Crazy Lou, the Dive Denizen

The way in which Herbert Asbury embellished his source material–which often consisted of the embellishments of earlier writers–can be demonstrated in a story found in Chapter IX, Section 2. While discussing a dance hall saloon named the Black and Tan, Asbury tells the sad story of a regular customer, a woman known only as “Crazy Lou.” Asbury’s source for this story was George W. Walling’s Recollections of a New York Chief of Police, published in 1887. However, in contrast to the title of his book, Walling relied more on plagiarized newspaper articles than his own memory. Such was the case with the story of Crazy Lou, which first appeared in an unattributed article titled “In the ‘Black and Tan'” in the July 26, 1885 edition of the New York World.

To demonstrate how writers embellish, let’s look at all three versions: The World, Walling, and Asbury, starting with the earliest, the newspaper account from 1885 [ellipses within the quote indicate that some racist asides were removed]:

But here is a picture of an old woman who sat for two hours in the Black and Tan a night ago, and the story told of her might be attributed to a fanciful pen were it not actually witnessed.

She came into the dive at midnight, a frayed, worn shawl thrown around her shoulders and the ends clasped by her trembling fingers. She sat down at one of the round tables. No one spoke to her, and only once in a while a dancer said, “Crazy Lou.”

Ten years ago this woman came into the Haymarket. The habitues of Tom Gould’s must remember how her capricious will fashioned for years the customs of the women around her. She smoked opium in Pell street, danced at McGlory’s in Hester street, sang at The. Allen’s in Bleecker street, and last night sat in the Black and Tan. She was not forty years old. She looked seventy. A fortune had passed through the thin fingers clasping the shawl.

Two o’clock came and the woman arose, pulled her shawl around her, and went out…She had tottered up the three steps to the street and bent her course westward…The woman shuffled along. The sights had no magnetism for her. She had grown grey and wrinkled in their services.

She passed out of the thoroughfare and crossed West Broadway. Surely a strange place for one of her race to live in, the follower thought, but nothing is strange under the stars in Bleecker street.

When the woman crossed West street and walked out on one of the long, deserted piers the reason flashed across the brain why she had come so far. The recollection of the life she had led, beginning with the wine suppers at the Haymarket and finishing under the lamps of the Black and Tan made one think that, like many of her other fallen sisters, she had come to the river.

She sat down on a bulkhead and looked at the water. A watchman approached and tapped her on the shoulder. The woman started and dropped her shawl. She turned to big dark eyes up at his and said: “Don’t touch me. Leave me alone, do you hear? They have driven me out because I can’t pay my room rent, and I want to rest.”

“Now see here, lady,” the watchman answered, in an argumentative tone of voice, “you must find another place to rest.” She did not reply, but looked out at the water flowing by past the big and little vessels in the river. “I want to rest,” she finally said, and then suddenly: “Don’t you know me? Don’t you know Lou? Why everyone knows me. Everyone used to know me, but they don’t now.”

Crazy Lou was not at the Black and Tan last night.

George W. Walling took this article and shortened it, losing much of the pathos:

I am told that, until recently, there was an old woman with a pathetic history who used to frequent the Black-and-Tan. Her name was Crazy Lou, and she would come in promptly at midnight and go away at two o’clock. Her face was wrinkled with years of vice. She wore an old worn shawl, and shivered in the warm room as if she were cold. No one spoke to this woman more than to say: “Hello, Crazy Lou!” and her only answer was a smile.

She had began her career in the Haymarket, a beautiful, attractive girl of seventeen. She had sat at the tables in the Cremorne and at Tom Gould’s. She had danced at Harry Hill’s and Billy McGlory’s, and finally at the Black-and-Tan. One night while the winds were blowing chill she gathered her shawl about her and went out from the dance-hall into the street. Slowly she picked her way along, and then those who were watching her lost sight of her. The next morning a corpse was found floating in East River. Crazy Lou came to the Black-and-Tan no more.

