Since colonial times, American society has had an unusually high level of violent crime, compared to that of many other cultures. In the early 20th century, major American cities were often dangerous places, where huge gangs, such as the Gophers, Five Pointers, Shielders, Dukies and Hudson Dusters, committed petty crimes and waged pitched battles with each other on the city streets.

City Life

In early 20th century America, city life was crowded and dangerous. Since the 1820s, large numbers of immigrants from Ireland, Italy and eastern Europe had been moving into the cities of the midwest and northeast. Immigrants often settled in densely populated slum neighborhoods, and found few if any social services available. Drugs such as cocaine and opium were easy to obtain, alcohol was cheap and plentiful, and gambling and prostitution were common. In this environment, young working-class men from the same neighborhood often banded together in gangs.

Urban Gangs

Large American cities such as New York were known to have had a street-gang problem since the late 18th century, but the earlier gangs were not usually involved in serious criminality. The gang problem became much more serious in the 19th century, and by 1900, the streets of New York were dominated by four large gangs -- the Gophers, the Hudson Dusters, the Monk Eastman Gang and the Five Pointers. Major Chicago gangs included Ragan's Colts, the Dukies and the Shielders. Gangs were involved in strong-arm robbery, gang warfare and political corruption.

Organized Crime

The urban gangs were often affiliated with political parties, and were responsible for getting out the vote for their own side, while suppressing the vote for the other side. However, the gangsters of that era did not have a leadership role in organized crime. Instead, the same political machines that hired the street gangs at election time were often deeply involved in other forms of racketeering. Saloon owners often worked for the political machines, collecting protection money from gambling establishments and brothels. Pickpockets and other petty criminals paid off corrupt police officers to protect them from trouble. Large cities all had "red light" districts where gambling and prostitution were tolerated and protected by the authorities, including the Tenderloin in New York, the Levee in Chicago and the Barbary Coast in San Francisco.

Murder and Manslaughter

In the early years of the 20th century, the homicide rates in Cleveland, Boston, Providence and New York City were 10 times that of the homicide rate in London during the same era, according to "The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America" edited by Wilbur R. Miller. None of these cities, however were the most violent in America. Savannah, Charlestown and New Orleans all had homicide rates five times that of New York City. Despite the high rates of murder and manslaughter in America's cities, rural areas had consistently higher homicide rates than urban areas during this period. Homicides in the city happened for many reasons, including domestic violence, gang violence and random fights fueled by alcohol. Still, life in the city was actually less dangerous than life in the country.