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Can anyone suggest any historical examples of an established group specifically dedicated to organized thievery (any combination of property based crimes such as pick-pocketing, lock-picking, fencing, robbery, mugging, etc.)? I would be especially interested in any religious influences and ethical motivations/convictions of such an organization.

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This looks to me more like D&D material than history... –  Lohoris Mar 24 '12 at 17:31
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You could check up on the Thugee, that might be a direction although its unclear what the historical connection is on this. Right now the question is very broad. –  MichaelF Mar 24 '12 at 18:55
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Most thieves tended to be poor people who didn't have enough to eat. Most were caught and killed. Could you set a time period and place? In the times of Alfred the Great and in England, thieves were usually caught and hung. Most societies tended to look down upon thieves for obvious reasons and so, tended not to have god dedicated to helping thieves. If I were you, I'd take creative liberties. Hope that helped. –  Russell Mar 25 '12 at 7:45
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Well, seeing that this is for fictional reasons (pun intended) anyway, you might want to look into Ankh-Morpork's Guild of Thieves. :) –  sbi Mar 27 '12 at 8:17
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@Lohoris, yeah it definitely looks like good D&D material ;) Although, it is still an interesting historical question with a legitimate reason to be asked, IMHO. –  BrotherJack Mar 28 '12 at 13:50
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5 Answers

You may want to check the cour des miracles (court of miracles) as a real life example of a "thieves guild". Clearly reading about the Mafia, Tong, and Yakuza should be compulsory as those are crime organisations. Look at your local law enforcement web site for further information on organised crime as well if you are looking for more modern organisations.

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This is very interesting! Thank you for your input. Cour des Miracles sounds perfect! –  Taysa Mar 31 '12 at 19:10
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Loki and Hermes are well-known gods of thievery.

As for saints, St. Nicolas is the patron of thieves.

As for clans, often there was some community of people that had any normal work forbidden by the society or some inner rules. Some opressed small nation could choose non-collaboration policy and crime remained their only way of living. Gipsies or something similar. So the clan often appeared as a ready thing, from the start, you are right here, IMHO.

Crime was always very well organized. The head thief in the late 18 cent. in Moscow became even the head of the police. Pirates in Rome times terrorized all the empire and had even their state. in Kilikia. (Also they had a state 1500 years later in Madagascar).

When a state is doing some its function badly, some crime organization will always appear to cover the function. And as our states are organized poorly mostly, the result is obvious.

Please, correct the question. The header and the body ask for different things.

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Good answer, never thought of the Roman pirates. +1 –  Russell Mar 25 '12 at 23:06
    
+1 Ha! The Saint as the basis for Santa is a patron saint of thieves! Nice. Now I know how Santa is able to get into houses and leave gifts. –  MichaelF Mar 28 '12 at 11:44
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@MichaelF Also, Santa is a dirty red. Ever notice how if you hold together a picture of Santa and Karl Marx its very difficult to tell the difference between them (aside from the smiling, which is a clear difference). Then there is the issue of "Santa" (MARX) dressing in red from head to toe, gulag elf labor, and him just stone cold hand out stuff for no monies. COMMUNISM == CHRISTMAS. –  BrotherJack Mar 28 '12 at 14:14
    
Well, if you count pirates there have been many such organizations. Whole countries somtimes. The Spanish would have argued Elisabethan England qualified (that's why they sent the Armada). –  T.E.D. Apr 3 '12 at 19:02
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I'd also do some research into Tammany Hall particularly under the guidance of the infamous William "Boss" Tweed. While more of an example of political corruption than outright organized property crime, it is a very illustrative example of the interplay between criminals and public officials. In this particular example the line between the two became very blurry as a result of very dubious trades for political patronage of Tammany politicians from wealthy power brokers who sought influence, and the swelling immigrant population which sought material support and forms of patronage such as jobs or favors. This sort of interplay would be vital for any organized criminal group as corrupting government officials is necessary to either gain advantage or to at least turn a blind eye to their activities. Crackdowns on the rum-runners during Prohibition in the 1920's and the Italian Mafia in 1960's and 1970's, are examples of what happens when a corrupting relationship between law enforcement and organized criminal syndicates breaks down to the disfavor of the latter party.

