Wild Bill Lovett

Asbury’s chapter on river pirates (Chapter IV, Section 3) concludes with a brief mention of a waterfront gang that was active until just a few years before The Gangs of New York was published in 1928: the White Hands of Brooklyn. Asbury mentions the three successive leaders of the gang: Dinny Meehan, Wild Bill Lovett, and Pegleg Lonergan, with very little expostulation. In doing so he overlooked one of the great gangland sagas of New York City, and the supplanting of the last great Irish waterfront gang by the Italian mafia families. Fortunately, Asbury was not the only newspaperman of the 1920s who wrote about gangster legends. In late 1929, writer Nelson Robins began a series of columns called “Famous Crime Mysteries of Brooklyn” for the Brooklyn Standard Union. The first five installments tell the story of these three gang leaders, with a focus on Wild Bill Lovett. As with Asbury, there are likely errors in Robins’ features; the gang was popularly known as the White Hand Gang from before WWI, but Robins names its post-WWI existence under Lovett as the White Horse Gang. Robins also neglected to mention that Pegleg Lonergan’s final party included insults he hurled at Italians on the premises.

Both Asbury and Robins also missed the fact that Mary Lonergan, who was Lovett’s mother-in-law and mother of Pegleg Lonergan, had also been the sister of John Brady, leader of the Yakey Yakes.

Even so, Robins’ columns present a great gangster saga, published here in its entirety for the first time:

PART ONE

The saga of Wild Bill Lovett, the bloodiest killer Brooklyn ever knew, is an epic of implacable ambition, cold blooded, calculated murder and the courage to “bump off” any man who stood in the way to gang leadership. Possessed of the intelligence which knew when to strike, which more than made up for the handicap of puny physical equipment, he proved that there is no faith between gunmen, no friendship in crime and that to shoot in the dark, from behind, is the quintessence of gang leadership.

So Wild Bill Lovett, as gay a murderer as ever shot an enemy or stabbed a rival between the shoulder blades, was harried like a weasel during his brief period of gang leadership in Brooklyn and died like a rat, bludgeoned from behind while he lay sodden with the vile bootleg which he purveyed. He died as he lived, by treacherous violence, and what glamour and romance that may be gleaned from his life comes from the spirit of the man himself and not from the victories he won nor the death he died.

Spirit he had, spirit to overcome every obstacle between himself and the goal he sought. That the goal itself was pitched in the slime of Brooklyn’s underworld was no fault of Lovett’s-that was all he knew. The manner in which he laid his course straight to his goal and let nothing -ill health, physical weakness, or police-turn him from the course he set, is what makes his spirit gleam.

All in all there are seven murders credited to “Wild Bill” Lovett by the police who watched and failed to pin a single one of them upon him. Five of these men who died with bullets in their backs stood between Lovett and leadership of the gang he longed to rule. One by one they dropped out of the contest, dropped with the look of surprise in their eyes which is typical of men who arc mortally and unexpectedly shot. In not a single case of the seven was there a clue which might connect the slight, tubercular, sharp featured little man of the twisted smile with the bullets which brought death. Police declared the seven were Lovett’s victims, but stopped short with the declaration. Lovett was arrested as a matter of form, held as long as the law allows, and then, when habeas corpus proceedings appeared imminent, turned loose to return to 25 Bridge street where he was the lord of all he surveyed.

During his life Lovett was arrested and locked up some fifteen or sixteen times, most of these in connection with murders. When he died there was but a single blot against his name on the police records. In 1912 he served six months in jail-for disorderly conduct. And that, it may be remarked, was at the beginning of his career, before he had learned the technique of crime which made him so tremendously successful in the last three years of his life.

As a matter of fact, Lovett’s whole career was crowded into less than three short years. That is, the career of which the Brooklyn police still talk and which forms the basis for long-winded and interesting reminiscences in the detective’s room at the Poplar street station, particularly. All that career was packed in between July 26, 1920, when he was discharged from the American Expeditionary force proudly wearing a Distinguished Service Cross for valor in France, and November 1, 1923, when he was found, his head crushed from behind and three steel jacketed bullets in him, in the rear room of his headquarters at 25 Bridge Street, Brooklyn. During those years, though, “Wild Bill” Lovett wrote Brooklyn’s criminal history with a broad-nibbed pen in the blood of slaughtered enemies and ruled the toughest gang of dock-wallopers that any city has ever known. And every move he made was lighted by a cold, calculating courage that would have carried him to the top in any profession for which he had been prepared.

To begin with, William Lovett was born of a respectable family in the Red Hook district in Brooklyn. The boy Bill played with “alley-rats” who came into his neighborhood; stole fruit from the vendor’s cart, cut lead pipes from vacant houses and sold them to grimy, furtive-eyed junkmen, and learned the elementary facts of crime as a basis for his future career. Like most of those with whom he roamed the streets, almost deserted in that section after the six o’clock whistle blew in the evening, he was arrested for minor little crimes. His respectable parentage got him off with lectures from the police or the magistrates before whom he was brought and he always promised not to do it again. By the time he was eighteen, in 1912 it was, his reputation was pretty well established and the police were on the lookout for him. He was educated in crime by that time, knew’ how to “roll” a drunk, pick a lock, rifle an unwatched till and, best of all, had learned where stolen goods might be disposed of without embarrassing questions as to the manner in which they were acquired. Then it was after a particularly devilish bit of skylarking in which blood was spilt, that Lovett got his first and only taste of jail after conviction. He was hauled before a magistrate and sent to jail for six months on the charge of disorderly conduct.

When he came out he had learned what the jail birds of the Raymond street jail had to teach and he was ready for his life’s work. He was alone in the world then and remained alone. From that time on, no matter how. many fawned upon him for fear or favor, he played a lone hand and there was none to squeal to the police about a shot in the back.

The best graft in that day-it was before prohibition had opened a fertile and lucrative field for men such as “Wild Bill”-was down at the docks. The dock-wallopers- stevedores on payrolls but dock-wallopers when one’s profession is proudly spoken of-had a headquarters office at 25 Bridge street. Dennis Meehan, fondly known as “Dinny,” was boss of that outfit. No man worked on the Brooklyn waterfront without Dinny’s permission and every man who rolled a hand truck paid tribute to Dinny. He got them jobs and they paid him for that service. To the docks Bill Lovett naturally gravitated and, because his build was too slight to make the hand truck job comfortable, he began at once to scheme a way to easy money and light work. Whether the bales and packages which were lost from the docks came into his hands is not known at this date, but certainly much was lost and Bill Lovett lived pretty comfortably without straining himself.

Dinny Meehan looked with growing suspicion upon the slight little man who spoke so authoritatively and there were clashes. Dinny, a big, husky Irishman who fought with fists until he was knocked cold or won his fight, could not quite make out the cold-blooded Lovett who looked him in the eye and talked like a boss, but he feared him and when they quarreled kept his eye on the bale hook which Lovett carried. He saw the gleam of the killer in Lovett’s eyes and the big two-fisted stevedore could not quite understand it. Lovett measured the big Irishman with his eye as if for his shroud, but his time had not yet come. He had too few supporters to risk an open break-and then the war came and the war fever seeped down to the Brooklyn water front. When it was at its height, with his place on the docks still unmade, Lovett for some reason enlisted and went to war.
When he enlisted for service In France, Bill Lovett selected no safe and easy job on which to expend his patriotism. He picked what was then called “the suicide squad,” a machine gun company. He wanted no sutler’s job nor easy billet behind the lines. He wanted action and his officers spotted him as a cool and skillful machine gunner as soon as they saw him in action.

One of them, in describing Lovett afterward said: “He was one of the coolest, most courageous men that-ever lived. He was callous in the face of danger and went about the business of killing the enemy as calculatingly as if he wore in a room all by himself with a job of work to do. I believe he enjoyed spraying lead into the German lines and certainly he did his work efficiently.” That officer was not alone in his opinion because when Bill Lovett was finally discharged from the army, with a sliver of shrapnel in his hip and a load of gas in his lungs, he was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in action. He didn’t care particularly for the honor. But he was careful that those with whom he came in contact after his return to Brooklyn should know about it. It gave him a halo of heroism which, combined with his cough and the slight limp earned by the shrapnel sliver, made him a figure in the Red Hook neighborhood.

Once discharged he looked the scene over as a general might and planned his campaign. He was twenty-four years old and his ambition sat heavily upon him, but the coldly calculating spirit which had carried him through a campaign in France and through battles for leadership in early youth was still with him. The doctors had told him that one lung was tubercular, due to the gas he had breathed in France. He was told that six months in a hospital might cure him. He decided that the lung was too much of a handicap and that he must wait until it was well and without protest he entered a hospital and remained there from July, shortly after he was discharged, until the first of January. Then he was told that he was still uncured. He snarled at the physician who told him. “You said I would be well in six months,” he sneered. “I know,” the doctor answered, “but we sometimes make mistakes. You are not fit for discharge yet. Six months more perhaps.” The sneer changed to a twisted snarl: “T’hell with you,” he said. “You said six months and I stuck the limit. Now you say six months more. T’hell with you. I’m going out.” And out he went. Lung or no lung he couldn’t keep down his ambition longer. He wanted action, power, leadership, and dreaming in the hospital for six months more wasn’t to his taste.

