A Toast to Johnny Camphene

Herbert Asbury is guilty of embellishment in his remarks [Chapter IX, Section 2] concerning a notorious Houston Street dive of the early 1870s. His source was Frank Moss’s 1897 book, The American Metropolis: From Knickerbocker Days to the Present Time, which deals with the subject in two sentences:

A nasty little place was that of Johnny “Camphene” at 19 Houston Street (corner of Mercer Street). He pretended to sell liquor, but when he ran short on several occasions he served camphene, and collected his price for it too — hence his sobriquet.

Asbury’s description was longer and, writing in 1927, he had to remind his readers what camphine/camphene was [Asbury preferred the -ine spelling]:

Johnny Camphine kept one of the most notorious dives in the city at Mercer and Houston streets, and in lieu of whiskey commonly sold colored camphine, or rectified oil of turpentine, which had its legitimate uses as a solvent for varnishes and as fuel for lamps. It has been said that at least a hundred men were driven insane by drinking Johnny Camphine’s beverage, and over a long period an average of two men a night were taken out of the place, howling with delerium tremens.

Was there a real Johnny Camphene, and did he serve deadly libations? So far, only one bit of documentation has surfaced: an October 31, 1872 item from the Boston Herald describing a bar brawl involving featherweight bare-knuckle champion George Seddons:

The site of Tommy Larkin’s dive–the corner of Houston and Mercer Streets, matches the location mentioned by Frank Moss. Nothing is known about Larkin (a very common name in Lower Manhattan at the time) other than what appears above. There are no reports that Larkin served his customers toxic drinks. Note that his nickname was simply “Camphene,” without “Johnny.”

Crazy Butch, the Darby Kid, and Harry the Soldier

The anecdotes that Herbert Asbury relates in The Gangs of New York [Chapter XI, Section 3] concerning gangster Crazy Butch and his fatal downfall were lifted from one source, Apaches of New York, written by Alfred Henry Lewis and published in 1912. Lewis devoted one chapter to the saga of Crazy Butch–too long to quote in full here, but in the public domain at the Internet Archive.

Lewis is the sole source for the stories about Crazy Butch, though newspaper items about his court travails and the bare facts about his death were published. Alfred Henry Lewis often only identified gangsters by their nicknames, but at some point Crazy Butch was later identified as Simon Erenstoft, who had emigrated from Austria as a boy. In Lewis’s story, Crazy Butch was neglected by his parents; and other sources have said that he was abandoned in New York at age 8. However, the passenger list of the ship Rhaetia arrived in New York City on December 10, 1889, bearing Simon, 7; his brother Mordecai, 6; and older sister Beile, 18. The parents are not mentioned–the children arrived alone.

Simon, as a teen, came under the influence of the Monk Eastman gang, the predominantly Jewish youth gang that ruled the Lower East Side from the late 1890s through to the 1910s. His teen years aren’t documented, but in the 1900 Federal Census, Erenstoft was an inmate at the city reformatory, the New York House of Refuge on Randall’s Island. He was later sent to Blackwell’s Island city penitentiary in 1902; and again in 1904. His 1904 conviction made national headlines, since he was accused of training pre-teen pickpockets. An eleven-year old testified against Erenstoft, and demonstrated his skill by stealing the District Attorney’s wallet undetected.

Erenstoft’s multiple trips to Blackwell’s Island is counter to the narrative that he did several years at Sing Sing, the State prison. There is no evidence that this was true. According to that narrative, Erenstoft turned Fagin after leaving Sing Sing; but it’s pretty obvious he was involved in the pickpocket business before 1904.

Lewis’s tale covers Crazy Butch’s downfall, after stealing the girlfriend (i.e. the Darby Kid–real name unknown) from an Italian Five Pointer gang lieutenant, known only as Harry the Soldier. It’s a plausible story, matching some (but not all) aspects of the news reports of his killing:

Lewis’s version claims that the assassination was made possible by Harry and Five Pointers taking out the lookouts that were protecting the poolroom. However, a mention in a newspaper a year later may offer a new perspective on the murder of Crazy Butch. The May 18, 1908 edition of the New York Sun reported in an item about Kid Twist, i.e. Max Zweifach, another Monk Eastman lieutenant: “He was accused in connection with the death of Dick Fitzgerald in a saloon row several years ago and was thought to have a hand in the killing of Crazy Butch, a member of the gang.”

Was Crazy Butch’s murder the work of the Five Pointers; or a power struggle within the Monk Eastman gang (Eastman was in prison between 1904 and 1909)? Or did Kid Twist assist Harry the Soldier by neutralizing the lookouts?

John D. Grady and the Thieves' Exchange

Much needs to be sorted out in Herbert Asbury’s statements concerning a “Thieves’ Exchange” and his sketch of jewelry peddler John D. Grady. Both of these items appear in Chapter X, Section 2 of The Gangs of New York. The alleged “Thieves’ Exchange” was located in the Eighth ward, near the intersection of Broadway and Houston Street. Asbury’s source for this information was James Dabney’s McCabe’s Secrets of the Great City, published in 1868. McCabe, more so than Asbury, makes it clear that this was a specific building (Asbury implies it is a saloon), that had the warehouse of a the proprietor–a fence–attached. As is the case with many of McCabe’s “secrets,” no other newspapers or books can be found that reference such a place.

