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.