If you lived in New York City in the pre-Civil War days, and wanted an
elegant, sophisticated night on the town, where would you go? If you lived
in New York City after the Civil War, and wanted a rollicking good time on
the town, getting down and dirty, where would you go? It couldn't possibly
be the home of the 20th century's most infamous skid row, could it? Oh yes
it could. So put on your best 'on-the-town' clothes because we're going to
kick up our heels on the Bowery!
This famous section of lower Manhattan approximately begins on the east side
of Little Italy and runs a mile in length from Chatham Square to Cooper Square.
Chatham Street, to the right of City Hall, was a dirty, crowded and busy thoroughfare.
It ends at Chatham Square, once a pretty open stretch of land. It is here that some of
the more infamous streets of the Old Fourth Ward begin (or end, depending on your
perspective): Oliver and Catherine, Division which snakes through to Corlear's
Hook, and Worth - running straight through to the west side, with a detour through
Five Points. Doyers Street was a great place to go if you were of the criminal
element. This snaking street was lined with wooden houses and was a favorite place
to fence goods. In the 1870s, the whole area was home to over 300,000 people. This is the Bowery. But how in the world did this area get its name?
Back in colonial times, the Dutch owned Manhattan Island. Most of what is now
lower Manhattan was actually farmland. An Indian trail that once ran from Chatham
Square over to Fourth Avenue, led to a collection of agricultural settings. Among
these, was Governor Peter Stuyvesant's farm, or bouwerji. Stuyvesant's mansion
was situated alittle to the north of where St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery now stands on
Second Avenue. Prior to the American Revolution, the Bowery formed one end of the
Boston Post Road. The mansions of New Amsterdam's elite lay just to the north of
Chatham Square: the Dyckmans, DeLanceys and Brevoorts. In the same area were the
mansions of the Rutgers, Bayards and Van Cortlandts.
During the British colonial days, the Bowery was a bustling market area. New York's
butchers and drovers relaxed at the Bull's Head Tavern. The site of the old Bowery
Theater was actually a cattle market - an enclosed lot where cattle were bought and
sold. It was within the confines of this cattle market that the British took part
in a sport known as bear-baiting. Although the sport was popular with the residents
of the area, it was quickly done away with when the Puritans loudly objected.
By the end of the 1700s, this area had become a heavy-traffic area and in 1807, acquired the nickname, the Bowery. The streets of the area became the most respected of New York City.
In the early 1800s, the Bowery was the home to New York City's best theaters, most
notably the Bowery Theater. The world's finest actors would arrive on US shores and
give their first performances at the Bowery Theater. On any given night, you could don
your fanciest clothes and best jewels and take a carriage ride down one of the many theaters of the Bowery, where you would see America's finest actor, Edwin Booth
(brother to John Wilkes Booth) perform the classics. After the performance, you would
push your way out of the lobby, through throngs of reporters and fans, and hire a carriage to take you for a relaxing drive around the city. If opera was your preference, you could see the world's best tenors perform the role of Gennaro from Lucrezia Borgia. If you didn't like the classics, you could catch new plays such as The Last Days of Pompeii or The Murder at the Roadside Inn. All the while, you were rubbing elbows with New York City's elite.
New York City's burgeoning merchants chose the Bowery as their base of operations. Many of America's finest retailers got their start down there, including Lord & Taylor and A&P grocery stores. Chatham Square was chosen to be the future center of trade. All seemed right with the world.
The early to mid-1800s introduced America to a new creature - the Bowery Boy.
(Not to be confused with the gang, the Bowery B'hoys.) A Bowery Boy
was a young man of the Bowery. Usually a volunteer fireman by trade,
but possibly a butcher. He worked hard during the day and played hard
at night. He had the love of music in his soul, and could belt out a
melody with the best of them. He loved the theater, though the high-brow
stuff was way over his head. When he stepped out for a night on the town,
he wore his best clothes. Not of the most expensive nature, but always
in good taste. His hair was always neatly combed. He was polite and
gallant, always courteous with women.
As New York City grew, so did the Bowery. During the 1840s, wave after wave of immigrants landed on the shores of New York City. Most of
these newly arrived immigrants were the Famine Irish and Germans. As New York City's population exploded in mid-century, many immigrants chose to settle in the Bowery. As was the case with Five Points and the Old Fourth Ward, New York's elite left as quickly as they could. Tenements were erected quickly to house all these new immigrants. As with tenements all over the city, the ones in the Bowery were shabbily made and dimly lit. Few provided clean drinking water and sanitation was sparse, if it existed at all. But while the poorest of the poor made their way to either Five
Points or the Old Fourth Ward, working-class immigrants chose to stay in the Bowery.
The main occupations of the Bowery's residents were volunteer fireman, butchers and street sweepers. Unlike the people of the Points or the Fourth Ward who was largely unemployed or underemployed, the residents of the Bowery had steady jobs that were easily affected by economic downturns.
By the 1850s, the Bowery's first-class theaters would move their operations over to Broadway. In their place were saloons, beer gardens, dance halls, theaters and cheap museums featuring dwarves and snakes. The Bowery became New York City's red-light district. Prostitution was just as popular here as in the Fourth Ward, but it was presented differently. Men who attended concert halls or nickel theaters were usually approached by nicely dressed women offering their services. These weren't the prostitutes of the Fourth Ward with their ripped clothes and dirty, matted hair.
New York City's dandy Bowery Boy soon gave way to the Bowery B'hoy. As
New York's elite went elsewhere for entertainment in order to avoid the
new immigrants, the Bowery's economic conditions changed. Our
Bowery Boy had taken to drink and bar fights. The bar fights became
street fights. Soon, street gangs began cropping up all along the
Bowery. Our Bowery Boy joined one of the many gangs and was soon
fighting with police officers. When he wasn't fighting, he was
gambling. Some of his old ways did remain. If someone was rude
with a woman, our gallant Bowery Boy thought nothing of punching him
in the nose to set him straight.
Our Bowery Boy changed his appearance. His hair was now oiled back
off his face. He dyed his moustache jet-black and let it grow rather
long. His clothes now consisted of a flannel shirt, black silk ascot,
tight black pants and shiny black boots. He either chewed tobacco or
kept a cigar tightly clenched between his teeth. He liked to antagonize
people while walking down the sidewalk. He would spread his arms out to
his side to prevent anyone from passing him. If someone objected, he
was quickly laid flat.
Much like Five Points and the Fourth Ward, the Bowery was the home to gangs.
Such gangs as the American Guards, True Blue Americans, Atlantic Guards and
the O'Connell Guards called the Bowery home. In fact, this was the playground
of the city's roughest gang, the Bowery B'hoys, known in all corners for gouging
out eyes in fights. Bill Poole, known as 'Bill the Butcher', got his start as a
Bowery B'hoy. The B'hoys were known throughout the city for
their appearance - long side burns, oiled hair, stove pipe hat, boots, a scarf tied
around their necks. They always chewed tobacco and carried knives strapped to their legs. Many of New York City's working class men, even those without
gang affiliation, dressed to emulate them.
The B'hoys, as with all the other Bowery gangs, were Nativist in attitude and had a deep-seated hatred of Tammany Hall, who they believed pandered to the Irish. The B'hoys most hated enemy was the Dead Rabbits of Five Points, who were mostly Irish and in the pocket of Tammany. Their long-simmering animosity would finally explode in 1857,
culminating in the worst street gang brawl in history. Thought today's street gangs were bad? No one ever had to call out the military to break up their fights!
To swear allegiance to a street gang was to swear allegiance to a political
belief, be it Tammany or the Know-Nothing Party. The street gangs were in the
pockets of the politicians and were mostly left alone by the police. These
gangs weren't 'street gangs' in the sense that we know it now. They were more
like political gangs. Their main job was to 'police' polling places on election
day, strong-arming and threatening voters to cast their vote for their politician.
If a candidate happened to be winning in a certain district, a gang for the
opposing candidate would go in and smash the ballot boxes. Gang members would
vote numerous times for their candidates. Fraud was everywhere.
In the 1856 mayoral election, the Tammany-backed Dead Rabbits of Five Points
backed incombent Fernando Wood. The Nativist Bowery B'hoys supported Isaac
O. Barker. The night before the election, Mayor Wood ordered many of the city's
police officers to take the next few days off. He then told them that no matter
what happened, they were to stay away from the polling places. The city was left
with a skeletal police force as election day dawned.
The next day, the Bowery B'hoys stormed into the polling places of the Sixth
Ward (including Five Points) and destroyed all the ballot boxes. The Dead Rabbits,
who had been guarding these establishments, were caught unaware and scattered. Once reinforced, the Rabbits returned armed and proceeded to beat the B'hoys as fiercely as they could. What few police remained on the duty in the area tried to jump into the fray and bring about order, but it was useless. The gangs beat them back and the police went scampering back to headquarters for reinforcements. In the meantime, the Rabbits beat the B'hoys out of the ward and back to the Bowery. Gang fights broke out all over the city - Tammany against Nativist. No one was killed, but many were seriously wounded. Tammany scion Fernando Wood was re-elected.
For the next year, the Bowery B'hoys and Dead Rabbits would continue to hate each other. There were small scuffles between the gangs when one group ventured into the ward of the other, but nothing major. But then something would happen that would allow the two gangs to rage unchecked.
In 1857, New York City had the Municipal Police Force. These police officers were backed by Tammany and were extremely corrupt. Albany had enough of the fraud and graft, and finally created the new Metropolitan Police Force. This new force brought the police of all the boroughs together under one Board of Commissioners. Many of the police officers comprising this new force were the immigrant Irish. Well Tammany thought the whole idea was outrageous. When Albany ordered Mayor Wood to disband the Municipal Force, he flatly refused. Two separate police forces patrolled the city, and their main goal was to make the other force look bad. When the
Municipals arrested someone, the Metropolitans let him or her go. When the Metropolitans arrested someone, the Municipals let him or her go. New York City's criminal element knew a good thing when it saw it, and immediately decided to take advantage of the situation.
Now it was Albany's turn to have enough of the foolishness and they issued a warrant for Mayor Wood's arrest. Wood simply locked himself in his office, refusing to come out. When the Metropolitans arrived at City Hall to arrest Wood, they found a large force of Municipals waiting for them. Within minutes, the scene disintegrated into a brawl. Major-General Sandford, who seemed to spend his whole military
career trying to bring order to New York City, sent in the 7th Regiment to restore order.
With police and military attention elsewhere, the Bowery B'hoys and the Dead Rabbits thought it the perfect time to finally settle their long-standing differences.
The Bowery B'hoy - Dead Rabbit Riot of 1857
The Dead Rabbits, reinforced by the Roach Guards, left Five Points on the
morning of July 4, 1857, and headed down to the Bowery. They proceeded to
enter the saloon where the Bowery B'hoys headquartered and break it into
pieces. They then headed back to Five Points, congratulating themselves on
a job well-done.
The Bowery B'hoys, getting wind of what happened and reinforcing themselves
with the Atlantic Guards, marched angrily towards Five Points. They carried
pistols, knives, pitchforks, axes and bats. They muttered that it was finally
time to teach those Five Points pigs a lesson. The gangs met up on Bayard
Street around 10 AM. There was pure anarchy.
Axes and bats swung through the air, while knives slashed at victims. Punches
and well-positioned kicks were thrown. If anyone was unfortunate enough to fall
to the ground, they were immediately stomped by boots reinforced with nails.
Blood flew everywhere. The air was thick with the sound of cracking skulls.
One police officer tried to break up the fight. He was immediately knocked
down, stripped of his clothing and beaten with his own nightstick. Still
conscious, he was able to crawl through the legs of the gang members and out
of the center of the melee. Once clear of the fight, he got to his feet and
ran through the streets in his underwear back to headquarters on White Street.
Immediately, a squad of police was dispatched.
When the force of police officers marched down Center Street, they weren't
prepared for what was coming. The gangs stopped fighting long enough to turn and
look at them. Then the Bowery B'hoys and Dead Rabbits, long-time enemies, joined
ranks to fight the police. The police were completely caught off-guard by this and
scattered all over the street. Even though nightsticks and bats were flying, the
scene quickly turned to bloody hand-to-hand combat. Several police officers were
The gang members, wrestling violently with the police, literally fell through the front
doors of the surrounding tenants. Terrified residents, with their children in
tow, scampered out of the buildings and up Bayard Street seeking safety. The brawls
continued in the tenements and up the stairs to the rooftops. Once the gangs were
securely entrenched on the roofs, they proceeded to throw bricks, stones and anything
else they could get their hands on at the police remaining below in the street. The police retreated from the scene, with only two prisoners in custody.
As the police ran for safety, the Bowery B'hoys and the Dead Rabbits, intermingled on
the rooftops, cheered and congratulated each other. They then realized why they were
there in the first place and proceeded to go back to beating each other senseless.
News of the fighting had reached both the Bowery and Five Points, and people poured out of each area to go lend their support. Over in the Tombs, the police heard shots fired in Paradise Square as angry Five Points residents, vowing revenge, marched up Bayard. Men, women and children from both areas arrived at the scene of the fight to hurl obscenities and bricks at the opposing gang. Bloodied bodies lay all over Bayard
New York's criminal element heard of the huge street fight and immediately rushed down to Five Points to start looting. What they expected to loot from these tenements is a mystery. Business owners in the area closed their doors and took to the rooftops with shotguns. Tenement residents, who had stayed home, built barricades in front of their doors.
The Dead Rabbits, taunted by the people of their own neighborhood for being cowards, gave one last heavy assault against the Bowery B'hoys. They came on with such force, that they managed to push the B'hoys up Bayard and back to the Bowery. On the tail of the gangs was a heavy police force, who clubbed both sides as they proceeded up Bayard. The gangs started to clear the street. The police arrested a few leaders of the Dead Rabbits and marched them back to the Tombs. Behind them was a group of cheering Bowery B'hoys.
July 5th dawned with a renewal of the street fight. The Bowery B'hoys
and Dead Rabbits met up again at 40 and 42 Bowery Street, this time they erected barricades in the street. Children from both neighborhoods arrived on the scene and were immediately put to work. Their job was to crawl up to the opposing gang's
barricade and then throw stones or punches or deliver a well-positioned
kick. But once the children's gangs were on the scene, they began fighting
The police came back, but this time it was the Metropolitans. These officers
had only been on the job for about one month and had little, if any, training.
They were in way over their heads. Bullets, bricks and stones flew
towards the police and the Metropolitans had no choice but to retreat.
Police headquarters finally decided to call in the Tammany Boss of the Sixth
Ward, Isaiah Rynders. If anyone could get the Dead Rabbits to give up and go
home, it would be Rynders. However, it would take him all day to get down
there. He finally arrived on the scene around 7 PM, stepping over the wounded
as he walked.
Rynders stood in front of the Dead Rabbits' barricade (not a safe place to be)
and pleaded with them to stop. The Rabbits completely ignored him and continued
to fire their guns and hurl bricks while he talked. The Bowery B'hoys, seeing
Rynders out front of the barricade, attacked and seriously injured Rynders. Rynders
fell to the ground, but was quickly picked up by the Rabbits and passed to the
back of the mob. When Rynders touched ground again, he realized this was the last
place he wanted to be. He got to his feet and fled back to police headquarters for
protection. When he arrived, pale and shaking, he shrugged his shoulders and told
Commissioner Draper that Tammany had done all that it could do. Draper was disgusted. Meanwhile, wounded police officers kept straggling back to headquarters, refusing to go back out there. Rynders suggested that Draper call out the military. Once again, Major-General Sandford was asked to save the city.
While Draper was telegraphing Sandford, the Dead Rabbits were exacting revenge for the attack on Rynders. They went after men, women and children. The fighting became more violent and bloody and more wounded dropped to the pavement. Barricades and buildings were set on fire. The fight was now more than a brawl between rival street gangs. Two neighborhoods were going at it tooth-and-nail in the street. Obscenities involving political affiliations and people's mothers flew through the air.
At 9 PM that evening, the miliary finally arrived. Three regiments had been called for,
but only two came. Rumors floated that the other regiment refused
to enter Five Points. Whatever the reason for the missing third regiment, the 8th and the 71st were on the scene. The police formed two groups - one supported by the 71st, while the other was supported by the 8th. They marched down White and Worth Streets, bayonets at the ready, clearing the streets as they went. The Bowery B'hoys and the Dead Rabbits stopped fighting long enough to turn and look at the approaching soldiers. Then both gangs fled back to their homes. The military patrolled the streets all night, but all was quiet.
It is estimated that after two days of fighting, 8 people were killed and over 100 injured.
However, it's believed there were more than 8 killed, as bodies were brought back to Five Points to be dumped into the sewers or buried under the tenements. The Bowery B'hoys considered it a fine victory for them, as a few Dead Rabbits were arrested. The Dead Rabbits considered it a fine victory for them, as they beat the B'hoys back to the Bowery a few times. Both gangs would mutter that if only the military hadn't have interfered.