McCabe might be given the benefit of the doubt, in that there might have been a fencing operation that also served as a gathering spot. There were many saloons in that area where criminals drank and exchanged information , and doubtless there were also fencing operations nearby as a convenience. A half block from Broadway along Houston Street was Harry Hill’s dance hall, of which the San Francisco Chronicle (Jan 23 1877) claimed “in the daytime it is a thieves’ exchange; in the evening a low variety theater.” However, Harry Hill was many things, but no one accused him of being a fence; and, in fact, Harry discouraged criminal acts within his resort.

It should be noted that London, England, had an area of city streets known as the Thieves’ Exchange–this was mentioned many times in American newspapers of the 1860s and 1870s, but not a similarly named part of New York. Also, American city newspapers of the late nineteenth century began printing classified “Lost and Found” sections where thieves would attempt to ransom stolen goods of sentimental value back to their owners, for a finder’s fee greater than that a fence offered. These came to be known as “Thieves’ Exchanges.” However, there is no evidence outside McCabe suggesting a New York city locale popularly known as the “Thieves’ Exchange” existed.

Similarly, John D. Grady was never known by the nickname “Traveling Mike,” although this has been republished countless times thanks to Asbury. However, Grady did have a more interesting nickname: “Old Supers and Slangs.” This was a thieves’ slang term for “watches and chains.” Watches and watch chains were among the main wares that he peddled. Grady was also known as “the Burglars’ Banker.” Asbury states that Grady had no regular establishment, but for many years he did have an office at the corner of Broadway and Bleeker Street–one long block north of Broadway and Houston. He later moved to Sixth Street.

As Asbury states, John D. Grady did often wander the streets in his overcoat stuffed with valuables, and a valise full of jewelry. He was born in Ireland around 1828, and started life in New York as a painter. However, he soon realized he could make money by issuing loans to elite criminals and disposing of the valuables they brought him. Grady died of pneumonia in 1880, but left a legacy of underworld familiarity rivaling fellow fence Marm Mandelbaum. His New York Times obituary dropped the names of nearly every major thief of the era:

It should be noted that no contemporary sources–such as the obituary above–link Grady to the 1866 Lord Bond robbery, as Asbury does at some length. The perpetrators of the Lord Bond robbery have never been fully identified, but the consensus is that it was pulled off with more than a little dumb luck by lesser-known criminals. Grady’s first mention in newspapers–as a jewelry peddler–dates to 1868, two years after the Lord Bond robbery. Asbury was likely wrong about Grady’s involvement.

The King of the Newsboys

One of the engaging qualities of Asbury’s The Gangs of New York is his talent for name-dropping and inserting asides that hint at long, entertaining digressions that the reader can only imagine. This is certainly the case in his “The Killing of Bill the Butcher” chapter [Chapter V, Section 2] when he mentions the presence of “Mark Maguire, King of the Newsboys”, in the Stanwix Hall bar the evening of Bill Poole’s murder. Maguire was in the bar with his friend, the pugilist John Morrissey, when Poole and Morrissey had their confrontation. Who could read this and not want to know more about a “King of the Newsboys”? But Asbury never elaborates.

Born at sea in 1814 on the way New York, Maguire began life in the city as a newsboy. His hard work was rewarded, and he soon set himself up as a broker, recruiting newsboys who could not afford to buy their own newspapers (as was the practice, before newspapers managed their own newsboys). By his own count, Maguire at one point controlled an army of 500 paper hawkers, earning him the title “King of the Newsboys” in the late 1830s and 1840s. Many of the young men he gave a start in life later became members of the city’s establishment: actors, policemen, politicians, judges, etc. By 1850, Maguire converted his earnings into ownership of a tavern/hotel and trotting horses. He became a fixture of New York City’s sporting community; and a supporter and backer of the two predominate sports: pugilism and horse racing.

In the 1850s and 1860s, Maguire operated a series of roadhouses in Harlem, but always sought more space to host sporting events. He also became a sports editor for the New York Sun, and contributed articles to other sporting periodicals. His last resort was known as the Red House, located at 106th Street and 2nd Avenue, and supported at half-mile racing track which also served as a baseball field (in the earliest years of organized baseball). Commodore Vanderbilt was said to be a frequent visitor.

A sense of how much of a popular landmark the Red House became can be found in this March 3, 1866 column that appeared in Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times weekly:

…I went to see Mark Maguire at the Red House, on Second avenue. This same Red House, friend Wilkes, is not only one of the finest spots on the Island, but is as chuck full of trotting reminiscences as an egg is supposed to be of meat before there is a chicken inside of the covering called the shell. I have been a participant of some of the jolliest scenes that were ever rollicked through on the stage of life, or the road either, on that same spot.