Clearly, Walling’s account, when found by Herbert Asbury, needed to be built back up again:

For many years one of the regular frequenters of the Black and Tan was an old woman known as Crazy Lou, who was said to have been a daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. At the age of seventeen she was seduced, and coming to New York to seek the author of her shame, fell into the hands of procurers, who sold her to one of the Seven Sisters in West Twenty-fifth street. When her beauty faded she was dismissed, and thereafter became a frequenter of the Haymarket, the Cremorne, Harry Hill’s, Billy McGlory’s, and finally the Black and Tan. In her old age she lived on scrapings from garbage pails, and the few pennies she could beg or earn by selling flowers. But each evening she went regularly to the Black and Tan, arriving promptly at midnight and remaining for exactly two hours. She wore a faded, ragged shawl, and always sat at a certain table in a corner, where Stephenson [sic] in person served her with a huge tumbler of whiskey which cost her nothing. This she sipped until the time came for her to leave. But one night she failed to appear, and the next morning her body was found floating in the East River. Stephenson expressed his sorrow by setting a glass of whiskey on her accustomed table each night at midnight for a month, permitting no one to sit there until two o’clock in the morning.

Clearly, more than one “fanciful pen” lent itself to the legend of Crazy Lou! No other evidence of her existence can be found.

Francis A. Stevenson’s “Black and Tan”

Herbert Asbury, in recounting the fame of the dive known as the Black and Tan (Chapter IX, Section 2), made the same mistake he had made with George H. “Snatchem” Leese: he overlooked the dynamics between the criminals, the local politicians, and the sporting society of lower New York. The proprietor of the Black and Tan was a man named Francis A. “Frank” Stevenson (1847-1906), whom Asbury (mimicking his sources) incorrectly spelled as “Frank Stephenson.” Copying his sources, Asbury portrayed Stevenson as physically akin to a vampire:

…a tall slim man with a curiously bloodless face. Contemporary writers marked his resemblance to a corpse; his face was almost as white as snow and his cheeks were sunken, while his eyebrows and hair were black as ink. His eyes were deep set. and very keen and piercing. It was his custom to sit bolt upright in a high chair in the center of his resort, and remain there for hours without displaying any other sign of life than the baleful glitter of his eyes.

Frank Stevenson was a boxing referee, prize money backer, and fight manager in the 1880s and 1890s, just the sport transitioned from open-ended bare-knuckle bloodfests to gloved, limited-round fights. He was in the ring with legendary fighters during their greatest bouts, including John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Jake Kilrain, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Jack Dempsey. Stevenson also backed black fighters, even though it was an era in which John L. Sullivan prevented any black fighters from challenging his heavyweight title.

Though well-known and respected as a honest man within the sporting community, Stevenson was demonized by the press, moral authorities, and (some) police officers, due to his several dives and dance halls, the most notorious of which was the Black and Tan located at 153 Bleecker Street. The enmity toward Stevenson was not just due to the fact that his dives catered to sins and vice (licentious dancing, prostitution, drinking) — what seemed to draw especial outrage toward Stevenson was that his establishments allowed a free mix of races: black, whites, and shades in between.

Stevenson’s critics paraded their racism. George Walling, the NYPD Superintendent prior to the heydey of Stevenson and his dives, wrote:

It is the resort of black men as well as white, but the girls are all white! This mixture of races is all the more revolting ; and the scenes which go on here in this underground dive are as bad as imagination can picture them. The main room is only about thirty feet square and is low-ceiled. There are tables around the sides of the room, and the space in the centre is reserved for dancing. At one end is the bar, kept by four bar-tenders, behind each of whom hangs a murderous-looking club to which the patrons of the dive are not strangers. One will see fifteen or twenty women in the room, and as many burly, brutal negroes. There are only traces of beauty in the women’s faces. Whatever sign of woman-hood that might have been there once is gone now.

The Black and Tan appears to have originated as a “policy shop,” i.e. an illegal lottery operation that catered to the African-Americans, who were starting to return to New York City in numbers after draft riots of the 1860s had driven many out. The area around Bleecker Street was called by some (not approvingly) “Little Africa.” Around 1881, Stevenson quietly added the basement dance hall, and his dive quickly earned a reputation as a lively resort. The Black and Tan flourished about six years, and endured at least one police raid. By the late 1880s, Stevenson had opened a different establishment, The Slide, a few doors down Bleecker Street. He later arranged for it to be run by his brother, Tom Stevenson.

