Herbert Asbury devotes many pages in Chapter IX, Section 2 of The Gangs of New York to the most celebrated dance hall-saloon operator of the nineteenth-century, Harry Hill. Hill was, arguably, one of the most significant figures in the history of New York City; he was a major leader in Manhattan nightlife; in its bare-knuckle boxing history; in its other sporting pastimes, including billiards, horse racing, wrestling, and swimming; and in the policing of vice businesses.
In 1880, at the height of his success, Harry was persuaded to write a serialized version of his recollections and historical anecdotes by the New York Sunday Mercury. The columns that appeared for roughly a two-year period were likely ghost-written by a reporter (one name mentioned is Pat Rooney, an unknown), but still employed Harry’s distinctive Epsom dialect and were undoubtedly largely transcribed from interviews. Had these columns been published collectively (as was obviously planned, since the series was given the title of My Life; or Thirty Years in Gotham) the resulting tome would have been huge–perhaps spanning more than one volume.
A few years later, in 1885-1886, more columns attributed to Harry Hill appeared, but these definitely had another hand behind them: Isaac George Reed, Jr., a veteran reporter and writer. In advertisements for his later novels, Reed announced himself as the author of Thirty Years in Gotham, though there is still no proof that it was ever published in book form.
For reasons unknown, the book never materialized. Moreover, nearly all issues of the New York Sunday Mercury for the years 1880 and 1881 have not survived. Harry Hill’s autobiography is one of the great lost artifacts of New York City. A few columns (or parts of columns) were reprinted in other newspapers, and provide an inkling of the magnitude of what has been lost. But an even better measure of the vanished treasure can be found in the advertisements that the Sunday Mercury placed in other newspapers each week, which described the contents of each of Harry’s columns. This, too, is incomplete, but the list below has been pieced together. It gives no pleasure to say how much more significant this book would have been than The Gangs of New York:
My Life; or, Thirty Years in Gotham
By Harry Hill
A full and complete account of the bustling and miscellaneous career of the most “peculiar” man in America, written by himself.
This narrative comprises all the attraction of a romance with that absolute fidelity to truth for which Harry Hill is so famous.
It embraces recollections of Old Houston street—Famous murders and murderers; actors, variety and specialty stars; sports; female boxers; prize fighters; politicians; newspaper men; clergymen; temperance men and men about town. It presents New York life in every possible phase, and deals with matters of interest to the public in general and the New York public in particular.
I have lived in New York city for over thirty years; I have known all sorts of men; I have made and spent a good deal of money; I have had a good time and never willfully wronged any man that I know of; I have met sports and thieves, and gamblers, and editors, and reporters, and actors, and speculators, and men about town; I have been a fighter and a referee in fights; I have entertained in my time politicians, and millionaires, and forgers, and confidence men, and ministers; I have tried all sorts of rackets; have held prayer meetings and temperance meetings, and ran a variety show and Sunday concerts, and delivered a lecture and swung clubs; I have had hundreds of articles, right and wrong, true and false, written about me; I know all about horseflesh and the police; I have met in the course of thirty years pretty nearly all the men worth knowing in the city of New York; I have been written up and written down, used, abused and blackmailed; have made lots of friends and enemies; so at last I have taken a notion to write my own life. I think it will be interesting. I have known so many people in my time that just as recollections of old New York—or as a kind of history of old Houston street—I think my life will be worth reading.
This celebrated man’s personal encounters—His fight with Billy Mulligan—His tussles with Jim Hughes, Reddy the Blacksmith, Paddy the Smasher and Jim Thompson—What he has done in the sporting line—Female boxers—Famous prize fighters—An attack on Jimmy Irving—A would-be boxer and his fate—Notable sparring matches, etc.
Mr. Hill tells the story of three notable prize fights: Morrissey vs. Yankee Sullivan; Morrissey vs. Hernan; Hernan vs. Sayres—How I acted as reporter and special messenger—Reminiscences of the great excitement—What I know about walking—Big running matches—Walking a plank—How they sold out matches—Practical jokes in old Houston street—The dead horse joke—A trip to the fishing banks—My doorkeeper sees ghosts—Animal curiosities—My two-legged dogs, humpbacked horse and monkey Sammy—His arrest for attacking a shop girl, etc.
