Seven Sisters – No Row

“Seven Sister’s Row,” was mentioned by Asbury in Chapter IX, Section 1 as the “most celebrated single group of these places [bagnios]” in 1860s New York City. He lifted this piece of information from one of his listed sources, James Dabney McCabe’s 1868 book, Secrets of the Great City. It’s worth quoting McCabe’s text on this, considering that what he claims has been unconfirmed for over 150 years:

THE SISTER’S ROW — This is the name given to a row of first-class houses in West Twenty-fifth street, all fashionable houses of prostitution. A woman came to this city from a New England Village, and was enticed into one of the fashionable dens. She paid a visit to her home, dressed up in all her finery. Her parents believed her a Broadway saleswoman, but to her sisters, one by one, she confided the life of gayety and pleasure she led, and one by one the sisters left the peaceful village, until, at last, the whole seven sisters were domiciled in the crime-guilt palaces in West Twenty-fifth street. Thus, one sister ruined six in her own family; how many others in the same place is unknown.

Asbury embellished this somewhat, adding that each of the houses were adjoining and that they were “near Seventh avenue”; that they were the most exclusive and expensive bordellos in the city, accepting only gentlemen visitors attired in evening dress; and that they donated Christmas Eve proceeds to charity. Additionally, Asbury indicated the seven houses “were opened” by the sisters, implying that they were the proprietresses–an assertion not made by McCabe.

Despite all attempts at discreetness, one would think such a remarkable landmark would have become common knowledge. However, “Sister’s Row” isn’t mentioned in any New York newspapers either prior to or following McCabe’s 1868 book. It also isn’t mentioned in any other books until Asbury rediscovered McCabe in 1928. During the same period, many other notable houses of ill-repute were often chronicled.

The brownstone row-houses on the streets of the West Twenties were built in the 1840s, and by the 1860s were selling for between $4000 and $17,000 each. The odds that seven sisters coming to New York from a New England village would be able to afford such an investment (regardless of their talents!) boggles the mind.

Moreover, newspapers of the 1860s reported little raucous activity on the block of West 25th between 6th and 7 Avenues. There was a disorderly porterhouse on the block further west, but no other scandalous sites.

Seven Sister’s Row, for these reasons, could be dismissed as a total myth…but there appears to be a kernel in truth in the tale. On November 18, 1871, the New York Herald published a short piece, “The Infamous Dens of Twenty-Sixth Street.” Note that McCabe, Asbury, and all citations since their time have always mentioned Twenty-Fifth Street (between 6th and 7th), whereas this article speaks to the situation one block north:

Of all the streets in the city, neither Greene nor Wooster street excepted, West Twenty-sixth street is the worst in moral infamy and quiet dark crime. It was here the notorious Seven Sisters located after being hunted out of the Eighth ward, and here they still remain. Their success uptown has excited the envy of several brazen strumpets who traffic in the prostitution of young girls. Some time ago a woman named Adelaide Beaumont, residing in this street, was sent to the Penitentiary for enticing girls of ten years and under into her place for purposes of prostitution, and now another depraved female named Emma Walters, of 139 West Twenty-Sixth street, is arrested for a similar offence…

A more specific reference was made in 1872, during a heated political spat between Representative C. C. Bowen of South Carolina and the state’s Governor, Robert K. Scott. Scott was a former Union officer, and was viewed by former Confederates in South Carolina as a corrupt carpetbagger. Scott’s behavior as Governor–including an affair with actress Pauline Markham, questionable state contracts, and missing funds–provided Bowen with plenty of material. Speaking in a session at the State Capital, Bowen declared, “If you want to see moral nakedness, go to Williard’s Hotel in Washington. On the hotel books you will find Scott’s name in connection with a notorious woman, from Philadelphia, who occupied the same room with him. Follow him from Washington to New York and go to No. 112 West Twenty-sixth street, (a noted house called the Seven Sisters, or Palmetto House) and learn his doings there.”

[Bowen’s “Palmetto House” remark was meant to convey that Scott was such an enthusiastic patron of the establishment that it was unofficially renamed in honor of the State he governed.]

