Les Apaches was a Parisian Belle Époque violent criminal underworld subculture of early 20th-century hooligans, night muggers, street gangs and other criminals. After the news about their notoriety spread over Europe, the term was used to describe violent street crime in other countries as well; for example, “Russian apaches”.
There are a number of stories about the origin of the term “Apaches”, with a common denominator that this was a comparison of their savagery with that attributed by Europeans to the Native American tribes of Apaches.
A 1904 issue of the French question-and-answer magazine L’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux credited a journalist named Victor Moris with the popularization of the term. In November 1900 a police inspector of the Belleville district of police was describing to him a particularly bloody scene and concluded with the words: “C’est un véritable truc d’Apaches!”.
A story in a 1910 Sunday supplement of Le Petit Journal claimed that when a certain gang leader nicknamed Terreur (Terror) heard that the actions of the band were compared with these of the Apaches, he was so pleased that he proceeded to call his gang “Apaches of Belleville”.
During their heyday, the prospect of being mugged or otherwise assaulted by Apache gangsters was especially feared by members of the emergent bourgeois.
Some of the gangs used a unique type of pistol which was named the “Apache revolver” or “Apache pistol”: a pinfire cartridge revolver with no barrel, a set of foldover brass knuckles for a handgrip, and a folding knife mounted right underneath the revolver drum for use as a stabbing weapon.
The Apaches also developed a semi-codified collection of “tricks” used in mugging and hand-to-hand combat. The most famous was the coup du Père François, a tactic by which a victim was stalked by several Apaches. One garroted the victim from behind while taking him piggyback to prevent struggling; another Apache was assigned the job of searching through the victim’s pockets for any valuables, while another served as a lookout. Although only meant to incapacitate, the chance of death from prolonged strangulation was still existent.
The existence of Apaches as a semi-organised gang-culture in Paris during the early 1900s was exaggerated in media coverage, although it did reflect the reality of a higher proportion of young males amongst the city population than elsewhere in France. With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 the wholesale mobilisation of this class for military service led to a reduction of violent street crime and the subsequent fading of Apache mythology. After 1919 the incidence of urban violence returned to pre-war levels but without such symbols supposedly favoured by Apaches, such as the wearing of coloured sashes or the carrying of specially designed weapons.