The Death of Mother Woods

As New York City nightlife moved from lower Manhattan further north to the Tenderloin in the last decades of the 1800s, the Bowery area lost its dance halls and the “slummers” who came to spend their money. In Chapter XIV, Section 4 of The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury provides a roster of the low dives that replaced them, that came to typify the changes to the neighborhood:

“Probably no American city has ever been able to boast of resorts as depraved as the Doctor’s, the Plague, the Hell Hole, the Harp House, the Cripples’ Home, and the Billy Goat, all in Park Row; the Dump, the Princess Cafe and Johnny Kelly’s dive, in the Bowery; the Inferno in Worth street; the Workingman’s Friend in Mott street; Union Hall in Elizabeth street; the Cob Dock in Hester street; and Mother Woods’ in Water street. Of only a slightly higher class were Chick Tricker’s Fleabag and McGuirk’s Suicide Hall, both on the Bowery. McGuirk’s and Mother Woods’ were the favorite haunts of the prostitutes and women thieves of the Bowery and water front districts…”

It is true that prostitutes and women criminals could be found at Hannah Woods’ house at 390 1/2 Water Street (near James Slip, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge), from 1885 until 1910. Police made weekly visits to the house, in search of particular women wanted as suspects or witnesses. However, it was not a dive; it was a refuge. Mother Woods offered nothing other than a roof to her clients, who often could not pay her. The New York Sun of May 1, 1905 provided a more sympathetic perspective:

Hannah Sullivan was born in Ireland in 1845, came to America, and married an Irish shoemaker named Felix McCarthy. They raised a family of several children. Mr. McCarthy died, and Hannah remarried a man named Woods, about whom nothing is known. He apparently left Hannah with a healthy account in a Bowery bank; and her son lived nearby at 314 Water Street.

Why Hannah Woods decided to open her house as a shelter for the city’s neediest women is not known. Had there been some event in her own past that prompted an impulse for charity? Did she do so out of a sense of spiritual reward? Did she enjoy the company of her lodgers, and hearing their woeful stories?

On the evening of July 4th, 1910, Hannah sat outside on her door step with a lodger and a neighbor, enjoying the warm summer evening and the sounds of revelers celebrating Independence Day. Bangs were heard up and down the street. Hannah coughed and moved to get up to go inside, but then collapsed. A doctor was summoned, and those she had been talking to thought she had suffered a heart attack. The doctor came and pronounced her dead; it was noticed that blood stained the front of her dress. Further examination revealed that she had been killed by a bullet to the breast. Police later concluded that she had been hit by a stray bullet from one of the irresponsible Fourth of July celebrants. The shooter was never found.

Hannah Woods was martyred by a celebration of America, the same America that left behind the human wrecks that she took in and gave shelter to. Asbury listed her among many sinners and places of sin, but clearly she was a saint.

The Horse Poisoners of the Arsenic Club

In Section 3 of Chapter XVI of The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury mentioned three East Side gang leaders who carved out a specialty in the field of extortion: poisoning the work horses used by delivery companies and street vendors, as well as the stables that housed the animals. At times these gangs worked on their own behalf, demanding payoffs from the businesses they threatened. However, at other times they were commissioned to sabotage a business under a contract with that business’s competitor. Indeed, it appears that this racket emerged on the Lower East Side and across the river in Brooklyn from this motive, and flourished in the cutthroat capitalism economic atmosphere of the predominantly Jewish immigrant communities. Small businesses were territorial, and any intrusions into a business’s market service area was seen as a personal threat to one’s livelihood.

The three gangsters named by Asbury were “Yoske Nigger”, “Charley the Cripple”, and “Johnny Levinsky.” Asbury reprinted these names from his source material on the horse poisoners, a full-page feature article in the New York Tribune’s Sunday edition of August 17, 1913 titled “The Horse Poisoners: The Throttling of a Vicious Species of Gang Crime”, by Edwin Newdick. Newdick was a Dartmouth-educated reporter who specialized in news of labor relations, so he made pains to open his article with an explanation of the economic forces that gave rise to this racket. Newdick named “Yoske Nigger” as Joseph Toblinsky, “Charlie Cripple” as Charles Vitofsky, and “John L.” John Levinsky.