The fight between Coburn and McCool—About the man who didn’t care for science—How a giant was mistaken for a prize fighter—The mills between New York and Brooklyn—Dick Hollywood and Johnny Keating—Mike Nunan and Dorsey, of New York—The fun we used to make—The catsup dodge—Cruelty to cats—Some more of the old times at my theatre—How they kidded and guyed each other—A gilt boot and a mouthful of water, etc.
New York and Philadelphia—Dublin Tricks—How a fighter was killed in the ring—Fatal contest between Charley Lynch and Andy Kelly—Fighting under the pirate’s colors—85 rounds in 105 minutes—Dying among barbarians—Distinguished foreigners who have visited my place—Don Carlos, the Duke Alexis, A Russian Countess, etc.—A Chinese ambassador falls in love with a waiter girl—Reminiscences of gamblers—How they fought the tiger in olden times—The heavy players and the lucky ones, etc.
How a blonde with 25 offers was wooed and won in 24 hours—The “Man of Many Manias”—The way to win a cup without dancing for it—What Johnny Barry tried for his hair—Why I hurled a rough from the top of a freight car going 15 miles an hour—Scenes at the O’Baldwin Mace contest—The Collins Edwards mill—All hands arrested, and how we got out of the scrape—How I lost a bottle of wine with Dooney Harris—The old-time politicians and their practical jokes—What I knew about Tweed and Sweeny—Billy Cook and his Thompson street flat—Pranks of Judge George G. Barnard and Mike Walsh, etc.
The desperate gang who witnessed the Collyer-Edwards fight—How a little girl gave a cup of water to a dying rough—Mill between Australian Kelly and Kerrigan—How a hardshell Baptist deacon “stuck the boys”—Boston vs. New York in the P.R.—Peculiar lights and shades of lights at my show, Three Suppers for Twelve Shirts—How my doorkeeper took tickets with a club—A grinning match that lasted all day—Old barrooms and barkeepers of New York—Barnum’s practical joke—The man with a whole shirt on his back—Reminiscences of Burton, Blake, Tom Hyer and Yankee Sullivan, etc.
The old tiger haunts of Gotham—How Charley Abel fooled the whole city–Jim Kerrigan and Pat Matthew’s fight—All over the old Bowery Theatre—My fat boy—Shaving ‘em by the lot—Female boxers extraordinary—Old times in the prize ring—How Yankee Sullivan got “first blood” on Vince Hammond—The terrible offhand fight between Tom Hyer and Country McCloskey—Tom McCoy’s fatal encounter with Chris Lilly—Reminiscences of old theatres and stock companies of New York—The fathers and mothers of our actors, stories of the elder Wallack, Blake, Ritchings and the others—How Maurice Power failed, etc.
Hiram Woodruff and the famous drivers of old time trotters—Budd Doble—George Spicer, Ben Daniels, the Wheelans and Jimmy McMann—How Hiram Woodruff got frightened at a thunderstorm—The Great trot between Lady Thorn, Goldsmith Maid and American Girl—Personal peculiarities of Flora Temple and Lady Thorn—A butting match at the old sawdust house—How a belle fell in love with a rough—First “muss” between Yankee Sullivan and Tom Hyer—Account of the great mill in which Tom Hyer licked Yankee Sullivan—What I know about crooked people—How I beat the sharps of London at their own game—The episode of “Opera Jack”—A romance of New York and London, etc.
Dodging the police—How I was a sergeant for twenty minutes—My encounter with the military—Fired out—Prize fighting under difficulties—Reminiscences of the great horse race between the north and the south—Henry and Eclipse draw 60,000 people to the Union course—How New York went to the races a long time ago—The old merchant and the Baltimore Belle—Cruelty to animals—How a countryman fooled the cops—Lights and shades of life at my saloon—How I was mistaken for a pirate—The poor stowaways—My theatre as an ark of refuge—An old-time barber—Drunk on bay rum—Why Ned Forrest got mad—The first time E. S. Connor swallowed a fly, etc.
Old rivalries of volunteer firemen—All about the first steam fire engine—Hand-to-hand fights between old 27 and 34—How Tweed organized Big Six—Original negro minstrels—Old time banjo players—Champion match dancers—Barnum’s Museum against Pete Williams’ Dance House—Why I employ women—Romance of a pretty waiter girl—Shaving a man and his wife—Anecdotes of actors, etc.