For upwards of a week after the riot, there were small clashes between the Bowery gangs and the Five Points gangs. On July 6, the day after the military was called out, the Bowery B'hoys marched into Five Points and scuffled with the Kerryonians on Center Street. A few were wounded, but nothing serious. The B'hoys were beaten back to Chatham Square before the police arrived on the scene.
At the end of the week, an interesting announcement appeared in the New York Times:
We are requested by the Dead Rabbits to state that the Dead Rabbits club members are not thieves, that they did not participate in the riot with the Bowery Boys, and that the fight in Bayard street was between the Roach Guards of Mulberry Street and the Atlantic Guards of the Bowery. The Dead Rabbits are sensitive on points of honor, we are assured, and wouldn't allow a thief to live on their beat, much less be a member of their club.
It's unknown what the Bowery B'hoys thought of that.
Following the deadly street riot, a man in Hoboken New Jersey, using the
name Saugerties Bard, wrote the following song to commemorate the event:
They had a dreadful fight, upon last Saturday night,
The papers gave the news accordin;
Guns, pistols, clubs and sticks, hot water and old bricks,
Which drove them on the other side of Jordan.
Then pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
For Bayard is a hard street to travel;
So pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
The Bloody Sixth is a hard ward to travel I believe.
Like wild dogs they did fight, this Fourth of July night,
Of course they laid their plans accordin;
Some were wounded and some killed, and lots of blood spill'd,
In the fight on the other side of Jordan.
Then pull off the coat, &c.
The new Police did join the Bowery boys in line,
With orders strict and right accordin;
Bullets, clubs and bricks did fly, and many groan and die,
Hard road to travel over Jordan.
Then pull off the coat, &c.
When the new police did interfere, this made the Rabbits sneer,
And very much enrged them accordin;
With bricks they did go in, determined for to win,
And drive them on the other side of Jordan.
Then pull off the coat, &c.
At last the battle closed, yet few that night reposed,
For frightful were their dreams accordin;
For the devil on two sticks was a-marching on the bricks,
All night on the other side of Jordan.
Then pull off the coat, &c.
Upon the following day they had another fray,
The Black Birds and Dead Rabbits accordin;
The soldiers were called out, to quell the mighty riot,
And drove them on the other side of Jordan.
Then pull off the coat, &c.
A Bowery Boardinghouse
While the neighborhoods of Five Points and the Old Fourth Ward were
littered with broken-down tenements, the Bowery was littered with
boarding houses. Creaky tenements were there also, but many residents
preferred to live in the boarding houses. Remember, while the
Bowery was poor, it wasn't as impoverished as its neighbors to the
west and south.
What were 19th century boarding houses like in the Bowery? Writer
Thomas Butler Gunn decided to find out. In 1857, he went undercover
as a boarding house resident. Gunn held nothing back as he
described the unnamed Irish owners and their family:
It is a dingy, narrow-fronted, three-story edifice, in a
mean street on the east side of the town, within two doors
of one of our busiest thoroughfares. Its mistress, a lady
of Irish extraction, has retained, in full perfection, that
lively antipathy to soap and water characteristic of her
nationality. Her husband is a policeman. And six or
seven children impart the reverse of gladnessto their mutual
Mrs. ---‘s hydrophobia is equally manifest in her per-
son, children, and Establishment—the former being large,
loose, oleaginous and black-worsted-stockinged; the
second, unkempt, inodorous, and ragged; and the three
emphatically dirty. Her hair is red, and coiffed with
horsetail. Her dress favors the spectator with glimpses
of her stays. She has a generally un-tied, stringy, down-
at-heel-and-go-to-bed-with-her-clothes-on aspect. No good
man could look at her without a wish to put her under a
pump. Which would be also his impulse with respect to
Their ages range from three months to eight years, the
minors being vociferous twins. Their affections are con-
fined to dirt-pies, candies, dead cats, and the gutters of
the vicinity. It is difficult to avoid treading on them as
you mount the staircase, which is generally—if we may
be allowed the expression—in a squirmy condition.
Gunn painted a particularly vivid picture of the residence:
The premises are of peculiar construction. A little
dry-goods establishment, having no connection with them,
occupies the lower story; ascent to the upper rooms being
gained by the narrow and excessively dirty staircase just
alluded to. These extend over a boot-store in the adja-
cent thoronghfare, as we discovered on the first night of
our sojourn in the Dirty Boarding-House. We were
then inducted into a small room, very like the interior of a
collapsed diving-bell. It had no particular shape, and but
one window, which was hermetically fastened, and looked
into a sort of shaft, covered at top by a cucumber-frame
skylight for the purpose of illuminating the premises be-
low. Opposite us, in an apartment of similar construction,
we remarked that two of the window-panes had been re-
moved—possibly for ventilation—thus allowing one of the occupants
an opportunity of sticking his feet through, and going to sleep
in that position. We thought of entertaining the idea—it was
in July—but were doubtful as to the result.
Our neighbors—two rough, good-humored laboring-
men, sometimes played the banjo, and sometimes fought
in bed. They also sent the landlady’s eldest son out
for beer, and generously invited us to partake; bringing
it into our chamber at midnight, in a ewer. And once
they made our room-mate drunk on New England rum
with tobacco in it. He was a remarkably ugly boy, the
expression of whose countenance could only be compared
to that of a bilious codfish attempting to swallow a can-
non ball. He used to make himself ill in attempting to
smoke strong cigars, and, at first, manifested an inclination
to become unpleasantly confidential on the subject of his
“busts.” He received our advice—to confine his in-
dulgences to pea-nuts and the Bowery pit—with indig-
Heat and insect phlebotomists—after four nights’ occu-
pancy of this apartment—effected our removal to another.
This was a little room over the passage, which had been
white-washed no later than three years ago; and where
we had the unshared privilege of feeding myriads of
creeping carnivori. We never saw “Red Rovers” in
such profusion or of equal ferocity. They would have
reduced a Daniel Lambert to an anatomical preparation in
the course of one summer. We soon learnt why the old
English poets made the devil lord of insects. “Ne’er a
king’s son in Christendom could be better bitten.” We
were spotted all over like a leopard, and had to go to sleep
with a lamp and matches by our bed-side; waking up,
regularly, to half hourly battles—or, rather, to explosive
and inodorous cremations. Of the size of these vampires
our readers may form some idea by the fact that there was
an awful legend current among the boarders, that the
crystal of a watch had been broken by an elderly bed-bug
tumbling upon it!
Bed-making was performed at any hour from 3 to 7
P.M., by a relative of the landlady’s, who also officiated
as cook and general attendant. One room, extending
from front to rear, over the dry-goods store, served as
parlor, kitchen, and dining-room. A big, white screen
concealed the culinary department from general observa-
tion, behind which—judging from auricular-olfactory tes-
timony—was a mixed-up arrangement of pots and pans,
babies, crockery, cradles, cooking-stoves, and blankets.
We believe the landlady, her husband, children and ser-
vant slept there. In the public half the boarders used to
divert themselves by killing cock-roaches of evenings.
The diet provided at the Dirty Boarding-House was
plentiful, though porky—swine’s flesh forming its staple.
Porgies—purchased in their decadence from perambula-
tory fish-vendors—sometimes varied this anti-Hebraical
peculiarity. The coffee tasted like diluted molasses, fla-
vored with roast peas, chicory, Flanders-brick, and dirt.
The hashes were tallowy. The buckwheat cakes partook
equally of the characteristics of flannel and gutta-percha—
and sometimes had insects (known as Croton-water bugs)
in them. But pork was the universal dish. Every body was
over-porked. Boarders had rashes brought out upon them
in consequence, and we remember one consulting a doctor
under the impression that he had contracted varioloid.
There might have been a dozen boarders. The aristo-
crats of the place were a dispensary doctor (who generally
fuddled himself on Monday morning, and continued in
that condition until Saturday night); a dry-goods clerk
from the store below; and a young man engaged in the
wholesale fish-exporting business, down-town. The latter
used to perfume the room with a bouquet de salt-mackerel.
Another boarder aspired to the position of Pet, and was
hated by the rest because he brought home butter of an
athletic description, as an equivalent for his entertain-
ment; also——it was said—cheating the landlady by alter-
ing the weight-mark on the top of the firkin. In justice,
however, be it remarked, that he could eat of it at table.
He even professed to like it.
The “speck of dirt” assigned by an unpleasant proverb to
every member of the human family, as part of his inevitable
aliment, might have been disposed of in a very short time
at the Dirty Boarding-House. The landlady didn’t waste
time in washing plates, dishes, and other gastronomic uten-
sils, and a sediment of a week’s antiquity often collected
in the bottoms of the pitchers. The knives and forks
were picturesque and various in size and pattern, the backs
of the former - having been worn into a keen edge, and
most of the latter owning broken, distorted prongs, and
revolving handles. Some had been re-repaired with putty,
which came off in use. (This applies also
to the plates.) The cruets stood awry, and were destitute
of stoppers (which might account for the presence of hairs
and crumbs in the ketchup). It was advisable to scrape
the surface of the salt before chipping a bit out for use.
The table-cloth resembled a map of the United States, in
consequence of the many parti-colored stains ornamenting
it. We believe it was reversed—once a fortnight.
In bed-making, one sheet only was changed at a time, and
many of the blankets had large gaps in what ought to
have been their centers—admirably adapting them to
summer use. We incline to the belief that the towels
(originally constructed from ancient coffee-bags) were
washed but once a year, though the ingenious expedient
of shifting them from room to room slightly disguised
this fact, or invested it with the charm of novelty. So
seldom was broom or brush used in our apartment, that
on our shedding a shirt-button, it lay undisturbed beside
the washing-stand until rendered invisible by the fine coat-
ing of dust which successive weeks deposited upon it.
And this, too, in spite of the servant’s passion for keeping
windows closed. She and her mistress had as great an
aversion to fresh air as to water. There was always an
atmosphere of the night before last in the dining-room.
The landlord—a man with a face like a dyspeptic bull-
dog—we saw very little of. He used to come home at
all hours of the day and night, and generally went imme-
diately to bed (behind the screen), though sometimes he
might be observed lingering about the entry, or a low
groggery at the corner of the block. On these occa-
sions he was often accompanied by an individual possess-
ing the most unmistakably rascally face we had ever
Let our readers picture to themselves a
hybrid between an ourang-outang and a hyena, and it will
give them some idea of his countenance. Subsequently
we learned that the fellow was a Tombs lawyer, which, in
a manner, justified his physiognomy.
Boarders were expected to pay up promptly in the
Dirty Establishment. We remember a row occurring at
breakfast, on the occasion of a defaulter taking his seat
before settling for the past week. After much verbal
profanity on both sides, the policeman attempted to eject
his lodger, seizing him by the hair of his head for that
purpose. They tumbled down stairs together, and into a
fight at the bottom. Our landlord had the worst of it,
nor was he rescued from his antagonist until his wife and
the servant came to his assistance. The nose of the latter
young lady sustained some injury in the conflict, and
resembled a damaged tomato for three days afterward.
This damsel (who was much horrified on the above
occasion, by the doctor’s proposition to amputate her
proboscis) might have been selected as the extreme type
of objectionable Biddyness. She never took off her
clothes, washed or combed herself or went out of doors.
Her intellect was not equal to the comprehension of a
simple request, and repetition confused her. You might
have sown potatoes in her brogue, it was so thick. She
would have been perfectly contented on an exclusive diet
of the skins of her national vegetable, and tobacco. She
had but a limited idea of cause and effect. We have seen
her fill a stove with big lumps of anthracite, and apply a
solitary match to the bottom for the purpose of producing
ignition: have known her to trim a lamp with vinegar—
or what passed for it (diluted vitriol) in the Dirty Board-
ing House. An unfortunate partiality for smoking often
brought her within danger of extempore and involun-
tary Sutteeism, as she was frequently discover-
ed in a state of slow combustion, in consequence of the
presence of unextinguished pipes in her pocket. We put her
out, once, with the contents of a slop-pail. (It
did n’t make her dirtier.) Also she had several nar-
row escapes from blowing herself up with camphene,
which, we doubt not, she will finally effect. We shall read
of it in the papers someday.
In the ceiling of the room overlooking the adjoining
thoroughfare—a large one containing four beds—there
was a trap-door, affording egress on to the roof. Here, on
summer nights, the boarders would assemble, in their shirt-
sleeves, to indulge in beer and short pipes—occasionally
varying those contemplative enjoyments by pelting the
cats, with which the neighboring roofs abounded. Once
they borrowed a fowlingpiece, which, being loaded with
small shot, brought many feline flirtations to a tragic con-
clusion. The victims, if obtainable, were generally dropped
down their owners’ chimneys. This subsequently led to a
discontinuance of the practice. Another amusement, in-
troduced by the doctor, met with great favor. It con-
sisted in standing at a window on Sunday afternoons, and
dazzling the eyes of pedestrians or occupants of opposite
houses, with the reflection produced by agitating a look-
ing-glass. A gaunt carpenter and his wife (Spiritualists)
actually invited a roomful of friends to witness this in-
scrutable phenomena, when, unhappily, the secret was
discovered in consequence of over-zeal on the part of the
operators. No less than six mirrors, at an equal number
of windows, were in use on that occasion.
Such were the diversions, and such our experience of a
Dirty Boarding-House. May the reader never have to
reside in one!
The Bowery in Song
During the mid-1800s, songwriters celebrated the Bowery in verse. People
couldn't get enough of the good-time feeling of the Bowery.
In the following 1850s song, One of the B'hoys, an unnamed songwriter tells
us about a volunteer fireman from the Bowery, named Mose:
I'm a B'hoy, I'm a B'hoy,
And my name it is Mose,
I'm ne'er so well pleased
As when playing my hose,
And which, with my engine,
I love better, I guess,
Than any thing else
On this world I possess.
I'm a b'hoy, I'm a b'hoy,
And a butcher by trade,
As I guess you will find,
I'm a pretty cute blade.
And to get up a muss,
Or a jolly good fight,
Is next to a fire, that
In which I most delight.
I'm a b'hoy, I'm a b'hoy,
Of the true New York breed,
On boiled pork and beans
I delight much to feed.
I've a gal that I love,
A gallows lass she is,
She can dance and can sing,
And her name it is Liz.
I'm a b'hoy, I'm a b'hoy,
With my engine I go,
And where'er there's a fire
Up the water I throw.
When evening it comes,
For the Bowery I start,
And take with me there
Liz,the gal of my heart.
I'm a b'hoy, I'm a b'hoy,
And as free as the air,
And there ne'er was a b'hoy
Who with me could compare.
I can fight, I can wrestle,
Know a trick or two;
It must be a cute cove
Whoe'er does me do.
Women of the Bowery were also the subject of songs, as is the case
in the following 1850s song, Bowery Gals, which is set to the tune
of Buffalo Gals.
As I was lumbering down de street,
O, down de street,
O, down de street,
Dat pretty color'd gal I chanc'd to meet,
O, she war fair to view.
Den de Bowery gals will you come out to-night,
Will you come out to-night?
Will you come out to-night?
O, de Bowery gals will you come out to-night,
And dance by de light ob de moon?
Den we stopp'd awhile and had some talk,
O, we had some talk,
O, we had some talk,
And her heel cover'd up the whole side-walk,
As she stood right by me.
Den de Bowery gals, &c.
I'd like to kiss dem lubly lips,
Dem lubly lips,
Dem lubly lips,
I think dat I could lose my wits,
And drap right on de floor.
Den de Bowery gals, &c.
I ax'd her would she go to a dance,
Would she go to a dance,
Would she go to a dance,
I thought dat I might have a chance,
To shake my foot wid her.
Den de Bowery gals, &c.
I danc'd all night and my heel kept a rocking,
O, my heel kept a rocking,
O, my heel kept a rocking,
An I balance to de gal wid a hole in her stocking,
She was de prettiest gal in de room.
Den de Bowery gals, &c.
I am bound to make dat gal my wife,
Dat gal my wife,
Dat gal my wife,
O, I should be happy all my life,
If I had her along wid me.
Den de Bowery gals, &c.
And not to be forgotten were the Bowery newsboys. W.C.'s 1860s song
tells us about the newsboys in the Bowery Pit, or one of the Bowery's
I am sitting in the Bowery Pit amongst the gallus Boys,
Seeing the play go off and listening to the noise,
The hi-hies and the whistling, an earth-quake nothing to it,
For kicking up a thundering din they're the Boys to do it.
The Newsboys they're a gallus crowd, as I will let you know,
They go to the Bowery Pit for see the show.
When Cony with his Dog comes on you ought to hear the cry,
And when the Dog gets wounded and makes believe to die,
When Taylor comes with sword in hand, he and Cony fight,
The hearts of all the gallus Boys are brim full of delight.
The Newsboys they're, &c.
But presently the Actors are seen looking at the wings,
As if they were watching for Somebody or Somethings,
The Gallus Boys are Wide-Awake, they know what's coming now--
For J. R. Scott is coming, and then there's such a Row.
The Newsboys they're, &c.