Toblinsky and Vitofsky were widely publicized as members of the “Yiddish Camorra” (they also called their affiliation the “Arsenic Club”). However, among the dozens of newspaper articles printed about the horse poisoners, the name “Levinsky” (or variants) is not to be found, outside of Newdick’s article. There were, though, two other men frequently mentioned as being leaders of the gang: Hyman Edelstein and Louis Levine.

Joseph (Yoske is a Yiddish variant of Joseph) Toblinsky was a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant born in 1883. His criminal record started in his teens and stretched to 1944, when he died as an inmate of Clinton State Prison in Dannemora, New York. Most of his crimes were burglaries and highway thefts. Charles Vitofsky (also spelled Witofsky) was about the same age as Toblinsky. Though arrested for his connection with the Arsenic Club, the main witness against him was murdered the day before he was slated to testify. Vitofsky/Witofsky appears to have reformed after other horse poisoners were sent to prison. Hyman Edelstein was the senior gang associate, a trucking contractor by trade, which placed him in the ideal position to reward some businesses and victimize others. In 1914, Edelstein was was of the last of the Arsenic Club to be imprisoned, receiving a stiff sentence of 7-to-15 years at Sing Sing.

The Arsenic Club’s height was in the 1907-1911 period. Altogether, it was estimated that they killed over 500 animals in the span of a decade, and committed an unknown number of murders. They were brought down by a combination of factors: Lower East Side and Brooklyn businesses that used horses finally banded together to stop the gang, once they realized that the violence could target any one of them. The New York State legislature changed the law in 1911 to make poisoning animals a felony rather than a misdemeanor. This made it possible to imprison the gang members. The ASPCA offered substantial rewards for information about the gang.

However, the demise of this racket can really be attributed to the advent of the internal combustion engine. By the 1910s, many deliveries started to be made by motorized vehicles. The opportunities for racketeering–pioneered by the horse poisoners–grew exponentially with the trucking industry.

The Lord Bond Robbery

The March 1866 robbery of nearly $2,000,000 in cash and securities (bonds) from the office of Rufus L. Lord was, at that time, the largest theft in American history. Herbert Asbury devotes a long passage in Chapter X, Section 2 of The Gangs of New York to this event, wherein he assures us that the crime was planned by John D. “Traveling Mike” Grady, and executed by Greedy Jack Rand, Hod Ennis, Boston Pet Anderson, and Eddie Pettingill.

What should have been clear to Asbury (writing sixty years after the crime) is that the Lord Bond Robbery is the great Rashomon of American crime stories, and there are a dozen different versions of who committed it and who else was involved.

According to NYPD Superintendent Thomas Byrnes (writing twenty years after the crime), the “master spirit” of robbery was Dan Noble, assisted by Bill Vosburgh, Fred Knapp, James Griffin, and Little Pettingill. Byrnes’s predecessor, George Walling, whom you would guess might have had even more knowledge of the crime, merely stated in his recollections that Dan Noble “was said to have been concerned” in the robbery, and named no others.

Frank Ross, in his 1896 American Metropolis, also credits Dan Noble, assisted by “Knapp,” “Baker,” and “Doctor Cramer.” Howard O. Sprogle, in 1887’s The Philadelphia Police, Past and Present, states that the culprits were Dan Noble and Chauncey Johnson.

Austin Bidwell, one of the Bank of England forgers, later wrote his memoirs, and provided intimate detail of the Lord Bond Robbery, which he said was committed by Charley Rose, Hod Ennis, and “Piano” Charley Bullard. Ace detective William A. Pinkerton agreed that these three men stole the bonds–but adds that they gave the bonds to Austin Bidwell’s brother, George Bidwell, to dispose of in England. Self-promoting Chicago detective Clifton Woolridge concurred that Charley Ross [sic Rose], Hod Ennis, and Charley Bullard were involved, but added James Griffin to the gang.