“If you go out now,” the physician said, “you won’t live six months.” The Brooklyn waterfront in January is no place, the physician thought, for a man with a bad lung. Bill Lovett smiled his twisted, crooked smile that was half a sneer. “Maybe I won’t live six months anyhow,” he answered.
He was thinking of Dinny Meehan then and of Dinny’s place that he was determined to get and wondering whether he would get Dinny or Dinny would get him. At any rate, he demanded his clothes and an hour after his defiance of health and hospital laws he left the hospital to start on the road which led straight to the dirty little back room, cluttered up with old chairs, a broken table, buckets, brooms, worn out overalls and filth, where he was found less than three years later with his head crushed in from a blow from behind.

Straight to 25 Bridge street Bill Lovett went, to where Dinny Meehan ruled the toughest, roughest gang of dock-wallopers that the world can boast. He weighed one hundred pounds on the hospital scales when he left that institution, and, wrapped in a trench coat, salvaged from his overseas service, he looked even more emaciated. His face was white and he limped a little, but his mouth was a straight slit across his face and his eyes blazed with determination. Dinny Meehan looked as big as a house when he faced Bill Lovett across the little table which he called his desk in 25 Bridge street, but it was the big man’s eyes which lowered first before he asked: ”Whatdya want?” Meehan knew Bill Lovett.

He had worked with him on the docks and there was no friendship between them. But Bill had a following; some ten or fifteen of the stevedores were ready to fight for him at any time and Meehan realized that the thin, drawn little man must be humored. “I want a gang of loaders.” Bill answered. “I’ll drive ’em. I got ’em already picked.” Meehan considered the matter. His graft came from the men he placed in jobs and to let Lovett have a gang meant that the men who worked for Lovett would be a total loss to him. Lovett, He knew, wouldn’t split his graft. On the other hand, Lovett had friends: he was a war hero and to turn him down would mean trouble and dissatisfaction with Meehan’s rule. He wasn’t afraid of trouble; Dinny Meehan loved it, but he had to think of things like that. “I’ll see about it,” he growled, and Lovett, smiling that cold, calculating smile that made big men jump out of his way later, nodded his head. “I’ll be there in the morning,” he said shortly and turning on his heel walked out.

Lovett waited for no word from Meehan, but when the whistles blew on the docks next morning he appeared with a dozen men and reported for work. He selected the job of loading freight on freight cars, the easiest of stevedoring jobs, and himself did nothing but watch his henchmen labor.
Meehan observed the invasion of his rule grimly, with tight lips, but forbore to turn Lovett down. The men whom he had picked were selected scrappers and the pick of his lot. “Wild Bill” had made no mistake in his selections. From then on they were his men. With his place on the docks established Lovett became ostensibly Meehan’s lieutenant, but he must have chuckled to himself when he thought of holding that position. He had marked Meehan’s job and place for his own. It was not long before the chance to take it came.

Lovett’s gang had been working perhaps a month when Meehan came to Lovett. “Say,” he said, “I’m not getting anything out of this gang at all. Put me on the payroll for three or four days a week and it’ll be all right.” “Yeah?” Lovett answered as the big Irishman left. When payday came around Meehan found no envelope with his name on it in Lovett’s distribution. His brow darkened. He knew his rule was being defied. He called Lovett to a corner of the dock shed where they would be concealed by the freight cases. “How about my pay envelope for last week?” he asked. Lovett sneered openly as he answered: “There ain’t any.” Meehan blustered and made as if to smash the little man with his fist. “You —— – ————-,” he thundered. “Think you can buck me, eh?” Show up on this dock to-morrow and I’ll kick you into the East River.” Lovett turned on his heel as if Meehan were not worthy of attention. “Yeah?” he questioned as he walked away.

That night Meehan was shot to death as he lay in bed beside his wife.

PART TWO

Nobody had to tell Bill Lovett that Dinny Meehan had been shot. The stevedores who gathered in the boss’s room at 25 Bridge street were talking about Dinny’s murder and speculating, with fairly accurate results, as to who the murderer was, when Lovett strode into the little room.
His face was white, the stevedores said, and his eyes were blazing with a cold light. He didn’t hesitate when he walked in, and the husky men, any one of whom could have lifted up the slight form and broken it across his knee, parted as he entered. Lovett nodded curtly to those who stood aside and walked straight to Meehan’s chair and sat down. Then looking straight into their eyes he told the big men, most of them holding bale hooks in their hands: “From now on I’m boss in here. I’ll be detained up at the police station for a day or two but when I come back I’m going to be boss.” Before the police arrived to get him, as he knew they would, he had assigned the men to their jobs and promoted lieutenants to take charge of them while he was away.

There was no evidence that Lovett had anything to do with Meehan’s death. The detectives assigned to the case did their best, but theirs was a fruitless quest. Whoever had murdered Meehan had quietly placed a chair in front of his bedroom door-he lived at 432 Warren street, by-the-way-shoved a gun through the transom while he stood on the chair and blazed away. Mrs. Meehan, sleeping beside her husband, was suddenly awakened by the agony of a searing bullet and shrieked out in the dark for her husband’s aid. For a while she could not understand or realize what had happened. The agony of her wound was terrible and she was dazed and weak from shock. Finally she realized that the mighty fumbling, heaving beside her were the death struggles of her husband, who died without knowing what had happened. By the time neighbors arrived in answer to her screams of pain and terror, Meehan was dead and Mrs. Meehan so incoherent that it was some time before she could tell what had happened. Whoever had slain the stevedore boss had gone without leaving any clue by which he could be traced.

And the next morning Bill Lovett had claimed leadership over Meehan’s gang. Whether Lovett was the killer or not the stevedores over whom he ruled now believed him to be Meehan’s slayer and he held his position by bloody succession. They looked on him now with new reverence and when he gave an order there was no slackening of discipline. They obeyed him. His authority from that time until he died was never questioned although attempts were made to remove him from his leadership. And Bill Lovett was no easy boss. He imposed a new scale. Stevedores were making too much money, he thought, so when wages were $6 a day he took $2 from each man who worked under him. When wages dropped to $4 he took $1. No man could get a job on the Brooklyn docks without his aid and woe to the man who held out on the boss. For the first offense the one who held out was given a beating. And a Brooklyn waterfront beating is something to be remembered. For the second hold-out the offender was sent to the hospital, with perhaps a broken bone or two. One or two such offenders were found with a bullet in the back. It was supposed that this was the penalty for a third offense. No rule book was ever issued but there was very little difficulty in collecting tribute.

All this time Dinny Meehan’s friends sat by, saw his place taken by the usurper and planned to avenge his death. One of these was Tim Montague, a husky, two-fisted Irishman who spoke too openly. He and Frank Byrnes were the only two men who, according to the police and members of the gang, were marked for death and still live. Montague had the temerity to speak his mind about the death of Dinny Meehan, and at first he got away with it. Then it was observed that others, emboldened by his immunity, began to talk, too. Lovett watched them between half closed lids that hid the killer gleam in his eyes, and smiled crookedly at their bravado. He spoke sharply to Montague and got a hot reply as Montague left the office of the stevedore boss. That night Montague, in a speakeasy beneath the bridge, boasted of his defiance of the boss. He wasn’t afraid of any Lovett that ever lived, and, with the fog of whiskey on him, wasn’t afraid to meet him right now and have it out. Finally Montague left the speakeasy, unsteady on his feet and careless of the shadow in the rear of the hallway as he came down the steps. As he walked through the narrow hall to the street his figure was outlined clearly against the dim light of the entrance.

From behind him an automatic blazed once, twice, three times and Montague slumped down to the floor with three bullets in his back. Those who were crowded in the same speakeasy upstairs heard the shots but were chary of investigating. Outside the sound must have been less loud because the first to find Montague were those who came carefully downstairs seeking news of what had happened. Montague was carted off to a hospital where his wounds were found to be serious but not fatal. Something had gone wrong with the killer’s aim and the bullets which had been intended for vital organs lodged in solid flesh and muscle. No one had seen the killer emerge from the hallway. No one had heard anything to indicate his identity. But before morning Wild Bill Lovett was safely locked in a cell at the police station where he remained while detectives made strenuous efforts to pin the crime upon him. With nothing to show that Lovett was anywhere near the speak­easy that night, with Montague absolutely ignorant as to who shot him and not a soul among the gang, whether they were friends of Meehan’s or not, to swear even to a battle of words between the two, the police finally gave up in despair and turned Lovett loose. They had no evidence.

The luck that deflected the bullets from Montague’s vitals came also to Lovett when he was freed from the police cell. Both Meehan and Montague still had friends. And friends with money enough to do their killing in approved style. The rich pickings from bootlegging were being enjoyed. Lovett was up to his neck in that racket now and his henchmen-and some of them, remember, were still friends of Meehan-had their pockets filled with money. As he left the police station Lovett looked for a taxicab to take him back to Bridge street. Pegleg Lonergan had suggested coming for him but the time of his release was uncertain and Bill had rejected the offer. “I’ll come by myself,” he told Pegleg. “Wait for me at the office.” So he sauntered unguarded down the street to the corner and turned. As he turned an automobile which had followed him turned also. The blinds were drawn, but the window was down.

