A Toast to Johnny Camphene

Herbert Asbury is guilty of embellishment in his remarks [Chapter IX, Section 2] concerning a notorious Houston Street dive of the early 1870s. His source was Frank Moss’s 1897 book, The American Metropolis: From Knickerbocker Days to the Present Time, which deals with the subject in two sentences:

A nasty little place was that of Johnny “Camphene” at 19 Houston Street (corner of Mercer Street). He pretended to sell liquor, but when he ran short on several occasions he served camphene, and collected his price for it too — hence his sobriquet.

Asbury’s description was longer and, writing in 1927, he had to remind his readers what camphine/camphene was [Asbury preferred the -ine spelling]:

Johnny Camphine kept one of the most notorious dives in the city at Mercer and Houston streets, and in lieu of whiskey commonly sold colored camphine, or rectified oil of turpentine, which had its legitimate uses as a solvent for varnishes and as fuel for lamps. It has been said that at least a hundred men were driven insane by drinking Johnny Camphine’s beverage, and over a long period an average of two men a night were taken out of the place, howling with delerium tremens.

Was there a real Johnny Camphene, and did he serve deadly libations? So far, only one bit of documentation has surfaced: an October 31, 1872 item from the Boston Herald describing a bar brawl involving featherweight bare-knuckle champion George Seddons:

The site of Tommy Larkin’s dive–the corner of Houston and Mercer Streets, matches the location mentioned by Frank Moss. Nothing is known about Larkin (a very common name in Lower Manhattan at the time) other than what appears above. There are no reports that Larkin served his customers toxic drinks. Note that his nickname was simply “Camphene,” without “Johnny.”

Crazy Butch, the Darby Kid, and Harry the Soldier

The anecdotes that Herbert Asbury relates in The Gangs of New York [Chapter XI, Section 3] concerning gangster Crazy Butch and his fatal downfall were lifted from one source, Apaches of New York, written by Alfred Henry Lewis and published in 1912. Lewis devoted one chapter to the saga of Crazy Butch–too long to quote in full here, but in the public domain at the Internet Archive.

Lewis is the sole source for the stories about Crazy Butch, though newspaper items about his court travails and the bare facts about his death were published. Alfred Henry Lewis often only identified gangsters by their nicknames, but at some point Crazy Butch was later identified as Simon Erenstoft, who had emigrated from Austria as a boy. In Lewis’s story, Crazy Butch was neglected by his parents; and other sources have said that he was abandoned in New York at age 8. However, the passenger list of the ship Rhaetia arrived in New York City on December 10, 1889, bearing Simon, 7; his brother Mordecai, 6; and older sister Beile, 18. The parents are not mentioned–the children arrived alone.

Simon, as a teen, came under the influence of the Monk Eastman gang, the predominantly Jewish youth gang that ruled the Lower East Side from the late 1890s through to the 1910s. His teen years aren’t documented, but in the 1900 Federal Census, Erenstoft was an inmate at the city reformatory, the New York House of Refuge on Randall’s Island. He was later sent to Blackwell’s Island city penitentiary in 1902; and again in 1904. His 1904 conviction made national headlines, since he was accused of training pre-teen pickpockets. An eleven-year old testified against Erenstoft, and demonstrated his skill by stealing the District Attorney’s wallet undetected.

Erenstoft’s multiple trips to Blackwell’s Island is counter to the narrative that he did several years at Sing Sing, the State prison. There is no evidence that this was true. According to that narrative, Erenstoft turned Fagin after leaving Sing Sing; but it’s pretty obvious he was involved in the pickpocket business before 1904.

Lewis’s tale covers Crazy Butch’s downfall, after stealing the girlfriend (i.e. the Darby Kid–real name unknown) from an Italian Five Pointer gang lieutenant, known only as Harry the Soldier. It’s a plausible story, matching some (but not all) aspects of the news reports of his killing:

Lewis’s version claims that the assassination was made possible by Harry and Five Pointers taking out the lookouts that were protecting the poolroom. However, a mention in a newspaper a year later may offer a new perspective on the murder of Crazy Butch. The May 18, 1908 edition of the New York Sun reported in an item about Kid Twist, i.e. Max Zweifach, another Monk Eastman lieutenant: “He was accused in connection with the death of Dick Fitzgerald in a saloon row several years ago and was thought to have a hand in the killing of Crazy Butch, a member of the gang.”

