Early Gangs Of Britain and America: The ‘Mohocks,’ And The Forty Elephants

March 2, 2023

By a Biometrica staffer

London in the late 17th and 18th centuries was a rather challenging place to live in, going by one specific measure: the presence of gangs. Certain parts of the city had gained such notoriety as hotbeds of crime that people were vary of venturing into those areas. The street gangs that roamed London back then were structured like modern-day gangs. In other words, they could be considered early examples of what is known today as ‘organized crime.’

This is the first in a series of pieces Biometrica plans to do on some notorious early gangs of Britain and America. Given the movement of people between the two, there are shared histories and stories of gangs that caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic, like Alice and her all-women band of thieves.

In the rest of this piece, we take you back in time to London of the 18-20th centuries. These predecessors of organized crime gangs and syndicates were many and varied, and women were as much a part of this planned violence as men. We examine two infamous early examples from Britain in the following sections of the piece.

The ‘Mohocks’

A chilling rumor began to do the rounds in the year 1712 in London. Tales were told about a group of men who met at “coffee houses and taverns in the night, drank copiously,” then ventured out onto the streets assaulting and beating innocent passers-by, destroying property, and frightening the public. These men reportedly belonged to the social elite, according to a journal article, titled The Case Of The Mohocks: Rake Violence In Augustan London.

This gang’s forte was committing sensational crimes in the heart of the city, building on the fears of the sort of street violence that was considered endemic in early modern London. They had assigned themselves the name ‘Mohocks,’ misappropriated after tribes in what was then British North America, whom the gang considered “savages,” per the journal article.

Their alleged exploits were catalogued in such vivid detail across newspapers, periodicals, and the like, that it resulted in general panic in London. People were afraid to venture outdoors after dark, and the crown even issued a proclamation offering a reward for the capture of any member of the Mohocks.

The interesting part of the whole Mochocks episode is that nobody knows how much of it was real, and how much was an illusion created by an overactive public imagination, fueled by London’s endemic street violence, “sensational reports” of the gang’s alleged exploits, and “political opportunism,” the journal report adds.

It is generally agreed that there were gangs of men roaming about London and wreaking havoc, like the Mohocks allegedly did. And there was good reason for the public to panic, or to assume the worst about the Mohocks.

In the early 1600s, there were quite a few infamous gangs running amok in London, including the Mims, Hectors, Bugles, and Dead Boys. These gangs “found amusement in breaking windows, [and] demolishing taverns, [and they] also fought pitched battles among themselves dressed with colored ribbons to distinguish the different factions (Pearson, 1983, p. 188),” according to a Bureau of Justice Assistance National Gang Center Bulletin report titled History Of Street Gangs In The United States.

The very first reports of the Mohocks appeared in February of 1712. By summer of the same year, the episode and the panic surrounding the gang had faded into nothing but a “potent memory,” the journal report says.

Alice And The Elephants

If you thought the cold professionalism with which gangs appear to operate was the forte of only men in the past, you’d be surprised to learn about Alice Diamond and her mob of organized thieves. In the first half of the 20th century, this gang gained infamy by pilfering expensive luxury fashion goods. But, do not mistake them for petty shoplifters.

The Forty Elephants, as the gang was known (sometimes referred to as The Forty Thieves), allegedly operated almost like a modern corporation. They even had their own code of conduct called the ‘Hoister’s Code,’ according to a local media report based on a book by Brian McDonald. No drinking the night before a job, not wearing stolen outfits (on a job, presumably), and never helping the police were all part of the Hoister’s Code, per the media report.

Loyalty was considered really important as gang members were frequently arrested. Fictional alibis were crafted and supplied by fellow gang members whenever one of them was arrested, and they even set aside money to look after families of the arrested member.

Hoisting was the preferred modus operandi of this gang and the West End of London was their favorite hunting grounds. West End hosts many of the city’s stores, businesses, and other tourist and entertainment attractions.

The gang would steal from stores and shove the stolen goods, mostly luxurious outfits made of fur or other expensive fabric, down their specially crafted voluminous underwear with elastic at the knees to hold the loot. They were otherwise dressed for the part, too, in immaculate outfits and “beautifully coiffed hair,” writes journalist and author Beezy Marsh.

The gang was also structured in such a way that they operated in smaller groups of four or five, per the media report on McDonald’s book Alice Diamond and The Forty Elephants. These smaller groups were assigned a particular area to operate in for a period. They would identify and observe their targets before carrying out a job.

While they were carrying out the job, a few of the ‘hoisters’ would act as decoys to distract store assistants while their accomplices could do the actual ‘hoisting’ of jewels and expensive clothes. Their strategy involved using the recognizable members of the gang as decoys. These decoys would distract store employees by feigning a pilfer at one end, while their accomplice did the actual stealing in another part of the store.

The gang also developed a violent reputation somewhere along the line. Anyone who crossed them — whether law enforcement or a member of a rival gang — would find themselves at the receiving end of a sharp hatpin, which they allegedly also used to blind their victims, or sliced by a razor that was carefully concealed in a lace handkerchief.

And at the helm of this highly organized, all-female gang was their Queen, Alice Diamond. She was allegedly nearly six feet tall (at a time when many men weren’t), was beautiful, had a cool demeanor, and could throw a punch as strong as any man.

Her numerous bejeweled rings that doubled up as “knuckle-dusters” probably added to the weight of those punches. She took over control of the gang when she was allegedly in her twenties.

Tales of the gang’s exploits were well known across the Atlantic, and elsewhere around the world. Although members of the gang were arrested often, their well defined structure, oddly strong work ethic, their intelligence, and their ‘Queen’s’ prowess as a leader presumably helped them maintain their hold over London for over two decades.

Watch out for more from Biometrica on early gangs of Britain and America.