As the automobile came abreast of Lovett, stepping rapidly down the street, the muzzle of a pistol was shoved through the open window and two shots spat out. Lovett leaped into the air as the automobile passed on and then fell in a crumpled heap. A crowd gathered and an ambulance came clattering up. Police chased in the direction of the cloaked and curtained automobile and came back empty-handed. At the hospital Lovett was found to be only slightly wounded and within a week or two he was out again. When police questioned him as to who had shot him, Lovett’s lips closed in a thin line and he turned his back to them. He would tell nothing. He had told nothing when he left the hospital. Then, six months later, he told who shot him.

Garry Barry, Meehan’s right-hand lieutenant, was found shot in the back, stone dead, without a clue to the murderer. As a matter of course, Wild Bill Lovett was arrested. He laughed at the police who took him to the station house. His alibi was as airtight as a can of peaches. Again detectives, as certain that Lovett had killed Barry as they were of their own names, racked their brains and wore out good shoe leather trying to prove who killed him, without getting a clue that would hold water. Then they released Bill. As he started from the police station he grinned crookedly at the detectives who had used him none too kindly. “You guys are all off,” he said. “I didn’t kill Garry. I’d liked to have killed him. The ———— was the guy who shot me when I left the police station after being held for shooting Tim Montague.”

And, having no clues on which to work, the detectives just had to sit there and take his gibes.

PART THREE

For more than a year after the death of Garry Barry, Bill Lovett ruled his small world with a rod of iron, or, in the vernacular of the underworld, with a rod that blazed. The deaths of Meehan and Barry, the cold-blooded ambush of Tim Montague and the razor edge escape of Frank Byrnes brought the leader that respect that an absolute monarch gained from those whose lives depended upon his humor.
The escape of Frank Byrnes from the death that lurked behind the door of the vestibule of his home was something to make those who live down near the docks think twice. Byrnes was another of the gang who would have fought to the death for Dinny Meehan. Meehan had been his friend for years and the two had faced cops and rival gangsters together, fighting shoulder to shoulder. Byrnes lost a good friend when Meehan was slain.

The legend regarding the escape of Byrnes is somewhat hazy but it is fairly certain that Byrnes had failed to knuckle under to the new leader and resented his authority. Such an attitude will not do in gangland and Lovett’s cold eyes gleamed again with the lust to kill. There was no altercation, no threats: that was not the way of the leader of what was now known as the “White Horse Gang.” The name “White Horse,” by the way, was selected because the Scotch whisky which bore the White Horse label was now the chief product of the gang. They brought it into the Red Hook district, over the Brooklyn waterfront, in consignments so large that it flowed like water on off nights.
While Byrnes sulked. Lovett pondered with the cold gleam in his eyes and bided his time. He made no motion to show Byrnes that he was especially out of favor, but Byrnes had that chill foreboding that something was in the air and he walked warily.

One night Byrnes, too careful now to drink overly much, came to his home after midnight. The street was deserted and there was an eerie appearance over the night. His footsteps sounded loudly as his husky feet hit the pavement. There was no soul in sight and there was light enough from the street lamps to see everything pretty distinctly. Byrnes walked more slowly as he neared his home. He glanced behind each tree and into each areaway. There was nothing to disturb him. He began to whistle, probably to keep his courage up, as he neared his front door. Maybe he was glad to get home. Then he noticed something and the hair on the back of his neck began to crawl upward. The door to the vestibule of his home was open. Just a crack, but open just the same. Byrnes, no coward under any condition but a man who loved life, stopped dead in his tracks. His whistle faded into nothingness. What was behind that door?

He did not wait to answer that question but started backward, taking long careful steps until he wan out of the range of a gun pointed from behind that cracked door. Then he turned and, again in the vernacular, “beat it.” There was a killer behind that door. Whether it was Wild Bill Lovett never will be ascertained, but a word dropped here, a phrase caught there told the gang that Frank Byrnes was as near death that night as he ever would be and return to tell the tale. Some time after the last echo of Byrnes’ flying feet bounded in the quiet street, a slim figure, with one hand dug deep into a bulge in his coat pocket, slipped out of the vestibule and with glances up and down the street faded into the shadows of the side street and was gone.

Dan Gillen was not so fortunate. He believed that if ever a man was safe it was in a crowd. He won the disfavor of Bill Lovett and was under the death sign that descended upon Lovett’s enemies. Gillen knew that the shadow was upon him and never went alone anywhere. Even when running liquor in, when all members of the gang were guaranteed safety by the leader, he always made it a point to have others near him. When left alone on the dock, it was said afterward, Gillen would scramble around until he found somebody to be near.
He was sticking to this program one night when a consignment of White Horse had been safely brought in. The speakeasy where the gang made merry was pretty well crowded with longshoremen, drinking their liquor and now and again singing a stave of a deep sea chantey. It was getting pretty late and the liquor had warmed them well when the thing happened. The chantey was led by a young Irishman with a hairy chest and a round full voice, and the whole company came in strong on the chorus. Everybody was singing when something sounded like a smack-but nobody paid any attention until suddenly Dan Gillen gave a sort of a cough and a cry combined and fell in a heap on the floor. “He got me-He got me.” Gillen cried. “Right in the crowd he got me.”

Examination showed that Gillen had been neatly plugged with a steel-jacketed bullet and the cry he gave as he fell was his last. When the ambulance physician arrived he was dead. Immediately there was a charge that Bill Lovett, slipping up the steps to the door, had opened it wide enough to get his pistol muzzle through and, when the chorus was at its height, had put Dan Gillen where he would trouble his leadership no longer. But again there was no evidence.

So with Sammy di Angelo, who incurred the leader’s displeasure. His body, mysteriously shot, was found where the killer had potted him. Police went after Lovett again and again without evidence. Bill didn’t even take the trouble to protest much. He merely asked in a tone of injured innocence: “Can’t anybody be murdered in this district by somebody else? I can’t kill ’em all.”

A little while afterward he was freed and walked into a trap that might have been set by himself for some of the recalcitrants of his own gang.
Members of Lovett’s gang declared this trap was set by another gang, but they failed to specify the gang. As a matter of fact, the White Horse Gang was so strong under Lovett’s leadership that no other gangsters dared challenge them and the police never for an instant believed that it was other than friends of Dinny Meehan and Garry Barry who almost sent Bill Lovett to join that pair.

It was on the cold clear morning of January 3, 1923, that a policeman, keeping an eye open for signs of trouble, always plentiful in that neighborhood, saw the door to the shanty at 289 Front street open. He peered inside and jumped with the shock of it. Inside the room into which he looked were hundreds of bottles of home brewed beer. The floor was literally covered with them, stacked up like regiments of soldiers.
And in the midst of the home brew, apparently dead, lay Wild Bill Lovett.

The policeman shrilled his whistle and before long a wagon-load of policemen and an ambulance from Greenpoint Hospital were racing to that shack. The policemen were not needed. Lovett was unconscious with three bullet wounds through his left breast. The ambulance surgeon shook his head and considered whether to take him to the accident ward or the morgue. He thought the trip to the ward unnecessary.
But none of the bullets had pierced Lovett’s heart, although all were near, and there was life enough in him to get the credit for killing three more men before his time came. Miraculously he regained consciousness and more miraculously he began to mend. Before he began to mend, when the doctors believed this frail little consumptive would “kick off” at any minute, the police asked him who shot him. He shook his head saying: “It’s give and take in this game. When I get it I take it and say nothing.”

And then he recovered to have the most successful murder year of his career.

PART FOUR

The physicians who cared for Lovett said afterward that nothing in the world kept him alive but indomitable courage. He was a sullen patient, brooding over his thoughts, mapping out his revenge for the attempt to blot him out of existence. He never hinted at who it might be who shot him. He did tell the detectives who questioned him that he was shot at the corner of Front and Gold streets, a short distance from the shanty where he was found, but never a suggestion of who shot him.

His frailty did not appear to influence his determination to live, although it did make his recovery slow. It was getting on toward spring before he was strong enough to leave the hospital. It had been nearly two years since he had been given six months to live before he died of tuberculosis and he had been shot twice during that time. So he had some right to take his time about getting well.

Once on his feet, however, no time was lost. In May James Martin died very suddenly by reason of a couple of bullets from an automatic passing through his heart. No one saw Wild Bill Lovett fire the pistol. No one saw the shooting, as a mater of fact, but there was no need to publish in the newspapers that Martin had a hand in the shooting of Bill Lovett on Jan. 3. The members of the White Horse Gang nodded sagely and said: “Just what we expected.” Then a little later Lovett, after scouring his district in search of someone, asked a group of gangsters: “Where’n hell is Tom Quilty? I haven’t seen him lately.” Up spoke Jim Healy. “He’s up in the speakeasy at Jay and York streets.” Nothing more was said. Quilty was in the speakeasy with twelve other men, taking their ease and enjoying their liquor, as has been the privilege of longshoremen since ships were invented.