In 1872, the Chicago Tribune asserted the thieves were Henry “Dutch Heinrich” Neumann, Chauncey Johnson, Hod Ennis, and Jack Tierney.

So…lots of suspects. Were there any arrests? The NYPD officers working the case–Captain John Jordan, Detectives William Elder and Jack McCord–interviewed and then arrested Charles Howard and John Pettingill. A third target, Hod Ennis, had been arrested in Boston, but escaped from custody and retreated to Canada. To the embarrassment of the NYPD, it was strongly suggested that Ennis had escaped custody after two New York detectives–Ben Heath and John Young–recovered $250,000 from an address in London, England that Ennis had directed them to.

Some of the stolen bonds turned up in New York, incriminating several Wall Street brokers: Frank Hillen, W. A. Babcock and John Lynch. Not long after their arrests, Detective Elder arrested professional thief Jack Rand in Albany. No direct connection was ever made, but two months after Rand was taken, $1,200,000 in bonds was delivered back to New York by a London brokerage. Rand was later released.

The most plausible scenario is that the money was stolen, with some dumb luck, by Hod Ennis, Charley Howard, and John “Boston Pet” Pettingill. Howard and Pettingill were given some cash, but Ennis took the majority of the bonds and asked Rand to help dispose of them. Rand engineered the plan to have them taken to England (perhaps by Charley Bullard or George Bidwell). When Ennis was arrested in Boston, rather than give up Rand, he cut a modest deal with the crooked New York detectives, Heath and Young. Meanwhile, from the spooked Wall Street brokers, Elder learned that Rand was the key figure, and arrested him, and this resulted in the bulk of the bonds being restored to Rufus Lord, who gifted a nice reward to Detective Elder. Jack Rand was set free. His career was one of the most notable of nineteenth-century criminals.

Asbury got this partially correct: he identified Jack Rand and Hod Ennis. John “Boston Pet” Pettingill often used the alias Anderson, so Asbury confused that and named two men, Anderson and Pettingill. However, Asbury’s inclusion of John D. Grady is almost certainly wrong. Charles Howard is bit of a puzzle–he could be the same man as Charley Rose.

Why did NYPD chiefs Byrnes and Walling get it so wrong, and not comment more about it? They were deflecting from the NYPD’s past practices, in which property crimes often went unsolved or only partially recovered after kickbacks were made to police.

As a final note, while researching this famous crime, I learned something about a painting, a print of which hangs in my house:

View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains
View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains by Thomas Cole

The view is of Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. The painting was commissioned by Rufus L. Lord, long before his money was stolen.

Tangled in a Hell’s Kitchen Double Dutch

Writing of the origins of the Hell’s Kitchen Gang in the 1860s, (see The Gangs of New York, Chapter XI, Section 2) Herbert Asbury recounts the downfall of its only-mentioned chieftain:

“Under the leadership of Dutch Heinrichs this gang roamed through Hell’s Kitchen, levying tribute on the merchants and factory owners, breaking into houses in broad daylight, beating and robbing strangers, and keeping the entire district in a chronic state of terror. Much of their stealing was done at the old Thirtieth street yards and depot of the Hudson River railroad. Heinrichs was sent to prison for five years after he and two of his gangsters had attacked Captain John H. McCullagh, then a patrolman, who had ventured alone into Hell’s Kitchen to investigate the theft of two hogsheads of hams from a freight car.”

Asbury’s source for this was 1885’s Our Police Protectors: History of New York Police… by Augustine E. Costello. Costello wrote: “McCullagh, hearing of the robbery, went cautiously down towards the depot. On the way he encountered a notorious thief, nicknamed “Dutch Heinrich,” and two of his companions. Heinrich, with an oath, precipitated himself on the officer. A terrific struggle ensued, but after a time the thief went under. He was afterwards tried, convicted, and sent to State Prison for five years.”