Oh, if you want to see some fun, go to the Bowery Pit,
Especially on some night when there is a Benefit,
And I'll be bound that you will think amid the din and noise,
That they are gallus bloods indeed, and nothing but the Boys.
The Newsboys they're, &c.
Poet Walt Whitman truly liked the area and was especially fond of the Bowery
B'hoys. While he didn't pal around with the gang, he did find their mode of
dress to be quite stylish. He was known to refer to the gang members as
Another denizen of the Bowery was songwriter Stephen Foster. He resided at
the Bowery Hotel, where he paid twenty-five cents per day for a room. You could
either find Foster in one of the numerous saloons,
drinking and jotting down song lyrics, or at the old Bowery Theater, enjoying
the cheap comedy. Foster was low on funds and wasn't churning out songs with
the proficiency he once did. In January 1864, Foster was ill, complaining of
a fever and ague. On the morning of January 10, a friend stopped by the
hotel to find Foster lying on the floor in a pool of blood. He had gotten up
out of bed but lost his balance, falling upon some crockery. The broken shards
cut into his jugular vein. Foster was rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where he
died three days later.
In his famous Follies, Will Rogers told us that he Never Met a Man He
Never met a man I didn't like
Hifalutin' gent or Bowery Bum,
Yes, I've come a long way down the pike,
Never met a man I didn't like.
The early 1800s gave the American language the term, 'Bowery Boy'. The
mid-1800s gave us the Bowery B'hoy. From the late 19th century
until today, we would have the term Bowery Bum. A Bowery Bum was
one of the many down-on-his-luck, penniless men who inhabited the Bowery from
the 1870s on. How did this once vibrant area become a skid-row?
Elevated train along the Bowery, circa 1910s
While other neighborhoods of New York City were able to modernize and
pull itself up out of despair, the Bowery was left behind. While the
people were far from impoverished, they still could have used some help.
It didn't come. What did come, was an elevated railway in the late 1800s.
New York City expanded the lines of its street cars. While some did stop
in the Bowery, most street cars stopped alittle to the north, along Fourth
Avenue. The addition of the elevated railway along the Bowery just added to
the change in traffic. The railway passed over the Bowery, rather than stopping
along the famous thoroughfare. With less people coming down to the area, many theater owners pulled out of the area. Not refined enough to open on Broadway, they chose one of many streets off the Great White Way. With them gone, the saloons
and beer gardens of the Bowery suffered. The owners of the large dance halls
could no longer afford their rents. One or two remained on the main
thoroughfare, while most rented smaller places on the side streets.
The change of traffic, combined with numerous economic downturns,
wrecked havoc on the Bowery. This was the home of the working class. When
the economy was bad, they felt it most of all. With each recession, more
people lost their jobs. By the late 1800s, the Bowery was lined with pawnshops.
The pawnshops were full of swords and medals earned during the Civil War.
Desperate attempts by America's military veterans to get what little money
they could. Street peddlers tried to sell stolen jewelry to anyone who passed.
Pickpockets regularly worked the crowded railcars.
The one merchant who continued to prosper during these tough times was
the local liquor dealer. While the men of the Bowery were known to party
hard at night, they were seldom drunk during the day. All that had changed.
Now these unemployed men turned to alcohol to ease their frustration and sense
of hopelessness. By the early 1870s, it was not uncommon to walk down any
street in the Bowery and have to step over men who had passed out on the
pavement. Boarding houses offered free baths and lower rates to potential renters.
Crime continued to do well in the Bowery. It even managed to spread its wings.
Gang ranks swelled with new members. Where the Bowery gangs once spent most of
its time harrassing the gangs of Five Points, they couldn't do that anymore. Five
Points was in the midst of change. The gangs didn't want to go south into the
Fourth Ward. Even they tried to avoid the area if they could. So they turned their
attentions to burglary, prostitution and drugs. Opium dens sprang up around the
Bowery, though they were never as numerous as in the Fourth Ward. The Bowery
prostitutes, once nicely attired to attract men of better means, were now dirty and
poorly dressed. Instead of just working in the theaters, most of which were now
leaving the area, they also took their trade to the streets.
Small, dingy bars opened shop, replacing the once spacious beer gardens. One of the
nicer bars, the Atlantic Garden, boasted that it made over five hundred dollars per day from its
customers. The drink of choice in the Bowery was no longer whisky, but beer. However, you could also order whisky, a water and camphor mixture or a special kind of hot punch: a concoction of whisky, hot rum, camphor, benzine and cocaine. It was in the late 1800s that the Bowery's most famous saloon opened it's doors: McGuirk's.
McGuirk's Suicide Hall, at 295 Bowery near Houston Street, opened its doors in 1895.
It's main clientele were the waterfront thieves, gang members and prostitutes. The
main drink was whisky, at five-cents per glass. On any given night, there would be
music and dancing between the tables. Fistfights were common. It was a rough and
tumble bar with an uncommon attraction. McGuirk's was the scene of nightly suicides.
Prostitutes were throw themselves out of one of the upstairs windows on an almost
nightly basis. Some historians say they did this in protest of their working conditions.
Whatever the reason, word of this phenomenon spread throughout the city. People would travel down to the Bowery just to sit outside McGuirk's in hopes of seeing a prostitute throw herself to her death.
Suicides were not just confined to McGuirk's. It was becomming more common throughout the Bowery. On any given nights, a single gunshot could be heard coming from one of the boarding houses. When the police arrived, the residents claimed not to have heard anything. A crowd would gather around the boarding house when the body was taken out.
The children of the Bowery, who's father had lost his job, took to the streets to become
newsboys. In dirty, ragged clothes, they peddled tabloids all over the area for little
money. They would save up their money and then go to one of the Bowery theaters to have a good time.
By the 1870s, the Bowery had become synonymous with the homeless. It was the scene of flophouses and missions, cheap single-room occupancy hotels and derelicts. Flophouses first started appearing on the Bowery after the Civil War; places where down-on-their-luck men could find shelter for the night.
In 1879, Christian Herald purchased the existing mission at 14 Bowery to keep it from falling under secular control. Herald's idea was to save the shattered lives of the Bowery by introducing the residents to the gospel. This mission was the Bowery Mission and Young Men's Home, still in existence today.
The Strange Story of Alexander Turney Stewart
Alexander Turney Stewart was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland in 1803.
In 1823, he emigrated to New York City and opened his first store in 1825.
Stewart was an enterprising merchant, and soon his small dry goods store
blossomed into Wannamaker's department store. Wannamaker's would become
the premier department store of Victorian New York City. Stewart himself
became equally influential, offering tours of his store to visiting
dignitaries and military leaders. In 1867, he became chairman of the
Paris Exposition and in 1868, was nominated by President Grant to become
his new Secretary of the Treasury. The nomination was quickly nixed by
the Senate due to Stewart's involvement with importation of merchandise.
Although born with a hard head for business, Stewart did do some philantropic
work. He was known to offer free passage to America for any young man in
Belfast who cared to come over. In exchange, Stewart would find these men
jobs, usually in his department store. He sent shiploads of provisions to
Famine-ravaged Ireland. During the Civil War, he provided the US government
with cotton cloth for uniforms, sold at considerably less than the market
price. During the take-down of the infamous Boss Tweed ring, Stewart was an
active participant. In 1869, he purchased over 7000 acres of farmland on
Long Island and established the town of Garden City.
While he was respected for his business acumen and entrepenureal sense, he wasn't
truly liked by the public. His competitors found him to be a ruthless man of business. Many of his employees complained that Stewart was an
unyielding perfectionist, sometimes bordering on cold and unfeeling. Some
argued that Stewart was the perfect example of an American capitalist - more
interested in the dollar signs than the human element. Whatever the view of
Alexander Turney Stewart, he would be the subject of a very bizarre incident.
He died in 1876. Then he was kidnapped.
Stewart was interred in a private vault in the churchyard of St. Mark's-in-the-
Bowery, at Second Avenue and 10th Street. His family heard rumors that a plan
had been devised to steal Stewart's body and hold it for ransom. His widow,
Cornelia, hired armed guards to keep watch over the plot. They guarded the area
for a few months, then were let go when Cornelia believed the danger had passed.
On October 9, 1878, some people went into the churchyard and disturbed Stewart's
plot. The slab had been moved aside, but the vault hadn't been entered. Stewart's
lawyer, Judge Harry Hilton, ordered new locks put on the gates of the churchyard.
The slab was then moved about 10 feet away from the entrance of the vault, in hopes
of throwing off any potential criminals. The nightwatchman who had been on duty was
On the evening of November 3, 1878, Stewart's body was unearthed and stolen. The movement of the slab didn't throw them off one bit. The cover of the casket had been removed, the lead liner broken through and the locks and hinges broken off the casket. In addition to the body, the thieves also helped themselves to a engraved silver plate, the silver knobs and handles off the coffin and a strip of the velvet coffin lining. They left behind only a shovel and a lantern. They then managed to escape through the southwestern corner of the churchyard. The police were able to determine this by a disgusting liquid trail that was left behind from their 'catch.'
New York City's elite went into an uproar over such a ghoulish crime. However, the police seemed to have found it, if not amusing, then at least fitting. Police Chief
Walling was quoted as saying, There is a sort of grim justice in it, and the very irony of greed, that this cruel, avaricious, hard hearted man, who oppressed his
employees, ruined his creditors, drove his poorer competitors to
bankruptcy should now have his flesh drop off and his bones
rattle in a thieves' bag, while the millions he earned are enjoyed
The police did put their feelings aside and investigated the case. They learned where the shovel and lantern had been purchased, but the trail ended there. Some historians have argued that the police didn't investigate as fully as they could have. Rumors were spreading of certain persons or gang members who may have been involved. But it was all a series of dead ends.
In January 1879, a lawyer named George Jones walked into police headquarters with a letter supposedly written by the graverobbers. The letter stated that Stewart's body had been taken away on a carriage, to a house uptown. From there, it travelled upstate through Plattsburg, before arriving in Canada. Enclosed with the letter was the swath of velvet cut from the coffin lining. The graverobbers were asking for ,000 for the corpse's return. The letter was signed, Harry G. Romaine.
Stewart family lawyer, Hilton, absolutely refused to pay the ransom arguing that it would lead to other cases of graverobbing and ransom. He eventually capitulated, probably urged on by Cornelia Stewart, and offered ,000. Romaine refused. The police stayed out of it.
In early 1881, Cornelia Stewart decided to re-open negotiations, through George Jones. She originally offered the graverobbers ,000, but at the last minute, got the ransom down to ,000. After 2 1/2 years, the graverobbers just wanted to get rid of Stewart's decayed body and agreed to the price. They stipulated that a Stewart family member would meet them on a deserted road in Westchester County. An unnamed
family member drove up to Westchester County in the middle of the night and met two masked men on the side of the road. One of the men held a large sack. The men showed the Stewart relative another piece of the velvet coffin lining, and the exchange was made. The graverobbers went their own way, and Stewart's body, or
what was left of it, was driven back to the city. An undertaker placed Stewart's remains in a large trunk and shipped them out to Garden City. There, he was interred in an empty vault at the Garden City Cathedral.
Stewart's remains, if what is interred in Garden City is actually Stewart, are guarded to this day. If you feel like being mischevious one night, you can go to the Cathedral and set off the vault alarm. It's been said that if Stewart is again disturbed, a spring connected to the church tower will cause the bells to ring. No one's ever tried the alarm system to see if it really works.
If you should ever venture down to St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery churchyard, you will find the location of Alexander T. Stewart's original resting place between vaults 111 and 113. And if you listen very carefully, you'll hear the police department snickering in the distance.
The Bowery Today
We saw how the neighborhoods of Five Points and sections of the Old Fourth
Ward evolved. They started out as prominent areas, only to sink
into degredation. Then both rose from the ashes in much the same way as the
fabled phoenix. Sadly, the story hasn't been nearly as hopeful for the
The Bowery, circa 1930s
This once elegant neighborhood has become synonymous with skid-row. The dawn
of the twentieth century didn't do much to help the Bowery. By 1900,
alcoholism had become the Bowery's biggest problem. Poverty and deviance
began to reign in the area. So much so, that even many of the Bowery's
prostitutes began to leave for other neighborhoods. By 1907, the main
street, Bowery, housed 115 clothing stores for men - but none for women.
That same year, New York City estimated that as many as 25,000 men sought
nightly shelter in one of the Bowery's numerous flophouses and missions.
It had become an area of sadness and utter hopelessness.
If you wandered around the Bowery at the beginning of the twentieth century,
you would be awed. It was impossible to walk down the street without stepping
over or around drunk, homeless men. If you were a woman, you would be one of
the few left in the area.
In 1914, if you went to McKeon's Saloon at 20 Bowery or the Morgue Saloon at
25 Bowery, you may have been in for a surprise. Your singing waiter may have
been none other than 14 year-old Irving Berlin, who worked at both places to help support his family. Berlin also worked at an unnamed saloon at 9 Bowery. He said that
saloon was the most wretched place he ever worked, populated by dishonest sailors
and old prostitutes. Once he reached the dizzying heights of fame, Berlin still
found time to visit his old bosses in the Bowery. Much like his old neighborhood in
the Fourth Ward, the Bowery remained close to Berlin's heart.
Hollywood of the 1930s brought us the Dead End Kids, later renamed the Bowery
Boys. In the beginning, the boys were synonymous were street toughs, in search of
a direction in life. By the 1950s, the boys had become comic criminal fighters.
While a few of the Bowery Boys were born in New York, only Leo Gorcey (Muggs) was actually born on the Lower East Side. Leo's father, Bernard Gorcey, who played Louie the drug store owner, was based on an actual drug store owner in the Bowery.
As urban renewal cleaned up the Old Fourth Ward, it began to make major changes
in the atmosphere of the Bowery by the mid-20th century. Old buildings began to
disappear, to make room for new ones. Artists from Greenwich Village, seeking
cheaper rents and more inspiration, moved into the Bowery. The building at 295
Bowery, once McGuirk's Suicide Hall, became a refuge for women artists.
Some of the buildings from the 1890s Bowery-era still survive intact. However,
they may not be around much longer. The Cooper Square Development Plan has
undertaken the project of renovating the Bowery. Historic sites throughout the
Bowery are slated to be demolished: old missions, flophouses, the Sunshine Hotel and
most notably, McGuirk's Suicide Hall. The present tenants of McGuirk's are fighting
to save their building. Instead of demolition, they are asking for the city to step
in and have the building refurbished. It's doubtful they'll win.
The Bowery Mission continues to provide shelter, showers and meals to those who are
without anywhere to turn. In addition to Bible studies, they also provide computer
classes, job training and seminars offering vital and helpful information. Their GED
program is very effective and they have added courses in obtaining certificates in
MS Office. The Mission is currently located on West 15th Street.
For those interested in re-enactments, there is Myrtle Avenue. Borrowing the idea from
Civil War re-enactors, this living history group re-enacts the various street gangs of the Bowery, Five Points and the Old Fourth Ward, from the 1850s and 1860s.
As urban renewal pushes into the area, the famous and infamous Bowery will be to future researchers and historians what Five Points is to us. They will be left with only photographs and articles to show them what this neighborhood
was really like; to tell the stories of its residents, to share in their merriment and their
tears. We tend to think that the history of these neighborhoods was made prior to the twentieth century. However for the Bowery, we are sitting on the closing end of its history. The Bowery, more than any other neighborhood in New York, has reflected the impact of economic change on its residents. Everything that affects the human condition has been magnified in the Bowery. The residents who lived here were not the forgotten impoverished -- they were the backbone of New York City: the volunteer firefighters, the butchers, the merchants. This famous area, once elegant and sophisticated, bawdy and rowdy, sad and hopeless, literally takes its final bow. It's with much sadness that we say goodbye to the Bowery.
When is a village not really a village? When it's New York City's most famous
neighborhood, Greenwich Village. No one area better brings to mind art,
culture and trendiness better than the Village. When this area is mentioned,
we envision the Greenwich Village of the 1960s - poets, artists, writers
and smoky clubs. However, the Village has a long and storied history.
Greenwich Village, in the 9th Ward, is located in lower Manhattan and is bounded by the Hudson River to the west and Broadway to the east, and Houston to the south and 14th Street to the north. Streets in this area include Christopher, Wooster, Bleecker, Broome, Sullivan, Varick, Washington, Macdougal, Hester and Hudson. Famous parks in Greenwich Village include Washington Square Park, Sheridan Park and James J. Walker Park.
In the 1600s, this area was marshland, called Sapokanikan by the Indians inhabiting it. A small, trout-filled stream flowed through the land. The Indian village is believed to
have been situated around the site of the old Gansevoort Market.
When the Dutch purchased Manhattan, Governor Peter Minuet set aside Sapokanikan
for the Dutch West India's farmlands. By the 1630s, the Dutch had managed to clear out some tracts for farming, and renamed the whole area Noortwyck. Former Indian trails served as country roads. The Dutch referred to the the farms of the area as 'Bossen Bouerie' or 'farm in the woods'. The trout-filled stream, which had no name when the Indians lived there, was renamed Bestavaars Kill. Noortwyck became, not only the first northern settlement in Manhattan, but Manhattan's first suburb.