Celeste! The great actress’s infatuation for Elliott, the sporting man—How she made money and he squandered it on four-in-hands, and died at last in poverty amid “the memories of the past”—All about Mademoiselle Augusta, Mrs. Seguin, Mrs. Abbott, and other favorite actresses of by-gone days—Recollections of Burton, Brougham, and Boucicault—Curious phases of sporting life—The way they used to beat gambling houses—A duel to the death—How men of business take vacation at my place—Oddities and eccentricities of rich customers—The dancing lawyer—“Where am I?”—Looking for Harry Hill’s—Driving a “Rainbow”
John Morrissey and his rough and tumble fights—His musses with Dutch Charley, Billy Wilson, and Tom McCann—His fight on the dock with Bill Poole—The great mill between Morrissey and Sullivan—All about the old fire club and its pranks—How a Southern man won six weeks’ supper from the boys—A barkeeper who ran off with his boss’ sister—the old time concert saloons—The Monte Cristo, the Canterbury and 444—Topsey and her story—How pretty waiter girls influenced legislation—Cheek illustrated—A sport who lost $105,000 in gold dust for the honor of New York—Sending the limit “plumb up”
Two of the most terrific and picturesque prize fights on record—A vivid account of the great Cortlandt Street Murder—On of the most famous tragedies—An amusing history of amateur theatricals in New York—Fernando Wood, William M. Tweed, &c. as dramatic aspirants
Did Mrs. Cunningham murder Dr. Burdell?—Was James Fisk, Jr. murdered or only accidentally killed?—Regarding the Roget Conspiracy trial—A case of mistaken identity—A merchant whipping his grown up son—Anecdotes of William M. Tweed’s father—Barnum’s Old American Museum—The different “systems” in vogue for “beating the bank” at faro, or “bucking against the tiger.”
Longest prize fight on record, one hundred and sixty rounds—How a prominent New York lawyer once figured in the prize ring—The Price-Coburn mill—Morrissey and Heenan fighting their quarrels through Ned Price and Australian Kelly—Anecdotes of the “smart” men of New York—The “Damper sneak”—Only a button, and what came of it—The quickest detective time on record—Reminiscences of Pete Williams’ dance house—Black Jim, the jumper—How a negro woman got even with a white man for kicking her shin—Bully Anderson’s den
Whose head was it? A mystery which has never yet been solved—How facts can lie—Another demonstration of the worthlessness of circumstantial evidence—A husband meets his murdered wife on the street, while he is tracking her assassin—A woman sees her own corpse—A mother who is mistaken as to the identity of her own daughter—A true story of mysterious death and detective life in the great metropolis
The philosophy of hitting—Dooney Harris’ mill with Patsey Marley, illustrating what studying will do—How I tackled an Englishman, and didn’t have so easy a job as I expected—Peculiarities of Chauncey Johnson, the bank robber—Brain, brass, and burglary—Science of stealing illustrated by a daring operation—Marshal Rynders and the old Empire Club—An old time raid on Mayor Harper—A triangular trade, showing how a man bought his own horse
Revelations of the river thieves of New York—The execution of Saul and Howlett, what became of the rogue who turned state’s evidence against them—A loving woman’s vengeance—An exposure of card sharpers—Why a celebrated faro dealer mysteriously disappeared—Investigating a pack of cards with a pistol—“Auld lang syne” again—The great city hotel sell—A famous old barber—A chapter in the early life of Fernando Wood.
The Blonde fever—During the rage for yellow hair and tights—Behind the scenes anecdotes of Lydia Thompson, Pauline Markham, Liza Weber, Kate Stanley, Ada Garland, and others—What became of the blondes—A serio-comic fist contest between New York and Philadelphia—Harry Lazarus as a fighter—Getting out of a scrape through aid of the ladies—political strikers—How the boys used to bleed candidates for office—Independent clubs—An irrepressible representative of a target company—How general John Cochrane was victimized
“Josie” Mansfield dying—The former “Princess of Erie” under an assumed name hiding in New York—Wasting away with consumption ad remorse—Her wild career abroad after the shooting of Jim Fisk—The rich young fool who was driven to suicide in Paris—The repentant adventuress as a sister of mercy—The modern Mary Magdalen in her library—She speaks of herself, of Stokes, of Fisk, and of Gould—Last words of a once famous woman
Tricks in politics—All about colonizing voters and repeating—Stuffing ballot boxes—The men who didn’t vote till after the polls closed—Romance of crime in New York—How a detective set a trap and narrowly escaped with his life—The abolition riots—The price a merchant paid for pinching a pretty woman’s arm.
Frauds of faro—Skin games and card sharpers, the mystery of their tricks fully exposed, and their dishonest machinery laid bare: the tongue tell, sleeve machines, two card boxes, “snaking” faro boxes, etc.