Was Crazy Butch’s murder the work of the Five Pointers; or a power struggle within the Monk Eastman gang (Eastman was in prison between 1904 and 1909)? Or did Kid Twist assist Harry the Soldier by neutralizing the lookouts?

John D. Grady and the Thieves’ Exchange

Much needs to be sorted out in Herbert Asbury’s statements concerning a “Thieves’ Exchange” and his sketch of jewelry peddler John D. Grady. Both of these items appear in Chapter X, Section 2 of The Gangs of New York. The alleged “Thieves’ Exchange” was located in the Eighth ward, near the intersection of Broadway and Houston Street. Asbury’s source for this information was James Dabney’s McCabe’s Secrets of the Great City, published in 1868. McCabe, more so than Asbury, makes it clear that this was a specific building (Asbury implies it is a saloon), that had the warehouse of a the proprietor–a fence–attached. As is the case with many of McCabe’s “secrets,” no other newspapers or books can be found that reference such a place.

McCabe might be given the benefit of the doubt, in that there might have been a fencing operation that also served as a gathering spot. There were many saloons in that area where criminals drank and exchanged information , and doubtless there were also fencing operations nearby as a convenience. A half block from Broadway along Houston Street was Harry Hill’s dance hall, of which the San Francisco Chronicle (Jan 23 1877) claimed “in the daytime it is a thieves’ exchange; in the evening a low variety theater.” However, Harry Hill was many things, but no one accused him of being a fence; and, in fact, Harry discouraged criminal acts within his resort.

It should be noted that London, England, had an area of city streets known as the Thieves’ Exchange–this was mentioned many times in American newspapers of the 1860s and 1870s, but not a similarly named part of New York. Also, American city newspapers of the late nineteenth century began printing classified “Lost and Found” sections where thieves would attempt to ransom stolen goods of sentimental value back to their owners, for a finder’s fee greater than that a fence offered. These came to be known as “Thieves’ Exchanges.” However, there is no evidence outside McCabe suggesting a New York city locale popularly known as the “Thieves’ Exchange” existed.

Similarly, John D. Grady was never known by the nickname “Traveling Mike,” although this has been republished countless times thanks to Asbury. However, Grady did have a more interesting nickname: “Old Supers and Slangs.” This was a thieves’ slang term for “watches and chains.” Watches and watch chains were among the main wares that he peddled. Grady was also known as “the Burglars’ Banker.” Asbury states that Grady had no regular establishment, but for many years he did have an office at the corner of Broadway and Bleeker Street–one long block north of Broadway and Houston. He later moved to Sixth Street.

As Asbury states, John D. Grady did often wander the streets in his overcoat stuffed with valuables, and a valise full of jewelry. He was born in Ireland around 1828, and started life in New York as a painter. However, he soon realized he could make money by issuing loans to elite criminals and disposing of the valuables they brought him. Grady died of pneumonia in 1880, but left a legacy of underworld familiarity rivaling fellow fence Marm Mandelbaum. His New York Times obituary dropped the names of nearly every major thief of the era:

It should be noted that no contemporary sources–such as the obituary above–link Grady to the 1866 Lord Bond robbery, as Asbury does at some length. The perpetrators of the Lord Bond robbery have never been fully identified, but the consensus is that it was pulled off with more than a little dumb luck by lesser-known criminals. Grady’s first mention in newspapers–as a jewelry peddler–dates to 1868, two years after the Lord Bond robbery. Asbury was likely wrong about Grady’s involvement.

Postscript 3/5/2020: John Oller offered a correction: “I also wanted to note that I did find a reference to Grady as “Traveling Mike” during his lifetime, in Crapsey’s Nether Side book in 1872, at pp. 84-85. So it looks like this is at least one where Asbury is not the original culprit, if indeed the nickname was apocryphal.”