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 [see Asbury, Chapter IV, Section 1]. 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.