More often than not, Wikipedia entries for nineteenth-century gangs and criminals are based on recently published, highly-derivative secondary sources, many of which repeat long-established half-truths and errors. So it is refreshing to see that the Wikipedia entry for Johnny Dolan questions Herbert Asbury’s portrayal of Dolan as a fashion-conscious, original Whyo gang leader, responsible for grisly street-fighting implements designed to gouge out eyes and slice bodies. The article editors cite contemporary newspaper accounts of Dolan, which offer absolutely no basis for Asbury’s comments.
It is intriguing to look at the paragraphs on Dolan in Gangs of New York and compare them to a section of an article that Asbury wrote about gangs in 1919. Here is what Asbury wrote about “Dandy Johnny” for his 1928 book (Chapter XI, Section 1):
Another shining light of the old Whyos, before the time of Driscoll and Lyons, was Dandy Johnny Dolan, who was not only a street brawler of distinction, but a loft burglar and sneak thief of rare talent as well; nothing was too great or too trivial for him to steal. His fellow gangsters regarded him as something of a master mind because he had improved the technique of gouging out eyes; he is said to have invented an apparatus, made of copper and worn on the thumb, which performed this important office with neatness and dispatch. His invention was used by the Whyos with great success in their fights with other gangs. He was also credited with having imbedded sections of sharp axe blade in the soles of his fighting boots, so that when he overthrew and adversary and stamped him, results both gory and final were obtained. But ordinarily Dandy Johnny did not wear his fighting boots. He encased his feet in the finest examples of the shoemaker’s art, for he was the Beau Brummel of the gangland of his time, and was extraordinarily fastidious in his choice of raiment and in the care of his person. Under no circumstances, not even to take part in a brawl or raid that promised to be rich in loot, would he appear in public until his hair had been properly oiled and plastered against his skull, and his forelock tastefully curled and anointed. He had a weakness for handkerchiefs with violent red or blue borders, and for carved canes, especially if the handle of the stick bore the representation of an animal. Of these he owned a great store, to which he added as opportunity offered; he frequently promenaded the Five Points and Mulberry Bend with a vivid kerchief knotted about his throat and others peeping from his pockets, while he jauntily swung a handsome cane.
It was his passion for these adornments that cost him his life. James H. Noe, a brush manufacturer, decided to enlarge his business during the summer of 1875, and began the erection of a new factory at No. 275 Greenwich street. It was his custom to walk to the property each Sunday morning and observe the progress of the work. On Sunday, August 22, 1875, he entered the structure as usual, and climbed the ladders and temporary stairways to the roof. There he came upon Dandy Johnny Dolan, his eye gouger upon his thumb and a blue bordered handkerchief knotted about his throat, ripping away the lead of the gutters. Mr. Noe marched him downstairs, but when they reached the ground floor Dandy Johnny struck the manufacturer on the head with an iron bar, inflicting injuries from which Mr. Noe died in a week. With his victim unconscious, Dandy Johnny proceeded to rob him, taking a small sum of money and a gold watch and chain, and also carrying away Mr. Noe’s cane, which had a metal handle carved in the likeness of a monkey. Then Dandy Johnny very foolishly tied his own handkerchief about the manufacturer’s face. The story goes that the thug appeared in the haunt of the Whyos in Mulberry Bend with one of Mr. Noe’s eyes in his pocket, but the tale is probably apocryphal.
Compare the above with the following lines, taken from a newspaper feature that Asbury had written nine years earlier (“Real Dangerous Gangster Not of Apache Type as Seen in Movies,” Syracuse Post Standard, August 17, 1919, p. 5)
“Dandy Johnny” was one of the shining lights of the Whyos, an old-time gang that flourished in the late ’90s, and which was the ruling power in the old Greenwich Village district…”Dandy Johnny” was as proud of his manly beauty as he was of his ability as a yegg and loft worker. He had a carved cane which he had had made at considerable expense and which was the apple of his eye. He went nowhere without it, even taking it with him when he went to steal and plunder and kill. The police knew he had it, and more than once a detective found it where “Dandy Johnny” had carelessly left it behind him in a loft he had burglarized. But it always found its way into the hands of a friendly politician and soon returned to the gangster, because in those days the Whyos were politically powerful, and “Dandy Johnny” could wield a blackjack on election day with a certainty of effect that endeared him greatly to the politicians. He was fairly safe, no matter what he did, and no matter where he left his cane, so long as he remained in his own territory.