These two items place the Seven Sisters on Twenty-Sixth Street between 6th and 7th, a notorious section of the Tenderloin. Nearby were Adelaide Beaumont’s bagnio at No. 127; Dr. Henry D. Grindle’s abortion clinic at No. 120; and Mrs. Doran’s baby farm at 148, where infants carried to term were left for her to sell (and where unsold tiny bodies were found in the basement.)

No. 112 West 26th was sold by order to the NY Supreme Court in January 1874, and later became a Baptist Temple.

Was there ever a set of seven sisters involved? Sisters had been known to follow each other into the sex trade, but seven is an unlikely number. The phrase “Seven Sisters,” however, was high in the public consciousness in the 1860s. This was the title of a burlesque musical production presented by Laura Keene, which premiered in New York in 1860 and ran for years, before touring the country and experiencing multiple re-stagings. It was known for the singing and dancing of its titular figures, young woman clad in low-cut dresses, and dismissed by many as immoral.

So while Seven Sisters Row on West 25th Street appears to be a fiction, on the much wilder street a block north (across ward borders, on a busier thoroughfare) there does appear to have been one house known as the Seven Sisters. Prior to the late 1860s, it had been located much further south, in the Eighth ward.

The Devolution of the Hudson Dusters

Herbert’s Asbury’s primary source for his remarks on the Hudson Dusters gang of Greenwich Village (found in Chapter XII, Section 2) was a long feature article in the January 18, 1914 edition of the New York Sun, entitled “Inside Life of a New York Gang.” The author, listed only as “One Who Was Among Them,” dated the founding of the gang to about 1905 (whereas Asbury suggested the late 1890s) and the originators to be “Kid York” and “Circular Jack.” These two names appear in none of the dozens of other newspaper articles written about the Hudson Dusters between 1910 and 1925, but reappear in Asbury’s text. Since Asbury’s publication, these two nicknames have been accepted as real, when in likelihood they were merely aliases invented by the Sun reporter to protect his sources. [In newspaper archives, “Kid York” was an East Boston boxer of the early 1900s, and “Circular Jack” was the name given to an unknown writer of politically embarrassing flyers in Hartford, Connecticut, also in the early 1900s.]

The first mention in New York newspapers of the gang named the “Hudson Dusters” occurred in February 1912, reporting on their wild gun-battle against a neighboring gang, the Marginals. A different article appearing later that same month described them as idle youths, frequenting the Abingdon Square area of Greenwich Village. They were accused of robbing steamship passengers, local stores, and stealing from passing merchant wagons. They had some protection from prosecution by the area’s political clubs, for whom they provided polling station intimidation. Patrolmen had been beaten or shot at by them; but complaining officers were reprimanded by their superiors due to those political connections. Officer Dennis Sullivan was beaten, had his badge and weapon stolen, and then was mocked in a flyer spread in the neighborhood, an incident that Asbury relates. Asbury didn’t go far beyond the 1914 Sun article, although there are other interesting aspects to this gang.

Searching for the original mentions of the Hudson Dusters leads one down a fascinating rabbit hole, suggesting that its founding members were tutored in the fine art of letter-box stealing and check-forging pioneered by one of the most successful criminals of the late 19th-early 20th century, Charles Tischer, aka Charles Fisher. The knowledge of how to run a check-forging ring was passed down to a first generation of Hudson Dusters, but with their arrests the gang devolved into just another juvenile delinquent street turf gang.

Just a month after their shoot-out with the Marginals, another newspaper article appeared in the March 14, 1912 edition of the New York Times announcing the arrest of Joseph Devine (aka Joseph Elliott) and Willa Harris (aka May Smith) for check forgery. Devine was noted as a member of the Rough Ocean gang of forgers, but was formerly a Hudson Duster. According the the Herald, both Rough Ocean and Hudson Dusters had been forgery gangs led by James Ford, now in Sing Sing. Ford’s leadership of the forging ring was inherited by William Boland (aka Little Nemo), also now in prison. Joseph and his brother James Devine were Boland’s lieutenants.

