5 Notorious Gangs that Terrorized City Streets Around the World

5 Notorious Gangs that Terrorized City Streets Around the World

Patrick Lynch - July 15, 2017

The old saying suggests that there is ‘strength in numbers’. Certainly, when you combine a group of criminals into a gang, they become exponentially more dangerous. As well as terrorizing and intimidating people, it becomes difficult for police to shut a gang down once it becomes large enough. This is evident in the size of some of the gangs on this list. Overall, I look at five notorious street gangs, two of which are still operating today.

5 Notorious Gangs that Terrorized City Streets Around the World
Four Peaky Blinder Gang Members. Daily Mail

1 – The Peaky Blinders

Although the TV show has likely ensured this gang is now known by a few people, I include them because most people probably don’t know the real story of the gang. The Peaky Blinders were a gang of youths that operated in Birmingham at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. They gained their name because members wore flat caps with peaks. The notion that the name comes from their tendency to stitch razor blades in the peaks of their caps is probably false. However, the peak of their caps was extremely hard so head butting someone on the nose while wearing one would probably cause the victim to have temporary blindness.

Historians continue to debate whether the Peaky Blinders were a single gang or an entire subculture of thieves. It’s likely that the gang was a single entity in Birmingham, but the term became a generic one in decades to come. While the TV show features Tommy Shelby as the leader of the gang, no such person actually existed. Prominent gang members included Harry Fowler, Stephen McHickie, Ernest Bayles, Thomas Gilbert, and David Taylor who was arrested for carrying a gun aged 13.

When West Midlands Police dug up the records of leading Peaky Blinders members, they were surprised to learn that despite their reputation for committing terrible crimes, many members were arrested for minor charges. For example, McHickie was caught for breaking into a draper’s shop while Fowler and Bayles were arrested for bike theft. The gang made its money through protection rackets, illegal betting, and the city’s black market.

In reality, while the Peaky Blinders were vicious thugs, their crimes pale in comparison with the activities of the rest of the gangs on this list. Incidentally, while the TV series is based in the 1920s, the real gang began its operations in the 1880s. By the 1920s, the Birmingham Gang, led by Billy Kimber, emerged as the main criminal player in the city and soon, it became among the most dangerous gangs in the UK.

5 Notorious Gangs that Terrorized City Streets Around the World
The Purple Gang. Grand Haven Tribune

2 – The Purple Gang

During the Prohibition Era, Chicago is historically known as one of America’s hotbeds of criminal activity. The infamous North and South Side Gang feuds involving the likes of Johnny Torrio, Al Capone, Dean O’Banion and Hymie Weiss left a trail of bodies throughout the Windy City. However, there were criminal gangs operating in all of America’s major cities and the Purple Gang controlled the Detroit Underworld scene for over a decade.

Also known as the Sugar House Gang, this group of mainly Jewish immigrants caused terror throughout the city of Detroit during the 1920s and early 1930s. Led by Abe and Ray Bernstein, the Purple Gang killed an estimated 500 members of rival bootlegging gangs during their existence.

Detroit was like most American cities of the era; it was rife with poverty, especially the neighborhoods containing newly arrived immigrants. Most members of the Purple Gang comprised of the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived in the United States between the early 1880s and 1914. The four Bernstein brothers; Abe, Ray, Joe, and Izzy were the leaders, and they began their career with petty crimes.

However, they soon moved into the criminal big leagues by specializing in armed robbery, extortion, and hijacking. The Prohibition Era allowed the gang to expand its enterprise by hijacking alcohol smuggled over the Canadian border. Their reputation was such that Al Capone chose to use them as a supplier instead of fighting them for control of territory in Detroit. They apparently got their name from a conversation between two market owners in Detroit; both men were victims of the gang. One of them claimed the gang was rotten, purple like the color of bad meat.

The gang was involved in the Cleaners and Dyers War between members of the cleaning industry and their union. Several members were tried for their role in the conflict in 1928, but all were acquitted. That they escaped punishment on this occasion was hardly a surprise; the Purple Gang was at the height of its power in Detroit by the late 1920s and was almost immune to criminal prosecution. Witnesses were too scared to testify against them in criminal trials, and rival gang members were murdered without a second thought.

There is even a suggestion that the gang was involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Apparently, on the day before the execution style killings, Abe Bernstein told Bugs Moran that a cargo of hijacked booze was on the way to Chicago. However, instead of delivering the illicit alcohol, five men dressed as police went to Moran’s hideout on the North Side of Chicago and killed seven gangsters in cold blood.