The Slide gained renown as one of the few establishments where homosexuals could meet without harassment.

A police crackdown in 1892 spelled the end for many Bleecker Street dives, including those of the Stevenson brothers. Tom was sent to prison for a year for running a disorderly house, but Frank’s involvement was carefully arranged through middlemen, so he escaped punishment. He later opened another resort a few blocks distant, but it never eclipsed the notoriety of the Black and Tan. Meanwhile, Stevenson made a great deal of money from his sports gambling.

He died in 1906 at the age of 59 from complications of an automobile accident, leaving a wife and four adult children. Interestingly, his short obituary in the New York Times did not mention his dives, nor did it allude to his large role in the sporting world. Instead, it mentioned that he was a member of Tammany Hall and a friend of Richard Croker. This nugget of information explains a great deal–“Boss Croker” was the head of the political machine that had huge influence in New York City during the late 1880s and early 1890s. It was with Croker’s blessing that the vice dens of lower Manhattan thrived.

Scotchy Lavelle, Promoter of the Bowery Underworld

Though Herbert Asbury’s concept for The Gangs of New York may be justly lauded, his lack of original research and dependence on flawed secondary sources resulted in a very uneven text, in which some events and personages are magnified out of proportion, while others are given too scant attention. One of those shortchanged by Asbury was James H. Lavelle, better known as “Scotchy Lavelle,” but also by the more common variant, “Scotty Lavelle.” From the late 1880s through the 1890s, Lavelle’s dives in Chinatown harvested the pay of countless sailors, and gave “slumming” visitors from uptown and outside New York City a taste (some of it contrived) of Bowery low-life. More adventurous souls could even be helpfully steered from Lavelle’s saloons and dance halls to the opium dens operated by his Chinatown neighbors.

What little that Asbury says about Lavelle can be found in Chapter IV, Section 3, where Lavelle is listed as a Fourth Ward tough associated with Patsy Conroy’s gang of river thieves. Asbury mentions as an aside that Lavelle later operated a Chinatown resort. He mentions Lavelle’s Doyers Street dive again in Chapter XIV, Section 3, as an example of the white-owned gangster resorts that flourished in the heart of Chinatown in the 1890s.

Lavelle’s association with Conroy’s river thief gang dates to a January 1874 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a column that was reprinted and cited many times. There’s no question that Lavelle was a Lower East Side street tough–he was sent to Sing Sing in 1871 (for assault with a deadly weapon) that was initially supposed to be a sentence of 18 months, but when the judge was informed of Lavelle’s “notorious” history, he changed his sentence to five years. Lavelle was released in 1875, went to a picnic in New Jersey, got into a fight, and nearly killed a man. He was arrested in New York by none other than Captain Clubber Williams and sent to New Jersey to answer that charge.

“Scotchy” seems to have mellowed in the mid-1880s, when he embarked on his career as a saloon operator. He ran bars in several different locations in the triangle area of Chinatown bounded by Pell Street, Doyers Street, and Chatham Square. The place that made him famous was 10 Doyers Street, right in the “Bloody Angle” of that short crooked street. Today that street looks much the same as it did in his times, full of shuttered doors and modest Chinese-run enterprises, but without the white-run dens in inequity. One newspaper source asserts that Lavelle rented this property from Richard K. Fox, who then published the National Police Gazette, which had devolved from exposing official corruption to glorifying its effects.

Like Fox, Lavelle was an ardent fan of the martial arts, providing backing to both boxers and wrestlers. As a veteran street fighter himself, Scotchy was famous for coaching his waiters into being “mixed-ale amateurs,” i.e. vicious bouncers. But Lavelle also catered to uptown “slummers” looking to get a glimpse of the low-life, and partnered with Chinatown power-brokers who ran opium dens. Lavelle was a mentor and sponsor to an 1890s celebrity, “Chuck” Connors, who made a career of playing the part of a Bowery hustler. Asbury devotes more space in The Gangs of New York to the exploits of Connors than he does to Scotchy Lavelle, but while Connors was entertaining, it was Lavelle who knew all the dynamics among the street gangs, the Chinese, and the local ward politicians; this made it possible for him to operate fairly unmolested from the mid-1880s to the early 1900s.