Theatrical insanities–The way New York went wild over Jenny Lind, etc.—The romance of the express business—How a New Yorker gave a New England man an idea worth a million dollars a word.
Slim Sarah’s first shadow, scenes and incidents of her first night at Booth’s, which escaped attention of the critics—The fate of a woman bully—Handsome Jack McCarty—Revelations of sporting life below the surface—Foot races in the olden time—Exciting contest of the Union and Beacon courses—A fatal glass of water—Life in Ludlow street jail twenty years ago—The comic side of misery—The dying Dutchman and the actor
A notable blackmail case—The scheme to fleece William B. Astor out of $50,000—The E. K. Basswood Job, a very singular case—Horses and horsemen of the past and present—anecdotes and romances of the American turf—“Wake me up when Kirby dies,” a popular performer who came to grief—How a loafer was punished by John Duff for slandering Mrs. John Wood
The Brandreth House murder and the Metropolitan Hotel murderer—The broker and the blonde—Sentimental adventures on Blackwell’s Island—Escape from a champion kisser—Bounty jumping frauds during the Civil War
Lynching New York gamblers—A thrilling story of the “days of terror” to gamblers
The doctors quarrel over Garfield—Revival of a thrilling episode—Strange and bloody duel between two physicians—How a great actress came between man and wife without knowing it—The love scrapes of Charlotte Cushman—A life’s romance culminating in a linen draper’s store—One of the most curious of all possible divorce cases—An old-new husband and wives one and two—Reminiscences of the Draft Riots in New York—The three days of terror—Reign of mob law in defiance of military and police—Hanging of a negro in Hudson street—Awful death of Colonel O’Brien, of the Eleventh Regiment—Butchered within a few yards of his own home—A practical joke that convulsed sporting New York—A case of mistaken identity at the Nicholas—Major Lewis, of the Quartermaster’s Department—The Broadway clubhouse and its eccentric visitor—How some sporting men were “astonished” by the man who knew everybody.
The loss of the Lexington—The great steamboat accident of the last generation—A terrible story of disaster—The graves of the trotters—A cemetery by a race course—The lives of Lady Moscow and Lady Sultan—Romance and passion of horseflesh—Racing in the dark—A curious character in New York—The man who knows everything at home and abroad.
How a New Yorker captured the first confederate flag—A romantic and exciting adventure of the early days of the great rebellion—The toilet on the roof—Obstacles overcome by obstinacy—Waddlin’ and makin’ a Daddy Lambert of one’s self—A lady on the lark—A practical joke at Taylor’s old saloon—Why so many men all at once were found reading the Tribune—The tribulations of a bank director and a politician—An army of fools marchin’ along Broadway—An unexpected revelation and “sold at last”—The days when roughs controlled the sports of old New York—Nights when “faro bankers” had to hire “bullies” to do their fightin’—A prize fight in a gambling den—A blackmailer who would not be blackmailed—Pat the Smasher—Some stories about Billy Mulligan.
The last appearances of popular favorites—How prominent actors, actresses, managers, minstrels, etc. have died—The wretched fates of Goodall, Perry, Adams, Christy, Hanlon, “Gentleman George” and host of others.
Curious reminiscences of New York “society” and its connection with the stage—A plucky New York Quakeress—Why a famous musician suddenly left the country—How a “great American tenor” came to grief—An Englishman who did not “capture” New York—the Russian emperor and the American mother-in-law—Early days of billiards in New York—Old fashioned tables and styles of playing—“Pony” Higham and Mike Phelan—The first public billiard match—Fancy shots and good nature—The adventures of two old-time billiard sharps—A fight on the green cloth—Dyin’ on a table—A disputed game—The penitent thief—The pathos of criminal life in New York—A rogue who became honest for a woman’s sake—How a “crooked” man became “square”—The penalties of “reform”—Virtue is its own and only reward—The life and death of “Lightnin’-eyed Bob.”
John Brown’s body in New York—How it was guarded by fire ladies in the Bowery—Peculiar scenes and incidents—Smart criminal dodges to fool the doctors—How a pronounced dead man made his escape—Jenny Lind’s platonic lover—Romantic incident of her last appearance in America—A millionaire’s firm belief in luck—How a noted actor made his debut on the stage from a bag—Jim Crow Rice and Joe Jefferson—A reminiscence of Bill Tweed’s early days—How he showed his heart