Suddenly there was the sound of a shot. Every manjack in the room swore to the detectives who questioned them later that he had neither heard the shot nor seen the killer. But there was poor Tom Quilty dead on the floor. The longshoremen shrugged their broad shoulders and that was all there was to it. Lovett got full credit for the killing. Then Eddie Hughes got his. Eddie was an excellent and dependable gunman and it was the belief of the detectives who worked on the mysterious shooting of Bill Lovett on Jan. 3 that Eddie had a hand in it. Lovett never mentioned his name but when the time came Hughes paid his reckoning with his life blood and no one could be found to say Bill had murdered him. There was a tremendous hue and cry for a while. It was summer when the thing happened and news was slack.

Newspaper editors demanded that police stop the gang killings and the victims attributed to Lovett’s gun were tabulated but there was no more evidence that Wild Bill Lovett had killed Eddie Hughes than that he had killed President Garfield. Police, of course, said there was no doubt of it. Gangsters whispered out of the sides of their mouths that of course Bill “had done Eddie in,” and why not? But so far as getting a case against the gang leader in court-It just couldn’t be done.

Then a funny thing happened. Police entering a restaurant one night saw Lovett throw something away. They grabbed him and looked to see what had been thrown away and it was a pistol-a little blue steel automatic. They whooped with joy and locked him up on the charge of violating the Sullivan act. It was the first thing they had gotten on him since 1912, when he served six months for calling a policeman a blankety-blanked so-and-so. The Grand Jury brought in an indictment and the district attorney mapped out his case.

There wasn’t much to it. The police testified that they had found the gun which Lovett threw away. Lovett swore with equal fervor that it was a frame-up. That he never had a gun and if he had had one he would have used it instead of throwing it away. That was a telling argument.
The jury, having heard of his alleged crimes, was divided. Some believed he would have used it had he had the gun. Others would have jailed him on his reputation. The result was a disagreement and a mis­trial. Pegleg Lonergan appeared with $5,000 bail money and Wild Bill Lovett was free again.

That was the time when another jury had decided that Pegleg Lonergan’s mother, who was also the mother of thirteen other children, had not killed his father, who had been shot in front of his bicycle store some weeks before, and Pegleg, his mother and his sister Anna were celebrating that event. Wild Bill had fallen in love with Anna some time before. Her frail beauty, and she was a beauty, captured his imagination and she was the only girl he ever really loved. Unfortunately for romance, she was too young for marriage when he first loved her, being only fourteen years old. Now, however, she was fifteen and a beauty and she worshipped Bill Lovett. At the dinner celebrating the freedom of Anna’s mother and sweet­heart Bill turned to ber suddenly and said: “I’m washed upon the whole business now-let’s get married.” Anna squealed with delight, as girls will do under such stress, and nodded happily.
Ten minutes later the whole company, more than a dozen, piled into taxicabs and sped down to the marriage license bureau. That bureau had just closed for the day but the clerk was persuaded, without gun­play, to open it and issue just one more license, and they were married then and there. There was a group of reporters at the ceremony and when it was over Lovett turned to them saying: “Now, if there are any more murders in the next two weeks they ain’t mine; I’m honey­mooning at Long Beach.”

By the time the two weeks *were over Anna had persuaded Bill that the gang leadership was all bunk and that a cottage over in Jersey with a job attached was the real thing. He finally agreed and she took enough of his money to make her dream come true. She purchased a little white cottage near Little Ferry, N.J., with green blinds and a porch. She filled it with furniture and they started housekeeping.
Sometimes Bill would get nervous and fidgety, and she knew the signs. Then she would pack up a lunch and they would go on long hikes along the Palisades. Bill began to fill out. His ribs disappeared under a covering of flesh and the lean face that held so much terror for his enemies became round and smooth. He declared he never enjoyed himself so much. Ho was in love, had married the girl and was living like a human being. He gained weight until he weighed 150 pounds, and most of the extra poundage was due to happiness. Then late in October he told Anna that he had to go to New York on business. Important business. She made him promise not to go to Brooklyn and he crossed his heart-he would go only to Manhattan and come right back. She never saw him alive again.

Two days later a policeman kicked in the door of the back room at 25 Bridge street and found all that was mortal of Wild Bill Lovett. The back of his head had been crushed in with a heavy piece of iron. So crushed that the splintered bone penetrated the brain and death must have been instantaneous. In addition his murderers had shot him three times in the head after he was dead-just to make sure he would not stage another comeback. Pegleg Lonergan and Joe Byrne, both devoted friends and lieutenants, were the last of his friends to see him alive. They told police that they had been drunk, all three of them, for two days. Finally Bill “pawed out” and they took him to 25 Bridge street to sleep it off. Both stayed to finish the bottle they brought with them and then, early in the morning, left him sleeping.

Police detectives believed their story. The friendship between the three was well-known-but there was no clue to the killers. They had done their work efficiently and without display. It was believed that the murderers were friends of Dinny Meehan and the police were content to let it go at that. Privately the detectives who had worked themselves thin over the various murders attributed to Lovett believed that his murderers should have been given the thanks of the city-but they would like to have caught them and made a clean job of the whole gang business.

Anna came all the way from Little Ferry in a taxicab, with the display of hundred dollar bills that gang leaders widows must have, and wept heart-brokenly over Bill’s body. She swore that a woman was at the bottom of it, but detectives knew that Bill had never mixed up with women and they let her have her cry out. Bill was given a military funeral adequate to a winner of the Distinguished Service Medal and a battalion of his overseas comrades of the Thirteenth Machine Gun Battalion, Company C, of which Bill had been a member, fired a salute and blew taps over his grave.
Then Pegleg Lonergan, Bill’s brother-in-law and most trusted lieutenant, took over his leadership of the White Horse gang and for more than two years tried to persuade himself and the other members of the gang, that he was a real leader. That leadership ended on Christmas morning in 1926.

PART FIVE

The mantle of Wild Bill Lovett was somewhat ample for the abilities of Pegleg Lonergan. The ends trailed on the ground and Pegleg was so busy gathering up the folds that he lost much time which might have been used in leadership. By that time, though, the gang was dealing exclusively in liquor. The old hard-headed, two-fisted longshoremen had left and in their places came sleek-haired, well-groomed youths who might come as well from Times Square as Red Hook. There was more money in the gang and less willingness to labor. Prohibition had gotten in its deadly work and instead of hard-hitting, rough-and-tumble Irishmen who would fight with their fists at the drop of a hat and have their heads battered off for a leader, there were well-dressed, wisecracking gangsters who knew their stuff- and their stuff had to do mostly with liquor and women.

Not that the later members of the gang were not deadly. They were more so. Instead of trying to knock each other’s heads off they took their enemies for rides from which they did not return. Theirs was the natural evolution of the gang under the influence of easy money during prohibition. While it is hard to ascertain what really happened to the gang, it is safe to say it was not the compact group that existed under Bill Lovett and Dinny Meehan. There was business enough for all, and concerted action was only necessary when there was a load of liquor to be landed. Later they didn’t bother about landing the liquor. That came into Sheepshead Bay and when they could get it they did so. But when real liquor was scarce they were satisfied to peddle cut alcohol and moonshine to their customers.

At any rate Pegleg was the nominal head of the gang and his influence with a certain group was strong. When there was a job to be done Pegleg issued the call, and he was content. He had no overwhelming ambition to be a leader such as that which scorched Bill Lovett’s brain.
He was content to let things rock along if there was enough liquor, sufficient attention from the girls who frequented the speakeasies where he held court, and a man or two at hand to give orders to. Under his easy leadership discipline became slack and the gang became more or less a number of scattered units rather than a cohesive group. This led to what happened as directly as water seeks its level.

The section of Brooklyn which was supplied with liquor by the White Horse gang was rich territory for bootleggers and there were other gang leaders who looked with glistening eyes at the loot to be gathered. The district was organized by Bill Lovett and the speakeasy owners knew to whom to look for liquor. They too were satisfied. It was the yearn for easy money that other leaders had which brought Pegleg Lonergan low.
Things had been quiet on the surface for a year or more when the final blow-off came.

Pegleg, in his genial, rumbling, bluffing manner had warned off the gangsters who wished to cut in on his territory. A man or two had been killed in battles that made citizens hop to one side and policemen curse, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. Those who were not in the inner circle of the gang believed that all was well with the world, that Christmas liquor was coming in plentifully, of good grade and reasonable in price, and that Pegleg Lonergan was sitting on the top of the world. Pegleg thought so, too.

Then came Christmas Eve of 1926. And Pegleg decided to “throw a party.” Accompanied by four of his most faithful henchmen Pegleg chose the speakeasy of Jack Stabile, otherwise known as The Adonis Club, as the scene of his Christmas Eve party. The five of them took possession of one of the two rooms which made up the club quarters and proceeded to make merry. The fairer and frailer sex was represented bountifully by two girls whose names do not matter. Each declared later that she had no soft spot in her heart for Pegleg but each wept as though her heart was broken- for Pegleg was quite a lad with the ladles. One of them told the story between sobs to the detectives. But that was after it all happened.

