America has long had a fascination with the subculture of criminal gangs, and Mafia figures and other mobsters have long been glorified in novels and movies. In real life, though, no city and no ethnic group in the country has been spared the odious presence of organized criminality.
Promotional material for Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie “Gangs of New York” – based on a group called the Bowery Boys – proposed that “America was born in the streets,” and for many newly arrived immigrants in the 19th century that was so. (These are Martin Scorsese’s movies, ranked worst to best.)
As the nation industrialized and city populations swelled, tensions rose among various immigrant groups who battled for their piece of their adopted country.
Poverty and violence were joined at the hip in mid-19th century American cities, and there were few organized city police forces to control the mayhem. The notorious Five Points neighborhood, which birthed many of the earliest organized gangs, appalled Charles Dickens when the English author toured America.
Gangs formed in the 20th century as well. Each wave of immigration subjected to discrimination formed gangs to protect themselves – Irish, Italian, Chinese, Albanian, Greek, Hispanic – and so did African-Americans. (These are the best cities for immigrants, according to data.)
To compile a list of America’s most infamous criminal gangs, 24/7 Tempo referenced such sources as Britannica, History.com, the Crime Museum, the Gangster Museum of America, American Mafia History.com, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Detroit Historical Society, as well as various media outlets. Our list is far from complete, but concentrates on some of the most famous and/or vicious criminal enterprises, with the final selection based on editorial discretion.
Click here to read about America’s most infamous criminal gangs
Gang influence tends to diminish as each ethnic group finds its way in America, but organized criminal behavior remains very much a threat to American society. According to the FBI, there are 33,000 violent gangs operating in the U.S. today
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