When the New Amsterdam colony fell to the British in 1664, the area was settled as
a country hamlet. The colony's name was changed to New York, and in 1713, Noortwyck was renamed Grin'wich. Bestavaars Kill became Minetta Brook. British naval officers quickly settled in the area. Captain Richard Randall (of Randall's Island fame) purchased large tracts of land. However there was one officer who had a lasting impact on Grin'wich: Captain Peter Warren.
Captain Warren, later an Admiral, was Irish born. He quickly rose through the ranks of
the British Navy to command his first ship at age twenty-four. A brilliant career eventually brought to him to command the British Navy's New York Fleet. It was then that he first laid eyes on the beauty of Grin'wich. Much like Randall, Captain Warren purchased large tracts of land on which to build his estate. Once built, he bestowed the name Chelsea upon his home. (A name that today refers to a specific section of Greenwich Village.) Though most of the roads in Grin'wich were country roads, they eventually took the names of Captain Warren's sons-in-laws: Skinner Road (now Christopher Street), Fitzroy Road (now gone) and Abingdon Road, that ended at
Abingdon Square. The road is now gone, but Abingdon Square remains in all its glory.
Grin'wich was tranquil and beautiful. Officers came ashore to relax and enjoy the countryside. All seemed peaceful. Then the American Revolution came and Grin'wich became the site of much activity: General George Washington chose the area for his
When New York City was the first capital of the United States, Vice President John Adams chose Greenwich Village for his home. Adams' home later became Aaron Burr's home. After his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton, the mortally wounded Hamilton was brought to the home of William Bayard (of Bayard Street fame) in the Village.
The Village continued to be sparsely populated until the 1790s when a series of epidemics swept through Manhattan: first cholera, then small pox and finally yellow fever. The residents of Manhattan, who at the time were mostly clustered below Wall Street, fled north in hopes of escaping the ravaging diseases. Many headed for Greenwich Village. To accomodate the influx of new residents, the lavish
estates that once populated the areas were sold and the land divided into smaller plots. Row houses began to spring up everywhere.
By the late 1820s and early 1830s, Manhattan's wealthy residents desperately wanted to move north away from the newly arriving immigrants. They, too, looked to the north and decided upon Greenwich Village. By the mid 1830s, lavish homes were being built around the Washington Square area. This section of the Village would remain upper class for the rest of the 19th century.
The huge numbers of Irish immigrants of the 1840s were basically divided into two groups: those with
job skills who could carve out a living in New York, and those with no skills who left the povery of
Ireland only to live in the poverty of New York. The Irish with job skills had a much easier time
securing employment. Naturally, they didn't want to live in the poverty of Five Points or the old
Fourth Ward. So many of these working-class Irish also headed north, to the Village. While the elite
lived around Washington Square on the east side of the Village, the Irish mostly populated the western
section of the Village, closest to the Hudson River. But the Irish of the West Village were an economically
diverse group. Some were able to do quite well for themselves, living in warm, clean homes that they eventually
owned. While others, who due to economic downturns or for other reasons couldn't quite make a go of it, resided
Bleecker Street, between Grand and Mercer, circa 1870s
The tenements of the West Village were not as bad as the tenements of Five Points or the Old Fourth Ward. They
were more on a par with the tenements of the Bowery. There was no oozing puddles of goo and no overabundance of
rats. When these people fell upon hard times, which happened often, they frequently went without heat or skimped
on food - sometimes giving it up completely. One section of the West Village seemed to be worse than the others and
bore the nickname, Pig's Alley. The name came from the narrow, dirt alley that separated two
sections of wooden tenements. While these wooden structures weren't constructed as well as they could have been, they
didn't have the decrepit look of wooden tenements in other sections.
Pig's Alley seemed to differ from the lowest sections of the Points and the Fourth
Ward. The tenements along the alley were frequently run by a housekeeper. This was usually a poor
widow, chosen by the landlord, who lived there rent-free in exchange for her domestic services. She was expected to keep
the stairs and hallways of the building as clean as possible. If a tenant disregarded the housekeepers admonishes for
'littering' in the stairs or hallway, or outside the building, the housekeeper was empowered to throw them out.
If the building was small, probably one of the former private homes that now housed three or four families, the housekeeper
was given a reduction on her rent. The housekeeper was also empowered to keep an eye on the tenants. If someone was
particularly troublesome, out they went.
In 1872, writer C.D. Warner visited with a missionary who was administering to some of the poorer tenants along Pig's
Alley. He related a small snippet about a few residents of Pig's Alley during a particularly cold winter:
Then the Parson and the Mistress fall to
talking about the soup-relief, and about old
Mrs. Grumples in Pig Alley, who had a present
of one of Stowe’s Illustrated Self-Acting Bibles
on Christmas, when she hadn’t coal enough
in the house to heat her gruel; and about a
family behind the church, a widow and six
little children and three dogs; and he didn’t be-
lieve that any of them had known what it was
to be warm in three weeks, and as to food,
the woman said, she could hardly beg cold
victuals enough to keep the dogs alive.
There was also the working-class section around Grove Court, known as
Mixed Ale Alley. The houses along Grove Court were originally built to house
the Village's working class: laborers and tradesmen. This is where the blue-collar
workers of the Village called home. It was of mixed ethinicity and not known to
Another famous section of Greenwich Village was the Minettas, also known as
Little Africa. This African-American slum was considered the most dangerous
slum of New York City. Irish gangs were usually found in the Minettas, wrecking
havoc and terrorizing the residents. Author Stephen Crane immortalized the area
and some of its denizens in his 1896 poem.
The dire straits that residents of the West Village found themselves in in the latter
half of the 19th century began to resemble the plight of Five Points and the Bowery. As the
Irish of the area were thrown upon hard times, gangs and vice began to take hold. Lower-class saloons opened
throughout the area - most of which were located below street level. As the young men were thrown out of work,
they took to the street gangs who made these saloons their headquarters. While the street gangs of Greenwich
Village never had the ferocity of the gangs of the Points or the Bowery, they were still not to be triffled with.
The Harley Mob made their headquarters in a saloon at Broadway and Houston. Legend has it that after the gang
robbed a house, they would load the goods into a hearse and drive it through the streets. The Dutch Mob operated
around Houston Street. There were numerous smaller gangs around the Christopher Street area. But the most famous
name to be associated with a Greenwich Village mob is that of William Poole, aka Bill the Buthcer.
Bill the Butcher
William Poole was born in New Jersey around 1820 to parents of English
descent. When Bill was about 12 years old, the family moved to New York
City, and his father opened a butcher shop in Washington Market. Bill
apprenticed with his father an eventually opened his own store.
Historians have described Bill Poole as a well-mannered gentleman with an
explosive temper when pushed. Bill also worked as a volunteer fireman for Engine
Company Number 34, the 'Red Rovers', at Hudson and Christopher. In those days,
firemen would literally fight each other for the chance to put out a fire. It wasn't
uncommon for an advance party from one firehouse to arrive at the scene of the fire first,
only to sit on the plugs and prevent another fire company from putting out the fire first.
Taunts, threats and fistfights would usually erupt and the firemen would battle each other while the building went down in flames. This sort of fire company rivalry seemed to best suit Poole's volatile nature. After all, he loved a good fight.
When not at the butcher shop or on the scene of a fire, Poole passed his time with
the neighborhood street gangs. He earned his street apprenticeship with the legendary
Bowery B'hoys. Eventually he left the gang, to hook up with one of the smaller Village
gangs, which he would then head. Bill's experience weilding a knife as a butcher made
him an exceptionally gifted street fighter. He was also known for gouging out opponent's eyes.
Politically, the Pooles were staunch Whig supporters and firm believers in Nativist sentiment and Bill was no exception. He had no love for the Irish, whom he spent a great deal of time fighting when he was with the B'hoys. The Irish, almost to a man, were aligned with Tammany Hall, who rewarded their loyalty with jobs, contracts and naturalization help. This was a huge thorn in the side of Nativists who really hated to see these foreigners being catered to.
It was politics that would mainly divide all of New York's various street gangs - gangs loyal to Tammany versus gangs that hated Tammany. Many times this was the cause of some of the biggest gang slugfests. And Bill Poole was in the middle of it from the very beginning. Whenever a Nativist candidate would require a ballot box smashed in the Irish wards, Poole would lead the way.
It was one of his very first political gang fights where Poole would encounter the man who would eventually help bring him down.
John Morrissey was a drinker and a gambler from Troy, New York. While
upstate, he ran a small lower-class saloon that catered to the criminal
set. After losing most of his money, and friends, Morrissey left the saloon
and headed to New York City, where he settled in the Sixth Ward. Morrissey
became friendly with the bigger gangs of Five Points, most notably the Dead
Rabbits. At the time, Isaiah Rynders was the ward boss of the Bloody Sixth.
But for a brief spell, Rynders quit Tammany and threw his lot in with the
Nativist Party. Morrissey and the gangs of the Sixth were livid, and set out
to teach Rynders a lesson in loyalty. One morning, Morrissey and a few others
stormed down to Rynder's casino on the Bowery.
Rynders was passing his days hanging out with Bowery B'hoys and befriending
Bill the Butcher. The small group from the Points burst into the casino and proceeded to break up some chairs and overturn tables. The boys from the Sixth were
outnumbered and their stunt was quickly stopped. It was then that Bill the
Butcher would face off against the man who was partly responsible for his death -
Poole proceeded to give Morrissey an unholy beating, knocking him unconscious.
As Morrissey lay on the floor with a smashed up face in a pool of blood, the boys
he came with scampered out the door. Poole was ready to finish off his work, when
Rynders stopped him. Rynders was so impressed by the sheer nerve it took for
Morrissey to march in there that he decided to nurse him back to health. He
ordered a few of the B'hoys to carry Morrissey to a back room and place him in
bed. Morrissey would remain there a few days, until well enough to leave. Rynders
himself would often care for him. When Morrissey regained consciousness, Rynders
told him how impressed he was with him and offered him a high ranking position in his
'outfit' and membership in the Bowery B'hoys. (It's unknown what the Bowery B'hoys
thought of this proposal.) Morrissey, now totally disgusted with Rynders, declined
his offer and made his way back to the Sixth Ward.
This was just the beginning of the hatred between Morrissey and Poole. Poole wanted
Morrissey dead for having the unmitigated gall to come into his territory. Morrissey
wanted revenge for his beating at Poole's hands and he would accept nothing less than
As the city elections rolled around, trouble began brewing between the gangs. On election day, Tammany was winning in the polls. The Nativist Party ordered their gangs into the polling places to smash up the ballot boxes. One of the people ordered in to do the job was Bill the Butcher. When John Morrissey got wind that Poole would be heading to one of the northern wards with his gang, he turned to the deadliest Five Points gang he could find for help - the Dead Rabbits. He went through their leader and his close friend, John A. Kennedy, the man who would later become the Police Commissioner.
Writer Mathew Hale gave the following account of Morrissey's visit to the Kennedy household:
One day Mrs. Kennedy came to her husband as he sat in his room, and said to him:
“There is an awful-looking man at the door, who wants to see you. He
is dirty and ragged, has a ferocious look, and is the most terrible fellow I ever saw.
Don’t go to the door;he certainly means mischief.”
“Is he a big, burly fellow ?“
“Broad-shouldered, tall, with his nose turned one side?”
“Yes, yes,” said the impatient lady.
“0h, I know who it is - it is John Morrissey; let him come in.”
“0h, husband, the idea of your associating with such men, and bringing them to the
But the unwelcome visitor walked into the parlor.
Whether that exchange between John Kennedy and his wife ever took place is unknown, but what is known is that Morrissey explained the dire situation to Kennedy and requested poll guards. Kennedy, who himself had no love for Bill the Butcher, agreed to the scheme. Morrissey went so far as to offer a monetary reward to any Dead Rabbit member who could bring him Poole's ears and nose. The whole idea set well with Kennedy and the Rabbits were employed.
Early on election day, Jim Morrissey, John Kennedy and about 30 of his
Dead Rabbits proceeded uptown. They stationed themselves inside the polling
place while Morrissey barked out orders. They were not to do anything unless
Poole and his gang started trouble first. Then they were to come out swinging
and not relent until skulls were smashed.
Around noon, a large lumber wagon pulled up outside and Poole disembarked.
Accompanying Poole on his mission were members from various Nativist gangs,
including a few of the B'hoys. Police Captain Carpenter, who was in charge of
guarding the polling place stepped up to meet Poole. Poole politely asked if he
and his men could enter the building. Carpenter graciously told him that they
were welcome. Poole entered the building, only to stop short at the sight of
30 armed Dead Rabbits, just waiting for him. He abruptly turned on his heels,
bade a good morning to Captain Carpenter and ordered his boys to drive somewhere
But now it was Bill Poole's turn to seethe with anger. He was going to show
Morrissey who was king.
Tammany Hall was so grateful to John Morrissey for protecting their votes on
election day that they welcomed him into the fold. He was given money to
open his own casino downtown, and spent his free time rubbing elbows with
Tammany bigwigs and their hired hands.
Bill Poole was incensed over what took place on election day with Morrissey.
He had a tough street reputation, and didn't appreciate being made to look
bad by a punk like Morrissey. So Poole issued a challenge to Morrissey: to
meet him on the Amos Dock (one block north of Christopher Street on what is now
10th Street) for a fight. The rules were simple: only Morrissey
and Poole would fight - there would be no interference from the gangs and both
men would be unarmed. Morrissey, who had spent some time as a professional
boxer, quickly agreed to the terms.
On a sunny day in July 1854, Morrissey and Poole met on the docks. Morrissey
threw the first punch, but Poole managed to avoid it. An all-out fistfight
ensued, ending with Poole pinning Morrissey to the ground and beating him
senseless until Morrissey pleaded for mercy. Bill the Butcher walked off the
scene as the undisputed king, and Morrissey was publicly humiliated. Now
nothing would heal Morrissey's shattered ego except the death of Bill Poole.
It wouldn't take long for the fight to become the talk of New York City. It was
even celebrated in song in 1854's Rough and Tumble, or the Amos Street
Fight Between Poole and Morrissey. The song is set to the air I'll Throw
Come "Boys" draw nigh and listen to this my little ditty,
About a "muss" we lately had, in this great Empire City,
'Twas on a Thursday morning, when--the sun was shining bright,
That the "Fancy" lads to Amos Street, went up to see the fight.
CHORUS--Oh! Billy Poole, Oh! Billy Poole, you are a tip top scholar.
For by the rule of Hyer's school, you made the champion "holler."
'Twas the hour of seven o'clock, and Poole was on the ground,
When Morrissey hastened to the spot, and swore he was "around,"
The "Boys" all eager for the fun, stood by in mild array,
To watch the "Western Champion" meet the "hero of the day."
The crowd was hushed, and all was still, not e'en the birds did sing,
While Poole and Morrisey ready "peeled," stood forth within the ring
Oh! 'twas a glorious sight to see these bruisers, strong and hold.
Eyeing askance each other's moves, both eager to take hold.
A step--a rush--and Morrissey tried to give a dangerous blow;
But, quick as thought Poole dodged and caught poor Morrissey "down below"
With almost superhuman strength, Poole made a mighty bound,
And with terriffic energy dashed Morrissey to the ground.
With deadly grasp upon his throat, Poole gouged, did bite, and "chaw"
Until the face of Morrissey was left entirely raw.
He there was fixed as if a vice did hold him to the spot,
Without a chance to move himself, and friends they knew him not.
He tried once more to raise himself, but found it all in vain,
For kicks and blows fell thick and fast--just like a shower of rain.
He felt convinced Poole was a man made of the "best of stuff,"
And thus convinced, he cried aloud--"Hold, Bill, I've got enough!"
'Twas said that Morrissey had to fight with Poole and all his "crowd;"
But by the "Pugulistic Rules," such things are not allowed;
But if, by chance, he did get struck by any more than one,
It must have been, we really think, ENTIRELY IN FUN.
So now the battle's at an end, and both the men bound over,
We hope, for twelve months and a day, to live in peace--and clover.
But should the "war" break out again, and the "boys be called to fight,"
We hope they'll all "act on the square," and "do the thing that's right.
Although the lyrics of Rough and Tumble begged for a twelve month
reprieve from the Poole-Morrissey war, it wasn't to be.
After his public drubbing, Morrissey found sympathetic ears from the hired
Tammany gangsters. They all hated Bill Poole. But one listener hated Poole as
much as Morrissey did - Lewis (Lew) Baker. Baker had once been beaten in a
nasty barfight by a Nativist gang member. Following that fight, he ran into
Bill Poole on Canal Street. Poole, wanting to teach Baker a lesson, proceeded
to beat him bloody. The police arrived just in time to save Baker. But their
arrival solicited an ominous warning from Poole that he would 'settle' with
Baker yet. Baker and Morrissey became fast friends and together plotted the
demise of Bill the Butcher.