I have witnessed on that “sacred soil” rattling trots every way rigged, intermixed with pigeon-shooting, target-firing, foot-racing, foot-ball, base-ball, cricket–but not Maggie Mitchell, though–quoits, military drills, chicken disputes, dog wrangling, bear-baiting, man encounters, with hands up, wrestling, dice chucking for horse-flesh, wagons, sleighs, harness, bells, blankets, fishing-tackle, and even big bass were raffled for, that had been caught about the Pot-rocks, and Hogsback in Hell Gate, when rattling little Benny Garno kept his famous stopping place where Ike Vermilyes lives now, on Third avenue. I say the dips were chucked for big bass by the odd fish of the day, including other scaly articles who can be found in every community, Christian or pagan, since the art of hunting was discovered, and maybe before the first eruption of Mount Vesuvius occurred. I tell you, writers and riders of the present day, it was an established institution, was the Red House, for frolic, fun, and all practical matters of the fine arts–even weaving a match on eating, or who could stow away the greatest amount of grub, by those who prided on gluttony then, as some pride themselves now on rampant political villainy, to break down the most simple and beautiful form of government that was ever brought into existence since God formed the world for us to battle in.

Mark Maguire attended every major boxing match into the 1870s, but in his latter years was pitied for his failing eyesight; others noted that he had to have fights described to him blow by blow, since he could attend but not see. He lost his roadhouses, and died in modest circumstances in 1889, all but forgotten.

Reed Waddell and the Origins of the Gold Brick Game

Herbert Asbury, in The Gangs of New York, credits Reed C. Waddell (Abt. 1861-1895) with the invention of a notorious confidence-artist scam, the Gold Brick game[Chapter IX, Section 3]. There were many variations to this con, but the two major versions followed a routine script: 1) Travelers strike up a conversation, and one of them discovers he urgently needs cash, but has only a gold bullion brick on his person. He asks his new friend for a modest loan–a fraction of the value of a gold brick–and lets the new friend hold the brick as collateral while he takes the loan of cash to settle his dispute. He disappears and the gold brick holder discovers the brick is plated-lead. 2) The con-man latches onto a stranger and relates a story in which he, though no fault of his own, came into possession of a stolen gold brick. Because it is stolen, he is willing to sell it as a fraction of its value [why couldn’t it be melted down?]. To test its authenticity, they take the brick to [an impostor assayer, a confederate of the con-man; or a real assayer, and present him with a select plug from the brick, which is the one spot on the brick planted with genuine gold.] Thus assured, the dupe buys the brick–and once he realizes it is fake, is too embarrassed to report it to authorities.

Counterfeit precious metals, of course, date to antiquity, so employing them to dupe others was hardly new to late-nineteenth-century America. The notable features that distinguish the Gold Brick game involve traveling to a new location, spotting a well-heeled mark, engaging them with a backstory and gaining their conspiratorial trust, and disappearing as soon as the sting has been made. The scam was made possible by the railroads and steamers of the expanding nation.

Reed Waddell may have been in the first generation of confidence-men to employ the Gold Brick game, but he worked off and on with four other older, more experienced men who also worked the same scam: William Emery “Bill” Train (1849-1890), John “Red” Leary (1840-1888), Van Buren Triplett (1840-1901), and Tom O’Brien (1853-1904). Any one of them was variously hailed as the originator of the Gold Brick game, but Waddell–as a well-known, high-roller gambler–received the lion’s share of media attention. Though mutual friends, Bill Train killed Red Leary during an argument in a bar; and Reed Waddell was killed in France by his old friend, Tom O’Brien, who wanted a loan. For that crime, O’Brien was sent to the penal colony on Devil’s Island and died there.

Robert Pinkerton, son of Allen Pinkerton, was reluctant to credit any of the con-men mentioned above with the invention of the Gold Brick game. In the May 28, 1901 edition of the Los Angeles Herald, he was quoted:

The gold brick business is an American institution, but its earliest promoters were Spaniards and Italians. About forty years ago the game was played with gold dust or gold filings. Among the pioneers were Emil Rodriguez and Adolph Superbella. Their game was to find some man who had a few thousand dollars, and then tell him about their having a bag full of gold filings or gold dust which had been stolen. They must get rid of the property, and would be willing to sell it at a great sacrifice. After getting him Interested they would take the intended victim to an assay office, which was a bogus concern, and then they would receive the assurance that the yellow metal was all that was claimed for it, and the man who gave this Information would usually make the owner a liberal offer for his plunder.


The bag, securely sealed, was then sold to the victim, who received strict instructions to say nothing about his purchase for a little while, until the loss of the gold was less fresh in the minds of the people. In order to be perfectly secure some of the victims packed up and went abroad, and only when they were ready to enjoy their new wealth they discovered that the treasure bag contained base metal and not gold. I arrested these men in Cincinnati more than thirty-five year ago, and they were tried in Chicago and convicted.