The first intimation of the foray which marked the end of Pegleg Lonergan’s leadership of the White Horse gang, and the final blow that destroyed the gang, came when Patrolman Richard Moran saw something white lying across the curb on his beat at four o’clock on Christmas morning. Moran went closer and bent over the white thing which he had seen. It was a hand, a man’s hand, and attached to it, in the shadow of the gutter, was the body of Needles Ferry, long unfavorably known to the Greenpoint police. Mr. Ferry was very and completely dead.
Moran rapped his nightstick and blew his whistle and soon there was a patrol wagon load of policemen, members of the homicide squad and a deputy chief inspector on the ground. Moran turned the whole matter over to his superiors.

A spot or two of blood led the detectives upstairs into the quarters of the Adonis Club. The detectives found the lights still on, the beer still cold, several untouched drinks on the bar, and the bodies of Pegleg Lonergan and Aaron Harms, back to back, their guns still in their hands, but emptied of all bullets-and both stone dead and laden with lead. A bar rag lay on top the mahogany, right where the bartender’s hand had guided it up to the moment of the first shot. After that first shot the rag never moved from where the bartender dropped it as he fled.

From what they observed the detectives judged that there had been a sudden descent upon the merrymakers in the club, a barrage of pistol shots, quick murder and then a wild stampede of those who were left alive. One of the frail denizens of the place explained later what happened. “Pegleg and his friends came in about midnight,” she explained, “and said they were celebrating. Pegleg was in fine spirits and was all lit up like a church at Christmas. He wanted everybody to drink with him and everybody was willing to drink. ‘Come on in and drink,’ he’d call to everyone who came in. ‘It’s my party and I want to celebrate.’
“That kept up until nearly 3 o’clock. Everybody was having a fine time, liquor was coming fast and the boys and girls were singing, The whole place had a Christmas air. “There were some other people in the other room, but we didn’t pay any attention to them. They hadn’t come into the room where we were and we judged they were celebrating, too.

“Then suddenly something happened. I don’t know what it was, but Pegleg jumped to his feet and pulled out his gun. Three of the men who came in with him made a break for the door. Pegleg didn’t run and Harms stayed with him. There were two doors between the two rooms and I saw four men, two in each door, coming in. They had their pistols leveled and began to shoot.

“One bullet caught Needles Ferry as he went out of the door and I heard him yell and fall down the stairs. One of the men called to another, ‘Get ’em out of the window,’ and that man went back into the other room. The others began shooting.
“Pegleg and Harms stood back to back shooting as fast as they could. I saw one of the men stumble over like he was hit and then Pegleg and Harms went down together, still back to back. The men kept on shooting until their pistols clicked and then ran out. I heard the fourth man shooting in the next room-and then I got away from there.”

That was the last of the White Horse gang. The organization which Dinny Meehan had gathered around him and which Bill Lovett had welded into a compact, efficient bootlegging organization was scattered by the pistol shots which wiped out the last leader of the gang and his lieutenants. A number of men were arrested in connection with the murder but not one could be connected with the shooting. They had descended upon Pegleg and his lieutenants as they made merry, shot them down, quickly and efficiently without the expenditure of any maudlin sympathy, and opened the district for more efficient distribution of liquor.

Among those who were rounded up by the police in connection with the murder of Pegleg, Harms and Needles Ferry was a suave, smooth­-faced gentleman whose rosy cheek was disfigured by a livid scar. He gave his name as Alfredo Capone. Later, after he had been discharged from custody with a clean bill of criminal health, which he still maintains in Chicago, New York and everywhere else but Brooklyn, he became better known as “Scarface Al” Capone, and steered free of all criminal entangle­ments until last spring, when he was unfortunate enough to be caught in Philadelphia with a pistol in his pocket. He is still serving the sentence of a year and a day in the Philadelphia jail.

 

Battle Annie (not to mention Spitting William, Euchre Kate, and Mallet Murphy)

“Battle Annie” was one among the pantheon of combative women that Herbert Asbury presented to his readers. Asbury never ascribed a last name to her, but if you search the Internet today, you will learn that the hive mind has identified her as “Annie Walsh.” She is credited with leading a women’s adjunct of the Gopher gang, which prevailed over the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of western Manhattan in the early 20th Century; except the hive mind suggests her activities took place in the 1870s-1880s. Which means she had nothing to do with the Gopher gang.

Whether you believe Battle Annie was a real person at all depends on your credulity of the writings of a certain 1920’s New York newspaperman who liked to add color to his accounts of underworld doings. No, that writer was not Herbert Asbury. It was Asbury’s source for the story of Battle Annie, New York Herald night editor William A. Davenport, who introduced Battle Annie in the pages of the Herald of September 18, 1921. His article was titled “Hell’s Kitchen Drops From Real Battling to Mere Murder.” Davenport had this to say about Battle Annie:

Ask present day cops how the place became known as Hell’s Kitchen and the consensus of opinion has it that the women of the district were responsible. It might be stretching a point to refer to the adherents of Annie Welsh as a gang or a mob. Certainly it would fall short of gallantry. Yet, they say, Annie Welsh and her “lady friends” could do more execution when irritated than most of the bands of their men folk.

Annie gained the wholly merited nom de guerre of Battle Annie, and, it is said, she gathered around her twenty or twenty-five Amazons who, having washed the supper dishes or having thrown them at their husbands, were wont to assemble in the back room of a saloon near Tenth Avenue and drink beer. After a measure of beer drinking it would occur to Annie that a housewife in Thirty-Eighth street had insulted her or made unflattering allusion to her youngest offspring.

Annie then became Battle Annie. With her Valkyries following on, she would descend upon the Thirty-Eighth street hussy and a fight that only lacked a more worthy cause and vaster numbers to be classified with that which occurred at Montfaucon [WWI battle] was on. That these engagements were not of the hair pulling and face scratching variety is seen in the fact that now and then a “lady” was done to death or was permanently blinded or was scalded or rolling pinned that she subsequently died.

Davenport’s account makes it difficult to place Annie in any particular decade, other than it was before 1914. The locus of misery in Hell’s Kitchen was a notorious tenement block at Thirty-Ninth Street and Eleventh Avenue known as Battle Row. To the great confusion of later researchers, there were two Battle Rows in Manhattan, the other being on the upper east side, a section of Harlem. Brooklyn and Jersey City also had Battle Rows, as did other cities.

Absent from Davenport’s article is any connection between Annie Welsh and the Gopher gang, or Asbury’s “Battle Row Ladies’ Social and Athletic Club” or “Lady Gophers.” Davenport also never mentioned that Battle Annie hired her followers out to strikers or employers.

Somewhere along the way, Battle Annie has earned the title of being “the most feared brick hurler of her time.” Davenport did mention something like this in his article, anointing “the champion heavyweight female brick hurler of the district.” But he was referring not to Battle Annie, but to Euchre Kate Burns, the love interest of Spitting William.

Outside of Davenport and Asbury, no other references to an Annie Welsh/Walsh (or Euchre Kate, or Spitting William, or Mallet Murphy) can be found. From tone of Davenport’s article, it does seem like he talked to several police veterans of Hell’s Kitchen, who may have supplied him with some memorable anecdotes. For that reason solely we can not dismiss Battle Annie as a total fabrication.

Piker Ryan’s List of Thug Services

The block below (from The Gangs of New York, Chapter XI, Section 1) is one of the most famous passages in Asbury’s book, and is likely its most cited and quoted piece of text. It is now found in innumerable histories of New York, gang violence, organized crime, works of fiction and even forensic textbooks. Your humble blog author even has the uneasy feeling that he has quoted it in the past. If you suspect (to your great disappointment) that I’m about to debunk it–read on, because there is hope!

…The pioneer in this method of procuring clients was Piker Ryan, who appears to have been a thug of exceptional enterprise. When he was at length brought to book for one of his many crimes, the police found this list in his pocket:

Punching $2

Both eyes blacked 4

Nose and jaw broke 10

Jacked out (knocked out with a blackjack) 15

Ear chawed off 15

Leg or arm broke 19

Shot in leg 25

Stab 25

Doing the big job 100 and up

Ryan made good use of his opportunities, as was apparent from a notebook which was also in his possession. One page was headed “Jobs,” and below the heading were half a dozen names. Some had check marks after them, which Ryan explained meant that the tasks had been completed to the satisfaction of his clients.

Asbury placed this mention of Piker Ryan right in the middle of his discussion of the Whyos, the gang of all-around thieves and thugs that thrived in the late 1870s and 1880s, but who had all but disappeared by the 1890s. Helpfully, Asbury provided a mug shot of Piker Ryan, set among the other famous Whyos.

Asbury’s Piker Ryan

Asbury found this image in Thomas Byrnes’s 1895 edition of Professional Criminals of America, where it appeared as:

And what does Thomas Byrnes say about Patrick Ryan? Byrnes wrote:

ENGLISH PADDY and his companion, Mike Kelly (No. 497), are two English pickpockets.
They have been in this country but a short time, so that nothing much is known of them.
Either or both of them are liable to turn up at any moment. Ryan was sent to the penitentiary
on Blackwell’s Island, New York City, on February 8, 1893, for an attempt to rob a man at
Barclay Street ferry.
Picture taken February, 1893.