However, McCullagh himself, in recalling this adventure for the January 6, 1889 edition of the New York Herald, clearly states the the crook he nabbed was “Dutch Herman,” the nickname of a notorious Hell’s Kitchen thief named Harmon Liedendorf, aka “Dutch Harmon.” In the 1874, Liedendorf was tried and acquitted of killing a Hudson River Railway watchman for lack of evidence, but was sent to prison for shooting at the officer who arrested him. He escaped, only to be recaptured a few years later. Articles about Liedendorf say then he was a member of the Tenth Avenue gang.

There was a different notorious contemporary New York-based criminal in the 1860s known as Dutch Heinrich (and variants Hendricks/Hendrick,Heinrichs/Heindrich, etc.) His real name, as far as can be known, was Henry Edwin G. Neumann/Newman, born about 1842. Neumann, at age 18, was arrested for pick-pocketing a watch in May 1860 in New York under the alias Edward Ryan. Despite his youth, he was described as a “noted pickpocket.” Other later accounts suggested that he provided goods to the Greenthal and Mandelbaum fencing operations. He was sentenced to two years in Sing Sing, where he became friends with sneak thief Chauncey Johnson.

Sneak thieves were elites among criminals–they did not resort to violence or break-ins, but instead stole in broad daylight, targeting banks and financial institution offices with lax security. They were only interested in large cash hauls, employing patient study of these workplaces, distraction techniques to trick others into looking away from stacks of bills or bonds, and sometimes special tools to reach behind counters.

During the mid-to-late 1860s, Chauncey Johnson and Dutch Heinrich scored several big jobs, including the Bank of Commerce in 1865 and the Broadway Bank in 1866. Both Johnson and Neumann were gambling addicts, and lost their money almost as soon as they stole it. They gained an infamous reputation as two of the most successful thieves in the nation.

“Dutch Heinrich” Neumann was sometimes mentioned as one of the suspects in the $2 million dollar Lord Bond Robbery of March, 1866, which stood as one of the largest unsolved robberies in American history (though many of the bonds were recovered). However, Neumann had been arrested for a different money grab the day before the Lord Bond robbery, so he could not have been involved.

In 1872, Neumann was arrested, tried and convicted of a bank robbery and sentenced to ten years at Sing Sing. However, almost immediately after he was sentenced, it became clear that he had been “railroaded” by vengeful detectives and was innocent of this particular crime; an appeal process was started by his lawyers, Howe and Hummel. During this period, Neumann exhibited signs of insanity. Some thought he was feigning, but most observers realized that his chances of acquittal at a second trial were so solid that he had no reason to fake an illness. Eventually he was let out on bail, but in such poor condition that newspapers believed he would not live much longer. In 1874, he boarded a steamer that was to take him to his native Germany to spend his last days there. Once other passengers learned who had booked the passage, they demanded that he be taken off before the ship sailed. In 1875 it was reported that he had died at an asylum in Germany.

Ludwig, the Bloodsucker

Herbert Asbury, in Chapter IX, Section 2 of The Gangs of New York, mentions that Lower Manhattan had its own vampire, an old German called Ludwig the Bloodsucker, who frequented two Bowery dives, Bismarck Hall and the House of Commons. Asbury remarked on Ludwig’s copious terminal hair coming out of his ears and nostrils, and that he drank blood like wine. Other writers after Asbury added that Ludwig preyed on the drunken customers that stumbled out of saloons.

Ludwig wasn’t mentioned in any of Asbury’s listed sources, and in fact can’t be found in any 19th century books. Many people, such as the article contributors of Wikipedia, have concluded that Ludwig was a myth, an urban legend. It’s a good premise, to imagine that the Bowery area had its own monster to rival Whitechapel’s Jack the Ripper, preying on the lost souls of impoverishment.

Happily, after 140 years, I can announce to the world that Ludwig the Bloodsucker was not a myth. His name was Franz Ludwig (sometimes Americanized as Francis Louis) Hellreigel, born in Germany in 1824. Hellreigel and his wife, Margaretha, raised a large family and resided at times on the Lower East Side and across the river in Brooklyn. They were not poor, and owned their own property. He was a tailor by profession.