The gold brick from the mining districts followed the gold dust scheme, and gold bricks have found ready purchasers ever since, up to the present time. I think that $1,000,000 is realized every year by the gold brick merchants. They don’ t write to a man and don’t try to induce him to come to them—not they. They ‘go on the road’ to sell the stuff, like any other man who has something to sell, and their victims are usually the men who are known to be close and stingy, and from whom it is difficult to get a cent at any time. Only a short time ago a man with all the outward characteristics of a western miner, introduced himself to a farmer to whom he pretended to have been sent by a mutual friend, and confided to him that he could put him in the way of making a fortune. The westerner wanted a partner in his mining business. He was on his way to New York to secure one, but if he could find a man nearer home so much the better. By the way, he had at his hotel a sample of the gold taken from the mine. The farmer saw it and expressed a desire to possess it. The miner needed it to show in New York, but a piece of it would do just as well, and his new friend might have the rest at one-half its real value. The clerk of the hotel was asked if there was a metal expert in town, and to the joy of the farmer it was learned that a man who was on his way to one of the largest mines in the country, where he was employed as an expert on gold, had registered there a few days ago. The man was found, and for a consideration was induced to test the big chunk of bullion and declared it gold of the finest quality. Well, the sale was made, and you know the rest. The sham assayer and the confidence man left the town and worked the same game on some other easy farmer.

“Emil Rodriguez” and “Adolph Superbella” may exist somewhere in the Pinkerton archives, but they can not be found in any published documents. Still, Robert Pinkerton is correct in that the newspapers of the late 1860s and early 1870s abound with stories of bogus gold dust being used to deceive. In 1866, two swindlers giving the names of H. Welton and Richard Bishop were caught trying to sell fake gold bullion to banks and brokers in Ohio. A year later, a gang of Mexican criminals came to the United States with a story that they brought with them gold taken by the recently exiled government of Mexico, which they wanted converted to cash in order to fund the fight to retake the country. It turned out to be a fake alloy. However, these examples, although involving bogus gold, fall short of the classic con of the Gold Brick game that targeted specific individuals.

The first published mention of what can be identified as the classic Gold Brick game dates to 1879, where it was conducted in Chicago and Kansas City by men known only as “Walker” and “Thomas A. Lewis.” It is likely that these were aliases of one or two of the men mentioned above. Articles that credit Waddell with inventing the scam say that he brought it to New York in 1880. He would have been 19 years old at that point, which argues in favor of one of the older men mentioned above (Train, Leary, Triplett, or O’Brien) as the real originator of the con.

Yakey Yakes Disrespected

“…the Fourteenth Street gang, under the leadership of Al Rooney, successfully maintained its hegemony for several years, as did the Yakey Yakes, the Lollie Meyers and the Red Onions. The Yakey Yakes operated around Brooklyn Bridge under the leadership of Yakey Yake Brady. They finally left the field when Yakey Yake died of tuberculosis.” –Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York, Chapter XII, Section 4.

The above lines represent the entirety of Asbury’s remarks about the Yakey Yakes, one of the ferocious New York City gangs of the early years of the Twentieth century. The Yakey Yakes ruled the Cherry Hill section of the Fourth Ward, the area between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge on the East River waterfront. They were held together by the charisma of their leader, John “Yakey Yake” Brady, who was given his gang name from the attempts of a German bartender to render his nickname, Jack.

Brady was an unusual and interesting gangster. Less than five feet tall, he had once trained as a jockey. Unlike his followers, his preferred weapons were not revolvers, but fists and knives. He was not only gainfully employed, but a successful tradesman: he was a cooper, and also owned a combination candy store/pool room that was the headquarters of his gang. He split off from other neighboring gangs, it was rumored, because he didn’t condone the girlfriends of his neighborhood gang members being pimped out (and, in fact, the female auxiliary of the Yakey Yakes earned their own way mugging sailors).

Asbury missed out on recounting the 1902-1903 battle among the Monk Eastmans, the Five Pointers, and the Yakey Yakes. In the newspaper morgue of the New York Sun, Asbury could have found the following classic example of crime reporting from its March 15, 1903 edition. [The unknown author might have been Alfred Henry Lewis.] The article is titled, “A Wild West Feud in New York,” and within the space of two newspaper columns outlines a script of a great gangster saga:

The Monk Eastman-Five Points feud, of which the Monk Eastman-Yakie-Yake feud is an outcropping, is a slimy bit of city history. There isn’t anything in it to recall the husky fighting days of the old-fashioned New York gangs. Consider for a moment Monk Eastman, the leader of the upper East Side gang. Eastman got his name from the expression of pleasant human intelligence which does not adorn his countenance. He is reverenced by the idle youth of Allen street, Division street, and East Broadway. He earns their affection by managing East Side balls, with great profit to himself and great opportunities for the campaigns of that unsavory organization, the subdued, but not disorganized, Allen Street Cadets.

In the dives of that part of the city where the Monk Eastman gang is strong, innocent strangers are frequently lured into pool games at 2 1/2 cents a cue. If the stranger is willing to drink, he usually wakes up the next morning in a tenement hallway with his pockets turned inside out and no money left. If he will not drink, a fight is started over the game and he is clouted over the head and his clothing is ransacked in the confusion. The police have never had the slightest evidence that Monk Eastman himself has ever indulged in any of these reprehensible affairs. But many young men who have been accused of such crimes and have been arrested for them have been proud to describe themselves as members of “the “Eastmans” and have threatened the gang’s vengeance against all who helped to press a charge against them.