Photo by DeShaun Craddock via Flickr; Creative Commons license for non-commercial use

In 1891, Lavelle worked to organize the Downtown Athletic Club (not the same as the one reorganized in the 1920s). At one of the early meetings, an attendee questioned Lavelle’s assumption of the presidency of that organization, which prompted a brawl in which Lavelle bit the man’s ear off (shades of the legendary Gallus Mag of twenty years earlier, but Lavelle’s episode is fully documented).

Though he catered to slummers and sailors, real violence did occur on Lavelle’s doorstep (and sometimes inside) in Doyers Street, thanks to the running battles between the Five Points gang and the Monk Eastmans and the Tong wars of the late 1890s and early 1900s. Before his death in 1908, Lavelle operated a dance hall at 7-8 Chatham Square, just around the corner from Doyers Street. He commuted to his old haunts from far north in the Bronx, where he lived with his wife and four children.

Doyers Street is a must-see for anyone looking for a remnant of the old New York City underworld, and much of its legacy belongs to Scotchy Lavelle.


Bill Lowrie, Cow-Legged Sam, and The Rising States

A major challenge in verifying the anecdotes related by Herbert Asbury in The Gangs of New York consists of not only identifying his source material and the embellishments he made to those sources, but also the validity of that source material itself. In many cases, Asbury’s sources were books written by professional newspapermen who–like Asbury himself–was relating barely-remembered names and events that took place decades earlier. Moreover, like Asbury, the writers of his source material had their own source material, rather than direct knowledge of what they wrote, and little access to documentary evidence.

Today, we take for granted the access provided by digitized newspapers, census records, court cases, etc; and before those existed, libraries and government entities provided microfilm documentation, while newspapers and libraries maintained clipping morgues, sorted by names, events, and subjects. Asbury’s sources, who wrote in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, had no such resources to call upon, other than bound copies of newspaper issues collected by libraries–the mining of which requires time and patience. Instead, Asbury’s sources relied on human memory and a very small selection of saved newspaper articles. People living in the nineteenth century had a very different perception of their recent past, because it receded so quickly.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when we delve into the facts behind the river pirates Bill Lowrie, Cow-Legged Sam McCarthy, and the saloon named The Rising States. There are fragmentary facts that suggest all existed, but the clues are so minimal and contradictory that it is hard to assess whether their notoriety was deserved. First, let’s summarize what Asbury related about these three in Chapter IV, Section 1:

  • The Rising States dive was opened on Water Street near Oliver Street by Bill Lowrie and his girlfriend, Molly Maher.
  • After the criminals Saul and Howlett were executed in 1853, leadership of their gang of river pirates (named by Asbury as The Daybreak Boys, which I’ve noted elsewhere was incorrect) devolved to Bill Lowrie and Slobbery Jim (James White.)
  • Soon after The Rising States opened, Lowrie was convicted of a burglary and sent to prison for fifteen years.
  • Cow-Legged Sam McCarthy took over leadership of the gang after Slobbery Jim fled New York City upon killing Patsey the Barber; and after Lowrie was sent to prison. McCarthy also inherited the affections of Molly Maher. After a few months, McCarthy abandoned the river thieving business and fell in with a gang of burglars hitting uptown targets.

The Rising States was in existence years before any of the river pirates came to public attention. It served as a sailor’s hotel at the corner of Water and Oliver Streets at least as early as 1848, and was still being cited as a “den of infamy” in 1865. However, there is no documentation that connects either a Lowry/Lowery/Lourie/Lowrie, etc. or a McCarthy with a saloon at this address, although a 1859 article does indicate that Cow-Legged Sam’s father ran a “low den” on Water Street–but doesn’t specify the address (there were many “low dens” along Water Street).

Cow-Legged Sam (a nickname referring to a clubfoot deformity) was a Fourth Ward tough, said to weigh 200 pounds in an age when that was behemoth, who made news for just a brief period, in 1858-1859. He was arrested for stealing money from a black sailor; and for passing counterfeit money on vendors in the city’s James Wood park. Two papers indicated his real name was Patrick McCarthy, but he used the alias “Sam Kirk,” and was called Cow-Legged Sam by others. More details about Sam, his family and his fate, are lacking.

