The Nits, the Jolly Stompers, the Brewery Rats, the Tigers, the Presidents, the Shamrocks, the Beavers, the Midtowners, the Robins, the Majesties, the Garfield Gang, the South Brooklyn Boys, the Socialistic Gents, the Midget Socialistic Gents, the Bishops, and the Hawks; ranging from intimidating to clever to unexpectedly silly, these names struck dread in the hearts of policeman, civic leaders, teachers, and Brooklynites of every stripe. These were the names of just a few of the gangs of adolescent boys and girls who turned the borough into their battleground in the 1950s.
Above, the calling card of a teenage gang. "Til death do we part" was not a romantic promise, but a blood oath, and as the Brooklyn Eagle reported in March of 1954, police feared that sentiment was "all too real". When you're a Hawk, you're a Hawk all the way.
The public concern over unleashed teenage fury in the 1950s is often viewed now through the lens of kitschy nostalgia. We watch old movies depicting juvenile delinquents with perfectly greased ducktails, white t-shirts, and cuffed blue jeans and laugh at how innocent they seem. Movies like, say, Rumble on the Docks, a splashy 1956 melodrama set in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The trailer is conveniently availabe on YouTube:
Although we may now find these b-movie depictions of "rebels with plenty of cause" more funny than fearsome, the campy image of the switchblade-wielding teenage gangster is based on reality, and one need look no further than our own Brooklyn Eagle to find the evidence. In the Brooklyn Collection we have two fat clippings files stuffed full of articles from 1948 to 1955, all of them detailing the eruption of teenage violence across the borough.
Our newly digitized collection of crime photographs from the Eagle provides a visual record of the mayhem wrought by Brooklyn's youth. These were no cuddly Arthur Fonzarellis, but seriously troubled teens who fought, all too often to the death, over their small fiefdoms.
From the March 11, 1954 Brooklyn Eagle, a Borough Park teen in full "battle garb".
Although juvenile delinquency was nothing new, it seems that it wasn't until the 1940s that the problem was given specific attention by authorities. Teen crime had mostly been handled locally, neighborhood by neighborhood, precinct by precinct, but the issue of teen gangs certainly became a borough-wide one by April of 1948. In that month two teenage boys -- William Gottlieb, 18 and Ralph Wise, 14 -- were killed in unrelated rumbles among warring gangs. Another group of teens in Bay Ridge sprayed bullets at the home of their math teacher. Suddenly, it seemed that malicious teenage thugs were lurking behind every corner. The pages of the Eagle were bursting with garish headlines decrying the rise in teen crime, with feature articles offering an "inside look" into the seedy world of adolescent vice.
An article from April 29, 1948 describes how gangs acquired their weaponry, "A toy gun which uses firecrackers is purchased and sent by express agency from out of the State. These pistols are advertised in comic books read by adolescents... [ed. note: Of course, the evil comic book! Original corrupter of teenage minds!] ... When made over, the detonation of the cracker propels a bolt out of the gun with sufficient force to imbed it into a two-inch plaster wall."
The article goes on to describe guns built completely from scratch by "ingenious youths" -- zip guns:
"One such exhibited by a the police officer was a 22-caliber gun made of wood, adhesive tape and a screen door hook." Ingenious to be sure, but also deadly.
Officers John Loder and Henry J. Abruzzo examine arsenal confiscated from a gang fight in 1953.
Assistant District Attorney Louis Andreozzi, left, and District Attorney Miles F. McDonald examine the rifles used to shoot at a Bay Ridge math teacher's home. They were stolen from a Coney Island shooting gallery.
The police and civic organizations rallied to put an end to teen violence. Special Youth Squad units of the police force were created to focus on the "war on juvenile delinquency", as the Eagle called it. One of the goals was to "channel youth activities along proper lines," so the Youth Squads worked with schools, churches, and social service groups to find alternatives for Brooklyn's youth. The Brooklyn Council for Social Planning also took up the fight against teen gangs. The chairman of the council's Youth Activities Committee, James H. Callahan, declared in an April 28, 1948 Eagle article, "To combat juvenile delinquency we will have to mobilize the resources of Brooklyn. Every storekeeper, every housewife, all of us, will have to pitch in and do our share... We have got to fight this thing just like we fought the war."
Prisoners of war -- teen gang members caught in a rumble are hauled off to adolescent court.
Although neighborhoods all over the Brooklyn saw teenage battles take over their streets, the Eagle clippings indicate that the fighting was particularly brutal in the Red Hook neighborhood. Adolescent gangs had long battled over this peninsular turf, with the "Pointers" (from the tip of Red Hook) fending off the "Creekers" (from the Gowanus area) as far back as the early 1900s. According to the Red Hook, Gowanus community history guide, published by the Brooklyn Historical Society, a 1927 report by the New York State Crime Commission declared that Red Hook had the "third highest number of juvenile delinquents of any comparable area of its size in the world."
By the 1950s, local warfare had escalated alarmingly. In June of 1953, police confiscated 20 molotov cocktails, above, from Red Hook teens who were preparing for what the Eagle glibly called a "cocktail party". Just a year later, the Eagle reported that thirteen Red Hook boys ranging from age 12 to 16 were arrested for breaking into a "war surplus warehouse" on Carlton Ave., stealing "12 flare guns, a .32 caliber revolver, and a sawed-off .22 caliber rifle." The arsenals were being gathered in preparation for a fight between the Gowanus Dukes and the Chaplains, but police were able to intercede before the battle began.
Which brings us full circle. As these real-life, alarmingly violent wars were terrorizing neighborhoods, the figure of the teenage gangster was being caricatured and mythologized in pop culture, much to the titillation of readers. In 1955, local writer Frank Palescandolo writing as Frank Paley, penned a pulpy dramatization of the carnage in Red Hook's streets, Rumble on the Docks, which laid bare the "shadowed world" along the waterfront. Sound familiar? His novel provided the inspiration for the movie.