There isn’t much in Herbert Asbury’s mentions of gang leader Mike McGloin that is correct (see The Gangs of New York, Chapter XI, Section 1). McGloin was not a Whyo, although they were contemporaries. McGloin and his gang flourished in the Twentieth ward, several wards distant from the Bloody Sixth Ward haunt of the Whyos. The Twentieth included most of the area identified as Hell’s Kitchen. Although one newspaper mentions McGloin being a member of the “Eighth Avenue Gang,” from 1882 forward it was known as the “McGloin Gang.” It was still called by this name seven or eight years after his 1883 execution for murder, a tribute to his unusual populist appeal.
Michael E. McGloin was about twenty years old when he was hanged in March 1883 for the murder of saloon-keeper Louis Hanier in December 1881. McGloin and three of his associates had unsuccessfully attempted to rob the till of Hanier’s saloon the day before, during regular hours. They came back the next day and broke in; Hanier started to come down to the saloon from the upstairs through a dark stairwell. McGloin thought Hanier was armed and fired a shot up the stairs, hitting and killing Hanier. Through good police-work (which included Inspector Byrnes’s use of a expert to match the caliber of the fatal bullet to a pawned revolver), McGloin was tracked down, interrogated, and admitted to the crime. [Note that Asbury’s version is that McGloin was interrupted by Hanier as he was stealing from the till, and that McGloin hit him with a “slung-shot”, i.e. a black-jack.]
McGloin was jailed for a year before he was executed, during which time it was widely reported that he wrote and received dozens of letters from his well-wishers. The most accurate version of his famous quote was related by McGloin himself, recounting what he said when one of his gang members told him Hanier was dead: “A man can’t be a ‘tough’ till he knocks his man out.” Many, including Asbury, have interpreted this as meaning murder was a real merit badge for gangsters (as tear-drop tattoos have been in recent times), but it’s also possible that McGloin was just making an inappropriate boxing analogy.
McGloin had been in trouble before as a teen. He had served prison terms before for stealing a barrel of sugar; and again for assault and battery. It was said that McGloin and his gang had their own wagon, and used it to steal goods from other delivery men. They were also known for till-tapping, i.e. stealing from cash drawers. Their headquarters was a saloon operated by an African-American man named Cooley. One of the interesting aspects of the McGloin Gang (post-McGloin) is that it had African-American gang members.
A huge throng of hundreds of people appeared for McGloin’s funeral procession–a fact that shocked many in New York, and raised calls to bury executed prisoners on prison grounds. McGloin appeared to be honest in his confession, and wrote words of cheer while on death row to his neighborhood friends. Even so, looking back a hundred and forty years, it is difficult to fathom why he came to be revered.