The Origins of 11 Historical Gang Names
If you’re a fan of the TV show Peaky Blinders, you already know that criminal organizations before World War II could get very creative with their names. The Peaky Blinders might have come up with theirs from the fact that they would headbutt victims with the hard peak of their cap, causing the victim to temporarily lose their vision. (They probably didn’t keep razor blades in their caps, though.) Here’s how 11 other creatively-named gangs came up with their monikers.
1. The Bessarabian Tigers
This spectacularly-named London gang operated in the Jewish enclave of Whitechapel in the early years of the 20th century, running protection rackets and blackmail schemes. It owes its name to the region of Bessarabia, then part of the Russian Empire.
2. and 3. The Billy Boys and The Norman Conks
Viewers of Peaky Blinders season five will already know about the infamous Glaswegian Billy Boys. The “Billy” in question wasn’t the gang's leader, Billy Fullerton, but rather William of Orange (“King Billy”) the Dutch Protestant who replaced the Catholic James II as King of England in 1689. The Protestant Billy Boys clashed in the streets with the Catholic Norman Conks—a gang cleverly named for their territory on Norman Street and for William I, the Catholic King who invaded England during the Norman Conquest (get it?) of 1066.
3. The Bowery Boys
One of the most famous gangs of New York, their name quite simply comes from “the Bowery,” the thoroughfare on the east side of lower Manhattan. But what’s a “bowery”? It’s the Anglicized version of the old word Dutch New Yorkers used for “a farm,” bouwerij. The Bowery began as simply the “Bowry Lane”: the farm road.
4. The Camorra
This criminal organization centered in Naples, Italy, may owe its name to a fee paid to a security guard for protection in a gambling establishment, a practice that goes back to at least 1735. Camorra is therefore a portmanteau of the Italian words capo (“boss”) and morra, a simple betting game in which one guesses the combined number of fingers all players reveal to one another simultaneously (a game akin to rock-paper-scissors).
5. The Dead Rabbits
Famous Irish rivals to the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits carried an expired bunny on a pole as their mascot. The name might be that simple, but others have posited more elaborate theories, including a story about a dead rabbit thrown in a meeting that was taken to be a lucky omen. Writer Daniel Cassidy proposed that the name was a corruption of the Gaelic word ráibéad (a “big, hulking person”) paired with an intensifier (“dead,” meaning “very”). Lexicographers have cast doubt on that theory, however, along with many other of Cassidy’s Irish etymologies. Sometimes a dead rabbit is just a cool name for a gang—and perhaps the stuff of Elmer Fudd’s dreams.
6. The Forty-Two Gang
This Chicago gang likely got its name because it originally had 42 members, a nod to the story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves. But Chicago’s Chief of Detectives reportedly had a more novel origin story: The gang began as the Forty Thieves, which in Chicago speech sounded like “Forty ‘Teefs,’” which became “Forty-Two.”
7. The ’Ndrangheta
Calabria, the “toe” of Italy home to the ’ndrangheta criminal organization, was once settled by the Ancient Greeks, who left behind the words andros (“man”) and agathos (“good”). Put them together, wait several centuries, and you get the pronunciation ’ndrangheta.
8. The Pinkindindies
The Pinkindindies or “Pinking Dindies” were an 18th-century gang of young men from wealthy or aristocratic backgrounds that robbed and terrorized Dubliners for sport or, sometimes, for money. The author David Ryan details the origin of their unusual appellation: It derives from the slang verb to pink, which, according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), means “to stab or wound with a small sword, probably derived from the holes formerly cut in both men and women’s clothes, called pinking,” and dindies, a variation of “dandies.”
9. The Plug Uglies
The 19th-century Baltimore nativist gang, the Plug Uglies, may have taken their name from the stovepipe hats (“plugs”) worn by gang members.
10. The Whyos
Why, oh why, are the Whyos called Whyos? The name seems to refer to the “bird-like call the members used to alert one another,” according to James C. Howell, author of The History of Street Gangs in the United States. But don’t be fooled by its Dr. Suess-like ring: The powerful New York City gang brazenly advertised their brutal services. A shot in the leg was a mere $25.