For your purposes I would suggest looking into "The Gangs of New York". Both the 1927 novel by Herbert Asbury and the 2002 movie by Martin Scorsese based on said book. While I should warn the readers of this forum that both sources are of dubious historical accuracy, as a writer of fiction that is a lesser concern for you. That said, that source should provide some inspiration. It's good that you are making an effort to consult historical sources, and I urge you to follow up with the referenced sources on the Wikipedia articles I and other forum members have provided (what I consider to be a good practice whenever using Wikipedia).

If those sources are unclear, lacking or otherwise faulty this would definitely be the place to ask additional questions. I wish you the best of luck on your book!

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A recent Smithsonian article on Islam's medieval underworld might be of interest.

This broad group was known collectively as the Banu Sasan, and for half a dozen centuries its members might be encountered anywhere from Umayyad Spain to the Chinese border. Possessing their own tactics, tricks and slang, the Banu Sasan comprised a hidden counterpoint to the surface glories of Islam’s golden age. They were also celebrated as the subjects of a scattering of little-known but fascinating manuscripts that chronicled their lives, morals and methods..

A quick Google search unearthed more sources.

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Fagan's band in Dickens's Oliver Twist was exactly such a group. The book is fiction of course, but Dickens generally culled his material from everyday life, so one can surmise that such groups did indeed exist. As for their motivations, one need look no further than the abject poverty of the lower classes in Dickens's time, and the avarice that it often spawns.

Maybe some research into Dickens's sources will yield more detailed information about Fagan's band. Pending...

Perhaps a more historically verifiable group is "Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men". The Robin Hood portrayed by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1820) is the principle source of the modern "Robin Hood and his Merry Men" legends, but Scott's characterization is fanciful and romanticized. However, the Robin Hood legend has some legitimate historical basis:

Historical Sources for Robin Hood:

The oldest references to Robin Hood are not historical records, or even ballads recounting his exploits, but hints and allusions found in various works. From 1228 onward, the names 'Robinhood', 'Robehod' or 'Robbehod' occur in the rolls of several English Justices. The majority of these references date from the late 13th century. Between 1261 and 1300, there are at least eight references to 'Rabunhod' in various regions across England, from Berkshire in the south to York in the north.[27]

In a petition presented to Parliament in 1439, the name is used to describe an itinerant felon. The petition cites one Piers Venables of Aston, Derbyshire, "who having no liflode, ne sufficeante of goodes, gadered and assembled unto him many misdoers, beynge of his clothynge, and, in manere of insurrection, wente into the wodes in that countrie, like as it hadde be Robyn Hude and his meyne."[28] The name was still used to describe sedition and treachery in 1605, when Guy Fawkes and his associates were branded "Robin Hoods" by Robert Cecil.

Scott portrays Robin Hood and his band as essentially honest and decent Saxons who were abused and displaced from their estates and livelihoods by the conquering Normans in the era following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Their motivations were survival, the establishment of an autonomous system of justice for the abused Saxons, and retribution against their abusive Norman conquerors. This portrayal seems reasonable, given the historical context and time frame of Scott's Robin Hood, which more or less corresponds to what we do know about the historical "Robyn Hude", but the historical record seems to contradict this idea:

who having no liflode, ne sufficeante of goodes gadered and assembled unto him many misdoers, beynge of his clothynge and, in manere of insurrection

However, the records are assumedly those of the conquering Norman establishment, ("History is written by the victors") who obviously did not look favorably upon such behavior.

( Unexplained down-votes are not constructive. If you have a problem with this answer, please state your case - perhaps the answer can be improved thereby.)

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Those are fictional groups and not historical ones. –  Sardathrion Jul 23 '13 at 6:55
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