By the early 1930s, the gang was brazen in the way it dispatched enemies. It ruthlessly cut down any perceived enemies including Vivian Welsh, a police officer, on February 1, 1929. Welsh made the mistake of trying to extort money from the gang. They were also linked with the murder of a radio personality named Jerry Buckley in the lobby of a hotel in 1930.

The gang began to disintegrate due to internal disputes. On September 16, 1931, the Purple Gang murdered three of its own members; gangsters brought in from Chicago to help them out. Apparently, the trio violated gang rules by operating outside their territory. Ray Bernstein was one of the men arrested for the triple homicide; known as the Collingwood Manor Massacre. Sol Levine was the man who lured the three into the apartment where they were shot, and he agreed to testify against the gang.

Three Purple Gang members were jailed for life (including Ray Bernstein) and the aura of invincibility the gang enjoyed eroded soon after. Police arrested more gang members in connection with other crimes, and Abe and Joe were given lengthy prison sentences. Other Purple Gang members were murdered by rivals, and while the gang continued its operations, it did so in a diminished capacity as Sicilian gangsters started to take over Detroit’s Underworld. By 1935, the Purple Gang was virtually an irrelevance.

5 Notorious Gangs that Terrorized City Streets Around the World
A Young Arthur Thompson. Glasgow Live

3 – The Thompson Gang

While London had the Kray’s and the Richardson’s to contend with in the 1960s, Glasgow had its own dominant group of street thugs in the form of The Thompson Gang. Arthur Thompson, known as the ‘Godfather’ in the city, formed the gang and began his career as a money lender in a council estate. Failure to pay him what you owed resulted in a painful punishment. It was common for Arthur to crucify his victims by nailing their hands and feet to furniture.

He graduated to forming protection rackets and like some other gangsters of the era, Arthur wisely invested his money in legitimate businesses and became an exceptionally wealthy man. The Thompson Gang was soon the most feared group in Scotland and rivals were terrified of Arthur due to his sadistic nature. According to legend, he introduced himself to the Kray brothers by bursting into a club they frequented with a gun and shouting: “I’m Arthur Thompson, from Glasgow, remember my name.” Whether the story is true or not, he worked as an enforcer for the brothers.

His rivals tried and failed to eliminate him in 1966 when a bomb exploded under his car. Arthur survived, but his mother-in-law was killed. The gang boss was out for blood, and he suspected two members of the rival Welsh gang, Patrick Welsh, and James Goldie, of the attack. He drove his car directly at their van and forced it off the road. Both men died, but Arthur escaped prosecution because no witness would testify against him.

In 1969, Arthur’s wife, Rita, stabbed the wife of Patrick Welsh in the chest. She received three years in prison for the attack. By the 1980s, Glasgow was in the midst of a heroin epidemic as the drug flooded into the city in a market worth up to £30 million. Arthur’s son Billy became a heroin addict, and his daughter Margaret died from a heroin overdose. Despite these issues, Arthur made a fortune from drugs and was also reportedly earning £100,000 a week as a loan shark.

By now, his son Arthur Jr., also known as Fatboy, was in charge of the gang as Arthur Sr. took a backseat. Fatboy was very different to his father. While Arthur liked to make money and stay out of the limelight, Fatboy loved being known as a major player in Glasgow and reveled in showing off his wealth. In 1985, he was arrested and charged with supplying heroin in what was probably a set-up; an 11-year prison sentence was the result.

Old Arthur was less feared than before and apparently had a fondness for booze. With Fatboy in prison, Old Arthur had to return before his rivals picked his empire apart. Although he was aging, Old Arthur was still seen as a threat, so his enemies wanted to remove him from the picture permanently. However, he survived an assassination attempt in 1985 and another one in 1988. He accused Paul Ferris, a former enforcer for the gang, of trying to kill him in 1988. Three years later, Ferris was accused of the murder of the Fatboy who was shot three times outside of his home. On the day of Fatboy’s funeral, the bodies of two of Ferris’ associates were found in a car. They had been shot in the head and the anus. The car was deliberately placed on the funeral route.