James Ford, born in 1887, first was noticed by authorities in 1905 (age 18), when he was caught trying to pass a forged check in Brooklyn. That episode earned him a five year sentence in the Elmira Reformatory. He was released early, but was arrested again in 1908 for forgery among his gang members at their pool hall at 112 Greenwich Ave., in the heart of what would become Hudson Duster territory. Among those others arrested were Joseph Devine and William Boland. That earned Ford six years at Sing Sing, which he was still serving in 1912. William Boland, who was arrested with Ford in 1908 but was later released, was caught in 1910 by authorities in New York and was accused of running a nation-wide forging ring. He was, at that time, 22 years old. The police grabbed Joseph Devine with Boland, but could not press charges against him, leaving him free to run the ring until March, 1912.

So how did these young men learn how to operate a sophisticated forgery ring, which involved making duplicate keys to mailboxes, chemical alteration of check forms, and a talent for handwriting imitation? A 1910 article on Boland’s arrest offers the only clue. The Brooklyn Union of July 1, 1910 notes: “[Boland] is a pupil of James Ford, alias ‘Rough Ocean,’ now serving six years in Sing Sing. Ford learned the forgery business from associates of Charles Fisher, an old-time professional, now with two associates awaiting trial in the Tombs for extensive forgeries.”

This is the only documented link between the first Hudson Dusters and the forgery mastermind Charles Fisher [sic Tischer], but the techniques used by Ford/Boland/Devine were the same as those pioneered by Fisher in the 1880s and 1890s. But there is an additional fact that is impressively weird. Back in 1895, Charles Fisher and three associates, including his alleged spouse, “Sheeny” Rachel Hurd, were captured for running a letter-box forgery operation in Baltimore. When arrested, police found Fisher was using two aliases: “J. B. Ford” (noted in some articles as F. B. Ford) and “William Boland.” In 1895, the real James Ford and William Boland would have both been 8 or 9 years old. Coincidence? Hardly. But still mysterious.

Erasing the Legacy of Pete Williams

Herbert Asbury mentions the name “Pete Williams” three times, all in paragraphs found in Chapter IV, “River Pirates,” section 1. Williams is only mentioned as the owner of a “low gin mill” at Slaughter-House Point, the informal name of the corner of Water Street and James Street, a block away from the docks, but earlier even closer to the water before the slips were reclaimed. It was there, Asbury averred, that in 1852 Nicholas Howlett and William Saul plotted to raid the ship William Watson [sic the ship’s actual name was the Thomas Watson], a crime that ended with a murder and their capture.

There was indeed a porterhouse at that corner, infamous for the crimes committed within its doors and by the clientele that frequented it. It had the worst reputation among a dozen different notorious Water Street dives active from the 1840s through the 1880s. Multiple murders occurred there. However, Pete Williams was not the owner, and invoking his name in this context is an injustice to the significant legacy of Pete Williams, the Five Points dance-hall proprietor who was, perhaps, the most successful black American in the first century of the new country. Within his establishments a new form of dance was born.

In failing to mention the real Pete Williams, Asbury missed one of the most significant aspects of the Five Points area during its notorious heydey. At best, the omission can be blamed on Asbury’s sources, as listed in his bibliography. They don’t mention Williams, with the exception of Frank Moss’s American Metropolis, which was the direct source for Asbury’s citation of the owner of Slaughter-House Point dive being Pete Williams. The real problem may be that Asbury relied on sources that were written in the 1870s-1890s, twenty or thirty years after the events described. Asbury’s source material consisted of reporters who accepted recalled old memories over historical research with documents. In the case of Pete Williams (and there are other examples), Asbury’s sources also discounted or ignored mentions of black Americans. While recounting the human stories of an impoverished area is laudable; skewing that history with racism is shameful. Asbury mentioned other, later dance halls: John Allen’s, Harry Hill’s, The. Allen’s, etc.; but not the establishment that paved the way for them.

There were many references to Pete Williams, if Asbury and his sources had bothered to look. Charles Dickens described a visit to Almack’s (the name given his place by Williams) in his American Notes. Dickens was delighted by the creativity of the dancers and the mixture of classes and races found within the confines of the establishment–a contrast to the deplorable conditions that Dickens noted elsewhere in his Five Points tour.