There is no indication that Patrick Ryan was ever a Whyo (he arrived years after their heydey), or a violent thug, or went by the nickname “Piker.” Indeed, if you search newspaper archives, book texts, periodical databases, and prison records from the 1870s through the early 1900s, you will not find anyone referred to as “Piker Ryan.” Nor will you find the supposed shopper’s menu of crimes quoted above. And you will not find any reference to “Piker Ryan” in any of Asbury’s listed source material.

Herbert Asbury first mentioned Piker Ryan in an article on gangsters that he wrote for the New York Sun magazine section of July 20, 1919. In that article, Asbury said that Ryan flourished “about 1900 or thereabout.” There was no mention of the Whyos.

Despite Asbury’s inconsistent framing of Piker Ryan’s list, it turns out he did have a source: an October 23, 1909 article in the New York Evening Post entitled “Under Tammany,” written without a byline. The article profiled the unchecked gang activity that took place in New York under the watch of Tammany politician Big Tim Sullivan. Down in the article, the author writes: “They have their prices for any job politicians or other persons may call upon them to perform. ‘Piker’ Ryan’s price list has become a classic, ranging from $5 for ‘chawing off an ear’ to $200 for the ‘big job.'” [Note the price differences from Asbury’s list].

Asbury was an 18-year-old living in Missouri at the time this article was written, so he was not the author. The implication of the mention is that “Piker Ryan’s price list” had been circulated previous to 1909, and that many people had known about it. Perhaps it was once an object in New York’s police museum. However, the original reference to the list, as well as the identity of Piker Ryan, still remain a mystery.

To conclude, there is hope for believing that the list might have really existed. Needless to say, a crook would have to be an idiot to carry around such an incriminating piece of paper. Unfortunately, the fate of pickpocket Patrick “English Paddy” Ryan can’t be traced, but his infamy (likely undeserved, if he was not “Piker”) outlasted him.

The Many French Madames

Herbert Asbury appears to have had an affinity for ferocious female figures, from Gallus Mag [real, but not documented as savage] to Hell-Cat Maggie and Sadie the Goat [fictions] to “Battle Annie” Walsh [research pending, but very questionable]. In Chapter IX, Section 1 he throws into the mix “the French Madame,” the proprietor of a cafe/sex show in Thirty-First Street near Sixth Avenue. She was described by Asbury as obese and bewhiskered. He wrote:

“She acted as her own bouncer, and acquired great renown for the manner in which she wielded a bludgeon, and for the quickness with which she seized obstreperous women customers by the hair and flung them into the street.”

This nugget of information needs sorting out, because there were at least four different women–all operators of notorious New York establishments located in many different locations–who were popularly known as “the French Madame.” Two of them, Eliza Porret and Matilda Herman/Hermann, come close to matching Asbury’s physical description, at least in girth. Three of these four came to public notice, but little is known of the fourth other than that she was identified by Porret as the first and original “French Madame.”

Let us start by looking at the other clue that Asbury offered, the locale of Thirty-First Street near Sixth Ave, for this seems to confirm that he was referring to Eliza Porret. In the early 1880s, she ran the Cafe Riche (named after a much more illustrious Paris nightspot) at 54 West Thirty-First Street, near the intersection with Sixth Avenue. Later in the 1880s, the Cafe Riche moved to 40 West Twenty-Ninth Street, and after being shut down, moved again and resurfaced as the Cafe Bijou. But many referred to her places as “the French Madame’s.” The entertainment they offered was similar to that found at McGlory’s and The. Allen’s: young women dining with men and encouraging them to drink, can-can dancers, and private rooms offer more intimacy. The healthy profits her places made were mainly on liquor sales.

Her 1888 marriage reveals that her maiden name was Elise Zimmer of Bern, Switzerland, and that the name Porret represented her first marriage. Her 1888 nuptials in New York City were to Friedrich Carrard, also from Switzerland, but she never used his name in her dealings. As much as she made, she lost huge sums in legal disputes with disreputable partners and patrons, not to mention the bribes needed to keep her places open. After the city Excise Board denied her liquor license in 1889, she retired to a farm in Flemington, New Jersey and lived off property incomes until her death in 1891. While not quite the terror that Asbury described, the New York Herald did note that she was “a large, fat, evil-looking woman, with a masculine manner and an imprudent stare.” Yet a different writer for the same paper saw her as a “well-preserved and dignified-looking woman of middle age,” attired in rich furs.

Eliza Porret told the newspapers that she had taken over the Cafe Riche from the original French Madame, whom she called Mme. Aimee Vermorel, who died in Paris in 1877. It is possible that Porret was alluding to Vermorel as the operator of the old Parisian Cafe Riche, but there are other references that suggest that Porret had been the protege of a “French Madame” in New York.

Luc Sante, writing in Low Life, Lures and Snares of Old New York, also said the French Madame was fat and bewhiskered, and ran her dive at Thirty-First and Sixth. Again, Sante seem to be talking about Eliza Porret, but names her as Matilda Hermann. In this, Sante is almost certainly mistaken, because Matilda Hermann was a brothel madame who owned several houses on Third Avenue. She was dragged in front of the Lexow Committee in 1894 to detail the bribes she had paid to local policemen to stay in business, and then left the country to help form a criminal community in South Africa with the notorious Joseph Lis. It was the reports of the Lexow Committee that called Matilda Hermann “the French Madame,” so that is likely where Sante found that association.

The fourth French Madame was a contemporary of Eliza Porret, known to New Yorkers as Louisa Chaude. Her maiden name was Louise Fichet, born in France, who came to America and married a Frenchman, Eugene J. Chaude in 1875. They later separated, but she remained known as Madame Chaude, the French Madame, proprietor of the Maison Tortoni. The Tortoni was located on the northwest corner of Lexington Ave and Thirtieth Street.

The Maison Tortoni was a step above a dance-hall dive, and earned a reputation of having excellent food and drinks, as well as being finely furnished. Yet it, too, thrived on offering dances in private rooms. Like Matilda Hermann, Louisa Chaude was brought before the Lexow Committee in 1894 to detail the bribes she had paid to the police and city officials. The Maison Tortoni had closed its doors several years earlier. During its heydey in the 1880s, newspapers often called Mrs. Chaude “the French Madame.”

It seems that wherever you turned in the Tenderloin–Satan’s Circus–there was a different French Madame waiting to entertain you.

The Green Dragon, Attacked and Unstuck in Time

The Green Dragon was the name of an iconic tavern in Boston, Massachusetts, said to have been the location where the Boston Tea Party was planned. In New York City, the name has a different heritage. The Green Dragon Hotel was opened in December 1834, at 162 Bowery by a young Englishman, A. Unsworth. He manufactured ginger beer on location, and advertised his tavern as being run on the “English system,” offering a variety of English ales and the house specialty, welsh rarebit. Unsworth wanted to maintain a cozy Old World atmosphere, but after being open just a few months, he made a miscalculation. When some members of a local volunteer fire company barged into his establishment one evening, already drunk and rowdy, he refused to serve them. This gang of firemen represented the “American” contingent, i.e. second or third generation native-born citizens, who resented the recent influx of Irish and “Dutch” (German) immigrants, to say nothing of freemen of color. Unsworth’s slight was not forgotten.

In late June of 1835, less than a year after anti-abolishionist rioters had wrecked residences and storefronts in hysteria over rumors that the city’s notable abolitionists were promoting miscegenation, a new riot broke out in lower Manhattan based on similar nativist fears. In this case, the leading cause appears to have been the announcement of the formation of an Irish-American local militia, the O’Connell Guards. Local militias had been one of the institutions that conveyed power to nativist fraternities, and the formation of an Irish (Catholic) unit was perceived as an intolerable threat. Two or three hundred young rowdies roamed the Five Points and Bowery districts, destroying properties known to be associated with the Irish.

As the mob reached the Bowery, the offense of Mr. Unsworth was recalled. The rioters broke his windows and entered the hotel, breaking all the furniture and fixtures of the saloon. It was a strange conflation of nationalist animism: Unsworth, an Englishman, was thought to be anti-American; Irish-Americans had little love for the English, and could hardly be thought of as the Green Dragon’s main clientele; Unsworth, for his part, had probably thought he was honoring his adopted country’s beginnings by naming his hotel after Boston’s revolutionary tavern. Shortly after this point, police were finally able to disperse the mob before further damage could be done.

A month later, Unsworth had repaired his establishment and renamed it the York Hotel. He took ads out in several newspapers, in which he explained that “it was my uniform earnest desire to give to my house a respectable reputation,” and that was his reason for denying service to drunkards. He also described several times when he had thrown his doors open to firemen exhausted from their efforts. Finally, he denied any anti-American feelings; on the contrary, he had “freely and openly acknowledged the many favors shown me as a ‘stranger in a strange land.'”

