The Rip Raps

The Rip Raps, who named themselves after a famous shoal in the Hampton Roads, ravaged the streets of Baltimore during the 1850s. Their members were fervently anti-immigration and anti-Catholic. Their beliefs eventually led them to support the Know-Nothing political party later. This support was provided in the form of violence, as they constantly rioted for the cause and eventually burnt down the headquarters of the Democratic party — which opposed them. Any Democrat who fled was run down and beaten. This bloody event killed two people and injured many others.

This incident occurred just a month before the 1856 presidential election. Millard Fillmore was the Know-Nothing candidate and won the state by a landslide, but it was the only state he won. Despite the loss of the election, the Rip Raps continued roaming the streets unchecked. Even the Mayor of Baltimore, Thomas Swann, who was elected with their support, attempted to suppress the gang’s violent ways.

The Mandelbaum Gang

The Mandelbaum Gang

Frederika Mandelbaum, who was called ‘Marm,’ was a mother of sorts. She established an organization in New York City around the year 1864. In twenty years, she created an empire of crime that was comprised of a skilled gang of thieves, bandits, and pickpockets: all of which trusted her to reward them fairly for everything they stole. It is believed that her crew ripped off some $200 million of goods in today’s dollars.

A big reason for Mandelbaum’s success was because of how she treated members of her criminal network. She was loyal and always stood by them, keeping lawyers on retainer to defend them if they got caught. She also paid out handsome bribes to law authorities and judges so that they would look the other way.

Amazingly, most of Mandelbaum’s gang were women. She thought very highly of women that refused to be something other than a housekeeper. Even opening up a school to teach the upcoming generation of would-be thieves and pickpockets. Mandelbaum owned many warehouses that were used to stash all the stolen merchandise. She also had a swank three-story building where she held dinner parties and entertained the elites of New York society.

The Bowery Boys


The Bowery Boys

Probably, the most notorious of the Five Points street gangs from New York was the Bowery Boys. The telling of their history is challenging because there are so many stories about them — it is hard to determine which are real and which ones are legend.

During the 1840s, plays were performed in New York’s Bowery Theater, depicting a partly valid account of Mose Humphreys. Although he became larger than life on the stage as a Bowery Boy, his real-life was one of running protection rackets along with other criminal activities. In those days, all of New York’s fire brigades were operated by gangs. It was commonplace to see fire brigades fighting one another at the scene of an actual fire. When Mose finally met his match during one of those firefights, he left for Hawaii and started up the same racket there.

While members of the Bowery Boys fought hard in the gutters, they also wielded some power in the political sphere. They were quick to stand up for the little guy who was getting mistreated by the elites. They would rally against an upper-class political candidate and turn elections into riots. This especially important, since this was a time when polling places were not at all safe for average citizens.

The Dead Rabbits

The Dead Rabbits

The Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys have sworn enemies. It is said that both of these gangs had over a thousand members by the mid-1800s. Thus, when these two gangs battled, it was quite a spectacle. These two gangs had dozens of showdowns during the 1830s and 1840s.

Supposedly, the Dead Rabbits got their odd name during a fight between different divisions of their gang — which was originally called the Roach Guard. During the altercation, a dead bunny was thrown into the room, and since “dead rabbit” was slang for those who wanted to start fights, they decided to use this as a new name. Over time, the Dead Rabbits became connected to the corrupt Tammany Hall outfit. They were often seen at polling stations removing people who would not vote their way.

In the year of 1857, the Rabbits were participants in the bloody Fourth of July riots. As to precisely what transpired during this gang war, it is not very well documented, but there are death toll estimates that range anywhere from eight to one-hundred. It is also estimated that some 5,000 gang members were active in these deadly riots, which went on for several days.

The Dead Rabbits also took part in the 1863 Draft Riots — which were even worse than the 1857 riots. During these riots, federal troops had to be called in to quell the violence. However, by that time, the death toll was massive, as many buildings and homes had burned to the ground. Even an orphanage perished in the flames.