On February 25, 1855, Morrissey caught up with Poole in a bar called Stanwix Hall,
on Broadway near Prince Street. Poole was still bragging about beating Morrissey and
Morrissey had had enough. He walked up to Poole and threated him with a pistol.
The pistol jammed and Morrissey asked the crowd for another pistol. When none
was forthcoming, Poole drew his own gun to kill Morrissey. A Sixth Ward gangster
intervened, begging Poole not to kill an unarmed man in cold blood. According to
legend, Poole threw his gun to the floor and grabbed two carving knives, threatening
both Morrissey and the Sixth Ward gangster. At about this time, Lew Baker walked in,
followed by the police. Both Poole and Morrissey were promptly arrested, but released
on the street when they promised to go home and stay there.
Morrissey quickly went to his home on Hudson Street and remained there until morning.
Poole, on the other hand, went back to Stanwix Hall about a half hour later. Lew
Baker, hearing that Poole was back at the bar, returned around midnight with his gun and
a few Tammany friends. Poole was standing at the bar drinking. Poole and one of the
Tammany gangsters exchanged harsh words, when one of them pulled their gun. Poole was
shot in the leg and fell forward into the arms of Lew Baker. Baker, who was not about
to miss this opportunity, drew his own gun, put it against Poole's chest and fired twice.
Poole staggered to the bar for a knife to threaten Baker with. He only made it a few
feet when he collapsed on the floor. Baker and his friends ran out the door.
The murder of Bill the Butcher
Bill the Butcher would live only about two weeks after being shot. He died on March 8, in his
Christopher Street home, surrounded by his wife and son. According to the New York T imes, Poole's last
statement was, What grieves me most is that I've been murdered by a set of Irish. Goodbye boys, I die a true American.
Meanwhile, the police had arrested the Tammany gangsters who accompanied Lew Baker to Stanwix
Hall. Baker, however, had gone into hiding. The night of Poole's assault, Baker fled to Jersey
City and hid out until March 10. He then boarded the brig Isabella Jewett, bound for the Canary Islands. Rumors of
Baker's escape was the talk of the city and the Nativist Party
wasn't about to let Baker escape. George Law, who headed the party in New York City at that time,
lent his own vessel, Grapeshot, to the police to follow in pursuit.
According to July's issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine:
Quite a sensation was caused in the metropolis by
the return of the Grapeshot, with Lewis Baker,
charged with the murder of William Poole. The
Grapeshot, which had been specially chartered to
seek and, if possible, bring back the fugitive, left
New York on the 18th of March, and arrived at
Palmas, Canary Islands, on the 7th of April.
Baker had escaped in the Isabella Jewett, which
did not reach Palmas until ten days after the
Grapeshot. On her arrival, she was immediately
boarded by the officers from the Grapeshot. Baker’s
capture was effected without much difficulty, and
on the night of the 16th of May he was safely
lodged in the “Tombs” of New York.
William Bill the Butcher Poole, husband, father, butcher, volunteer fireman, former leader of the Bowery B'hoys, Greenwich Village gangster, chieftan of the Washington Street Gang, champion eye gouger and hater of
all things Irish, was laid to rest in grand style. An estimated 5000 men joined
the funeral procession down Broadway, riding in carriages or walking solemly
behind the casket, followed by five or six brass bands. Thousands of spectators
lined the streets. The procession made its way to Whitehall
Street, where they took boats over to Brooklyn. Poole was interred in an unmarked grave in Greenwood Cemetery. New York City wouldn't see another funeral procession this extravagant until the death of President Abraham Lincoln.
New York City was in an uproar over the death of Bill the Butcher. Nativists
used his murder as an example to further their cause. In their eyes, Poole was
a great American, who loved his country and died defending her from foreignors.
The Irish were simply drunken barbarians, far beyond the control of civilized
society. No matter what the topic was, the editorials always went back to
Poole and his heartbreaking, tragic end.
Harper's New Monthly Magazine, October 1854, in an editorial about furthering
Does the black-satined Yankee undertake to laugh at the peasants’ flower-feast of
Gexzano, and not cry at Bill Poole’s funeral?
Harper's again, in a February 1856 editorial on New York City gangs:
The b’hoys of New York city, bad as they may
be, afford the finest samples in the world of the
natural energy of the American character—they run
“wid de machines,” and their bone and sinews
form the brute force of our fighting men. Where-
ever they go they retain their distinguishing traits,
recklessness of self-interest and fondness for ex-
citement. The disgraceful fight between Poole
and Morrisey, made quite a stir on their “Change,”
and afforded them conversation of the greatest in-
terest for succeeding weeks. In the very height of
the excitement we were winding our way down
an obscure street, when we were attracted by the
sight of a half fledged b’hoy, who was just emerging
from a newspaper runner into a size that could
“hold the butt,” holding up the “last Harper,” and
discoursing with rough eloquence to his listening
companions upon some knotty subject. As we
neared the group, we caught the following signifi-
“Its no use a-talkin’ about Bonypart and Veling-
ton a-hem’ fightin’ men: they might a-done in their
day; but Bill Poole could a-lick’d ‘em both, and had
his finger nails cut, his stampers (boots) eff, and
not a-gouged. Talk of Bonypart! dry up, will ye!
—he wasn’t no whar !“ And the speaker took a
new pull at his cigar, and resumed the thread of Mr.
When Lew Baker appeared in court, his attorney argued that the capture
in the Canary Islands was illegal. The exchange between the two attorneys
would appear in an 1867 New York Times editorial about law and order:
In the case of Lewis Baker, charged with the
homicide of William Poole, the pugilist, it ap-
peared that George Law had lent a vessel to go
after the craft in which Baker had escaped. He
was captured just off the Canary Isles.
“An outrageous kidnapping,” said Horace
F. Clark, Esq., one of Baker’s counsel, “and
against all law.”
“Not so, Brother Clark,” retorted the District
Attorney, “for the capture was made according
to George Law.”
There was no escaping it, Bill the Butcher had become an American legend.
As late as January 1891, Poole's death would be fodder for the editorial
page, though opinion of Poole was beginning to turn. The Century Magazine had
this to say regarding corruption in New York City government:
It is well to be reminded of these things. A pride
in the past helps us to take heart for the work of the
present. The condition of the city is improving in
many ways. There is, for instance, no ruffian in public
life to-day as brutal as Isaiah Rynders; there are
fewer riots, and these are sooner controlled; and it is
not in New York now that the successor of Bill Poole
would be honored with a public funeral. Notwithstanding some grievous set-backs, the city is slowly
and surely advancing, though still scandalously behind many other large cities of the world in the art of
As for Lew Baker, he stood trial. While the jury found him guilty of Poole's
death, they were divided as to what to actually charge him with. Harper's New
Monthly Magazine, January 1856:
In the trial of
Lewis Baker for the murder of William Poole in
in the city of New York, having been prolonged
for upward of a fortnight, was brought to a close on
the 15th of December. After forty hours’ deliberation, the jury, unable to agree upon a verdict, were
discharged by the Court. It was understood that of
the twelve jurymen nine were for murder, with a
recommendation to mercy, one for manslaughter in
the first degree, and two for manslaughter in the
Three times Baker was brought to trial for Poole's murder and three times it
was a hung jury. Eventually, he was released.
John Morrissey shed no tears over Poole's death. He focused
all his attention on gambling. He was an avid backer of Tammany's Boss William
Tweed, and managed to 'earn' about ,000 for his political affiliations. In
the 1870s, he would be a co-leader of Tammany, working alongside Honest John Kelly.
Eventually, he simply disappeared.
Bill the Butcher was brought to life in Martin Scorcese's movie, Gangs of New York. In the movie, William Cutting (portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis) was based on the real William Poole. As is common in Hollywood, they played freely with history. William Cutting survives the 1850s, only to be killed during the 1863 Draft Riots.
In February of this year, a tombstone was finally erected on William Poole's grave. The 6 foot 3 inch gray monument simply says, Goodbye boys, I die a true American. There was a ceremony complete with a US Marine of Irish-descent playing Taps over his grave. In an interview, Greenwood Cemetery president Richard Moylan said the tombstone was to honor not just Bill the Butcher, but all those who lost their lives in the 1863 Draft Riots. There's only one problem with this: the real Bill the Butcher died in 1855. Mr. Moylan is paying homage to a fictional character.
Bill the Butcher would have absolutely loved the idea of being honored 150 years after his death. However, nothing would have ticked him off more than having an Irishman playing Taps over his grave. For there was nothing Bill the Butcher hated more than the Irish. And it would be the death of him.
Gangs of the Village
By far, the most infamous gang in Greenwich Village was William
Poole's Washington Street Gang. But they weren't the only gang whose
exploits were celebrated by other New York City gangs. In fact, there
was one gang that the newspapers favored above all others - the Hudson
The Hudson Dusters originated out of the Hell's Kitchen area. They had
problems holding on to their territory so they eventually wandered down
into the Village. After setting their eyes on the territory run by the
Village gang, the Potashes, the Dusters moved in, beat the Potashes from
the area and set up shop. They wound up ruling the area from East 13th Street
all the way over to Broadway. They headquartered at the corner of Hudson
and 30th in Hell's Kitchen.
The Hudson Dusters main source of entertainment was robbing the docks. Most
nights, they could be found down at the water, plundering newly arrived goods
or mugging sailors and ship's crews. A few of their leaders became friendly
with New York's tabloid journalists. They were quick to give the reporters the
inside scoop on their deeds. The reporters, and their editors, ate it up.
A policeman from the Charles Street police station, Dennis Sullivan, had had enough of the Hudson
Dusters. He publicly boasted one day that he would forever end their rule in
Greenwich Village. A few days later, he arrested about 10 Hudson Dusters. The gang
was incensed. A few leaders of the Dusters went to the ward boss of the Ninth Ward
and demanded action. The boss simply told them that he would back the Dusters, no
matter what their course of action would be. The Dusters decided to teach Patrolman
Sullivan a valuable lesson.
One day, Dennis Sullivan had cornered a few Hudson Dusters and was proceeding to
arrest them. Just then, he was jumped by a large contingent of the gang who laid in
wait for him. The Dusters beat Sullivan unconscious, then took his uniform coat,
shield, gun and nightstick. A few gang members then stomped on Sullivan's face until
he was almost unrecognizable.
Dennis Sullivan was rushed to the hospital where he would remain in critical condition
for a few weeks. (He did eventually recover.) The Hudson Dusters, however, were
receiving congratulations from every corner of New York City: Five Points, the Bowery and
even a slap on the back from the ward boss of the Ninth Ward.
Rather than let their escapade fade into obscurity, the Hudson Dusters alledgedly printed up a poem
of their attack on Dennis Sullivan. They then made copies and distributed them throughout
their territory. Copies were also sent to the Charles Street police station and police
headquarters down on Mulberry Street. A copy was even sent to the recovering Sullivan in
There is a little surprise to Greenwich Village's history. A quirk that many would
think should belong to the Bloody Sixth, the Old Fourth Ward or even the Bowery.
It shouldn't belong to Village. But it does. Greenwich Village was the home
of New York State's first penitentiary.
Following the American Revolution, one of New York City's first workhouses was the
Bridewell, located at City Hall. It quickly evolved into a prison, as the city had
no real place to incarcerate anyone. New York State wanted a penitentiary located on
Manhattan Island, so city officials began to look at Greenwich Village. At the time,
it was still mostly open land, accessible all the way to the Hudson River. The city
chose the location for their new prison at the foot of Amos Street (now called 10th
Street), right along the water. In 1796, the prison was erected on four acres of
land by the Amos Street dock, surrounded by a high stone wall. In 1797, anyone at
Bridewell who had been sentenced to three or more years of incarceration, were sent
over to this new prison.
The prison was officially named the New York State Prison, but soon acquired the nickname
Newgate, after London's most famous prison. The Village's Newgate differed from many
other prisons of the day in its policy of humane treatment for prisoners. Many of its inmates had
been sentenced to die while at Bridewell, but this sentence was exchanged for a long
incarceration. Prisoners weren't accosted by guards. Missionaries from different
churches, including the Quakers, were given free access to the inmates in hopes of
helping them turn their lives around and again make them productive members of society.
Unfortunately, it didn't work very well.
Newgate was rife with problems from the day it first opened. The facility was only designed
to house a few inmates per cell. But due to overcrowding, soon there were an average of eight
inmates to each cramped cell. Overcrowding led to tension and heightened tempers. Soon inmates
were fighting amongst themselves, requiring the guards to come in and physically restore order.
While breaking up the fights, the guards would often find themselves fighting for their own
protection. Guards and inmates were usually hurt, sometimes seriously. Anarchy soon reigned.
The New York State Legislature was deeply troubled by what had happened at Newgate. Officials
soon decided the problems at Newgate couldn't be fixed. They
commissioned a new state penitentiary be built at Sing Sing, and that Newgate be sold. At first,
New York City wanted to purchase it. The city thought it was essential as it relieved the overcrowding
at Bridewell. But they soon changed course, and chose Blackwell's Island to house the new city
prison. Newgate was officially closed in 1828, and its inmates shipped to Sing Sing. There are few
reminders of Newgate in the Village now, except for a tile mosaic of the building in one of the subway
The Village in Song
Greenwich Village was proud of its elite and working class, particulary the
firemen. The following 1850s song, Howard Engine No. 34 is about Engine
Company Number 34, where Bill the Butcher volunteered. It is set to the
See to the burning element
The gallant Howard flies,
While high the wild destroying flames
Are towering to the skies.
Her hardy sons no dangers fear,
As rapidly they go
To quench that all-destroying flame,
And lay its fury low.
CHORUS--Her hardy sons no danger fear,
As rapidly they go
To quench that all-destroying flame,
And lay its fury low.
Success to gallant Howard,
The Greenwich Village pride;
Erect her conscious majesty,
Her sons all by her side.
She proudly takes her noble stand,
To quench that glaring flame,
Propelled by sweet philanthropy,
The glory of her name.
CHORUS--She proudly takes her noble stand,
To quench that glaring flame,
Propelled by sweet philanthropy,
The glory of her name.
The Village Today
By the mid-to-late 19th century, New York City's gridiron street plan had
already been laid out. Greenwich Village was able to save most of its old
roads. It is one of the few areas in Manhattan where you will still find
small, winding cobblestone roads.
When New York City introduced its elevated trains to the Bowery in the late
1860s, the neighborhood declined rapidly. The Village almost suffered the same
fate when their first 'el' opened in 1868, snaking along the Hudson River. Unlike
the Bowery, the Village saw the pedestrian traffic increase. However, some of
the homes along the el path suffered. Many of these homes were eventually torn
down and replaced with factories and warehouses. The houses that did remain, were
subdivided into apartments.
Today, Greenwich Village is one of New York City's most respected and beloved
neighborhoods. It would be nearly impossible to list all the famous and
influential people who have graced the streets of this neighborhood, but
we'll take a quick look at a few of them.
The arch in Washington Square was erected in 1892 to honor the Village's most
famous resident - George Washington. It replaced a temporary structure built in
1889 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Washington's election to the office
of President. Another colonial luminary also resided in the Village: Thomas Paine.
New York City's third oldest church, St. Luke-in-the-Fields, was erected on Hudson
Street in 1822. St. Vincent's Hospital opened along South 7th Avenue in 1894. One
of the city's oldest public clinics, the Northern Dispensary, opened on Waverly in
1827 to provide medical care for the poor.
In 1836, New York University (NYU) was erected on the East side of Washington
Square. It was due to the University's presence that this area became the scene
of literary and cultural birth.
As early as the start of World War I, Greenwich Village was attracting tourists
because of its ethnic diversity and charming quirks. Masked balls and gallery
openings were the highlight of the Village. The 1930s brought
the Greenwich Village Follies - musical variety shows where legends such as
Cole Porter and Martha Graham got their start. Artists Norman Rockwell and John Dos Passos resided here in the 1920s and 1930s.
Greenwich Village was the place to go during Prohibition. Speakeasies were everywhere, with most located along the Minettas. Chumley's, which is still standing, is an amusing example of efforts taken to discourage raiding federal officers. The building is located at the back of alley on Bedford Street with an unmarked door. Once inside, patrons had to go up four steps and then down four steps before they reached the bar area. The reason for the crazy entrance was to slow down the police during a raid just long enough for the patrons to escape.
One of the most charming and unusual buildings in Greenwich Village is located at
75 1/2 Bedford Street. This three-story brick building has the honor of being the
narrowest house in the Village, at a mere 9 1/2 feet in width! Poet Edna St. Vincent
Millay lived here, as did Cary Grant and John Barrymore.
The Beatnik Movement called Greenwich Village home in the 1950s, as coffee houses featuring beat poets and modern-art galleries opened. The Abstractionist Movement brought in Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
In the 1940s, urban renewal changed the face of the South side of Washington Square
as many of the old buildings came down to make way for new housing developments.
