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.