The real puzzle is “Bill Lowrie,” the name that Asbury lifted, like his allusion to Charley Monell, from Charles Sutton’s The New York Tombs, Its Secrets and Mysteries, published in 1874. Sutton was quoting a Brooklyn Eagle article, “River Thieves,” published in January of that year (and later, in 1882, as a chapter of the National Police Gazette‘s serialized book, Crooked Life in New York). [“Bill Lowrie” also appears on Frank Moss’s American Metropolis, published in 1890, but adding nothing beyond what had been mentioned in 1874 in the Brooklyn Eagle.] So all references to a “Bill Lowrie” can be traced to one newspaper article from January 1874…which was wrong.

A thorough scour of 1850 – 1880 newspaper archives, the flash press, books, and prison records finds no William or Bill Lowry/Lowrie/Lawry/Lourie/etc., etc.

Two years earlier than the Eagle article, in 1872, Edward Crapsey published The Nether Side of New York, in which he devoted attention to famous river pirates:

“Among the first-class river thieves whose methods and dangers have been told, there are some who stand out in bold relief from their fellows as desperate and successful outlaws. James Lowry and Tom Geigan, two of this class, are relics of the Saul and Howlett gang, to which they belonged as “kids,” being then mere boys not more than ten years of age, but already noted for aptitude in crime. During the seventeen years which have elapsed since that terrible epoch they have been constantly engaged in harbor depredations whenever at liberty.

“Both have often been arrested; both have been subjected to several brief terms of imprisonment and have returned, to be again, as they have been all these years, the terrors of the East river. During their long careers they have stolen property to the value of hundreds of thousands of dollars; yet they have always lived on scanty allowance, and, it is said, are as poor now as when they served
Saul and Howlett by crawling into cabin windows. Both are men of extraordinary physical powers, which are yet unimpaired, notwithstanding their years of exposure, during which they have scarcely been visited by the rheumatism, which is the common and most terrible foe of all their tribe, as it cripples and drives out of the vocation more river thieves by seventy times seven than the law ever did or ever can. Both are men who have made thievery an art, and have practiced it with supreme indifference to everything but their own safety and profit.”

Moreover, a year before Crapsey, the New York Tribune called out James Lowrie as a river pirate:

So it appears that the mystery is solved: that “Bill Lowrie” was really “James Lowrie.”

But not so fast–just as was the case with Bill Lowrie, aside from these two mentions, a thorough scour of 1850 – 1880 newspaper archives, the flash press, books, and prison records finds no river thief named James Lowry/Lowrie/Lawry/Lourie/etc., etc.

But there are multiple citations involving a notorious river pirate named John Lourey/Lowrie. In March of 1876, the New York Times reported the arrest of “noted river pirate” John Lowery. He was sent to Sing Sing as John Lourey, 39, a machinist and resident with wife Mary of 16 Batavia Street (a now-vanished street in the Lower East Side a half block from Cherry and Roosevelt Streets).  His sentence was fifteen years, indicating it was not his first offense.

Bill, James, or John? All have newspaper citations, but only one has a Sing Sing record: John.

One-Armed Charley Monell, Reprobate

If (as it seems) Herbert Asbury delighted in telling lurid tales of New York City’s villainous and depraved, he missed a golden opportunity to expound on the career of One-Armed Charley Monell, whom he mentions briefly in Chapter III as the owner of the Hole-in-the-Wall saloon, located at the corner of Water and Dover Streets. Asbury’s source for his brief mention of Monell was Charles Sutton’s The New York Tombs, Its Secrets and Mysteries, published in 1874; but Sutton was quoting a Brooklyn Eagle article, “River Thieves,” published in January of that year (and later as a chapter of the National Police Gazette‘s serialized book, Crooked Life in New York). This article was the origin of the assertion that Gallus Mag worked in the Hole-in-the-Wall for Monell; and that Monell’s saloon was the site of many murders, including the killing of Patsey the Barber by Slobbery Jim (which, as noted in other entries in this blog, is incorrectly placed).

