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:
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
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 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.