One day last September the Monk Eastmans gave a racket at New Irving Hall. to this ball came Tung Tung Bertini of the Five Points Social Club in White street, and no small company of retainers. Their very presence was an act of hostility. For in the matter of the murder of one of the Yakie Yakes in a resort with a foul nickname in East Broadway and Catherine streets many months ago, the Five Pointers had made common cause with the murdered man’s friends. The man was murdered, by the way, for having turned State’s evidence in a pocket picking case in which he had been arrested with a member of the Monk Eastmans. That feud was followed by three deaths. But they were deaths that were met in battle. The feud was carried on for some months as a family matter.

Nevertheless the Five Pointers had in the opinion of the Monk Eastmans “butted in.” The appearance of the Italians at the ball was distinctly a storm signal. Tung tung immediately laid siege to the affections of the sweetheart of one of Monk Eastman’s most respected henchmen. The young woman before the ball was half over transferred her allegiance to him, and gave token thereof by dancing with him a turning a glazed eye on “Becky’s Ike,” the henchman. Now this was more than an injury of the heart. Ike’s fine raiment, and indeed his means of subsistence, depended on the young woman’s loyalty to him. He lived on her earnings.

He drew a revolver and fired at Tung Tung. The Italians drew stilettos. The hall was full of smoke and screams in a minute. The private policemen and the special policemen who had been providentially sent to watch the ball by the captain of the precinct rushed in, and the combatants rushed out. The police, as is their wise custom on such occasions, made more of a point of giving everyone present a good drubbing than of making any arrests. If there were any actual casualties, the police records do not show it.

Two days later, the Monk Eastmans, declaring that the insult of “the breaking up of the racket” was one to be wiped out in blood, went down to the Chatham Club, in Chinatown. There they found Mike Bove, one of Tung Tung’s lieutenants. They beat him into unconsciousness and retreated to their own headquarters before the Five Pointers could gather. Bove, whose father was a well-known Italian banker, died of his injuries. Tung Tung sent word that they didn’t dare to come back. The Eastmans answered this challenge by invading the Five Points district on the night of Sept. 29.

There was a running fight in White street, Center street, Franklin street, and Broadway for two hours, despite the best efforts of forty policemen from three precincts to stop it. Hundreds of revolver shots were fired. In the morning, five or six revolvers were picked up, and twenty or more long iron T-bars, such as builders use. Many of them were stained with blood. But there were no wounded found by police. The next night Isadore Foster of the Monk Eastmans was chased through Clinton street by a crowd of Italians and was beaten to death. Three nights later the Tung tung forces went to Smith’s poolroom, in Suffolk street, the headquarters of the Eastmans, and started to wreck the place.

The police interrupted. But Samuel Levinson of 93 Monroe street was killed. Al Fryer was disabled for life. These crimes could not be brought home to anybody, though numbers of both gangs were sent to the workhouse for six months for disorderly conduct and the carrying of concealed weapons. The police interfered so much with the personal liberty of gatherings of the Five pointers and the Monk Eastmans for a while after this that they veered over into the oak street precinct, where both sides were more or less affiliated with the Yakie Yakes.

The Yakie Yakes took their name from one Yake Yake Brady, who keeps a most inoffensive looking candy store at 112 Roosevelt street, right around the corner from Cherry street, with a two-and-a-half-cent poolroom attached. With this place as a storm center the fighting was renewed. Two men were taken to the hospital with pistol shot wounds. Both refused to tell who shot them.

Then it was that Big Tom Foley, the boss of the Second Assembly district, was besought by the law-abiding citizens of Cherry Hill to step in and stop the trouble. He brought Eastman and Tung Tung and Yake Yake together and told them to be good. There was peace for almost two months. But within a month, as newspaper readers know, there has started another reign of terror on Cherry Hill. one afternoon in broad daylight, for instance, a man was shot in Yake Yake Brady’s. He said in a moment of carelessness that Yake Yake himself had shot him.

A policeman went after Brady, and Brady snapped a revolver at him twice. Magistrate Breen, who didn’t know Yake Yake as well as he should benevolently discharged him. Then the night fights began. Another mysteriously shot man was taken to Gouveneur Hospital within ten days. Almost every night, on the slope of Cherry street, in Roosevelt street, under the bridge, revolver shots have echoed by twos and threes and by hundreds.

It is told among the members of the gangs that eight or ten men have been hit and have been carried away by their friends. The police are skeptical. They say that the gangs are worse shots than the Spanish navy. They invariably stand up to one another if numbers are anywhere nearly equal and shoot at arm’s length. But they shoot low, and as may be inferred, with habitual inaccuracy.

