The concept of the criminal underworld has played a powerful role in media representations of serious criminality from the early 20th century. Even before this period, the idea of a subterranean “otherworld” that mirrored and mimicked the more respectable “upperworld” can be identified in published texts across Western Europe and North America, and in the colonial cities of empire. Colorful terms such as the “netherworld,” “deeps,” “stews,” “sinks,” “rookeries,” “dens,” and “dives” described the slums that developed in many 19th-century cities. But by the 19th-century, slum life was increasingly correlated with criminality by the press, social investigators, fiction writers, and penal practitioners in the urban landscape.
Earlier texts that described criminal types and ascribed to them a specific set of practices and values (languages, rituals, secret codes, the places in which they “congregated”) can be found in the 16th and 17th centuries. In England, dramatists such as Thomas Harman, Robert Greene, and Thomas Dekker described such villainy in a new genre that would become known as “rogue literature.” Other European countries also had traditions of rogue literature that became popular in the early modern period. From the 18th century, the emergence of penal reform and new systems of law enforcement in the Western world saw concerns about crime reflected in the expansion of print culture. A demand for crime themed texts, including broadsheets, criminal biographies, and crime novels, further popularized the notion of a distinct criminal underworld. However, it would be in the 20th century that the underworld moved more directly onto political agendas. From the 1920s, events in North American cities would explicitly shape the public awareness of the underworld and organized crime. Within a relatively short time of gang warfare breaking out in cities such as New York and Chicago, the “gangster” and the underworld that he (apparently) inhabited became the subject of a global popular crime culture. Film, cheap fiction, and villain/police memoirs from the early 1930s popularized the “gangster.” Paul Muni memorably evoked the life of Al Capone in his character, Antonio “Tony” Camonte in Scarface (1932). Since then, gangsters have rarely gone out of fashion. In the 21st century, the relationship between the underworld and upperworld continues to be portrayed in popular culture. Television dramas like Boardwalk Empire and Peaky Blinders successfully build on an unacknowledged consensus about the existence of the underworld. Indeed, the press, police, and politicians continue to refer to the criminal underworld in a way that gives it solid form. There are few attempts to critically engage in discussions about the underworld or to provide a more meaningful definition.