“Battle Annie” was one among the pantheon of combative women that Herbert Asbury presented to his readers. (see Gangs…, Chapter XII, Section 2) 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.
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