Reporter George G. Foster, in his 1850 book New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches, devotes a chapter to Almack’s and other dance halls. Foster was not impressed by the place, but still noted its fame; and also went into detail (and innuendo) about its owner, Pete Williams. From Foster we learn that Williams was a great theater fan. During New York’s infamous Astor Place Riot (in which the English actor William Macready was driven off the stage), the rowdy crowd was calling cheers for Pete Williams. Why Asbury did not use Foster as one of his listed sources is a minor mystery.

Pete Williams’s legacy has been restored in recent decades by more astute historical research. Pete can be found in Tyler Anbinder’s Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood…; Brooks MacNamara’s The New York Concert Saloon; and Nigel Cliff’s The Shakespeare Riots. Williams has earned several recent mentions in blog and newspaper articles, particularly in the wake of the success of a recently-opened Harlem bar, 36 Orange Street, named in honor of one of the longtime Five Points addresses of Almack’s.

So if it wasn’t Pete Williams, who was it that owned the porterhouse at Slaughter-House Point? There was a succession of owners, a changeover that can be attributed to frequent police raids and other risks. In 1858, the year of one of its most famous murders–the knifing of Patsey the Barber by Slobbery Jim–it was run by William Lockwood. An earlier owner was named Pete: Peter Matthews; but it is unclear if he was the proprietor during the 1852 events involving Saul and Howlett.

The Myth of the Daybreak Boys

In The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury invokes the name of a particular band of river pirates–the Daybreak Boys–nearly as often as the city’s other feared street gangs: The Bowery Boys, The Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, and the Whyos. Since Gangs was published in 1928, the notorious Daybreak Boys have been enshrined in countless texts about New York gangs and the city’s criminal underworld. The individuals that Asbury named as the founding members of the Daybreak Boys were indeed infamous criminals, as were several of the toughs he named as their successors as leaders of this gang. However, there is no documentation that any gang ever went by this name; and the first use of the appellation–years later–appeared in a context that referred to different young offenders. Asbury bears some, but not all, responsibility for the myth of the Daybreak Boys.

The first use of the name dates to a book, The Nether Side of New York, written in 1871 by journalist Edward Crapsey (who had moved to New York a few years earlier) which was first published in serial form by The Galaxy magazine in early 1871. Crapsey opens his chapter on harbor thieves by recounting the crimes of William Saul and Nicholas Howlett, ending with the murder for which they were convicted and executed in early 1853. Crapsey states that these two led an organized band of river pirates composed of a dozen members, all under 18 years of age. He then states: “That crisp January morning when they were strangled by due process of law in the yard of the Tombs prison, where so many since that time have suffered, was the last of their band and its methods.” Crapsey credits Inspector George W. Walling with the apprehension of Saul and Howlett.

Crapsey goes on to describe the successors to Saul and Howlett as being gangs that congregated at Slaughter-House Point (corner of Water and James Streets), Hook Dock, and Charlton Street. Two pages later, he names James Lowry and Tom Geigan as active “relics” of the Saul/Howlett gang. Then, Crapsey describes a lower type of thief, the ship tackle thief. Next, he moves on to introduce a new paragraph:

Another gang is called the “Daybreak Boys,” from the fact that none of them are a dozen years of age, and that they always select the hour of dawn for their depredations, which are exclusively confined to the small craft moored in the east River just below Hell Gate. They find the men on these vessels locked in the deep sleep of exhaustion, the result of their severe labors of the day; and as there are no watchmen, they meet little difficulty in rifling not only the vessels but the persons of those onboard.

This description is far removed from the gang of Saul and Howlett; of Bill Lowry/Lowrie and Slobbery Jim (James White); and later (in the 1870s) the hardened adult river pirates led by Patsy Conroy and Denny Brady. Crapsey was talking about a gang of pre-teens active at the beginning of the 1870s who victimized small vessels for minor plunder. A little later in his chapter, Crapsey tells an anecdote about the Daybreak Boys way-laying a small sailboat on the Hudson piloted by three wealthy lads no older than themselves. They stole the boys’ pocket money at knifepoint, then pressed them to row to the dock at Thirty-Fourth Street. There, an alert police officer nabbed the hijackers.