It is likely that peace has come again to Cherry Hill. Certainly there are few of the Yakie Yakes left to carry on the war. On two different afternoons last week, Rounderman Mulhall took a squad of police to Yake Yake Brady’s and arrested everybody in the place on the broad ground of disorderly conduct. Magistrate Barlow, who is in sympathy with the movement, sent thirteen of the prisoners to Blackwell’s Island for a month. Jim Cassidy, a famous Yakie Yake, was tried for highway robbery in Special Sessions on Friday. Policeman Fallon had caught him in the act of robbing a drunken sailor and had taken two large revolvers from him after arresting him.

The police harassment of Yakey Yake Brady continued throughout 1903. He was finally forced to shutter his Roosevelt Street candy store and took over a cooperage in Jersey City, New Jersey. A year later he died of tuberculosis.

Goat Hinch at the Yeggmen's Dump

Asbury’s “The Wars of the Tongs” chapter of Gangs of New York is where he delves into the subject of Bowery bums, the professional panhandlers and vagrants who eked a living as able-bodied beggars faking disabilities. Asbury followed the lead of other reporting published during the 1895-1915 era in lumping this class together with “yeggmen,” i.e. unsophisticated crooks who roamed the eastern United States breaking into banks and blowing safes with nitroglycerin. More than once the yeggmen succeeded only in blowing themselves up, which caused the Pinkerton brothers, William and Robert, to shake their heads and nostalgically recall the days when bank thieves were cunning mechanics and patient, clever planners. It does appear to be true that the Bowery bums and yeggmen, if not always one and the same, shared a preference for a select group of lower Manhattan dives.

In Chapter XIV, Section 4, Asbury mentions a specific saloon:

The Dump at No. 9 Bowery, run by Jimmy Lee and Slim Reynolds, was a favorite resort of the panhandlers for many years, and it there that many of their schemes were hatched. Goat Hinch and Whitey Sullivan, who eventually expiated their crimes in the electric chair, were among the noted patrons of the Dump; the former is said to have originated the practice of swallowing a concoction which would make him temporarily ill and so arouse the sympathies of people in the street. Sometimes the Goat chewed a cake of evil-smelling soap, producing fearful symptoms which invariably brought a shower of nickels and dimes. In common with other dives, the Dump provided sleeping quarters, but Reynolds and Lee were more ingenious in their arrangements. They screwed short iron stanchions into the floor about seven feet from the rear wall, and into the wall affixed an iron framework. From the latter to the stanchions was a net of coarse rope, and when a bum passed out from dope or the effects of whiskey and camphor, he was simply tossed into the net to sleep it off.

The saloon at No. 9 Bowery, nicknamed the “Dump,” or the “Morgue,” was indeed a well-known resort for panhandlers and yeggmen. In the mid-1890s, it was operated by Richard Fitzpatrick; followed by Peg Leg Flynn. By the early 1900s, it was owned by Tom (not Jimmy) Lee, the unofficial “Mayor of Chinatown” and head of the On Leong tong.

There’s no documentation outside of Asbury that Goat Hinch (William O’Connor) and James P. “Whitey” Sullivan frequented the dive at No. 9, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest it. The two were part of a gang of six men (led by Hinch) that went to Cobleskill, New York in November of 1900 to rob a bank. During the robbery, a night watchman was shot and killed. For this crime, Sullivan was executed in 1902, followed by Hinch in 1903.

Hinch/O’Connor originally came from Chicago. He had been sent to the Illinois Reformatory in 1888 for two years, and was quickly in trouble again and sent to Joliet for one year in June, 1890. After a brief stint of freedom, he was sent back to Joliet in 1892. By 1895 he had reached the New York area, where he was caught during a burglary in Jersey City, New Jersey. That crime earned him three years at the State Prison in Trenton.

On May 29, 1899, Goat Hinch was celebrating his prison release at Mary Ellen’s saloon at 15 E. Broadway (in Chinatown, just two short blocks from No. 9 Bowery). He didn’t like the style of their black piano player, Fred Chester, and stabbed him to death. However, he wasn’t immediately apprehended for this crime. He was arrested in Dobbs Ferry, New York in January 1901 carrying burglars tools, but only charged with vagrancy. While serving a month for that charge, police identified him as one of the Cobleskill bank robbers.

There is no information outside Asbury that Hinch/O’Connor was a panhandler who made himself sick with soap. The source for this story was likely a September 30, 1922 New York Morning Telegraph article about old panhandlers:

Diamond Dan’s [O’Rourke] backroom was known as a sort of panhandler’s Rotary Club. Tom Lee’s place at number 9 Bowery, not far away, was another headquarters, and Lee spoiled the whole thing by importing several hundred workers from Hinky Dink’s, in Chicago, at his own expense, to work New York. He brought on fit throwers, double-jointers, sore-arm workers, cry-babies, gimps, paralytics, and crutch-walkers…There was a fellow named Papa Johnny in Lee’s crowd that invented the soap trick for making his eyes red around the lids. Just a little soap would do it and the inflammation would last all day and tears would run down his face. He used to say his wife and baby were lying dead out West somewhere and he’d flash a telegram to prove it, telling how his other little girl was all alone with no money. Gee, how Papa mopped up!