Writing in 1927, nearly ninety years after the Five Points Riot, Herbert Asbury magically transported the attack on the Green Dragon from 1835 to 1857, during the Dead Rabbits riot. Moreover, Asbury got the affiliations all wrong. Asbury wrote:

“Early the next morning the Five Points gangs, reinforced by the Roach Guards, marched out of Paradise Square and attacked a resort called the Green Dragon, in Broome street near the Bowery, a favorite loafing place of the [Bowery] Boys and other Bowery gangs.”

And so, according to Asbury, it was not the nativist American rowdies who destroyed the Green Dragon, but the Irish-American gangs. And–Asbury gratuitously added–they also drank all the liquor in the place. Asbury’s version of the wreck of the Green Dragon has made its way into countless New York City histories, immortalizing his sloppy approach to research (if not an intentional anti-Irish bias).

As for Mr. Unsworth, one can only hope this did not sour his desire to be a gracious host. Let us all raise a ginger beer in his memory.

The Hartley Mob and the Molasses Gang

In his chapter on the Whyos (Chapter XI, Section 2), Asbury cites two gangs that were contemporaries of the Whyos: the Hartley Mob and the Molasses Gang. His source material for these mentions was Frank Moss’s American Metropolis, From Knickerbocker Days to the Present Time, published in 1897. Asbury embellished Moss’s account of the Hartley Mob, whom Moss mentioned as using a hearse to transport stolen goods. Asbury spiced up the account by adding that the Hartley Mob used a hearse and funeral carriages to surprise rival gang members in a street fight. Let us set aside Asbury for a moment and wonder at Moss’s confidential sources, for no mention of a “Hartley” gang or mob can be found in any New York City newspapers, history books, memoirs, or prison records. Thomas Byrnes, in the 1895 edition of his Professional Criminals of America, makes a passing reference to a Frank Hartley, a well-known “west-side pickpocket” arrested in 1890–but there is no mention of him heading any gang. The corporeality of the Hartley Mob becomes more unlikely the harder one has to dig to confirm it.

A much more rewarding experience is to be found in tracking down the sources of Asbury and Moss’s anecdote on the Molasses Gang, for this is indeed one of the great criminal yarns of nineteenth-century New York. The story goes like this: a gang of till-tappers targets a old German storekeeper, and two of them enter his establishment and present an unusual request: they have bet each other as to how much molasses that one of their high-hats can hold. Though skeptical, the German complies with their wish and fills the hat to its brim with the thick syrup. Then, one youth quickly pins the storekeeper’s arms, while the other dumps the hat-full of molasses over the storekeeper’s head. While he is temporarily blinded, a third man rushes to rob his cash drawer.

For twenty years, this tale of clever crooks pranking an old storekeeper was retold in books and newspapers, and was dubbed “the molasses trick.” As late as 1906, it found its way into a book that Harry Houdini wrote on the methods of criminals–although Houdini placed its origin in the outskirts of London, England. However, the first account printed in book form that names the perpetrators appears to be Thomas Byrnes’s 1895 edition of Professional Criminals of America. In that book, profile criminal #221, James Dunnigan (alias Hughes, alias Dunn) is credited with originating this crime, in company with “Billy Morgan, Blind Mahoney, and two others.” Both Asbury and Moss repeated these names, but left out mention of the two others.

However, a much different picture emerges if you track the mentions of the “molasses trick” that appeared in newspapers between 1883 and 1914. Several other criminals are mentioned as originating the stunt: Patrick McGrath; Patrick McGuire; Albert Hawthorne; Robert Hawthorne; James McGuire; Charles Arets; William Rogers; William Clancey; John “Limpy” Burke; Edward Hawthorne; “Kennedy”; John “Jack” Kiely/Keely; Joseph “Big Joe” Larimer; and Michael Davis, alias Dunn. Obviously, it would make sense to give credence to the earliest mention of the incident.

The crime occurred on February 3, 1883 and was reported upon the next day by the New York Times:

So here we have the first mention of the crime, but who were the criminals? They were not apprehended until a year later, during which time they committed scores of other till robberies; and when they were caught (by Byrnes’s detectives), they were named as: Patrick McGrath, Patrick McGuire, and Albert Hawthorne (Brooklyn Union); or, Robert Hawthorne, James McGuire, and Charles Arets (Buffalo Evening News). The three men were tried in February, 1884, and sent to Sing Sing under the names: James Brady, Robert Hawthorne, and James McGuire.

Brady’s Sing Sing entry notes that he had previously been imprisoned under the name James Kelly in 1875; and in 1878 as James Murphy, alias Cavanaugh. James McGuire had previously been sent to Blackwell’s Island as James O’Brien.

Both Robert Hawthorne and James Brady (better known as James Kelly) had long criminal careers, stretching into the early 1900s. The final word on the “Molasses Trick” has to go to Brady/Kelly, who penned a full-page article for the Sunday, March 29, 1914 edition of the New York Herald magazine, titled “The Story of a Life of Crime.” In his account, recalled more than thirty years later, Brady/Kelly said his companions were Bobby Hawthorne, Tommy Murphy, and “McGlone”. He also recalled that the storekeeper’s name was “Schmidt” and that the crime occurred in 1878; and that he was arrested right after the crime in a bar when a detective caught him reeking of the smell of molasses.

It’s as if someone took the truth of the matter and poured a hat of molasses over it.

Denver Hop at the Morgue

In his chapter on “The Whyos and Their Times,” (Chapter XI, Section 1) Asbury cites a Bowery dive known as the “Morgue” as being one of the last haunts of the Whyo gang. In it–according to Asbury–the Whyos had their last great battle, caused by a disagreement between Denver Hop and English Charley which led to gunplay. Asbury wrote: “soon a score of men joined in with revolvers, but all were drunk and no one was injured.”

Asbury’s source for this information was Frank Moss, in volume 2 of his American Metropolis. Moss identified Denver Hop and English Charley as members of a party of petty thieves and panhandlers, suggesting they were relics of the Whyo gang, and that their disagreement was over the division of spoils. Moss’s source was a November 21, 1896 article in the New York Evening Journal entitled “Duel at Close Range,” which does not invoke the name “Whyo” at all. The newspaper account makes it clear that the two men, and others with them in the bar, were professional beggars, i.e. panhandlers, who comprised a community in the Bowery/Chinatown area at that time.

According to the Journal account (and those of other newspapers), the shots were only exchanged between the two men. One eyewitness said that only four shots were fired. The saloon was owned by “Herman Brown & Brother,” and was indeed nicknamed the “Morgue.” It was run as a Raines Law hotel, i.e. it was allowed to serve liquor through the night because it also rented rooms and offered food items.

The Whyo gang flourished in the late 1870s and early 1880s, with its members involved in a variety of crimes: pickpocketing, muggings, thievery, gambling, pimping, and as hired muscle. By 1888, many of their leading lights had been jailed. By 1896, the date of this incident, the Whyos had long been supplanted by other gangs.

Denver Hop’s real named was Edward Johnson, alias Henry J. Marshall. His many arrests from 1894-1925 were for pickpocketing. He was born in Salt Lake City, and earned his nickname from a wooden leg (a severe handicap for a pickpocket, since police detectives could spot him easily by his gait). His arrests occurred throughout the United States, from California to Boston, a pattern shared by many professional pickpockets.

Denver Hop was real, as was the Morgue. But the Morgue had a short existence in the mid 1890s; and by the time of Denver Hop’s first appearance in New York City, the Whyos were only a memory. There is a lot that can be said about the Whyos and their most celebrated alumni, but Denver Hop wasn’t one of them.

Billy McGlory, Dive Landlord

Billy McGlory (real name William H. McGrory, 1850-1927) was, during the 1880s and early 1890s, among the handful of New York City’s most notorious dance-hall operators. His most successful establishment was the Armory Hall, located at 158 Hester Street, but his other dives: the Windsor Palace, Burnt Rag, Burnt Rag No. 2, Hotel Irving, etc. appealed to the same clientele: those who appreciated dancers kicking up their legs doing the can-can and leaving later that evening with their new gentlemen friends (and slummers who enjoyed the spectacle of debauchery).

Wikipedia has a fairly complete and accurate entry on Billy McGlory, that strays from the truth only when it relies on Herbert Asbury as a source. When McGrory was five in 1855, the family was living in the Sixth Ward, not far from the Bowery, but his father was a grocer and his mother managed several boarders living in their house. Before Billy was nine, the family had moved to 354 West Sixteenth Street in the Sixteenth Ward (today’s Chelsea section of Manhattan), far from the Bowery and the Five Points. There is no evidence that he was a gang member, though he ran with thieves at an early age. McGrory’s father, Patrick, died in 1859, leaving Bill’s mother, Honora, to lead the family. She had some assistance from her son from a prior marriage, John Tomlinson, who went on have a very successful career in musical/comedy theater under the name Johnny Thompson.

Though not poor, the McGrory family was hardly peaceful. In 1866, Billy was arrested under the name “Gilbert McGlare” for robbery and, though only 16, was sent to Sing Sing for five years (he was registered as being 18). This fact never surfaced during his later life, and even NYPD Superintendent George W. Walling seemed unaware of this background; Billy was always reticent about discussing his early years.