Hellreigel’s peculiar taste in liquids was publicized in the New York Mercury, and later reprinted in the National Police Gazette:

Hellreigel, alas, was not quite alone. There are contemporary newspaper accounts that relate that some doctors, following quack theories, prescribed the ingesting of blood to alleviate certain medical complaints, especially consumption (usually tuberculosis). Though Hellreigel started his practice as a child for similar reason, he stands apart in his adult preference for blood as refreshment.

That’s odd–I can’t find Hellreigel’s death record.

Dick (not Jack) the Rat

Though not directly involved in gang activities, Herbert Asbury made sure to devote some pages in The Gangs of New York to another emblematic landmark of barbarity, Kit Burns’ Sportsmen’s Hall, site of the city’s popular dog vs. rat and dog vs. dog fights. The first floor of Burns’ establishment at 273 Water Street housed a small indoor amphitheater, with wooden benches overlooking the “pit.” The floor above housed the saloon, which was described as surprisingly neat and orderly compared to the street’s other notorious dives. Burns catered to the crowd of gamblers and fans of bloodsports that inhabited lower Manhattan. The great majority of 19th-century New Yorkers viewed rat-fighting and dog fighting as deplorable a spectacle as most people do today. By the end of that century, public exhibitions of these were outlawed, but in Burns’s heyday (the 1860s) they were a permitted, though low, source of amusement. Sadly, these events can still be found today in some parts of the United States, though they have long been illegal.

According to Asbury [The Gangs of New York, Chapter III], “Another attraction of Sportsmen’s Hall was Kit Burns’ son-in-law, known as Jack the Rat. For ten cents Jack would bite the head off a mouse, and for a quarter he would decapitate a rat.”

Kit Burns (real name Christopher Keyburn) employed as his head rat wrangler his son-in-law, Richard C. Toner. Toner, known far and wide as “Dick the Rat,” was a tall, somewhat handsome English-born professional rat exterminator. The tools of his trade were a set of long tongs, burlap bags, a dark lantern (i.e. early flashlight), and occasionally, ferrets and terriers. Toner had an instinctive knowledge of rodent behavior, and could capture and kill over a hundred rats in an evening. It was a venerable trade, going back centuries. For several decades he was acknowledged as the best rat catcher in America, and owned the best rat killing dog, a terrier named Old Tom, and another champion named Blanche. Old Tom once killed 100 rats in the pit in less than fifteen minutes. Toner himself admitted that he sometimes bit the heads of rats as the quickest way to kill them, so Asbury’s anecdote was doubtless referring to him, and not a dog.

Though for many years Toner trained dogs for fights against other dogs, he took umbrage over the idea that killing rats could be considered as animal cruelty. In 1896, Toner was invited to Rochester, New York, at the invitation of hotel/saloon owner Jack Turner. However, the trip was a bust, as the Rochester Democrat reported:

“…At 7:30 o’clock last night, and after the rats had been transferred to the upper floor of Turner’s barn, where the fight was to take place, a man of medium height and who, by his general air of mystery, the proprietor immediately recognized as Humane Agent Weitzel, walked into the room. He glanced about, and seeing an unusual air of activity, surmised that things were not as they should be about the Rock Cottage. He motioned to Mr. Turner and taking him into a corner of the room, began a conversation as follows:

“‘What are you fellows going to do here tonight?’ asked Mr. Weitzel in an undertone. ‘I hear there is something on here tonight. I don’t know what it is, but I want it to stop at once. I won’t have any animals suffering while I am around.’

“The proprietor of the place believing that Mr. Weitzel had been informed that rats were to be killed at his place was ready in informing the agent that everything should be done as he wished. At the same moment one of the men was seen to disappear from the room in obedience to a wink from Mr. Turner. He hurried up to the room where the rats had been stored in anticipation of the evening’s sport, and with the assistance of a couple of men carried them to a wagon that stood outside. A horse was hurriedly hitched to the wagon and soon the rats were speeding towards the country. There were over 200 of them in the wagon and they made merry music as they being carried rapidly away.

“In this way the evidence of anything out of the ordinary was removed. The humane agent was on the point of leaving when it occurred to him to ask what kind of a sporting event had been meditated for the evening.

