Discerning the intent of some of Herbert Asbury’s nuggets of information in Gangs of New York–such as his comments on the renowned bartender of the Star and Garter saloon, Billy Patterson–is an exercise in futility. Was Asbury trying to prank his readers with a tall-tale he fabricated? Did some fellow scribe prank Asbury by telling him the story? Or did Asbury come across the story from some source and accept it as plausible. First, let’s review what Asbury wrote about the stellar mixologist (in Chapter IX, Section 1):
The Star and Garter enjoyed an immediate success [upon opening in 1878], largely because of the popularity of the head bartender, Billy Patterson, a rotund and jovial genius who was one of the really great drink mixers of the age. It was his boast that he did not have an enemy in the world, and that he could concoct a drink which would make any man his abject admirer; it was considered a great honor to have Billy Patterson, in person, prepare a beverage. When he was finally struck down by a mysterious assailant who attacked him with a slung-shot one night as he left the side door of the Star and Garter, the circumstance caused so much comment throughout Satan’s Circus that it gave rise to the famous query, “Who Struck Billy Patterson?”
The Star and Garter saloon opened at 504 Sixth Avenue in 1878, owned by partners Daniel P. Kerrigan and William C. Rogers. It quickly earned a reputation as a favorite haunt of gamblers, sportsmen and first-rate thieves–but there is no mention of its bar fare or staff as being notable. It was the scene of drunken attacks, including the October, 1880 shooting of bank thief Ned Lyons by the new proprietor of the Star and Garter, Hamilton Brock. A month earlier, bank robber Thomas McCormick had started a drunken brawl there, and was severely beaten. The Star and Garter lost its liquor license in 1881, and was purchased and reopened by Edward Coffee.
The non-sequitur query “Who Struck Billy Patterson?” pre-dated the Star and Garter saloon by at least forty years. It was a nineteenth-century meme, to be uttered in situations where there is great confusion by a newcomer on the scene. The person who poses the question doesn’t expect an answer, they’re just expressing the fact that they have no idea what is going on. Ever since the late 1830s, innumerable explanations for the origin of the phrase have been offered.
The earliest example comes from a source that would warm Herbert Asbury’s heart: an anecdote printed in the wake of Boston’s Broad Street Riot of 1837. Here is a reprint of the story, first printed that same year:
Boston area correspondents to newspapers years afterwards named the imposing fireman who struck Billy Patterson: Ephraim Larkin Snow (1806-1860):