History of American Crime: Getting Organized
Director Martin Scorsese’s 2002 blockbuster film, Gangs of New York, introduced viewers to a bit of history that does not get much space in school textbooks. If organized crime and gangs get any mention at all, it is generally as nothing more than a footnote. Many may believe that American organized crime is a 20th century phenomenon, but its history goes back much farther to the 1800’s and the mass migrations of the world’s destitute and downtrodden to US shores.
Imagine leaving everything and everyone you have ever known with the great probability of never seeing them again to travel thousands of miles across oceans on the chance that you might find a better life. Imagine further, landing in the close quarters of an unfamiliar city where the living conditions are squalid, crime is rampant, the police are corrupt, and you do not speak the local language. Is it any wonder that immigrants formed close communities? They did so for solace and mutual protection. Unfortunately, some of the groups that formed evolved into criminal enterprises that preyed upon their own people, as well as the general public, and enticed their neighbor’s children into lives of crime. Immigrants were not the sole organizers of criminal activity, of course. Prior to the Civil War, native born Americans living in poverty also formed criminal gangs, sometimes for the purpose of combating the growing immigrant tide.
Street gangs, as such, formed primarily in northern and northeastern cities, especially New York. While the earliest of these groups date back to the 1780’s, true gangs organized for criminal purposes did not emerge until the 1820’s, the most infamous being those of lower Manhattan’s West Side, Hell’s Kitchen, Tenderloin, Five Points, and Bowery. Between 1820 and the outbreak of the Civil War, a growing enmity between the poverty stricken born on American soil and those arriving from other parts of the world led to gang against gang street fights, assaults, and out right murder. It was during this period that the notorious Five Points became a seething cauldron of unrest, racial and ethnic hatred, and gang violence.
The most well remembered of the Lower Manhattan gangs are the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits, but they were not the first recorded criminal organization to be the unofficial rulers of specified, claimed “turf” in the city. That honor goes to the Forty Thieves, a mostly Irish gang that got its start in the back room of Rosanna Peer’s makeshift grocery store and bar on Center Street in 1825. They terrorized Lower New York for 25 years and grew so large that they had an ancillary branch called the Forty Little Thieves. The children picked pockets and acted as lookouts for police presence. One thing that set the Forty Thieves apart from earlier gangs is the extent of their organization. Members had to meet quotas of ill-gotten goods or risk expulsion from the gang or worse. Some who failed ran away to join rival gangs; others met with fatal “accidents.” Edward Coleman, the gang’s leader, beat his wife to death in 1838 because she failed to bring in her assigned quota for the day. As the century approached its mid-point, other gangs grew in dominance and the Forty Thieves dissolved, their remaining members melding with former rivals.
The Bowery Boys is the best known of the mid-19th century nativist gangs that also included the True Blue Americans and American Guards. The Bowery Boys set up their headquarters and claimed their turf in the Bowery just north of Five Points. They were virulently anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Irish, so the Irish gangs of the Five Points, the Pug Uglies, Shirttails, and Dead Rabbits, were the sworn enemies of the nativist cohorts. Being a Bowery Boy meant dressing in a specified manner. Early Bowery Boy dress code called for a stovepipe hat and trousers tucked into boots. Later, fashionable extra long black frock coats, checked bell bottom trousers, the traditional top hat, and brightly colored neckerchiefs were the mode of dress marking a Bowery Boy.
A noted activity of the gang was volunteer firefighting. The Dead Rabbits used this against the Bowery Boys by setting fires and then lying in wait in hopes of successfully attacking their rivals. Many nativist gang members held day jobs as carpenters, butchers, and other working class positions, which gave them a financial leg up on the newly arrived immigrants. Their founder, Bill “the Butcher” Poole, worked in the family butcher shop by day and brawled and caroused by night. Later in the century, a few Bowery Boys, like leader Mike Walsh, so infiltrated the political system of the city that they won election to city council and the state legislature. Walsh went on to be elected to Congress in the 1850’s and from that position worked to help improve life in the slums from which he had risen.