“‘Well, I’ll tell you, ” said Mr. Turner. ‘One of our friends has been engaged for the past week in capturing a number of rats here in the city and he was going to kill them all here tonight. I’m not going to deny it we would have had a good time watching him put an end to them.’

“At the mention of rats, Mr. Weitzel was much mollified, and expressed curiosity to see how it was done.

“‘That’s an impossibility, old man,’ said Dick the Rat, who was standing just back of the agent. ‘We’ve liberated all those rats by this time, and they are scattered all over the Third precinct.’ It must be acknowledged that Mr. Weitzel turned a shade paler when he heard this announcement, and when he remembered that his house was not far from the place where the rodents were to be let loose, his anxiety was not much decreased.

“Meanwhile…the sleigh containing the rats whirled out of Jack Turner’s front yard, and sped past a corps of officers, a laugh escaping them [the drivers]. The sleigh was driven rapidly along, in what direction the driver was later unwilling to state, but he had not proceeded far before a vigorous squeaking from the animals in the rear of the vehicle told him something was the matter.

“He stopped to investigate and found that the rats in the largest box, the one containing 105 of the pests, had become unduly hilarious at the thought of freedom so suddenly thrown within their grasp, and begun to organize a rat fight on their own account. They were making a terrible racket inside the box…He accordingly brought the horse to a halt and dragging the larger box from the sleigh…He tore one of the heavy slats from the top, then they leaped out upon the snow, and how they flew! [The driver] declares that they one and all headed straight for the heart of the city. The snow was black with them.

“Mr. Toner was seen by a reporter soon after the humane agent had left, and said, ‘I am able to prove that killing rats with dogs is far more humane than either drowning or poisoning…When a man proposes to put a trained dog into a pit filled with rats and have them killed in one-two-three order, the people try to make out that he is doing something disgraceful, when in reality he is putting them to death in the easiest way possible.

“‘I have killed rats in all of the principle cities of the country from Maine to California, and whenever it was done it was a considered a benefit to the community…I will catch no more rats in the city of Rochester, however, until there is an understanding that I shall be able to kill them in the manner that I wish to. It looks at the present time as though a person must chloroform an oyster in Rochester before he is to be allowed to open it.

“‘There were enough rats liberated tonight to stock a city the size of Rochester in a year. Rats breed very rapidly, and there is a new litter of them each month. There are a large number in each litter. I shall leave here today and will not return unless it is understood that I can catch them and kill them without interference.'”

Most people today would realize that Toner’s argument in favor of quick deaths for pests ignores the fact that his dog suffered injuries in these fights, and that extermination can be separated from conducting bloodlust spectacles for entertainment and gambling. What he was doing with the rat pit was abhorrent. But if the next pandemic to strike humanity is found to be caused by rats, will people feel differently?

Reddy the Blacksmith

During the 1860s, one of New York City’s most infamous public figures was a violent, ill-tempered, criminally-inclined saloon keeper named William Varley, popularly known as “Reddy the Blacksmith.” Varley’s nickname is a nod to his original vocation (farrier) and appearance: he had hair, beard, and a bushy mustache all of bright red. Varley was born in 1835 in Liverpool to Irish parents. Varley’s religion was never evident until he neared death from Bright’s Disease in 1876, at which time he was consoled by priests and later buried under a stone cross pedestal in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York.

Varley’s origins and religious identification call into question his subsequent identification as a “Bowery Boy,” made by Herbert Asbury and others. During his lifetime, articles written about Varley only identified him as a leader of his own unnamed gang, not of any named gangs. The Bowery Boys of lower Manhattan thrived in the 1840s and 1850s as an anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, nativist street gang, but lost their cohesion following the Civil War. If anything, Varley fit the profile of the Dead Rabbits, not the Bowery Boys.

By the 1860s, Varley had abandoned his original vocation as a farrier, and came to prominence as a sporting figure–a gambler and trotting horse owner–and as a Tammany polling place enforcer. He opened a saloon at 7 Chatham Square, near the intersection of East Broadway and Catherine Street.