The McGrory family’s internal strife frequently made headlines:

  • Honora–Billy’s mother–was married three times: first to John Tomlinson, then to Thomas Lane, and lastly to Patrick McGrory.
  • In 1885, Billy’s younger brother Michael came home drunk and started breaking furniture. Someone in the house called the police, who arrested the 20-year-old bartender. A judge sentenced Michael to 3 months at Blackwell’s Island, and warned Honora not to intercede on her son’s behalf. She said she would not.
  • Honora had a daughter, also named Honora, who married Hugh Campbell, a thief sent to Sing Sing in 1875. While her husband was jailed in 1877, young Honora drew the attentions of a bartender named James Hennessey. Outside their house, Mother McGrory and Billy attacked Hennessey, while young Honora tried to defend him. Her sister Mary then jumped on young Honora. The family fight had to be broken up by a squad of patrolmen. Honora later divorced Campbell and married Hennessey.
  • In December 1878, a patron of Billy’s dive was attacked, and brought charges against Billy. Before the case could be heard, the victim was discharged from his hospital bed by two of Billy’s companions, who brought him to the McGrory home to “recuperate.” The man later claimed that he had been kidnapped.
  • By 1883, Billy had gained infamy for hiring thugs to be his waiters. Two of them earned lodgings at Sing Sing prison.
  • Billy’s sister, Mary McGrory, married a NYPD patrolman, H. Irving Houghtaling. Houghtaling once had his skull fractured while directing traffic, and on another occasion tackled a fleeing murderer.
  • In 1886, a boarder of one of Honora’s properties named John “Nut” Moran was shot as he pursued his calling as a burglar. He limped back to the McGrory house and later died in his room.
  • By 1893, Billy had fallen on hard times, but his mother still retained rental properties in Hoboken, New Jersey and Brooklyn, as well as several healthy bank accounts. Billy returned to his old homestead and tried to have his mother declared incompetent. Billy’s siblings objected, and the law was on their side. As a result, Billy was written out of his mother’s will when she died in 1896. However, he brought suit in a New Jersey court after her death over property she had there.

Billy kept a low profile after his dives had been closed, but it’s possible he just became more careful about having properties registered in his name. He died in his seventies in Orlando, Florida in 1927.

Hell-Cat Maggie and Wild Maggie

One of the most popular figures in The Gangs of New York–book or movie–is Hell-Cat Maggie, a ferocious female allied with the Dead Rabbits gang of the Five Points (see Asbury, Chapter II, Section 3). Her prominent feature was a set of teeth filed to points, employed in riots and street brawls against other gangs. She is often mentioned in the same breath as two of Asbury’s other Amazonian figures, Gallus Mag and Sadie the Goat, though Asbury himself sets Maggie’s ascendancy to the early 1840s, years before the other two. As seen in other posts, Gallus Mag was a real person, a barkeep of intimidating size, but apparently good-natured. However, Sadie the Goat did not exist before Asbury wrote about her in 1927; and (to the disappointment of many) Hell-Cat Maggie was no more real than Sadie. Asbury alone is to be credited for these fictions. They did not appear in any of his sources, nor did they appear in any other books, newspapers, or periodicals.

Filing teeth to points or the use of metal claws as weapons does not seem to have much martial value, and no examples can be found in the annals of New York City. Filing teeth to points was a practice that nineteenth-century Westerners saw and reported on among certain African and Indonesian tribes, but it was done as a cosmetic ritual. Asbury might have thought that was an effective image to portray the savagery of the Five Points gangs. However, the end result is that his fabrications distort history, and do a disservice to the real women who endured, suffered, and sometimes thrived despite extreme poverty on the streets of Manhattan.

But Asbury also mentions another famous Maggie, the juvenile leader of the Little Forty Thieves gang, “Wild Maggie Carson.” (Chapter XI, Section 3). Maggie was a young Irish girl of the Five Points portrayed in one of Asbury’s named sources, the 1854 bestseller Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated by Solon Robinson. Contrary to Asbury’s “Little Forty Thieves” assertion, Robinson said that Wild Maggie was too young for brawling, and that the worst she did was curse and taunt Protestants. In Robinson’s story, she is convinced by a missionary to do work in a house of industry and reform herself, saving her family. Robinson asserted in the New York Tribune that Wild Maggie was based on a real girl named Margaret Ryan, which prompted back-and-forth accusations between neighborhood residents and Protestant missionaries, as seen in this letter to the editor [Mr. McClain, the author, was not an Irish Catholic; he served on the board of a Methodist Church]:

So, what about the Little Forty Thieves? A gang going by that name can not be found outside of Asbury’s text.

An Asbury Non sequitor: Littlefield the Chiropodist

Asbury’s Chapter VI, Section 1 of The Gangs of New York (on the Police and Dead Rabbit riots of the late 1850s) begins with two very disjointed paragraphs in which he attempts to convey the tumultuous changes in American society of the 1850s. He does this by naming some of the cultural icons of the period: preacher Henry Ward Beecher; dancer Sontag; singer Adelina Patti; Uncle Tom’s Cabin; actor Edward Askew Sothern….and the 1854 debut of America’s first chiropodist, “Dr. James Littlefield.” These paragraphs read as a capricious hodge-podge, capped by the mention of Dr. Littlefield, who was hardly a cultural touchstone. What was Asbury thinking?

Alas, he wasn’t thinking–he was just poaching from his source material, Nation-Famous New York Murders (1913) by Alfred Henry Lewis. Moreover, it was a very ill-advised appropriation, because Lewis had a very distinctive, conversational writing style (he would have been a great monologist) that was alien to Asbury. Also, the Lewis source paragraph was written about a much more limited, 2-3 year period, 1852-1855, prior to the killing of Butcher Bill Poole. Here is the Lewis text:

These, you are to understand, were not timid, but strenuous, days. Franklin Pierce was President, with Governor Marcy of New York — he who, in Jackson’s iron hour, had announced as his declaration of political faith that “To the victors belonged the spoils of the enemy” — as his Secretary of State; Fannie Wright was lecturing against marriage, and in favor of free love; Commodore Stevens had taken his skimming dish, the America, and beaten the English to a standstill off the Isle of Wight; animal magnetism, which had been mesmerism, was reappearing as hypnotism; Jones Wood, opposite Blackwell’s Island, was in process of being rejected by the city authorities as a public park — upon the thoughtful argument that it offered too many East River opportunities for quietly shoving overboard an undesirable acquaintance — to make way for the acceptance of Central Park which, at a popular cost of $5,169,369, was preferred in its stead; the Black Ball clipper Sovereign of the Seas, with four feet of green water washing her forward decks, her masts bending like whips, had hung up the record of 13 days and 19 hours between the Liverpool lights and Sandy Hook; Kossuth, the Hungarian liberator, was on his way to these shores ; Adelina Patti, cetat eleven, was singing at Niblo’s; river pirates Hewlett and Saul were being hanged; Lola Montez was trying to draw old-time crowds — and failing — as Mazeppa at the Broadway; Doctor Kane was poking about, blue-nosed and frozen, among arctic ice in futile quest of Sir John Franklin; Sontag was alarming the pulpits and enchanting the town with her high-kicking; the razor-strop man, the four-cent man, the ginger-bread man, the lime-kiln man, and the blue man were abroad as public nuisances in Nassau Street; Cow Bay and Murderers Alley were becoming interesting features of the Five Points; the city council, with Bill Tweed and Slippery Dick Connelly as head-liners, was creeping into celebration as the Forty Thieves; the great new play, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was in the midst of its phenomenal run of two hundred nights at the National; Putnam’s Monthly, in charge of editor Briggs, Parke Godwin and George William Curtis contributing, was shoving painfully from shore; the elder Sothern, who would later become Lord Dundreary, was holding, under the theatrical alias of Stewart, the half-paid boards in Barnum’s lecture room; the Times, Henry J. Raymond, editor, was in its swaddling clothes ; Corn Doctor Littlefield, as the first “chiropodist,” had just opened his toe parlors at 413 Broadway; while down in the Governor’s room at the City Hall, Washington Irving was presiding over the memorial service held in honor of his dead rival, Fenimore Cooper, to which the Mayor then and there present contributed a false note with what the Tribune spoke of as his “Fernando Wooden smile.” Truly, as was said above, these were not idle, but strenuous, days.

Asbury, during his translation of this material, left out more half the names; he indicated that everything he mentioned took place in the decade (not 2-3 years in the mid 1850s) before the Civil War, and he inexplicably deemed mention of Dr. Littlefield worth retaining. Perhaps Dr. Littlefield’s life and career had some significance that has been lost to current generations?

Well, no. John [not James!] Edward Littlefield (1815-1864) was a successful chiropodist (a now obsolete term for podiatrist) and family man, who made no newspaper headlines outside his advertisements. He was not the first chiropodist to practice in America: two foreign-born doctors were advertising their practices prior to Littlefield; and Littlefield began announcing his services in 1841, not in the 1850s. Lewis and Asbury should have tread more lightly on Dr. Littlefield’s toes.