In describing a thuggish associate found in Kit Burns’ place on Water Street, Herbert Asbury quotes a section of James Dabney McCabe’s Secrets of the Great City. [see Chapter III of Gangs of New York]. McCabe in turn was quoting a September 26, 1868 New York World article, “Low Life in New York.” The article describes an encounter with George H. Leese at a prayer meeting that Kit Burns agreed to host in his liquor store:
” ‘That’s what I call singing the bloody gospil. The man that wrote that ballad was no slouch,’ cried out George Leese, alias ‘Snatchem,’ one of the worst scoundrels in New York, who is now in the saving path of grace. As a beastly, obscene ruffian, ‘Snatchem’ never had his equal in America, according to his own account. The writer has seen this fellow at prize fights, with a couple of revolvers in his belt, engaged in the
disgusting office of sucking blood from the wild beasts who had ceased to pummel each other for a few seconds. This man, with his bulging, bulbous, watery-blue eyes, bloated red face, and coarse swaggering gait, has been notorious for years in New York. The police are well acquainted with him, and he is proud of his notoriety.
‘Snatchem’ asked our reporter if he ever saw such ‘a-rough-and-tumble-stand-up-to-be-knocked-down son of a gun as he in his life.’ ‘Did you ever see such a kicking-in-the-head-knife-in-a
dark-room fellow as I am, eh?’ Our reporter meekly answered ‘no.’ ‘I want a quarter-stretch ticket to go to glory, I do. I can go in harness preaching the bloody gospil against any minister in New York. I know all Watts’ Hymns and Fistiana, and I’d like to be an angel and bite Gabriel’s ear off.’
George H. Leese (abt. 1822-1885) had a bit more character than his cartoonish portrayal in the New York World. He was a skilled boxer, adept with or without gloves; and later trained many others to the extent that the New York Clipper nicknamed him the “Demosthenes of the Ring.”
Leese was born and raised in Birmingham, England. He appeared in several high-stakes matches in his home country in the late 1840s against Joe Douglas, Watson, and Dan Betts. Leese and his brothers were strong supporters of the working-class Chartist movement, loyal to local politician George Muntz. As that movement faltered, Leese emigrated to the United States about 1850 and opened a saloon on West Broadway at the urging of other English expatriates. He married a beautiful Englishwoman named Delia, but they divorced in 1859. [Delia later fell on bad times, and in 1870 was sent to prison for a theft of forty cents. Some blamed her downfall on Leese’s influence.]
On August 16, 1854 the passenger steamer May Queen caught fire near Staten Island. Four hundred people were aboard. The ship drifted into shallows, so no other ships could come alongside to take off the terrified passengers. George Leese was a passenger on a nearby ship, the Norwalk. Leese and four other passengers on the Norwalk lowered its lifeboat and made several trips over the the burning May Queen. They rescued about 150 women and children. Other ships later rescued the other passengers. No one lost their life.
Leese’s saloon soon earned a reputation as a hangout for English burglars and thugs, but advertisements made it sound like a lively place.
Leese continued to take boxing matches against foes such as Phil Clare and Dooney Harris, but by 1860 his age and former bad habits forced him into the role of trainer or referee.
He adopted a temperate lifestyle and became a speaker for that movement. He also followed Stephen A. Douglass around the country in the 1860 elections, offering his support in the campaign against Lincoln.
Leese operated saloons off and on through the 1850s and 1860s, but lost his money at faro games. In the 1870s he moved to Rockaway, taking a job as security officer for a resort hotel there. He died in August, 1885.