The etymology of the words “yegg” and “yeggman” aren’t known with certainty, but the most commonly cited origin is that it came from an old safecracker, John Yegg. This is cited so often that “John Yegg” took on a life of its own, and even criminals started to believe it. The only problem is that there is no evidence that John Yegg ever existed.

Instead, a November 26th, 1895 New York Sun article offers a different explanation in one of the first appearances of the word:

Acting Capt. O’Brien, chief of the Detective Bureau, said today that all of the men arrested in the Orchard street house were members of the Panhandle gang. They hang out at 9 Bowery and along Market street. The call themselves not panhandlers, but Yegdows, or Yegs for short.

Is “Yegdows” the bastardization of a Chinese word?

Queen Liz, Shoplifter

Generations of readers have been captivated by Herbert Asbury’s descriptions of the violent street gangs of New York, culminating with formation of crime families and syndicates during Prohibition. However, he also devotes a few pages to the network of burglars and shoplifters maintained by the foremost fence operator of the 1860s-1880s, Marm Mandelbaum. In Chapter X, Section 2 of Gangs of New York, he mentions her most notable female proteges: Lena Kleinschmidt, Big Mary, Ellen Clegg, Queen Liz, Little Annie, Old Mother Hubbard, Kid Glove Rosie, and Sophie Lyons.

Several of the above names appear with hyperlinks, which point to companion blog entries created in 2018 as part of a project to re-research the 204 criminal profiles found in the first 1886 edition of Thomas Byrnes’s Professional Criminals of America. “Queen Liz” was profiled in Byrnes’s 1895 edition, which wasn’t covered during that blog project.

Like “Black Lena” Kleinschmidt, and Lena’s sister “Black Amelia” Levy, Lizzie Meyer (perhaps not her real name, but the most cited alias) was a first generation immigrant from Germany who made shoplifting her vocation. One article suggested she was the wife of bank thief “Broken-Nose” George Devlin. In the late 1890s (when Devlin’s whereabouts are unknown), she made shoplifting forays accompanied by another veteran thief, George Morgan aka Thomas Martin. Queen Liz certainly had multiple connections to the most adept thieves of her day. Thomas Byrnes summarized her career up to 1895:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-nine years old in 1895. Born in Germany. Married. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 3 inches. Weight, 165 pounds. Hair, dark, mixed with gray. Brown eyes, Grecian nose, full face, dark complexion. Marks, etc.: Decayed lower front teeth. Meyers has been known to the police of several of the principal cities as a professional shoplifter for nearly twenty years. She has served sentences in the Brooklyn, N.Y., Penitentiary, Boston, Buffalo, N.Y., and Philadelphia, Pa. She has worked with Amelia Levy, alias Black Amelia (No. 282), “Big Rosie,” and Little Lou Jourdan (wife of Big Tom Biglow, the bank sneak, now dead).

RECORD. LIZZIE MEYERS, under name of Annie Riley, was arrested at Philadelphia, Pa., for shoplifting, and sentenced to one year in the Eastern Penitentiary, October 25, 1886. She was arrested again at Philadelphia, Pa., on June 12, 1888, for shoplifting, and sentenced to six months in the County Prison, on June 28, 1888, by Judge Reed of that city.
Arrested again at Cleveland, 0., on December 29, 1888, in company of Amelia Levy, alias Black Amelia (No. 282), and sent back to the city of Buffalo, N.Y., where they were both wanted for the larceny of a diamond bracelet. They were both sentenced to five years in the Erie Co. Penitentiary, on February 16, 1889, for this offense. Their case was appealed, and she was admitted to bail pending a decision of a higher court. On June 14, 1889 (shortly after being admitted to bail at Buffalo, N.Y.), she was arrested in Brooklyn, N.Y., for the larceny of a roll of silk from one of the large dry goods stores, on June 28, 1889. She was sentenced to four years in the Kings Co. Penitentiary, by Judge Moore, of the Court of Sessions of that city, under the name of Lizzie Myers, alias Mary Sad. After her time expired in Brooklyn, N. Y., she was arrested and returned to Buffalo on July 6, 1892, where she was wanted with Black Amelia, as above stated. She was transferred from Buffalo to Auburn Prison N. Y., on June 3, 1893.

When Liz was arrested in Brooklyn in 1889, the judge hearing her case recognized her from a crime committed in 1872-1873, which pushes her history back considerably earlier than Byrnes first citation.

Queen Liz used many aliases, including Annie Riley, Caroline Smith, Elizabeth Willis, Lizzie Edwards, Rosa Myers, and Mary Sad. One newspaper suggested she created aliases upon arrest that reflected her current mood: Mary Sad, Eleanor Joy, Mary Merry, and Lucy Dead. If true, her sense of whimsy was one of her better qualities. Her use of “Caroline Smith” invokes the name of another famous shoplifter, about twenty years her senior, Caroline Smith of Milwaukee.

She had three known arrests following 1895: in November 1897, with George Morgan, in Philadelphia; in 1899, as Lizzie Edwards, in Brooklyn, and 1903 in New York City, at age 57.

There may be as yet undetected family connections among Queen Liz and Black Lena, Black Amelia, and the Weir-Reinsch gang of shoplifters in Chicago.

