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.
2 thoughts on “Hell-Cat Maggie and Wild Maggie”
The book, for all its faults, did lead to a very entertaining film! I’m enjoying these posts very much!