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The Low Lights

New York's first street gangs date to the 1790s, when young apprentices organized themselves by trade and spent their off-hours terrorizing pedestrians. Since then, it's been all downhill.

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1825 In Five Points, Rosanna Peers opens the city's first greengrocery speakeasy, where she underprices local saloons. The Forty Thieves, the first gang with a definite, acknowledged leadership in New York, use the back room as their headquarters. They run a school, Forty Little Thieves, to train young pickpockets and murderers.

1830 The Dead Rabbits are formed after breaking off from the Roach Guards. (Like the future Crips and Bloods, the Dead Rabbits wore red stripes on their pantaloons, and the Roach Guards wore blue.) Their battle standard is a rabbit impaled on a pike, but the name comes from the Gaelic dod ráibéid (a violent, angry hulk). They become the sworn enemies of the Bowery Boys.

1834 The Native Americans, a political club fighting for the repeal of naturalization laws that give Irish the vote, join the Whigs in a three-day riot against Tammany Hall, which routinely employs street gangs to bully voters.

July 11, 1863 The Civil War draft begins; the next day, crowds mass outside city draft offices, protesting the Conscription Act, which allows the rich to buy their way out of the war for $300. The mob swells to tens of thousands, police officers are beaten, homes are torched, and freed slaves are lynched. Fighting is finally quelled four days later by Union troops.

1883 Piker Ryan, member of the Whyos, is arrested with a book listing various “jobs”: “Ear chawed off” ($15), “Doing the big job” ($100 and up). Rivals like the Molasses Gang, famous for tricking shopkeepers into filling a hat with molasses and then pulling it over their heads and robbing them, just can't compete with such brutality.

August 1903 The Five Pointers, led by the indomitably fashionable Paul Kelly, crash a card game sponsored by Monk Eastman—leader of the largest Jewish gang in town—sparking New York’s biggest gun battle yet under the Second Avenue el. Hundreds of gangsters join, including the Gophers from Hell’s Kitchen, who shoot indiscriminately at both sides.

1909 Much like the Astor Place riots of 1849—when Irish Five Points gangs protested the appearance of an English actor on their turf—the most bloody tong war in Chinatown history begins when the Hip Sings kill an On Leong comedian for being disrespectful. The “Bloody Angle” on Doyers Street near the Chinese Theater becomes notorious for murderous ambushes.

1910s Street gangs are increasingly seen as farm teams for the burgeoning Cosa Nostra. Legs Diamond is a member of the Hudson Dusters, famously fond of cocaine. Frank Costello runs with the Gophers. “Terrible” Johnny Torrio, Lucky Luciano, and a fresh-faced Al Capone are Five Pointers.

February 8, 1932 At age 23, Hell’s Kitchen’s Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll is shot dead in a phone booth after waging a vigilante war against the booze-running businesses of Dutch Schultz and Owney “the Killer” Madden, who had resurrected the Gophers during Prohibition. Coll was rumored to be on the phone with Madden when he was shot.

August 29, 1959 Puerto Rican thugs from the Vampires, Young Lords, and Heart Kings beset a group of white kids in a Hell’s Kitchen playground, killing two. Vampire Salvador Agron, nicknamed “the Capeman” because of his red-lined black cape, is given the death penalty, later commuted. He returns to midtown in 1998 to murder Paul Simon’s career.

1968 Twenty-one-year-old Mickey Featherstone, a Hell’s Kitchen hoodlum, returns from Vietnam a murderous paranoid-schizophrenic. The next year, he borrows a gun from Jimmy Coonan, an up-and-coming gang leader, and shoots a drunken Southerner at the Leprechaun Bar. The two become fast friends and go on to form the Westies.

1972 South Bronx adolescent gangs the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads attack a group of junkies, killing two, claiming they are “protecting” the neighborhood. But as the decade progresses (68,456 fires are reported from 1970 to 1975), there is less and less to protect.

1989 The rise of crack has led street gangs to new levels of violence and profitability. In other news, the Bloody Angle of Doyers Street again becomes the most dangerous block in the city, as the Chinese Flying Dragons wage turf wars with the Vietnamese BTKs (Born to Kill).

1996 The United Blood Nation (or “the Bloods”), which formed three years earlier in Rikers as an African-American protection gang against the Latin Kings and the Ñetas, sends emissaries to eight New York City neighborhoods on a recruiting drive. A wave of subway slashings, carried out with with razors and box cutters, turns out to be their initiation ritual.


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