Preservationists and historians rushed in to save the rest of Greenwich Village and
were able to have over 2500 buildings in the neighborhood (approximately one-third
of the Village) declared 'historic' - thus saving them from the bulldozer. The
Village's waterfront district is currrently on the list to be saved.
The literary talent that resided in Greenwich Village is absolutely staggering. Walt Whitman, O. Henry, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Theodore Dreiser and Henry James all called the Village home at one time. As did James Fenimore Cooper (145 Bleecker Street) and Washington Irving (who penned "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" while residing at 11 Commerce Street). The 1960s brought a different breed of legend to the area: Dustin Hoffman, Bob Dylan, Mel Brooks, Andy Warhol and Lou Reed.
Greenwich Village has always been synonymous with starving artists, however that's no
longer the case. The rents are far too high. Artists began pushing eastward onto the
Bowery in search of more affordable rents. Today, many of these artists refer to that
section of the Bowery as the East Village.
Greenwich Village continues to be one of New York City's jewels. It is by far, one of
the prettiest, if not the prettiest, neighborhood in Manhattan. It is due to its
charm and impressive history that Greenwich Village remains one of the top destinations of New York City tourists.
Most New York City neighborhoods suffered through some horribly violent times, only to
emerge in the 20th century as respectable neighborhoods. Or in the case of the Bowery, the economic slide would continue well into the 20th century, only for us to see it begin to disappear altogether. While Five Points and the Old Fourth Ward were considered dangerous areas, the length of time these areas were violent was relatively short - maybe twenty years or so - before help was finally sent in. Still, it's difficult for us to imagine our beloved ancestors residing in those areas. And we sit and contemplate how we would handle living there.
But can we imagine our ancestors, or even ourselves, living in a New York City neighborhood who's Irish street gang violence was so extreme that it would reverberate for over 100 years? A neighborhood that even Five Points and Bowery gangs would completely avoid? An area where neighborly disputes were often bloody, sometimes settled with axes? A neighborhood who's main thoroughfare was nicknamed 'Death Avenue'? This is a neighborhood who's name is synonymous with violence.
This area is not for the weak. No, this isn't Hell. Worse. This is Hell's Kitchen.
Everyone's heard of Hell's Kitchen. When we hear the name, we envision
the worst kind of street thugs and the most deplorable violence imaginable.
You're right on target. The name is sometimes used to describe violent,
run-down areas of other cities. But no matter how bad those neighborhoods
are, they just aren't bad enough to have the honor of the nickname Hell's
Kitchen. Only the original New York City neighborhood is entitled to it.
The exact boundaries of the neighborhood today are always open to argument, but
most people agree that Hell's Kitchen is (and was) the area of midtown Manhattan from
the Hudson River to the West over to 8th Avenue on the East. In the 19th century, the South boundary was West 30th Street, and the North boundary was West 59th Street. The mid-point of the neighborhood was West 34th Street.
How in the world did a neighborhood ever obtain a nickname like Hell's Kitchen?
It really isn't known with any certainty, but there are a few different
theories. Here are a few:
The name Hell's Kitchen was used for a broken-down saloon down in
the Old Fourth Ward in the 1850s. It's possible that some gang members from HK
brought the name up to their neighborhood.
Hell's Kitchen was used to refer to a vicious London slum and the term was
brought over in colonial times.
In an 1881 article, a New York Times reporter referred to a notoriously bad
tenement at the corner of 10th Avenue and 39th as 'Hell's Kitchen'. At the time,
the area from 39th and 9th Avenue was the original Hell's Kitchen, but its
boundaries would increase.
Locals referred to a tenement on 54th Street as the original 'Hell's Kitchen'.
But the most common and widely accepted story is that of our local veteran police
patrolman, known only through the ages as Dutch Fred the cop. Fred was patrolling
on 39th Street one day with his new rookie partner. While watching a vicious fight
break out in the street, the rookie said, This place is Hell itself. To which
Fred replied, Hell's a mild climate. This is Hell's Kitchen.
Whatever the origin of the nickname, at one time, Hell's Kitchen was simply breathtaking. The Dutch named the area Bloemendael or Vale of Flowers to describe the flowery green fields, grassy meadows and ambling streams. Bloemendael remained mostly pastural as its neighbor to the south, Grin'wich, was settled as a 'suburb' by those escaping disease in lower Manhattan. The early to mid 1800s would forever change the face of Bloemendael.
The 1840s and 1850s brought a huge influx of immigrants to New York City, most of whom were Famine Irish and German. These skilled workers found the Old Fourth Ward not only too crowded, but beneath them economically. They simply couldn't afford the posh areas of Greenwich Village - such as Washington Square, and the area around Mixed-Ale Alley was filling up quickly with other middle-class immigrants. So they settled in Hell's Kitchen. Many African-Americans had already settled in the area. In the early 1840s, they were the main source of labor on the Croton Aqueduct. As their jobs wound down in HK and new jobs became available in other areas, African-Americans moved elsewhere.
In 1851, the Hudson River Railroad opened in the area and more immigrants flocked to Hell's Kitchen seeking employment. With its great location on the Hudson River, HK provided many job opportunities to blue-collar workers on the docks. As the population expanded, new businesses cropped up: factories, warehouses, breweries and of course, slaughterhouses. There were so many slaughterhouses in the Hell's Kitchen area by the mid-1800s, that the stench permeated the entire neighborhood. Residents began calling the area Abattoir Place. (Abattoir is from the French, abattre or slaughterhouse.)
Economically, the residents of Hell's Kitchen were above their impoverished contemporaries in Five Points and the Old Fourth Ward. They were not quite middle-class, like their brethren in the Mixed-Ale Alley section of Greenwich Village. The people of Hell's Kitchen were the poor and lower working-class.
Following the end of the Civl War, the population of HK rose to over 350,000. Tenements, squeezed in between the factories and slaughterhouses, were erected quickly to accomodate the influx.
They bore ominous names, such as The Barracks (not to be confused with the Mulberry Street Barracks), Misery Row and House of Blazes. They were comparable to the tenements of the Old Fourth Ward and Five Points. The House of Blazes was the most feared tenement in 19th century Hell's Kitchen, located at Tenth Avenue and 39th Street. It acquired its nickname due to the fact that arson was the favorite sport of many of its residents.
Tenement building, formerly a church, circa 1890s
A large population, packed together like sardines, led to short tempers. Violence was a way of life for many of the residents of HK. One section of 39th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, was nicknamed Battle Row due to the number of street fights that took place there. Neighbors fight the world over, but in 19th century Hell's Kitchen, a row with your neighbor could be deadly. The police reported one instance of two neighbors arguing about one's clothesline. When the owner of the clothesline refused to move it, (it was apparently impeding the other's view from the window), she was attacked with an axe. Another police report states that an Officer Houghton was called to a tenement on Ninth Avenue, between 38th and 39th Streets. A female resident was chasing her neighbors with a sword, threatening to cut them into pieces. There was another incident, at a different location, of a dispute that ended with the one neighbor siccing their bull dog on neighbor Jane Reilly, who was viciously mauled.
Domestic violence was also common in Hell's Kitchen. Alcoholism was a big problem, which led to violent altercations not just on the street, but at home. The police were frequently called to a situation where a husband had viciously beaten his wife. But crime against women was also common on the streets.
Not only did neighbor fight neighbor, but gangs fought rival gangs, residents fought the police, whites fought non-whites, the Irish fought African-Americans and Catholics fought Protestants. To live in Hell's Kitchen meant you knew how to handle yourself in a fight.
As the East Village was the chosen home of the city's elite, Hell's Kitchen was the chosen refuge for some of New York City's worst criminal element. Poor families shared their tenements with murderers, rioters, thieves, gangs and rapists. Pickpocketing was one of the most common past-times for the youth of Hell's Kitchen.
Hell's Kitchen, circa 1890s
By 1870, the police estimate that over 17,000 sailors had been robbed on the streets of HK. There were over 7500 grog shops. The area was so notorious, the police would only patrol the neighborhood in pairs or small groups of 3 or more.
Where Crime is Play
The violence that constantly simmered in Hell's Kitchen took the largest toll on the neighborhood's children. The innocence of childhood simply didn't exist here. Children in Hell's Kitchen were arrested at higher rates than their contemporaries in other areas. Were the children of HK anymore violent than other children?
In 1914, John Collier published The City Where Crime is Play, an account on the condition of poor children in New York City. Collier quotes from juvenile delinquency expert Edward M. Barrows, who lived in and reported his findings from the Hell's Kitchen area. Barrows used his own observation, combined with police reports from the 20th precinct (the Hell's Kitchen precinct) and the juvenile courts to come up with some surprising findings, that seem to dispel many of the myths of HK's children:
The facts which follow have been obtained through my personal experience as special investigator for the People's Institute. Before this I worked on various phases of the child play and child crime question as an agent of the National Child Labor Committee, an investigator for the Russell Sage Foundation, and secretary of the West Side Recreation Committee. As a means to investigation I lived for about three years in the Middle West Side of Manhattan, which is popularly called the Hell's Kitchen
District. I was not known as a social worker or investigator, but as a free-lance newspaper man and good fellow generally. The hundreds of adults and children with whom I became intimate in that neighborhood are still without an inkling as to my professional identity.
This method of investigation had no romantic object, but was
based on the fact which I became aware of several years ago,
that the child life of the New York City neighborhoods is a
world apart. The Middle West Side was chosen for investigation both because it stands high among New York districts for its juvenile crime record and because it is a relatively old neighborhood, representing the condition towards which the newer congested neighborhoods are developing. In the Middle West Side the child life is organized-yes, definitely and somewhat elaborately organized-into what amounts to a defensive secret league, with tens of thousands of members. This league is made up of small gang-units, which are sometimes federated for brief periods, which war on each other but are united against the common enemy - against the law and its
agents, who are aliens, and generally against the adult community
as such. This condition means that no investigator who is known
as an investigator can find his facts. Still less can an 'uplifter'
find his facts or do his work if he is known as an 'uplifter.'
Barrows goes on to state that the children of Hell's Kitchen were arrested more frequently than children of other neighborhoods. Using the records from the Juvenile Court, Barrows pulled the following 'crimes' from the records of 193 children from Hell's Kitchen. While some are most definitely crimes, others are simple childhood games:
Attempt at burglary
Playing with water pistol
Destruction of property
Putting out lights
Jumping on cars
Kicking the garbage can
Playing football on the streets
Barrows goes on to state:
It is clear at the very start that the punishment, as far as
law goes, has little relation to the alleged crimes as listed above.
The same section of the penal code punishes baseball and
burglary, and both of these acts are punishable under several
other sections of the penal code. Frequently the arrest brings
out a series of acts, committed in previous days or weeks, which
bear little relation to the direct cause of the arrest. We find cases
of children arrested for playing ball but whose story in court
reveals stealing, assault and burglary. Again, we find a child rearrested under three or four different sections of the penal code
for the same repeated act, be it the kicking of a garbage can or assault and battery. We find in the court records the most indiscriminate blending of arrest and punishment for innocent play
with arrest and punishment for deviltry or perverse crime of a
serious nature. Be it remembered that this is the hand of the law as the child knows it. This is the real organized society - the political state with which he is in contact.
Barrows then used records from the 20th precinct to further illustrate his point:
John C. was arrested for creating a disturbance. This is a nuisance
and, from the standpoint of the adult, a moral offence in a crowded
city. Special inquiry developed that John C. was one of a number of
boys who gathered in front of a tenement home late one
evening and sang in chorus. Incidentally, only one of the
several malefactors was caught. Most of the arrests of
children are for acts committed by groups of children ranging from
two to fifty, and as often as not there is only one boy in the whole
group who is caught.
Charles C. was arrested for violating Penal Code Section 675, relating to disorderly conduct and committing nuisance. His act consisted in throwing a baseball on a public street.
William C., arrested for disorderly conduct, was charged with
playing football on the street. The record showed that he was an
athletic enthusiast, and there was no other football field but the
street. In contrast with this fact, it should be mentioned that the
New York Board of Education maintains an elaborate and costly
organization for encouraging the athletic spirit among boys.
George C. was arrested for throwing stones. The record showed
that George C. had been one of a group engaging in a street fight,
the street fight being a typical form of vigorous play among children
of this district.
Thomas C. was arrested for throwing stones. He had thrown a
stone in revenge and with murderous intent at an unsuspecting
enemy. His motive was wholly different from that of George C., but
they were classified together in law.
Frank P. was arrested for stealing. The record showed that the
boy's own parents had preferred the charge and they gave as a reason that they had no other way to keep him off the streets during
vacation. He was released from the protectory when school opened
in the fall.
William L. was arrested for playing ball. Actually, he had been
holding some bats while the other boys were playing. He remonstrated with the police officer, but the officer told him he could not
get the other fellows and so had to take him.
Harry M., charged with pitching pennies, had been actually playing marbles near by, but the boys who were pitching pennies ran
faster than he.
John M., arrested for burglary, was one of a gang who made organized burglary an avocation - a form of play. This case is typical
John R., arrested for burglary, was one of three who broke into a
notion store and stole two baseballs and some fishing tackle.
The following are the official number of arrests, totalling 170, of children in the Hell's Kitchen area, classified by Barrows himself:
|Moral but Illegal Play
|Throwing various missiles||24|
* disorderly conduct includes shouting and other harmless disturbances.
|Immoral and Illegal Play
|Putting out street lights||2|
|Throwing various missiles||16|
This classification purposely takes no account of 34 arrests for petty gambling, 17 arrests for truancy, and 10 arrests for intoxication, begging, etc.
This is Gang Territory
In the decade following the end of the Civil War, scores of homeless children took to the streets of Hell's Kitchen. Commonly called street urchins or street arabs, these young innocents funnelled their anger and desperation into the neighborhoods most vicious gangs.
The gangs of Hell's Kitchen were in a class by themselves. They were feared not only by the gangs of Five Points and the Bowery, but also by the police. While gangs of other neighborhoods had an uneasy relationship with the police - usually only fighting the police in large numbers or when combined with other gangs - the gangs of HK viewed the police as mosquitos - annoyances that needed to be done away with. They didn't fear the police - the police were beneath them. A group of police officers could march into a saloon in Five Points to question the Dead Rabbits about a particular incident. They would met with cursing, low grumbling and a few who felt the need to mouth-off. But in HK, it was completely different. If a group of police officers marched into a saloon in HK to question the various gang members about a particular incident, they would be summarily beaten and thrown out. This was gang territory, and the gangs made sure the police knew it.
Some of the more famous gangs of Hell's Kitchen were the Potashes, the Gophers, the Hell's Kitchen Gang, the Tenth Avenue Gang and the Hudson Dusters.
The Gophers ruled the largest territory in HK - from Seventh Avenue on the East to Eleventh Avenue on the West, and from 14th Street North to 42nd Street. They acquired their name from the fact that they hung out in saloons that were below street level. So when they came out of the saloons to fight, they looked like gophers emerging from their holes. They were the boldest gang in Hell's Kitchen. They frequently mugged patrolling police officers, taking not just their badges and guns, but their hats and overcoats. The Gophers would then return to their favorite saloons, or hang out on street corners, all decked out as police officers. Many a patrolman in Hell's Kitchen had to report back to the 20th precinct in just his shirt and pants.
The Gophers were vicious, not just to the police and other gangs, but to each other. Gang leaders would fight each other to the death just to prove their bravery, leading to a huge turnover in gang leaders. The Gophers even had their own women's gang - the Lady Gophers, also known as the Battle Row Ladies Social and Athletic Club. Many smaller gangs in Hell's Kitchen pledged their allegiance to the Gophers, including the Parlor Mob, the Gorillas and the Rhodes Gang.
The Hudson Dusters were mostly cocaine addicts who loved to rob the railroad depots. This was the gang that infiltrated Greenwich Village and took over a part of that neighborhood for their own territory. The Village gangs were never on a level with Hell's Kitchen gangs - in all honesty, no one was - so it's no surprise the Dusters could take over the Village as easily as they did. The Village gangs never stood a chance fighting them back. The Dusters were also the gang that savagely beat patrolman Dennis Sullivan just to teach him a lesson.
The Hell's Kitchen Gang was probably the most famous gang to come out of HK, due to its leader, Dutch Heinrichs. The HK Gang made a daily pasttime out of beating up police officers, robbing business owners, burglarizing houses and raiding the New York & Central Railroad depots. The NY & Central officials were at their wit's end over the HK Gang, as the police seemed unable to stop them. Finally, the railroad employed their own special police force to guard the depots. They also passed their time savagely beating HK Gang members. Eventually, the raids stopped.
Hell's Kitchen gangs rarely sided with each other. However there is one incident where the gangs, and police, fought on the same side. In August 1900, some African-American gang members wandered into Hell's Kitchen and killed a police officer. That evening, the HK gangs assembled at the corner of 37th Street and Ninth Avenue to protest. They didn't mind the fact that a police officer had been killed, but they did mind the fact that a non-white, non-HK gang did the deed in their territory. Anyway, the gangs spent the night throwing stones and bricks at passing African-Americans, hurling racial epitaphs the whole time. The African-American gang responsible for the murder was still on the scene, and were greatly offended by what was taking place. They attacked the HK gangs in force. The various HK gangs, who outnumbered the African-American gang, had no problem beating them back. Then the police came on the scene. Incensed at what had happened to one of their own, the police sided with the HK gangs, savagely beating and clubbing the African-Americans. Finally, the brutality was halted and the African-American gang members were arrested. The next day, the HK gangs and the police would go right back to being enemies.