But Dandy Johnny got ambitious, and hearing of a particularly rich loft laden with great booty, he went into another gang’s territory over in Greene street to pull off the job. Unfortunately for him he found it necessary to kill a night watchman, and in the excitement left his cane lying on the floor beside the man’s body. The trail was plain, and so “Dandy Johnny” was hanged, because all the politicians had not influence enough to save him from a murder charge that proved itself. Even the judges knew that nobody but “Dandy Johnny” could have taken that cane there, and although the gangster was well-supplied with alibis they were to no avail.
Between 1919 and 1928, Asbury added the details about Dolan’s gruesome fighting implements; he embellished Dolan’s taste for fashion and meticulous grooming; and asserted that Dolan had acquired a cane collection and sported loud handkerchiefs. But where did Asbury see that Dolan had been a Whyo gang member?
Almost certainly, Asbury was referencing a New York Tribune article, “Picturesque Gangs of Old New York,” published January 4, 1915. When this article appeared, Asbury was likely still working for the Atlanta Georgian newspaper, though he would soon move to New York City to work for the New York Sun.
On the West Side was the Rotten Row gang, active in the 5th and 8th wards; bad men all–dock thieves, wharf rats and river pirates. Among them “Big” Shanahan, “Jack” Frost, and “Bad Dickie” Blake won renown. It was in their territory that “Johnny” Dolan, of the East Side Whyos, came a cropper. Lured by the richness of Rotten Row, “Johnny” crept through the scuttle of Noe’s brush factory, in Greene st., one black midnight.
It happened that Mr. Noe had spent the evening over his books, and “Johnny” met him in the hall. “Dandy Johnny Dolan” had his swagger stick with him even on burglarious expeditions. Being taken by surprise, he used the stick instead of his fist, and the brush manufacturer crumpled to the floor.
“Johnny” took what was in sight and went his way. But the very demon of thoughtlessness must have been in him that night, for, lying beside the body of the manufacturer, he left his stick. It was a curious stick, with a weighted grip concealed by the carved head of a monkey. Wellnigh all the Sixt’ knew that stick for “Johnny” Dolan’s, and it was not long till “Johnny” paid for his carelessness on the gallows.
This 1915 article is the first mention of Dolan by the nickname “Dandy Johnny.” During his life, Dolan was only reported as “John R. Dolan.” The monkey-headed cane was indeed found on the premises of Noe’s brush factory (not next to Noe’s body), and witnesses identified it as Dolan’s. Dolan admitted that he had one cane, given to him as a gift. Other circumstantial evidence pointed to his guilt: he pawned Noe’s watch the day after the robbery; a handkerchief used to bind Noe was linked to Dolan; Dolan was not at his home the night of the murder and appeared the next day with scratches on his face; and Dolan offered conflicting and unconvincing explanations as to how he obtained the watch.
No newspapers noted that Dolan was well-dressed, or careful about his grooming. At the time of the murder, he had been out of jail for just three months, after serving over two years for an earlier burglary. There were no mentions of Dolan being associated with a gang, or armed with street-fighting weapons, or being a thug for Tammany politicians. The weapon used to fatally injure Noe was a metal paint-can opener found by the murderer on the premises, about the size of a small crow-bar. In short, it appears that Noe’s death was the result of a hard blow made in the heat of the moment by an ordinary thief. “Dandy Johnny,” on the other hand, was a character invented in a newsroom forty years later, and further fictionalized by Asbury over many years. Today, scores of texts about the Whyos still cite Dolan as an early member.