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).