As a pickpocket and thief, Varley was anything but subtle. His usual method was to target men in his saloon or attending sporting events who were flashing money; have his accomplices surround and jostle the man; and then grab whatever was in his pockets, while the man was busy trying to fend off the rough treatment.

Varley was sent to Blackwell’s Island, the city penitentiary, in 1868 after he beat a prostitute who refused a specific proposal he made to her. On this occasion at least, Judge Joseph Dowling was unmoved by Varley’s political connections; and indeed mocked Varley for boasting of his influence.

The next year, 1869, Varley was entangled in another case in which a man was beat up and robbed in his saloon of $500.00. The only witnesses were the four men who helped “Reddy” mug the victim, but that did not prevent the victim from bringing charges. The first of the co-conspirators was tried and sentenced to fifteen years in state prison–a sign that the public had grown intolerant over Varley’s excesses. Before Varley’s case could be tried, he skipped bail and fled to San Francisco. There, city detective Isaiah Lee’s men tracked him down, and he was returned to New York to stand trial. Howe and Hummel, Varley’s defense attorneys, successfully cast doubt on the victim’s claim that he ever had the money he claims was stolen from him, and Varley was cleared.

In January 1871, Varley shot and killed Philadelphia gang leader Jimmy Haggerty during a dispute that took place in Pat Eagan’s saloon at the corner of East Broadway and Houston Street. It was a notable clash of two heavyweight toughs, who at the time were the most feared and reviled characters of their respective cities. Varley surrendered himself to authorities, claiming self-defense. While awaiting trial, Varley made headlines, first by beating his landlady, and next by attacking a streetcar conductor. He and his sporting friends then made forays to Connecticut in order to conduct illegal bare-knuckle prizefights. He was eventually acquitted of Haggerty’s death, but did little to curtail his activities. Within months, he and dance hall manager Harry Hill were arrested for providing backing to a proposed illegal prizefight, and while detained, Varley and Hill got into a fight.

“Reddy’s” activities slowed over the next several years, perhaps a sign of his growing kidney disease–a condition doubtless worsened by his heavy drinking. He died in 1876 at age 40, to the relief of all except the Tammany politicians that benefited from his vote fraud tactics.


In Chapter XI, Section 2 of The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury devotes a paragraph to the downtown dives run by (and catering to) English-born thieves, con men, and roughs. One sentence reads: “Among them were such famous crooks as Chelsea George, Gentleman Joe, Cockney Ward and London Izzy Lazarus who was killed by Barney Friery in a dispute over the division of a plug hat full of jewelry, which London Izzy had stolen from a jewelry store after smashing the window with a brick.”

The man killed by Barney Friery was not “London Izzy,” but his son, Harold “Harry” Lazarus. Friery, age 21, operated a low saloon named the “Ten-Forty Loan” at 14 Houston Street, while Harry Lazarus ran a similar bar, the “X-10-U-8” (Extenuate) next door at 12 Houston. Their dispute was not over thieving spoils or a business rivalry, but apparently something much more minor. They had been uneasy friends, but Friery objected to Harry’s dog, and had recently been in Harry’s place and cruelly mistreated the pet. The two men had words, and later Friery–while dead drunk–came into Harry’s place as he was closing and offered to have one of his pals fight Harry (who was a former boxer). Harry declined, which angered Friery, and Friery stuck a knife in Harry’s neck when he wasn’t expecting it. Friery later claimed he was so drunk he had no memory of the crime. For the act, he was hanged in 1866.

Harry had been following a career path similar to his father, Izzy. “London Izzy” had been born in England in 1812, and by the 1830s had learned how to stick up for himself as a young Jewish man in a bigoted society. Bare-knuckle boxing was never genteel, but in the 1830s bouts were conducted under rules so lax that death was not an unusual result. Izzy Lararus fought Owen Swift for the championship in 1837; the fight went 113 rounds, and Lazarus was destroyed in defeat, and retired from the ring. [Swift killed three of his opponents]. Izzy then moved around several cities in England, operating pubs, sponsoring fights, and tutoring young fighters–before emigrating to America with his family in 1853.