For the children of HK who came from broken homes and already had resentment towards the police, the gangs were a welcome refuge. Unlike the child gang members of other neighborhoods, the child gangs of Hell's Kitchen would receive special consideration.
Noted juvenile delinquency expert Edward M. Barrows also gave his undivided attention to the plight of children in Hell's Kitchen gangs. He detailed one amusement of the neighborhood gangs:
Gang stealing in many parts of New York has come to have
a definite form of organization. A band of boys, from three to six
or seven in number, will go from tenement to tenement on Saturday evenings, taking orders from the housewives for fruits,
vegetables, groceries, light hardware and clothing, just as though
they were delivery clerks. When they think they have a sufficient
number of orders they go out on the street and by a series of
organized raids secure the goods which the housewives have
ordered. These goods are sold on a regularly established scale of
prices, which in most parts of the city is arbitrary, with no relation to the market value of the stolen articles. After the boys
get their money they retire to their "hang-out," where the
money is divided into equal parts and the possessors shoot
"craps" until one of them has it all. This boy divides the winnings into two parts, one of which he spends in treating the other
members of the gang. The other half he is permitted to keep
and spend for himself.
There was no one in 19th century New York City who took a closer look at the city's poor than did writer and noted reformer Jacob Riis. In his November 1894 article, The Making of Thieves in New York, for Century magazine, Riis presents us with the psychology behind the Hell's Kitchen child:
Their manner shows plainly that the street has been their teacher,
and that they have been apt pupils. Its method is simple,
and varies in Hell’s Kitchen only in the opportunities offered. To begin with, the boy idler in the street during school hours is there in defiance of law, whether the fault is his own or not, and he
knows it. He is in the attitude of opposition, the normal attitude of the street. The policeman is his enemy, and the policeman stands for the established order of things. Thus the groundwork is laid for
whatever mischief comes along. It is not long in coming, rarely longer than the dinner-hour of the first day. The boy is
hungry. He wants something to eat. A boy’s hunger is not like a man’s, which can be appeased with promises. He wants something
at once. If he is playing hooky, he does not want to go home to get it. Anyway, there is no need to do so. The street can show him an
easier way. A grocer’s stand is handy, or a piewagon. Better still, a soda-water wagon: the bottle is worth so much cash at the junk-shop.
The driver’s back is turned; the boy “ swipes” one. It is not a very great crime, but it is the stepping-stone to many greater. A horse-
blanket or a copper-bottomed boiler may be the next thing. It is the first step that costs an effort, and that not a very great one, with
the clamor of a hungry stomach to drown the warning voice within him that whispers of the policeman and the lock-up. The friends he
makes in the street soon help him to contempt for the one and a secret pride in the other. Then he is a thief; and if before he
was of the "don’ts,” he now joins the "wont's" and is a truant by choice not by circumstance.
Both Barrows and Riis publicly cried for help for these children. Barrows suggests that the children of Hell's Kitchen needed an outlet for their energy. He went so far as to suggest an athletic compound down by the docks, which would also offer help with school studies. (Similar to youth centers found in inner cities today.) Unfortunately for the children of Hell's Kitchen, his suggestions went unheeded by New York City for too long.
The Brown-Stone Boy
In the February 1885 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine, writer William Henry Bishop introduces us to a Hell's Kitchen youth, nicknamed The Brown-Stone Boy. While this is a fictional short story, Bishop drew heavily on the real conditions and gangs of HK for inspiration. The narrator meets this HK denizen on board a ship returning form Europe. The narrator, fascinated with him, asks about his past:
“I used to belong to the old West 39th Street and Tenth Avenue gang. You never belonged to that gang, did you?” he asked.
As well as I could recollect I had never belonged to that gang.
“You ‘ye heard tell of it, though?”
“Yes, I have heard tell of it.”
I had heard tell of groups of young reprobates, who infested certain streets, made life a burden to the residents therein, and were the sworn enemies of the police. A graduate of one of them,
at the age of nineteen, was lying in the Tombs under sentence of death for murder, perpetrated in connection with a heinous robbery. He had proclaimed himself with pride “a tough,” for this exploit, and seemed to look upon it as a sort of method of winning his spurs.
They waylaid children, notably the well dressed, sent with money to pay bills and the like, dragged them into lumberyards and plundered them. But I had not thought that these were in any degree recruited from the sons of respectable and even wealthy families. I stated this belief to him.
“Oh, family don’t count for nothing with them gangs,” he responded, in a cavalier way. “What they want is the feller that can get up the liveliest racket; it ain’t blue blood.”
It promised to be interesting to hear of the doings and aspirations of such a lawless band from the inside point of view.
“Well, Patsy Bogan’s father was a blacksmith, Jimmy Gunnison’s drove a truck, and ‘Big Ed’ White’s old man kept a saloon. Big Ed has fought a prize-fight since. Billy Bolton’s folks, though, was high-toned, the same as mine, may be more so. Jever hear of
Billy’s racket that got him nipped?”
“No, I don’t recollect hearing of it.”
“His father was a church deacon, bang-up respectable. They lived on
Thirty-Eighth Street, in one of the swellest houses there was. They got Billy a kind of confidential place in a broker’s office down town, after a while, ‘cause he wouldn’t go to school. One afternoon
the broker gave Billy a package of bills, about ten thousand dollars, to put away in the safe. Billy shoved the money in his pocket, right there under the broker’s nose, slammed together the safe, and walked off, and came down the next morning as bold as brass. He was collared for it, though. They proved it on him, and sent him up to the penitentiary for seven years. He isn’t out yet. He didn’t give ‘em back the money, though, and I s’pose he'll have it to spend when he gets out.”
The narrator showed little of any other emotion at his story than amusement.
“Of course we didn’t go in as heavy as that, in my time. That was after he had left the gang. We used to be generally making it lively for small stores on our beat; snatching their fruit, tipping over their barrels, bothering their customers as they passed in and out,
and so on. One day I was standing up beside old Zumpt’s show-case, — Zumpt the shoemaker, you know, — full of boots and shoes, farmy styles and all that. The others bounced me into it, smashing the glass all to flinders. Out comes old Zumpt, a-boomin’. “‘Who done it? who done it?’ he says, wild. “‘ I don’t know,’ I says, playin’ the
meek, innocent dupe; ‘I don’t know who they are.’ He tore up the street after ‘em, and I dodged ‘round the nearest corner.”
“Did the cruelty of destroying the property of a poor, hard-working man like that, and putting him to expense and trouble, ever occur to you?”
“Well, it was pretty rough. I can see it now, looking back. Besides, I got a cut across the thumb, that time, that lasted me a couple of months.”
“There seems to have been no great sentiment against stealing. Would the boys refuse to associate with a companion who they knew had stolen money?” I threw out.
“Well, no, no, they wouldn’t exactly refuse to associate with him,” he said, judicially. “The fact is, they had to get money some way. They weren’t provided very liberally. Their folks, you see, most generally didn’t approve of ‘em. Why, I recollect, myself,” — he
started off with a new gusto, — “havin’ to sell all the hats and umbrellas on the hall-rack, once, to get funds to go and see Mazeppa, at the old Bowery theatre.”
"No doubt I seemed duly impressed with the painful necessity of this measure, for further details were forthcoming.
“There was an old party that went through the street every afternoon, that I used to call Yowlrigs. That was his way of pronouncing ‘Any old rags?’ Sometimes he shouted, ‘Eggs bottled!’ instead, ‘ Rags, bottles!’ See? I called Yowlrigs in, when the old lady was away, and made the trade. Some of the servants saw him going out, and peached on me; but I‘d lit out, myself, before that, you bet. I had it arranged, in them times, so I could sleep in an engine-house, every once in a while.”
“But you had to go back at sometime.”
“Yes; but I could always scare the old lady by staying away long enough; that‘s where I had the inside track. She didn’t ask any questions then. The old lady was pretty fresh. Drinking was
what riled her the most, though.”
“Ah, drinking? The gang went in for that, too?”
“What the gang didn’t go in for wasn’t worth doing. I got as drunk
as a boiled owl when I was fourteen years old. A policeman brought me
home on his back at two o’clock in the morning. It was whiskey that done it; I‘d never took anything but beer before that. One of the kids had borrowed some money from his father’s till that night, and nothing would do but we must all take whiskey, and get tight.
Then there was a circus, and don’t you forget it. I got in the way of it, and have been kind of in the way of it ever since. I had to brace up a good deal on the steamer, for instance; may be you took notice of it? But that‘s all over now. It was for something of that kind,
I believe, that the old lady finally fired me out. No, I don’t know as it was, either. I ‘ye forgotten now just exactly what it was for,” slightly scratching his head, “there was so many rackets.”
“She sent you away, then? She could not stand you any longer? Well, I don’t wonder at it.”
He showed no offense at unfavorable opinions.
“She had to do it, you know, she had to do it. I can’t blame her,” he replied. “She used to come up nights, or early in the morning, to my room, in her wrapper, and say prayers over me. She used to tell what big things my father had done, and how I ought to be worthy of
him, and all that; and sometimes I used to promise I‘d catch on, but it never seemed to amount to anything. So there she was, one morning, — I wish I could think now exactly what it was for, — standing by me like a gray ghost, — waving hands, handkerchief, high tragedy, see? I‘d finally got to go. She asked me how much money I wanted, to take me away where she‘d never hear of me again till she could hear something that wasn’t a disgrace and shame. I was kind of dazed on account of its being so early in the morning and the racket I‘d had over night, and I named a certain sum, when I might just as well
have had twice as much. When I woke up again, there it was on the table beside me. When I went down the steps the old lady was behind the blinds, and I guess she was crying.”
Alas and alas, for the poor old lady!
“I didn’t clear off just then, though,” the scapegrace continued. “Not so fresh. I waited till I‘d spent all that money, and then went back after more. ‘If you really want to get rid of me,’ I said, ‘give me five hundred dollars, and I'll go.’ She planked it down, and I
The frankness of these confessions seemed incredible. Perhaps he saw
that I marveled at it, for he explained at once —
“Oh, I don’t mind telling you some of this stuff, for if you was to go back to New York and inquire about me you‘d hear a dozen times worse. There‘s some advantages in having a bad character, after all? Nobody can do me any hurt. But that‘s all over now. I had a good
mother, see? There‘s no discount on her. That‘s what‘s always brought
me ‘round all right.”
It was difficult to see in what the brown-stone boy was so much better than formerly, since he told of his misdeeds — many more, and more serious ones, too, than here set down — with the utter flippancy described; but one could only hopefully take him at his word. He
had a plausible, ingratiating way with him. He could flatter by an artful air of respect and deference to superior wisdom, and he could amuse, as well, by drolleries. He had the social talents, an easy skill at cards and billiards, a knack at music, and the like, with the aid of which his brief successes were accomplished."
The Draft Riots Come to Hell's Kitchen
While New York City as a whole was shaken by the 1863 Civil War Draft Riot, no neighborhood suffered its effects as badly as did Hell's Kitchen. While fights broke out all over the city, Hell's Kitchen saw three straight days of rioting.
Many union soldiers who deserted while on furlogh in New York City, made their way to Hell's Kitchen. Here they could go relatively unmolested, since the neighborhood was too hot for even the authorities to enter. They seemlessly blended in with the crowd and no one paid them any notice. Or cared.
The first name drawn in the 1863 draft lottery was that of a man who lived in Hell's Kitchen at 46th and Tenth. It wouldn't take much for the anger and violence of HK to bubble over into full-scale rioting over the resentment of the Conscription Act. Residents quickly took to the streets. The railroad depots were ransacked. The train tracks on Eleventh Avenue were torn up. A large group of Hell's Kitchen residents marched down to the Tribune building on day one, in hopes of burning it down. It didn't happen. Police from the 20th precinct were sent down to protect the Seventh Avenue Arsenal.
The first casualty of the riots is believed to have been African-American William Jones, who was dragged from his residence in Hell's Kitchen and savagely mutilated. Three more African-Americans were killed in Hell's Kitchen - all hanged from a lamppost on the first day of rioting.
Barricades were erected along Eighth and Ninth Avenues on the second day of rioting. The police began battling the Hell's Kitchen residents in the afternoon at the first barricade at 37th Street, and didn't stop until the last barricade was taken at 43rd Street - close to midnight. Rioting would continue in Hell's Kitchen until the early morning hours.
Police, soldiers and rioters would clash for hours on Eleventh Avenue, leaving scores of dead on both sides. After the riots, mass burials would take place all along Eleventh Avenue, giving the street the frightening nickname, "Death Avenue." When the 7th Regiment finally arrived in New York City, they were stationed over in the Hell's Kitchen area. It was believed that only they could keep a lid on the escalating violence.
When the riots finally ended, the casualties from Hell's Kitchen were astonishing: four African-Americans dead; 70 Hell's Kitchen residents were missing. Scores of residents were injured, some quite badly. Hell's Kitchen didn't have the property damage that other areas had though. Other than the railroad depots and train tracks, only a few building burned to the ground. One of them was the Bull's Head Tavern on 46th.
The psychological toll on Hell's Kitchen was something different. This neighborhood would carry the scars of the riots far longer than most of the other neighborhoods. This is probably because the cycle of violence that was so indigenous to Hell's Kitchen would continue into the 20th century.
Owney the Killer
While many infamous street gangs began to fade in the 20th century, the gangs of Hell's Kitchen became more powerful and vicious. As New York City was learning to bow to the power of the Cosa Nostra, two Irish gangsters would rise from the streets of Hell's Kitchen to become the most notorious mobsters in New York City history.
Owen Madden was the second born of three children to Irish parents in Leeds England in 1892. The family found life in Leeds difficult and set their sights on America. Mother Mary went first, securing a residence at 352 Tenth Avenue in the heart of Hell's Kitchen, before sending for the rest of the family. According to legend, as Owen's father was placing the three children on board ship for America, he suffered a heart attack and died on the gangplank. Whatever the truth, Mary was now a widow and her children made the trip over alone. Owen, his older brother Marty and younger sister May arrived in New York City on June 12, 1902 on board the Teutonic. Between them, they had .
Owen, called Owney by friends and family, quickly took to the streets of Hell's Kitchen. He idolized the neighborhood's most vicious and powerful gang - the Gophers. He told his mother that he wanted to be a Gopher because gansters didn't have to work for a living. At age 10, he apprenticed himself to them. Owney passed his apprenticeship as a lookout and stealing fruit from vendors. One-Lung Curran, then leader of the Gophers, told Owney that he could become a full-fledged Gopher only if he passed the initiation. He had to attack a police officer and strip the uniform from him. Owney set his sights on a passing patrolman and in short time, had his uniform. At age 11, Owney Madden was a full-fledged Gopher.
From 1903 until 1914, Madden was involved in hundreds of gang fights. When a sweeping police raid netted the leaders of the Gophers and deposited them in jail, Owney took over. He commanded a large territory in Hell's Kitchen, reaching southward into Greenwich Village and Hudson Duster land. He earned his nickname, Owney the Killer, from the sheer joy he got from killing his enemies. In 1914, he was convicted of the murder of Little Patsy Doyle, a former Gopher who was now running around with a small band of thugs. Owney was sentenced to 10-20 years at Sing Sing, but was paroled in 1923.
Once back on the street, Owney went right back to crime. He learned quickly that there was money to be made through Tammany Hall. He mentored under Tammany Boss and Lower East Side gangster Monk Eastman. Eastman taught Owney the ropes of blackmail and graft, and Owney learned well.
During Prohibition, Owney was a famous bootlegger, and quickly became an organized crime giant. He frequently rubbed elbows with Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz and Vito Genovese. Genovese bestowed a new nickname on Owney - the Irish Godfather. Owney befriended heavyweight boxers and owned 5 of them. He helped his childhood friend George Raft get into the movies. For awhile, he was Mae West's lover. He was a popular face on Broadway. Owney was quick to spend his money and earned himself another nickname, Duke of the West Side.
In 1922, Owney purchased a run-down dance hall up in Harlem, Club Deluxe, from former heavyweight champ Jack Johnson. Under Owney's leadership, vision and eye for style, this dive reopened as the Cotton Club - New York City's premiere jazz and blues club. The city's top organized crime members frequented the Cotton Club to catch Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the Nicholas Brothers. They rubbed elbows with the city's elite and jazz babies, out for a night on the town.
When race riots erupted in Harlem in 1935, whites no longer felt safe journeying up to the Cotton Club, then located at Lenox Avenue and West 142nd Street. Owney closed the club on February 16, 1936 only to reopen in September of the same year at a new location on West 48th Street. The Cotton Club would remain here until it closed its doors for good on June 10, 1940.
