When Firefighters Were Actually Violent Gang Members

By Dustin Koski on Friday, May 2, 2014
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“Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” —Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo

In A Nutshell

Today, of course, America considers its firefighters some of its greatest heroes. But it wasn’t always like that. In fact, for decades, firefighters were menaces to society. Firefighters were opposed to each other, a problem which was exacerbated when criminal gangs started taking sides.

The Whole Bushel

Firefighters enjoy a hallowed position in the public consciousness, especially in America. They have all the respect that public servants in uniform are given with none of the stigma associated with police officers or members of the armed services. But this is rather odd when you consider that early American firefighters could be some of the lowest of the low (if not an active public menace).

From the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, American cities tended to rely on volunteer groups or groups hired by insurance companies. Both methods turned out to provide exactly the wrong sort of motivation for serious firefighting. The volunteers were full of people that needed to prove how manly and tough they were, and the privately hired groups were offered bonuses. This meant that when different groups of firefighters from the same city met, they were as much in a mood to fight their rivals as they were to fight the fires, which they often did.

Eventually, the fact that firefighting was associated with violent brawls brought the attention of local gangs, which began associating themselves with firefighter units. In one particularly notorious example, a Philadelphia gang called “The Killers” joined the Moyamensing Hose Company in the 1840s. The violence quickly escalated to a point of absurdity: Firefighting companies were starting to set fires themselves. Naturally, firefighters also brought guns to their fights, and the exchanges could be quite lethal. A single 1856 confrontation in Lexington Market in Baltimore resulted in seven deaths, which would be fairly high for a gang shootout even today.

The process by which all this came to an end started in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1849. They were the first city in America to have a regular, civil fire department. Of course, the fact that gunfights continued between firefighter groups for the next seven years indicated that it wasn’t an overnight solution. Still, it was the precedent that turned firefighters from a literal public menace into national heroes.

Show Me The Proof

South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner, by Murray Dubin
The Firefighters Archive: The Lost Museum
The Boston Globe: Plenty of firefighters, but where are the fires?
American Work-Sports: A History of Competitions for Cornhuskers, Lumberjacks, Firefighters, by Frank Zarnowski
Journal of Social History:
“Men of colour”: race, riots, and black firefighters’ struggle for equality from the AFA to the Valiants