The Bowery Boys’ great rival gang, the Dead Rabbits, was founded by Shang Allen, a disgruntled former member of the Roach Guards, another Irish gang. Their headquarters were in the Old Brewery, as depicted in the Scorsese film. At their peak, the Dead Rabbits could call up over 100 members to join in a fight or to use threats against voters to influence elections. Between 1834 and 1844, the two gangs fought over 200 battles, often outmanning the police and state militia. The Bowery Boys believed only native born persons had a right to be in the United States and supported the anti-immigrant Know Nothings and ultimately the Republican Party. The Dead Rabbits were closely aligned to the Democrats and the Tammy Hall political machine that supported causes benefiting immigrants and minorities. John Morrissey, a prominent Dead Rabbit and noted actor, rose in the political ranks to become a state senator and later US Congressman who vigorously represented his Irish Catholic constituents.
The two gangs’ most infamous exploits occurred in 1857 and 1863. On July 4, 1857, groups from the Five Points gangs, including the Dead Rabbits and Pug Uglies, invaded a Bowery Boys’ hangout. Shortly thereafter, a violent brawl broke out that spread from the hangout onto the streets eventually drawing over 1000 members of various gangs into the fray. Over the course of two days, the gangs used paving stones, bricks, axes, basically anything at hand to bludgeon one another and inflict as much damage as possible on the persons of their opponents. In addition to the physical violence, looting and battling police added to the chaos. Law enforcement’s effectiveness was greatly hampered by the internecine conflict between the Municipal and Metropolitan forces. It took federal troops to finally end the mayhem of the Dead Rabbits Riot on the afternoon of July 5. Officially, only eight men were killed, but it is highly likely that the gangs hid their dead and buried them after the fighting was over.
In 1863 with the Civil War raging in its second hellish year, Congress decided that the only way to fill the ranks of Union units was to establish conscription of men ages 20-45. If you were wealthy, you had nothing to fear, other than possible censure for cowardice, because the law had a provision allowing a $300 payment to someone to serve in your place if you were called up. Accessing the terms of the provision, of course, were far beyond the means of most residents of Lower Manhattan. While all workingmen and women felt the law unjust, the Irish were particularly aggrieved feeling that it was written to purposely target them for slaughter. In addition, they believed that free blacks, whom the Irish disliked, were taking work from them, and thus, taking food from the mouths of their children. The combination of the burden on the poor of wartime inflation, long held feelings of persecution, and racial prejudice erupted in rioting when the government attempted to enforce the draft on July 13. Rioters targeted blacks as the scapegoats for all their ills. They torched government buildings and businesses, fought pitched battles with federal troops and police, murdered blacks, attacked the wealthy and Republicans, and razed an orphanage for black children until troops were finally able to regain control of the city on July 17. In all, about 300 were injured, many of them soldiers and police, and 119 were killed. While the Irish gangs and other groups brawled with police and troops, the Bowery Boys took advantage of their rivals’ distraction. The nativists raided the Five Points, fighting with residents, looting and pillaging and generally tearing the place apart.
After the Civil War, the Bowery Boys’ and the Five Points gangs’ hold over Lower Manhattan and the city began to wain. In the 1880’s, Jacob Riis photographed living conditions in the slums of Lower Manhattan, especially in and around the Five Points. In 1890, the publication of his book, How the Other Half Lives, had a dramatic effect on the consciences of citizens and city leaders. The Five Points was torn down, including the Dead Rabbits’ den, the Old Brewery. As the original Bowery Boys, Dead Rabbits, and other 19th century gangs faded into history and their slums were demolished, other immigrants arrived and settled in areas where the conditions were not quite as dire as the Five Points, but were still tenement slums nonetheless. These new waves of immigrants brought with them their own secret societies, which will be the subject of future posts. While the languages, traditions, and cultures of the new arrivals were different from their predecessors, the habits and purposes of their secret societies bore sticking similarities with the historical New York gangs. New York’s tradition of street gangs lived on long after the Bowery Boys and Dead Rabbits ceased to exist.
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.