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.
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.
3 thoughts on “Scotchy Lavelle, Promoter of the Bowery Underworld”
I’m imaging that scene without the electric lights and neon signs, along with a few ne’er-do-wells in derby hats slouching in the dark corners!