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.
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