Charles Monell was born on North Street in Boston in 1826, but never knew his parents and spent his early years as a street waif. At the age of eleven, he joined the crew of a slaver and spent many years in service to the trade of human chattel. In 1850, he returned to Boston and worked as an agent for a sailor’s boarding house and saloon, where he assisted in robbing and shanghaiing drunken mariners. Three years later, he opened his own boarding house/dance hall. The New York Sun of November 24, 1871 continued Monell’s resume:

“…His partner was a woman known as Portland Nelly. She was Amazonian in proportions and a fit associate for her spouse. His house soon became a resort for the fallen and depraved of both sexes, and at length, by the frequency of midnight brawls, the attention of the police was called to the place. The result was the arrest of Monell and his woman and the breaking up of the establishment. Monell was sent to the House of Correction for one year and fined $500; the woman was discharged, Monell served his full time, and returned to Boston to find a slave brig ready to sail. She carried the Spanish flag, and had a Spanish captain. The crew was composed of an equal number of Spaniards and Americans. At sea the Americans mutinied and killed the captain and several of the crew. The others were made to walk the plank. The Americans, with Monell at their head, landed somewhere on the island of Cuba, but what became of the brig–whether stranded, burned, sold, or abandoned–never was or will be known.

“Monell then returned to Boston. He soon opened another boarding house. This time, however, the police denied him permission to connect a dance hall with it, hence his business did not prosper. His companion was Mary Moore, said to have been a remarkably beautiful woman, but as depraved as she was handsome. During the time they were together two dead bodies were found in the house. One of them was that of an unknown sailor, supposed to have died of apoplexy, the other that of a fallen women, said to have died of disease of the heart. Shortly after the discovery of the last body Monell and his wife quarreled and fought. The once lovely Mary was bundled off to a hospital, where she died. The neighbors said she had been kicked to death by her man.

“After her death, Monell became more dissolute and debauched than ever. He was seldom or never sober. One night his house was burned down. He was arrested, charged with arson, tried, found guilty, and sent to the Charlestown Penitentiary for two years, every day of which he served. On being released he opened another house in North street. There was a row there the first night, and a policeman who entered to quell the disturbance was dangerously stabbed. Monell was tried for felonious assault and battery, and notwithstanding that no proof was produced that he was the assailant, his bad character convicted him, and he was sent to the House of Correction for twelve months. He served a portion of his time, and one dark and rainy night made his escape. In scaling the wall he was shot at by one of the guards. The ball took effect in his right arm, near the shoulder, and completely shattered the bone. Almost helpless, bleeding and weak, he reached Boston in safety, and went on board the clipper ship Romance of the Sea, bound for San Francisco; she was in the act of hauling out from the dock when he boarded her. As soon as the ship was clear of the dock, the crew were ordered forward to cockpit the anchor. The gear broke and the anchor injured some of the men, who were sent to the hospital. Monell took advantage of the circumstance to go to the hospital with those of the crew who were injured. There his right arm was amputated, and there he was dubbed one-armed Charley.”

According to this same New York Sun article, Monell left Boston after he recovered and arrived in New York City in 1863 and quietly opened a small dive at 97 James Street. In 1864 a man was found dead in his bar, which brought Monell to the attention of his nemesis, police Captain Thomas W. Thorne. Thorne nabbed Monell on a different charge of stealing money from a sailor, resulting in a two-year State Prison sentence. While behind bars, Monell’s latest companion, a woman named Jane, died at Bellevue Hospital from injuries that neighbors said were sustained when Monell struck her over the head with a pitcher.

After serving his term, Monell returned to New York City and opened another notorious dive at 336 Water Street. After complaints were made, Captain Thorne had Monell arraigned on a charge of operating a disorderly house, but this time he was only sent to Blackwell’s Island, the city penitentiary, for three months. In 1867, Monell took over the saloon The Rising States, which formerly had been run by Johnny Lowrie [Note: Lowrie is named “Bill Lowry” in Asbury’s book, so look for another blog entry that will attempt to sort out that confusion.] Thorne shut Monell down within two months, and Monell did another three months at Blackwell’s.