As a child, Owney Madden had aspired to become one of the most powerful gangsters in New York City. By the late 1920s he achieved his goal. He became one of the founding fathers of the Syndicate, a conglomeration of the heads of New York's most powerful crime families, and as such, attended the infamous 1929 Atlantic City Conference with Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.
When the federal government started to crack down on organized crime in the 1930s, Owney Madden retired to Hot Springs Arkansas. He married Agnes Demby and led a rather quiet life. He is credited with bringing organized crime to Hot Springs, as well as continuing to run booze into New York City. Owen Owney Madden died in Hot Springs in 1964, at age 62.
Owney the Killer Madden was the most respected mob boss in early 20th century New York City. His life was mostly unparralelled. By age 21, he had been arrested 40 times, on counts ranging from assault to robbery to murder. But while he was the most respected mobster, he was not the most feared. There was one Irish-born Hell's Kitchen boy who frightened not only the police, but the Mafia as well.
Mad Dog Coll
Vincent Coll was born in poverty in Donegal Ireland in 1908. His family looked to America as a saving grace, and they arrived in New York City on April 12, 1909 on board the Columbia. Vincent, his parents, brothers Peter, Charles and Thomas and sister Florrie, settled in Hell's Kitchen.
As was the case with Owen Madden, Coll took to the streets of the neighborhood. His nickname was the Mick. He was frequently arrested for various kinds of juvenile delinquency. As a teenager, he would meet the man who would change his life - mobster and beer runner, Dutch Schultz. Coll and his brother Peter became underlings in the Schultz mob. Coll was a cold, calculating gunman and quickly acquired the nicknames, Mad Dog and Mad Mick.
Coll worked as a typical hired gunman for Schultz until his pride got in the way. He approached Schultz and demanded a larger role in the mob and suggested they become full partners. Dutch simply laughed at him. Vincent and Peter left the gang, taking a few of the Dutchman's hired thugs with them. Privately, Schultz was relieved when Coll left. He found him too explosive and unpredictable. There was no telling what he was going to do.
Though their criminal ties were now severed, the two remained on friendly terms until Coll was arrested for violating the Sullivan Law. (He was carrying a concealed weapon.) Vincent was held on ,000 bail, which Schultz magnaminously paid. However, when Vincent's court date rolled around in the spring of 1931, he jumped bail. Schultz was out ten-grand, and the worst mob war in New York City history began.
Dutch set out to teach Vincent a lesson and May 30, 1931, his brother Peter was gunned down on a Harlem street corner. Vincent was floored by his brother's murder, and vowed revenge. He hijacked Dutch's beer trucks enroute to the saloons and declared open season on any member of the Schultz mob.
While Vincent was busy making enemies with Dutch Schultz, he was contacted by mob kingpin Salvatore Maranzano. Maranzano wanted rival mobsters Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese killed, and contracted Vincent to do the job. Vincent collected the money and then is believed to have tipped off Luciano. When Vincent arrived to murder Luciano and Genovese, he found Maranzano dead on the scene. Another version of the story is that Vincent collected payment from Maranzano and then shot him.
By July 1931, his war with Dutch Schultz had taken a financial toll. Vincent was low on cash. With little business acumen, but complete fearlessness, he turned to kidnapping. On July 15, Vincent and a few cronies waltzed into the Club Argonaut and kidnapped Owen Madden insider George Jean DeMange at gunpoint. DeMange was placed in the car and driven to a house in Westchester County. When Madden received the telephone call demanding ransom, he quickly came up with ,000 and had it delivered by midnight. DeMange was released unharmed. But Owney the Killer Madden was already plotting his revenge.
Shortly after DeMange was released, Vincent talked of kidnapping Madden's brother-in-law, Jack Marron. The first kidnapping had gone so well, why not try it again? His men talked him out of it. Instead, Vincent set out to kidnap club entertainer Connie Immerman. A case of mistaken identity led Vincent to kidnap Connie's brother George. Vincent held him for ,000 ransom anyway, which was duly paid.
Kidnapping had now become Vincent's trademark and he was blamed for cases that may never have happened. He was credited with kidnapping entertainer Rudy Vallee. One version of the story states that Vallee bargained his ransom down to ,000. Vincent found it a waste of money and let him go. The other version is that Vincent set fire to the souls of Vallee's feet until he agreed to pay ,000. No one knows if any of this is true since Rudy Vallee claimed he was never kidnapped.
In the midst of a crushing heatwave, Vincent upped the ante on his war with Schultz. On July 28, 1931, Vincent and a few thugs were driving down East 107th Street, looking for Schultz bigwig Joey Rao. They saw him outside the Helmar Social Club and proceeded to draw their guns and shoot. Rao saw the car and ran for cover. Sixty shots rang out. A group of children, innocently playing on the sidewalk, were hit. Five year-old Michael Vengalli was killed. His seven year-old brother was hit five times. A three year-old, who was napping in a stroller, was shot twice in the back. Another five year-old and a fourteen year-old were also wounded.
There was a tremendous public outcry and Vincent went into hiding. He dyed his blonde hair black, and grew a moustache. The police were at a dead-end in their investigation, as they couldn't find any eyewitnesses. They knew that Joey Rao was the target, but didn't know who ordered the hit. Then five days later, an eyewitness came forward and identified Vincent Coll as one of the gunmen. The newspapers dubbed Vincent the Baby Killer.
Dutch Schultz had had enough and walked into the 42nd police precinct in the Bronx with an unusual offer. He approached a group of police officers and offered a house in Westchester to anyone who would gun down Vincent Coll. The police were flabbergasted, and Schultz's offer went unheeded.
On October 4, Vincent Coll was arrested at the Cornish Arms Hotel on 23rd Street. He went to trial that December. The eyewitness to the shooting turned out to be an ex-felon, and the defense tore his credibility to pieces. He was found completely unreliable and committed to Belleview for observation. Vincent Coll was acquitted. Outside the courtroom, he told reporters that any individual who would kill a child was sick. Privately, Vincent had no remorse over Michael Vengalli's death.
Coll celebrated his acquittal by marrying his longtime girlfriend, Lottie Kriesberger. They were both arrested on their honeymoon on conspiracy charges, but later let go.
New York prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey was now leading the charge on organized crime and making all the families uncomfortable. Coll approached the heads of the Syndicate and offered a solution - simply kill him. The Syndicate refused and tried bribing Dewey instead. When Dewey showed that he couldn't be bought, the Syndicate knew they had to stop Vincent from solving this problem on his own. So Owen Madden, Lucky Luciano and a few others put a ,000 price tag on Vincent Coll's head.
On February 8, 1932, Vincent Coll went to the London Chemist drugstore on 23rd Street at 12:30 AM with his bodyguard. He spoke on the telephone with Owen Madden, and Madden kept him on the phone for about ten minutes. During the conversation, a car pulled up outside with three armed mobsters in it. One, carrying a submachine gun, proceeded inside and ordered Coll's bodyguard to leave. Vincent Coll was them gunned down inside the phone booth. It's unknown how many shots were actually fired, but an autopsy revealed 15 bullets had hit Coll's body.
It's never really been proven who killed Vincent Coll, but most people believe it was Dutch Schultz's men who did the actual firing. It is also believed that Owen Madden was behind the set-up. At the time, Madden was living only a short distance away in the London Terrace apartments. Facts are unclear as to whether Coll was directed to wait at the London Chemist for a phone call from Madden, or if he had been directed to telephone Madden. Decades later, Mafia informant Sammy the Bull Gravano would testify that Owen Madden arranged the hit and Dutch Schultz's men did the actual killing.
Vincent Coll was buried alongside his brother Peter in St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx. He was only 24 years old. A mobster with no organized family behind him, Vincent Coll was able to wreck havoc on New York City. When he died, there was no public show of respect from the Syndicate, as there was when Owney Madden died. When Vincent was gunned down, mobsters, police officers, federal officials and the New York City public simply gave a huge sigh of relief.
Hell's Kitchen Today
By the end of the 19th century, Hell's Kitchen was America's capitol of crime and vice. In 1879, an elevated train was erected, blocking out sunlight to already dimly lit tenements. The train connected Hell's Kitchen with more fashionable areas of the city, giving gang members a quick mode of transportation to new destinations where they could wreak havoc.
Other poor, violent sections of New York City would be blessed with change by the dawn of the 20th century. Five Points had ceased to exist as the impoverished, gang neighborhood it once was. It would take another 20-30 years for the Old Fourth Ward to be cleaned up. The Bowery continued on its depressing downward economic slide. Greenwich Village celebrated the new century with gifts to the world in the arts. But Hell's Kitchen was another story.
There were some slight improvements in the neighborhood. What constituted an improvement in Hell's Kitchen? Jacob Riis in 1899:
But on the whole the Kitchen has grown orderly. The gang
rarely beats a policeman nowadays, and it has not killed one in a long while.
The same year, Riis would document how the adults of Hell's Kitchen were desperately trying to clean up their neighborhood. From The Genesis of the Gang:
It is always the women who do those things. They are the law and the gospel to the boy, both in one. It is the mother heart, I suppose, and there is nothing better in all the world. I am reminded of the conversion of 'the Kid' by one who was in a very real sense the mother of a social settlement uptown, in the latitude of Battle Row.
The Kid was driftwood. He had been cast off by a drunken father and mother, and was living on what he could scrape out of ash barrels, and an occasional dime for kindling - wood which he sold from a wheelbarrow, when the gang found and adopted him. My friend adopted the gang in her turn, and civilized it by slow stages. Easter Sunday came, when she was to redeem her promise to take the boys to witness the services in a neighboring church, where the liturgy was especially impressive. It found the bigger part of the gang at her door, — a minority, it was announced, were out stealing potatoes, hence were excusable, — in a state of high indignation.
“The Kid ‘s been cussin’ awful,” explained the leader. The Kid showed in the turbulent distance, red-eyed and raging.
“But why?” asked my friend, in amazement.
“‘Cause he can’t go to church!”
It appeared that the gang had shut him out, with a sense of what was due
to the occasion, because of his rags. Restored to grace, and choking down
reminiscent sobs, the Kid sat through the Easter service, surrounded by the
twenty-seven “proper” members of the gang. Civilization had achieved a vic-
tory, and no doubt my friend remembered it in her prayers with thanksgiving. The manner was of less account. Battle Row has its own ways, even in its
acceptance of means of grace.
Barrows' vision of juvenile centers would finally become a reality in Hell's Kitchen. But it wasn't the success he had imagined. Children would come in off the streets to partake in various sporting activities, and receive some help with their schoolwork. But the lure of Hell's Kitchen's streets was too intense.
Gangs would continue to dominate the neighborhood for much of the 20th century, though they would take on a different form. Gone were the days of vicious thugs accosting innocent passers-by in the street, or the sacking of the railroad depots. While some did, and do remain, the street gangs would gravitate into organized crime mobs. Taking a page from New York's more prominent crime families, the larger Hell's Kitchen mobs would enter the world of racketeering, numbers running, drug trafficking and prostitution.
In December 1938, former Hell's Kitchen resident Sam Goldstein sat down with writer Herman Spector. Spector was documenting historical narratives for the Federal Writer's Project. Goldstein was telling Spector about his friend, Joe Einstein, a Dutch Schultz mobster. He reminesced about an outing with Joe Einstein during the Schultz-Coll war:
One day he persuaded me, against my better instincts, to make the rounds with him. It wasn't busy that day and I had lots of time; I guess that's why I let him take me along. So we hop into his car and we're off. Then I notice that while he's driving, he looks out at both sides, and every once in a while he sort of ducks. When we pass the light at Webster he does the same thing. "What's the matter, Joe?" I ask. "Oh," he says, as if it's nothing, "the crazy mick is out again. He'll bump anyone who belongs to the Schultz mob." That's what they used to call Vincent Coll- "the Crazy Mick" - and this was the time he and the Dutchman were on the outs.
"Say, let me out of here!" I yelled, "I've got things to do!" But Joe insisted everything would be alright and he drives over to a certain place in Eastchester. It's a regular speak there; after he collects the dough that's coming to him he throws down a ten-spot. Give us a couple of drinks, he says - and the change. So we're drinking, and it's pretty good stuff, too, and then the storekeeper opens up with his troubles. He's sick of the feud, and he wants Joe to get the Dutchman to patch things up. "I can't keep refusing to buy from the Mick", he tells him. "He'll bust up my joint. I got a wife and family. I can't afford to take chances."
"You're taking beer from the Dutchman," Joe tells him, "and that's all you gotta know. He's treating you right, ain't he? So don't be foolish." - And he signals to me, and out we walk. I'm shaking in my shoes all the time, understand. If one of those Coll babies came across us, I'd have been cooked.
So when we get outside I turn to Joe: "For chrisssakes, this ain't no joke! It's alright for you maybe, this is your bread and butter, but it doesn't mean a cent to me. I've got a mother to take care of, and she's expecting me home tonight." And I made him take me over to the Morris Park trolley line, and I got into a trolley-car and went home, and believe me, I felt I had escaped from the jaws of death. I don't care how much dough this guy makes, I said to myself, from now on I stick to my own business.
One of the most notable 20th century Hell's Kitchen gangs was and is the 1980s mob, the Westies. This story of this notorious Irish crime family has been detailed in T.J. English's book. A 1990 movie was even made about the Westies and filmed on location in Hell's Kitchen - the largely overlooked State of Grace.
Hollywood was quick to exploit the conditions in the neighborhood. Whenever they needed a locale that dripped of violence, they headed straight for Hell's Kitchen. Paradise Alley was filmed on location, (though the actual Paradise Alley was located elsewhere), as well as West Side Story. The Sharks and the Jets had nothing on the real Hell's Kitchen gangs though. Many of Jimmy Cagney's early gangster films were about kids from Hell's Kitchen. The most famous was 1938's Angels With Dirty Faces about two kids growing up on the streets of HK. Many people associate Cagney with Hell's Kitchen, but this is probably due to his movies, as Cagney was born on the Lower East Side. There were several movies in the 1930s about the neighborhood, including 1939's Hell's Kitchen, starring Ronald Reagan and the Bowery Boys.
Some famous people have paid their dues in Hell's Kitchen. Entertainer Jimmy Durante played piano at the Pizzazz Club for a few years when his career was first getting off the ground. Mae West and Leggs Diamond were both arrested and booked in Hell's Kitchen. Writers O. Henry and Thomas Wolfe lived here briefly. During the 1950s, when the Actor's Studio opened on West 44th, famous actors took up residence here, including Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando. Boxer Jimmy Dundee was born in HK. Probably the most famous 20th century personality to have lived in Hell's Kitchen is the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former Senator from NY. Moynihan wore Hell's Kitchen as a badge of honor. It was the conditions of his neighborhood that drove him to champion the causes of the poor and disaffected, which in turn, caused members of both the Democratic and Republican parties to seek his advice.
The boundaries of Hell's Kitchen today are different from what they were in the 19th century. But again, the exact boundaries are open to argument. Today, most people refer to Hell's Kitchen as the area from Eighth Avenue west to the Hudson River and from 34th Street north to 59th.
In the 1930s, Hell's Kitchen's worst tenements met the wrecking ball. The Eleventh Avenue train tracks, which were torn up during the Draft Riots, were moved elsewhere. The elevated train was dismantled, again letting sunshine reach into Hell's Kitchen. What was once Irish and German domain, is now home to an ethnic mix from Eastern Europe and Central America. Rents are still affordable, but as moneyed professionals continue to flock to the West Side, there is fear of gentrification in this working-class neighborhood.
Hell's Kitchen is no longer the bubbling cauldron of violence that it once was. There are still areas of the neighborhood where you will encounter it, but they are quickly disappearing. After almost 150 years of violence that started with Irish street gangs, the residents of Hell's Kitchen are now reclaiming their neighborhood. Whole blocks are taking part in beautifying their surroundings. Buildings that were once decrepit are being renovated. Vacant lots, once the playground of street thugs and drug addicts, have been turned into little parks.
Newer residents to the area call it Clinton, after former New York State Governor DeWitt Clinton. Long-time residents, whose families have lived there for generations, still proudly refer to it as Hell's Kitchen.
Violence was a way of life for most of New York City's poor and uneducated. They had few, if any, chances to truly live the American dream. To these disaffected New Yorkers, violence was a way to vent their frustration. For others, it was simply a matter of business. Violence existed in every New York City neighborhood, though to varying degrees. But in Hell's Kitchen, violence was almost an art form. For over 100 years, many New Yorkers have been too afraid to venture into Hell's Kitchen. There are still some today who shy away from the area. For them, the memories of violence eminating from the neighborhood are still fresh in their minds. Perhaps reformer Jacob Riis said it best:
There is Hell’s Kitchen, that Murderer’s Row, in the region of West-side slaughterhouses and three-cent whiskey, representatives of a class that breed the typical 'tough' to perfection.
New Yorkers will always know that once there was a Wild West right here in Manhattan. And it was infinitely more dangerous than anything the frontier could offer.