When Firefighters Were Actually Violent Gang Members

“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

  • DarthPoot

    Wow. Who knew? Last people I would expect to be violent.

    • KryptoTSD

      I used to be in a ParaMilitary. The Canadian Armed Forces Reserves, as it was… That is just another gang, complete with colours and a group mandate. And some of those were as close to violent crims as one could get without getting locked up.

      • DarthPoot

        That sounds a bit more likely to me than fire fighters.

        • KryptoTSD

          The 911 club(Police, Fire Protection, EMS) isn’t off the hook either…

          • DarthPoot

            Agreed, but ems and fire fighters I have a hard time seeing as violent. Learn something shocking every day.

          • KryptoTSD

            Then there’s a first time for everything…. Check out Chicago Fire… the firefighters depicted therein act worse than thugs…

  • Nathaniel A.

    Being a violent gang member is better than being a book burner, that’s for sure…

    • Hillyard

      Not to mention having a salamander as an insignia and having to put up with 451° F.

  • Hillyard

    I had heard of this before the competing fire departments would also hide the hydrants under barrels to keep their competition from finding them.
    On another note, as a former Army NCO I would like a bit of clarification on just what stigma is associated with being a member of the armed forces. The brave men and women of our military risk their lives to ensure our freedom, and this constitutes a stigma?

    • Quest4liberty

      Re: military fighting for freedom. Please read this: https://www.lewrockwell.com/2011/09/laurence-m-vance/freedoms-i-wish-the-military-were-defending/

      Also, see the powerpoint I made, which NY Times bestselling historian Tom Woods called “a very good presentation” on his blog: http://www.slideshare.net/anarcholibertarian/why-do-they-hate-us

      • Hillyard

        Your tea bagger politics have nothing to do with the troops that are out there on the front line. Once again where does one find a stigma attached to being a member of the armed forces?

        • Quest4liberty

          1. I’m not a tea partier. The Tea Party worships the troops.

          2. Politics have everything to do with the troops, since the troops blindly follow the orders of politicians for the most part.

          Smedley Butler was a Major General in the U.S. Marine Corps, and at the time of his death the most decorated Marine in U.S. history, having received 16 medals, five for heroism, and was one of 19 people to twice receive the Medal of Honor. In a speech delivered in 1933, Butler said of war and the men behind it:

          “War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.

          I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it.

          Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

          I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long.

          I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

          During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”


        • Dylan

          I am anti-war, but the military are heroes and are the hottest 😀

    • Robert Downey

      I guess a solider has to sell out there personal beliefs to fight as per orders, would be the biggest stigma. Or it’s the poor doing the biding of the rich.

  • Joe Kin

    Somebody’s been watching gangs of New York. Great movie, Daniel Day Louis and Leo Decaprio.

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  • Tara Justice Stone

    I like how hard it is to find the same thing about the cops, because they were rival gangs. Are they covering that up that well? I am going to look, I will find it.

  • DW

    I figured it was just the economics of the era. Groups of Irish immigrants largely populated cities like Chicago and while many helped build the railroads along with other ethnic groups like the Chinese, a large percentage stayed in the city and filled the roles of policemen and firemen.

    Private fire “companies” (that’s where that comes from) would race to the fires to get paid. 2nd place didn’t get paid. If they arrived at the same fire at the same time, they’d duke it out for the contract. I haven’t followed any of the source links yet but I wouldn’t imagine actual gangs (like the Dead Rabbits in NY’s 5 Burroughs) wouldn’t need to infiltrate fire companies, so these gang-like antics sprang up organically among guys in a macho line of work.

    I think that’s why fire department shields / crests look so warlike. Crossed axes, etc.