Monell then ran a dance hall on New Chambers Street (at No. 13 or No. 85, according to different sources), a property leased to him by John Allen, the so-called “wickedest man in New York.” Thorne closed it after three months. In 1868, Monell opened the soon-to-be infamous Hole-in-the-Wall at 14 Dover Street; this was a side entrance to a building that fronted on Water Street, so some accounts list the Hole-in-the-Wall as being located at 279 Water Street. Monell was then protected by political friends until November, 1871, when he was charged with Assault with Intent to Kill for stabbing a man at the Hole-in-the-Wall, 14 Dover Street. He was sent to Sing Sing to serve a fourteen-year sentence in late November, 1871.

As Monell boarded the ship taking him up the river to Sing Sing, he had a few last words for the Sun reporter: “You think you know me. You don’t,” and then whispered, “You’ll never see me again.”

By 1875, Monell had been transferred to Auburn State Prison to serve the remainder of his term. From there, trace of him can’t be found. The Hole-in-the Wall building still stands, and housed the Bridge Cafe until Hurricane Sandy caused serious flood damage in 2012.

Gallus Mag and Sadie the Goat

Gallus Mag, the alleged bouncer of Charley Monell’s Hole-in-the-Wall dive on Water Street, is perhaps the most famous of all the female characters found in Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York. Asbury’s brief description of Gallus Mag was so indelible that Martin Scorsese incorporated her traits into his character of Hellcat Maggie, a different legendary woman of the Five Points area (whose historical standing is more problematic than Gallus Mag). Asbury described Gallus Mag in Chapter III:

       …a giant Englishwoman well over six feet tall, who was so called because she kept her skirt up with suspenders, or galluses. She was bouncer and general factotum of the Hole-in-the-Wall, and stalked fiercely about the dive with a pistol stuck in her belt and a huge bludgeon strapped to her wrist. She was an expert in the use of both weapons, and like the celebrated Hell-Cat Maggie of the Five Points, was an extraordinary virtuoso in the art of mayhem. It was her custom, after she had felled an obstreperous customer with her club, to clutch his ear between her teeth and so drag him to the door, amid the frenzied cheers of onlookers. If her victim protested and struggled, she bit his ear off, and having cast the fellow into the street she carefully deposited the detached member in a jar of alcohol behind the bar, in which she kept her trophies in pickle. She was one of the most feared denizens of the water front, and the police of the period shudderingly described her as the most savage female they had ever encountered.

Following this description, Asbury then cites Monell’s Hole-in-the-Wall as the saloon in which Slobbery Jim killed Patsey the Barber while Charley Monell and Gallus Mag stood out of the way.  As I’ve pointed out in other posts, this deadly action took place in a porterhouse at Slaughter House Point (Water St & James St.) in 1858, many years before Charley Monell arrived in New York and ran the Hole-in-the-Wall. Many other Asbury untruths need to be sorted through, but the gist of documented facts reveals that:

  • Charley Monell came to New York from Boston around 1863-1864, and operated a series of low dives, including one known as the Hole-in-the-Wall, between the late 1860s through to late 1871, when he was sent to prison for assault with intent to kill.
  • Gallus Mag–real name Margaret Perry (wife of John Perry)–operated a saloon with her husband at the southwest corner of Water and Roosevelt Streets between 1871 and 1874.
  • The locale and time period suggest that it’s possible that Gallus Mag, prior to having her own place with husband Jack Perry, could have worked in one of Monell’s dives–but there’s no evidence at all that she did.
  • The Perrys’ saloon, popularly known as Gallus Mag’s, was the site of many violent incidents. On one occasion, in December 1872, an officer was called into Perry’s saloon and found a drunken sailor with his hand on Mag’s throat. Jack Perry was about to strike the sailor when the policeman intervened and the sailor was thrown out. Jack and Mag then attacked the officer, knocking him down and kicking him. This is the only violent act that was ever reported on involving Gallus Mag: there were no pistols, no bludgeons, and no ear biting.
  • Ear biting was a fairly common tactic during street brawls, but severing of the ear was so rare that when it did happen and was reported to police, it was noted in newspapers. No sources can be found to confirm that Gallus Mag ever bit off or collected ears.
  • John “Jack” Perry had served a long term at Sing Sing prison from 1859-about 1870. He was released early from a 14-year sentence after he assisted an injured guard during one of Sing Sing’s many prisoner escapes in 1869. Before that, he had been an inmate in New Jersey’s State Prison. He was said to be a good friend of the notorious river pirate Bum Mahoney.
  • Gallus Mag was born in Ireland, and was said to have a frame of “ponderous” size, but was still more attractive than the dance hall girls found in her saloon.
  • All mention of Jack Perry and Gallus Mag ends in 1874. What became of them or where they went is unknown.