Old Arthur testified against Ferris thus breaking the gangster code of silence. The Thompson Gang was finished at this point, and Arthur died in his bed in 1993. Ferris’ trial was the longest and most expensive in Scottish history up to that point, but he was acquitted. In 2000, Billy was stabbed close to the family home and survived. He died in March 2017, so at the time of writing, Tracey Thompson is Arthur’s only remaining child.

5 Notorious Gangs that Terrorized City Streets Around the World
Kenyans who live in the slums carrying the body of a suspected Mungiki member. mg.co.za

4 – The Mungiki

The Mungiki sect emerged from Kenya’s biggest ethnic group; known as the Kikuyu. Today, the Mungiki’s membership is approximately 500,000, and it is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the world’s deadliest gangs. The continent of Africa is plagued by an infestation of machete wielding gangs, and the Mungiki originated in much the same way as most of these outfits. One of its founders claims that the Mungiki began as a local militia in the 1980s. The goal was to protect Kikuyu farmers in their land disputes with the Maasai and local government forces dominated by the Kalenjin tribe.

The term ‘Mungiki’ means ‘multitude’ or ‘united people’ in the Kikuyu language. The group has a total disdain for the modernization of their country and completely reject Western influences. Their desire is to ensure their nation reverts to indigenous African traditions. The gang is sometimes referred to as the Kenyan version of the Yakuza, Mafia or Cosa Nostra due to its organization.

Initially, the group was in favor of female circumcision and later adopted rituals such as wearing dreadlocks and swearing oaths like the Mau Mau rebels who fought against Britain in the 1960s. The Mungiki was banned in 2002 after its involvement in extreme violence in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The gang clashed with the owners of matatus (privately owned minibusses) and approximately 50 people died in the violence. The following year, the Mungiki fought against Kenyan police and two officers died. 74 members of the sect were arrested.

After a few years of relatively low-key activity, the gang escalated its violent activity in 2007. In June, it began a reign of terror against matatu drivers and conductors while also targeting people who defected from the gang. Kenya’s security forces had to act and stormed into the Mathare region. Overall, around 100 people died in the violence. The Mungiki was linked to a triple murder in the United States and also mutilated and decapitated a 2-year old boy as part of a bizarre ritual.

Further violence involving the Mungiki took place after the disputed Kenyan General Election in December 2007. They were heavily involved in the violence in the ethnic Luos area which claimed the lives of several hundred people. There are rumors that the gang split up into two groups in 2007 and its leading members were killed in that year; possibly by government forces although it denies responsibility. Around 500 bodies of Mungiki gang members have turned up in bushes outside Nairobi; they are probably victims of in-fighting. They continue to terrorize Kenyans, and it has been suggested that they might be the world’s largest gang regarding membership.

5 Notorious Gangs that Terrorized City Streets Around the World
Members of MS-13. TOTPI

5 – Mara Salvatrucha

Also known as MS-13, Mara Salvatrucha is arguably the most dangerous gang in the United States at present and they are apparently the gang that the FBI is most worried about. While some American readers may know about MS-13 as they apparently operate in 42 states, the gang was relatively unknown outside of the Americas until recently. It was started in California when large groups of people from El Salvador fled the country during its civil war. Today, there is an estimated 70,000 members throughout Central and North America.

Many of the immigrants that arrived in the United States during the 1980s were used to violence as El Salvador is one of the world’s most dangerous places to live. As a consequence, many of the young men that arrived gravitated towards violence. When they arrived in Los Angeles, they encountered an established system of Latin gangs and were not welcome. To survive, they formed their own group and called themselves Mara (Central American term for Gang) Salvatrucha (Salva comes from El Salvador, and Trucha means ‘clever’).

As well as terrorizing people in the United States, MS-13 still has a heavy presence in El Salvador. Along with rivals Barrio 18, they have ensured that El Salvador is the world’s murder capital. While America is often deemed to have a high homicide rate compared to other Western nations, it pales in comparison to El Salvador where the murder rate is 22 times higher. There were 6,656 official murders in the nation in 2015 and in 2016; there was a homicide every hour in the first few months of the year. Bear in mind that the population of El Salvador is approximately 6.12 million.

In the United States, MS-13 is making its deadly mark. In October 2016, the gang is believed to have murdered up to 6 people in the Brentwood area of New York including two teenage girls. MS-13 worked with Mexican drug cartels regularly and is becoming ever more active in the United States. Gang members are prone to psychotically violent behavior. One infamous recent incident occurred when a member in San Francisco killed a man and his two sons for the ‘crime’ of briefly blocking his car.