Knockers-Out and the Peter Players

Sleeping potions, i.e. liquid sedatives, date to antiquity, but Herbert Asbury (and, twenty years earlier, the NYPD) would have us believe that their criminal use began in the late nineteenth-century. Asbury (Chapter IX, Section 3) credits one man as the inventor of the idea of drugging and robbing saloon-goers. He states: “…no effective use of drugs for the sole purpose of robbery was made in New York until a California crook, Peter Sawyer, appeared in 1866, and aroused such a furor in police and criminal circles that the former honored him by calling the practitioners of his art peter players.”

There are two likely candidates for being Asbury’s source on Peter Sawyer: Thomas Byrnes’s 1895 edition of Professional Criminals of America and New York newspaper articles appearing in early 1894 citing police detectives. Byrnes, during the time those articles appeared, was the NYPD Superintendent. However, two years earlier, articles had appeared in New York and elsewhere that introduced the term “peter,” referring to the drops used by a crook named Fred Halse. Vials found on Halse were discovered to contain chloral hydrate, which soon was established as the preferred “knockout” drug.

Even earlier, in 1889, three reporters for the New York World published a piece accusing three saloons as being notorious for drugging their customers: the Golden Horn on 13th Street; Tom McKeon’s place on Hester Street; and Jack Pye’s joint on Houston and Thompson Streets. They accused the police of colluding with the dive owners. Indeed, the police department responded to the article by denying that drugging was taking place. The drugs used in this case were not identified, nor was the term “peter” used.

Chloral hydrate was not widely marketed until the 1870s, but quickly became a preferred sedative. It was frequently used in suicides; and also heavily employed in hospitals and asylums. Even so, in the days before prescribed medicines, it could be purchased by the public from any drug store. Given its availability, the only surprise is that it took so long for evidence to appear that it had been discovered by criminals.

There does appear to be indications that drugging drinks was a practice that was refined by thieves in the port cities of California. Before chloral hydrate, the drugs used were laudanum, a tincture of opium with a strong bitter taste; or drops of the more powerful morphine.

Chloral hydrate’s more popular nickname is a “Mickey Finn,” named after the owner of a Chicago dive of the late 1890s and early 1900s. In fact, the credit for making this association goes to none other than Herbert Asbury, who wrote it up in Gem of the Prairie, his 1940 book about Chicago’s underworld history.

As for Peter Sawyer, no criminal by that name appears in New York newspapers or anywhere else. Nor does he appear in any New York prison records. It seems convenient that the NYPD found a out-of-state crook to blame for importing the practice–one that they originally denied existed.

19th-Century Meme: Who Struck Billy Patterson?

Discerning the intent of some of Herbert Asbury’s nuggets of information in Gangs of New York–such as his comments on the renowned bartender of the Star and Garter saloon, Billy Patterson–is an exercise in futility. Was Asbury trying to prank his readers with a tall-tale he fabricated? Did some fellow scribe prank Asbury by telling him the story? Or did Asbury come across the story from some source and accept it as plausible. First, let’s review what Asbury wrote about the stellar mixologist (in Chapter IX, Section 1):

The Star and Garter enjoyed an immediate success [upon opening in 1878], largely because of the popularity of the head bartender, Billy Patterson, a rotund and jovial genius who was one of the really great drink mixers of the age. It was his boast that he did not have an enemy in the world, and that he could concoct a drink which would make any man his abject admirer; it was considered a great honor to have Billy Patterson, in person, prepare a beverage. When he was finally struck down by a mysterious assailant who attacked him with a slung-shot one night as he left the side door of the Star and Garter, the circumstance caused so much comment throughout Satan’s Circus that it gave rise to the famous query, “Who Struck Billy Patterson?”

The Star and Garter saloon opened at 504 Sixth Avenue in 1878, owned by partners Daniel P. Kerrigan and William C. Rogers. It quickly earned a reputation as a favorite haunt of gamblers, sportsmen and first-rate thieves–but there is no mention of its bar fare or staff as being notable. It was the scene of drunken attacks, including the October, 1880 shooting of bank thief Ned Lyons by the new proprietor of the Star and Garter, Hamilton Brock. A month earlier, bank robber Thomas McCormick had started a drunken brawl there, and was severely beaten. The Star and Garter lost its liquor license in 1881, and was purchased and reopened by Edward Coffee.

The non-sequitur query “Who Struck Billy Patterson?” pre-dated the Star and Garter saloon by at least forty years. It was a nineteenth-century meme, to be uttered in situations where there is great confusion by a newcomer on the scene. The person who poses the question doesn’t expect an answer, they’re just expressing the fact that they have no idea what is going on. Ever since the late 1830s, innumerable explanations for the origin of the phrase have been offered.

The earliest example comes from a source that would warm Herbert Asbury’s heart: an anecdote printed in the wake of Boston’s Broad Street Riot of 1837. Here is a reprint of the story, first printed that same year:

Boston area correspondents to newspapers years afterwards named the imposing fireman who struck Billy Patterson: Ephraim Larkin Snow (1806-1860):