The only contemporary account that sheds a little light on Gallus Mag is a work of fiction published in the mid-1870s, a racy dime novel titled The Fastest Girl in New York; or, the Beauty in Man’s Clothes written by “Colonel Cabot.” In this story, Cabot’s heroine visits Gallus Mag’s saloon. However, instead of a ferocious Amazon, this is how Mag was described:

“…Jack Perry and Gallus Mag–the latter so-called from the loudness of her attire–a stout-built woman of the blonde variety, good-natured and not bad-hearted, who could take and give a joke with anyone, even if said joke was a little ‘off-color’ in point of purity, and who was behind the bar attending to business..”

Whether accurate or not, this portrayal highlights that the nickname “gallus” wasn’t specifically referring to suspenders (although that was one use of the word), but was being used in a broader sense: gallus was used as an adjective to mean cheeky/brash/boisterous, like one who thumbs out their suspender straps to swell their chest.

In Section 1 of Chapter IV, Asbury introduces “Sadie The Goat,” a female river pirate who led the Charlton Street Gang of ship raiders. Asbury relates that Sadie had a big fight with Gallus Mag, and that she lost and had her ear bit off and placed in Mag’s trophy jar; and afterwards the two women reconciled and Mag retrieved the ear flesh and gave it back to Sadie. However, there are no contemporary factual accounts of any female New York river pirates (named Sadie or otherwise) to be found in nineteenth-century books, newspapers, dime novels, or criminal records. [Note: In 1858, Maria Keys of Cleveland, OH was dubbed “Queen of the River Pirates,” but it appears her specialty was warehouse burglaries, not ship boardings.]

Nor can one find newspaper mentions of a “Charlton Street Gang.” Asbury apparently found this in Edward Crapsey’s The Nether Side of New York; or the Vice, Crime and Poverty of the Great Metropolis, published in 1872. Crapsey names the Charlton Street thieves as Flabby Brown, Big Mike, Patsey Higgins, Mickey Shannon, Big Brew, and Slip Locksley; and he also alludes to a “rumor born of a fervid imagination that they were led by a female buccaneer of marvelous beauty and great adroitness.” This is the closest one can find to being the inspiration for Asbury’s Sadie the Goat. A year prior Crapsey’s publication, the January 9, 1870 edition New York Herald published an expose of the North River (i.e. Hudson) pirates, calling them only “Big Brew’s gang,” and naming no others. An 1878 National Police Gazette articles notes the arrest of the whole gang, which it called simply the “North River Pirates,” consisting of leader William O’Day, William Scanlon, Michael Cassidy, Michael Cavanagh, John Sheehy, William Grady, Timothy Mahoney, John Finnell, Big Mike Shanahan, and Little Mike Shanahan.

Sometime in the 21st century, long after Asbury was published, Sadie’s image struck a chord as an example of a pioneering female outlaw, and she acquired a last name: Farrell. She can now be found in Wikipedia and in encyclopedias of crime under this heading, although it appears to be just a new fabrication piled on an older one.

All images to be found purporting to be of Gallus Mag or Sadie the Goat are false.

In sum, Gallus Mag was a real person, and probably was more interesting in real life than the hellion imagined by Asbury. There are no contemporary stories about any person, male or female, biting off ears and saving them in a jar. Sadie the Goat appears to be a fiction of Asbury’s; and the Charlton Street Gang, like the Daybreak Boys, was never known by that name when it existed. Once again we are left guessing whether Asbury invented Sadie’s details, or was passing along anecdotes told to him by old reporters, lawyers, or policemen. And as for One-Arm Charley Monell, he was larger-than-life, and we have a more complete list of his exploits (forthcoming).