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Mapping the Gangs of Chicago

When Prohibition became law across the United States in 1920, legitimate businesses were no longer allowed to serve alcohol, paving the way for illegal speakeasies and related underground businesses. In Chicago, this meant that criminals like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio fought for control of illegal alcohol distribution within the city, sparking an infamous decade of organized crime that has been well documented throughout popular culture – including on maps.

During this time, Frederic Milton Thrasher was a doctoral student studying sociology on Chicago’s South Side at the University of Chicago. His dissertation “The Gang: a study of 1313 gangs in Chicago” was ultimately published in 1927. Thrasher studied under Robert E. Park, both of whom were part of the “Chicago school,” an influential strain of sociological philosophy which posits that human behavior is meaningfully shaped by the built environment.

Map of the city of Chicago in black and white with red notations depicting locations of gangs

“Chicago’s gangland,” Frederic Milton Thrasher, 1923. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

Thrasher produced the above map charting the distribution of gang activity within the city, differentiating between “gangs with clubrooms” and “gangs without clubrooms.” The map also symbolizes different land use categories (parks, railroad property, and industrial property), with ethnic concentrations (many composed of immigrant communities) noted in various neighborhoods across the map. 

Detail in the city center, showing gang activity in a polish/bohemian neighborhood

Detail of “Chicago’s gangland,” Frederic Milton Thrasher, 1923. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

Thrasher’s map is quite detailed, documenting not only sites of gang locations, but also hand-written notations describing known sites of conflict or gambling. He also uses quotation marks to denote the colloquial names of various groups operating around the city.

Detail of the "Rooming House District", with Jewish, Dutch, and Italian residents

Detail of “Chicago’s gangland,” Frederic Milton Thrasher, 1923. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

Thrasher was not just interested in understanding the city’s well-known criminals, but in gaining insight into how children of immigrants around the city organized themselves. In his writing, he theorizes that Chicago’s gang territory was concentrated in areas with high poverty and deteriorating physical infrastructure. He believed that gangs formed through spontaneous groupings of people who become integrated to each other through conflict. Thrasher’s maps seeks to understand how the conditions and structure of the city contributed to the behavior of its inhabitants.

Overall view of the Bruce-Roberts map, which features bold illustration and bright colors

“A map of Chicago’s gangland : from authentic sources, designed to inculcate the most important principles of piety and virtue in young persons and graphically portray the evils and sin of large cities,” Bruce-Roberts, Inc., 1931. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

Bruce-Roberts’ map of Chicago’s “gangland,” produced less than a decade later, and “designed to inculcate the most important principles of piety and virtue in young persons and graphically portray the evils and sin of large cities,” takes a different turn: it is a sensational and humorous approach to documenting crime in the city. Bruce-Roberts is not a person, but a company. The exact identity of the cartographer(s) behind this map are unknown and their motivations can only be speculated upon.

What is clear, is that this map has a definite point of view. Rather than a traditional map legend, Bruce-Roberts’ work features a “Gangland Dictionary,” defining words like ‘pineapple’ (a bomb) and ‘big shot’ (the boss). Rather than a scale that measures distance, the map scale runs from “one shooting” to “massacre.” 

Close-up view of the "Gangland Dictionary"

Detail of “A map of Chicago’s gangland…” Bruce-Roberts, Inc., 1931. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

Bruce-Roberts’ map features action everywhere and includes a numbered set of important events that transpired around the city, such as #10: “Tony Lombardo is shot at the World’s Busiest Corner.” Police in the map are often depicted as useless or corrupt.

Illustration showing Tony Lombardo's death at the World's Busiest Corner

Detail of “A map of Chicago’s gangland…” Bruce-Roberts, Inc., 1931. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

An inset map also highlights the future location of the Chicago World’s Fair Grounds, set to take place in 1933. Though not independently verified by this blog author, rumor among map collectors seems to be that Chicago city officials were less than pleased with the publication of Bruce-Roberts’ 1931 map on the grounds that it showcased the city in a negative light in the lead-up to the World’s Fair. So many of the original copies were destroyed that original editions are now difficult to locate. Fifty years after the map’s original creation, R.C. Danon/Poster Publications produced a re-print in 1981, turning the map into a board game. Bruce-Roberts’ original 1931 map is a fun take on what Thrasher reminds us was in reality a difficult time for many working-class people in the city.

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