Though it is tempting to say that Crapsey fabricated the name, it was later used in 1887’s Recollections of a New York Chief of Police by George W. Walling–who, as a young police captain, had personal experience in investigating several of the crimes committed by the violent, ambitious river pirates. Walling’s recounting of the “Daybreak Boys” is a clear paraphrasing of the same portrayal of a more recent, minor group of delinquents offered by Crapsey, including the anecdote about the attack on the little sailboat. Like Crapsey, Walling’s Daybreak Boys were more recent and distinct from the earlier pirates of the 1850s.

Once Crapsey and Walling introduced the name “Daybreak Boys” into the peerage list of the New York underworld , it took on a life of its own. In his 1897 book American Metropolis, From Knickerbocker Days to The Present Day, author Frank Moss swept together all notable river pirates under that banner and declared: “Saul and Howlett belonged to the gang called the “Daybreak Boys.” In one year twelve of that gang were shot. It was this warfare that brought about the use of the police patrol boats.”

Writing in 1928, Herbert Asbury expanded the scope of the Daybreak Boys’ criminal history to include all the Fourth Ward river pirates from Saul and Howlett in the early 1850s to Slobbery Jim and Patsey the Barber in 1858. [Moreover, Asbury transposes the first names of the two alleged founders, dubbing them William Howlett and Nicholas Saul–an error now found in dozens of works citing Asbury.] The Daybreak Boys were now on a par with the era’s most infamous street gangs. At no point in time would anyone in the Five Points or Fourth Ward have any idea who the Daybreak Boys were. They are a myth.

Edward Coleman and the Forty Thieves

Edward Coleman is the first criminal named in Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York, and is later presented as a chieftain of the first gang of the Five Points, the Forty Thieves. The first mention of Coleman comes in section 2 of the first chapter, “The Cradle of the Gangs”:

The Hot Corn Girl became one of the most romantic figures of the Five Points, and her favours were eagerly sought by the young bloods of the district, who fought duels over her and celebrated her beauty and sparkling wit in song and story. The earnings of the best-looking girls were considerable, and it soon became the custom for a Five Points hero with a loathing for labor to send his young and handsome wife into the street each night carrying a cedar bucket filled with roasting ears, while he cruised along in her wake and hurled brickbats at the young men who dared flirt with her. The first hanging in the tombs grew out of such a situation. Edward Coleman, one of the original gangsters of Paradise Square, became enamoured of a young woman known throughout the Five Points as the Pretty Hot Corn Girl. He married her after fierce fights with a dozen protesting suitors, and finally murdered her when her earnings failed to meet his expectations. He was put to death in the Tombs on January 12, 1839, soon after its completion.

Writing in 1927, Asbury invoked an image that had been promoted in popular culture for many decades: the Hot Corn Girl. In his bibliography, Asbury lists as one of his sources Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated by Solon Robinson, a collection of short stories about the Five Points area published in 1854. This bestseller was adapted into stage plays and songs, all centered on the tragic death of the poor, but good-hearted, innocent Hot Corn vendor, Katy. The association between Five Points and the Hot Corn Girl must have been too strong for Asbury not to highlight, and he did so by mention of the real-life murder of Ann Coleman in 1838, the main inspiration for Robinson’s Katy. Ann was 23, of mixed-race, originally from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

 Asbury’s source for the story of the murder of Ann by Edward Coleman was likely a serialized chapter of The Tombs its History, Romances and Mysteries, by Samuel A. Mackeever, which appeared in the National Police Gazette, December 11, 1880. Mackeever’s write-up included dialogue and embellished details (he also wrote fiction) that Asbury repeated–details that are absent from contemporary newspaper accounts of 1838-39.

