Asbury’s “The Wars of the Tongs” chapter of Gangs of New York is where he delves into the subject of Bowery bums, the professional panhandlers and vagrants who eked a living as able-bodied beggars faking disabilities. Asbury followed the lead of other reporting published during the 1895-1915 era in lumping this class together with “yeggmen,” i.e. unsophisticated crooks who roamed the eastern United States breaking into banks and blowing safes with nitroglycerin. More than once the yeggmen succeeded only in blowing themselves up, which caused the Pinkerton brothers, William and Robert, to shake their heads and nostalgically recall the days when bank thieves were cunning mechanics and patient, clever planners. It does appear to be true that the Bowery bums and yeggmen, if not always one and the same, shared a preference for a select group of lower Manhattan dives.
In Chapter XIV, Section 4, Asbury mentions a specific saloon:
The Dump at No. 9 Bowery, run by Jimmy Lee and Slim Reynolds, was a favorite resort of the panhandlers for many years, and it there that many of their schemes were hatched. Goat Hinch and Whitey Sullivan, who eventually expiated their crimes in the electric chair, were among the noted patrons of the Dump; the former is said to have originated the practice of swallowing a concoction which would make him temporarily ill and so arouse the sympathies of people in the street. Sometimes the Goat chewed a cake of evil-smelling soap, producing fearful symptoms which invariably brought a shower of nickels and dimes. In common with other dives, the Dump provided sleeping quarters, but Reynolds and Lee were more ingenious in their arrangements. They screwed short iron stanchions into the floor about seven feet from the rear wall, and into the wall affixed an iron framework. From the latter to the stanchions was a net of coarse rope, and when a bum passed out from dope or the effects of whiskey and camphor, he was simply tossed into the net to sleep it off.
The saloon at No. 9 Bowery, nicknamed the “Dump,” or the “Morgue,” was indeed a well-known resort for panhandlers and yeggmen. In the mid-1890s, it was operated by Richard Fitzpatrick; followed by Peg Leg Flynn. By the early 1900s, it was owned by Tom (not Jimmy) Lee, the unofficial “Mayor of Chinatown” and head of the On Leong tong.
There’s no documentation outside of Asbury that Goat Hinch (William O’Connor) and James P. “Whitey” Sullivan frequented the dive at No. 9, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest it. The two were part of a gang of six men (led by Hinch) that went to Cobleskill, New York in November of 1900 to rob a bank. During the robbery, a night watchman was shot and killed. For this crime, Sullivan was executed in 1902, followed by Hinch in 1903.
Hinch/O’Connor originally came from Chicago. He had been sent to the Illinois Reformatory in 1888 for two years, and was quickly in trouble again and sent to Joliet for one year in June, 1890. After a brief stint of freedom, he was sent back to Joliet in 1892. By 1895 he had reached the New York area, where he was caught during a burglary in Jersey City, New Jersey. That crime earned him three years at the State Prison in Trenton.
On May 29, 1899, Goat Hinch was celebrating his prison release at Mary Ellen’s saloon at 15 E. Broadway (in Chinatown, just two short blocks from No. 9 Bowery). He didn’t like the style of their black piano player, Fred Chester, and stabbed him to death. However, he wasn’t immediately apprehended for this crime. He was arrested in Dobbs Ferry, New York in January 1901 carrying burglars tools, but only charged with vagrancy. While serving a month for that charge, police identified him as one of the Cobleskill bank robbers.
There is no information outside Asbury that Hinch/O’Connor was a panhandler who made himself sick with soap. The source for this story was likely a September 30, 1922 New York Morning Telegraph article about old panhandlers:
Diamond Dan’s [O’Rourke] backroom was known as a sort of panhandler’s Rotary Club. Tom Lee’s place at number 9 Bowery, not far away, was another headquarters, and Lee spoiled the whole thing by importing several hundred workers from Hinky Dink’s, in Chicago, at his own expense, to work New York. He brought on fit throwers, double-jointers, sore-arm workers, cry-babies, gimps, paralytics, and crutch-walkers…There was a fellow named Papa Johnny in Lee’s crowd that invented the soap trick for making his eyes red around the lids. Just a little soap would do it and the inflammation would last all day and tears would run down his face. He used to say his wife and baby were lying dead out West somewhere and he’d flash a telegram to prove it, telling how his other little girl was all alone with no money. Gee, how Papa mopped up!
The etymology of the words “yegg” and “yeggman” aren’t known with certainty, but the most commonly cited origin is that it came from an old safecracker, John Yegg. This is cited so often that “John Yegg” took on a life of its own, and even criminals started to believe it. The only problem is that there is no evidence that John Yegg ever existed.
Instead, a November 26th, 1895 New York Sun article offers a different explanation in one of the first appearances of the word:
Acting Capt. O’Brien, chief of the Detective Bureau, said today that all of the men arrested in the Orchard street house were members of the Panhandle gang. They hang out at 9 Bowery and along Market street. The call themselves not panhandlers, but Yegdows, or Yegs for short.
Is “Yegdows” the bastardization of a Chinese word?