However, neither Mackeever nor any of those 1838-1839 accounts suggested that Edward Coleman was a captain or member of the Forty Thieves, or any gang at all. In fact, Mackeever and the contemporary newspaper reporting clearly state that Edward Coleman was black–not Irish; and that he had come to New York from Philadelphia in the mid-1830s, where he had been a mat-maker. No sources mention that he had any prior criminal background. Asbury, on the contrary, makes this connection more explicit in his second and final mention of Edward Coleman, in section 1 of chapter 2, “Early Gangs of the Bowery and Five Points”:

The first of these speakeasies was established about 1825 by Rosanna Peers in Center street just south of Anthony, now Worth street. Piles of decaying vegetables were displayed on racks outside the store, but Rosanna provided a back room in which she sole the fiery liquor of the period at lower prices than it could be obtained in the recognized salons. This room soon became the haunt of thugs, pickpockets, murderers, and thieves. The gang known as the Forty Thieves, which appears to have been the first in New York with a definite, acknowledged leadership, is said to have been found in Rosanna Peers’ grocery store, and her back room was used as its meeting-place, and as headquarters by Edward Coleman and other eminent chieftains. There they received the reports of their henchmen, and from its dimly lit corners dispatched the gangsters on their warlike missions.

If Edward Coleman’s gang status was a fiction, what of Rosanna Peers and the Forty Thieves? The Forty Thieves were real enough, as attested by this pithy note in Chester, Vermont’s Freedom’s Banner of April 29, 1829: “Outrages of one kind or other are daily and nightly committed at the Five Points, New-York, principally by a gang called the ‘Forty Thieves.’ The orderly portion of the citizens contemplate a revolution in that quarter.” Later in 1829, several papers ran a story about the arrest of one of the Forty Thieves, Henry Sutton, who was subsequently sent to Sing Sing. Sutton is the only name associated with the Forty Thieves that has surfaced thus far. All mentions of this gang, nicknamed the “Forties,” seem to date from 1828-1829.

As for Rosanna Peers, her name can be traced to one of Asbury’s cited sources, The American Metropolis, From Knickerbocker Days to the Present, Volume III, by Frank Moss. Moss credits the grocery of Rosanna Peers as being the original purveyor of cheap whisky and other bad allurements in the Five Points area, but stops short of linking her to any specific gang. Did the Forty Thieves gather at Rosanna Peers’ grocery? Possibly–but Frank Moss was published in 1897, and no other mentions of a person named Rosanna Peers have been uncovered.

There are more interesting aspects to the crime and fate of Edward Coleman than Asbury’s spurious association with the Forty Thieves. Scholars of Edgar Allan Poe have pointed out that several phrases in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) match phrases used to describe Ann Coleman’s murder. An account of the Coleman murder appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper (when Poe resided in that city) right next to a column that reviewed Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Edward Coleman’s crime was widely reported, noted for the savage slashing of Ann’s throat and near severing of her head–similar to Poe’s Rue Morgue depictions.

Coleman’s execution, aside from being the first to take place in New York’s Halls of Justice and House of Detention (the Tombs), was notable for another reason: after being declared dead, Coleman’s body was subject to grisly medical experiments. Dr. J. R. Chilton, a chemist, applied his “galvanic multiplier” electric current to Coleman’s chest muscles, leg muscles, and jaw muscles to stimulate reflexes in the corpse. Whether Coleman ever agreed in advance to these Frankenstein-like experiments is questionable, as is the issue of whether a white person would have been treated similarly.

Finally, the December 3, 1838 issue of The Christian Advocate and Journal reprinted a full transcript of the address given by Coleman’s judge (Edwards) upon sentencing him to death. In his speech, Edwards defends the civic value of execution for heinous crimes, remarking that only the terror of death can restrain the vindictiveness of man:

Upon this solemn occasion is it usual, though it can hardly be necessary, to admonish you of the importance of preparing yourself to meet your Creator. Circumstanced as you are, with your days emphatically few and numbered, with this world and all its allurements receding from your view, and the prospect of another opening upon you, it is not in human nature to be insensible to the importance of preparing to meet your Creator. To Him, therefore, let your most fervent supplication be raised, for He will soon be your all–you will have none left but Him.

And so it was: Literature, Science, and Religion all used Edward Coleman to their own purposes…and so did Herbert Asbury.