Izzy’s first son Harry had his first prizefight at age 17 across the Canadian border from Buffalo, and emerged victorious. While residing in Buffalo, Harry Lazarus was sued by a young woman for breach of promise, but showed up in court and agreed to take vows there and then. When the Civil War started, Harry joined New York’s Fire Zouaves on a 90-day enlistment. His regiment suffered heavy casualties at Bull Run, but Harry was said to acquit himself bravely. He fought in the same unit as his prizefighting opponent from Buffalo.

After completing his service, Harry bounced westward, operating saloons. In Nevada in 1864, he attended a prizefight on which he had bet heavily, and objected when the fight was stopped over a foul by his man. A supporter of the opposing fighter yelled back at Harry, and guns were drawn. After dozens of bullets flew, five men were injured, and the man Harry had pulled his pistol on was dead. Harry was left with two missing fingers and a lead ball in his shoulder. Though he might have escaped conviction, Harry chose to leave the territory before he could be tried.

Returning east, Harry opened his saloon in New York City in 1865, where he was soon downed by Friery. Harry’s father, Izzy, took the loss hard. Izzy himself had been running a saloon, but also provided boxing classes for eager students. By the 1860s, Izzy had ballooned to over 300 pounds, after starting out as a lightweight. The grief over the loss of his son, as well as complications from obesity, brought Izzy to death in 1867.

The Lazarus family of men were no angels, but they made their mark in the history of boxing; and deserved better than the mistaken slander Asbury related. Asbury’s source for asserting that Izzy [Harry] was a thief was Frank Moss’s The American Metropolis: From Knickerbocker Days to the Present Time; New York City Life in All Its Various Phases, but Asbury took the image of the stolen plug hat full of loot from an anecdote Moss related about a different man.

The Grand Duke’s Oprea [sic] House

One of Herbert Asbury’s more outlandish anecdotes concerns a street gang of the 1870s Five Points area known as the Baxter Street Dudes, led by “Baby-Face Willie.” (see Gangs…, Chapter XI, Section 3) The dudes set aside their ruffian inclinations to pursue thespianism, and converted a dark Baxter Street basement into a pioneer of people’s theater, called the Grand Duke’s Theater. According to Asbury, the company acquired scene props by stealing them from legitimate theaters and merchants, and after a flourish of success were beaten down by attacks from rival street gangs.

Later commentators, following Asbury’s lead, suggested that the fare offered by the Baxter Street Dudes reflected their own mean origins, and consisted of tales of robberies and killings, with many scenes of blood-letting.

While this is an entertaining image to consider, it strays far from the truth. There was no street gang known as the Baxter Street Dudes, and “Baby-Face Willie” was a fiction. However, there definitely was a Sixth Ward Baxter Street basement stage run by juveniles known as the Grand Duke’s Theater, and its true story is as every bit as wonderful as Asbury’s fable of delinquent actor wannabes, if not more so.

The boys who formed the Grand Duke’s Theater in late 1873 were a group of six to eight Sixth Ward newsies (newspaper boys) and bootblacks, ranging in age from 9-16. They came from poor or modest families, but none were known to be homeless. Though they hardly could have grown up ignorant of street crimes, they appear to have been (with a few exceptions) law-abiding. Several were quite literate, and were known to have attended school. Most of all, they were fans of popular theater, especially of productions of the Bowery theaters: variety and musical theater, i.e. what would later be known as vaudeville.

According to one of the group’s co-founders, Henry Campora, the building at 17 Baxter Street was the basement of his father’s tavern, with its own side entrance on Worth Street. Campora was the scenery painter, ticket booth operator, and usher, while the performers were managed by Pete Connors. The star performer was Terence Sullivan, who did an Irish comedy/dancing act. The other members included Miles O’Reilly, Sam and Dick Bernard, George Hawthorn, Richard Burke, Dave Conroy, and Frank Bush. Other infrequent company members (some of which might have been stage names) included Michael Kelliher, John Shay, Jack Daly, Jack Conway, James McGrath, Ed Mulcahy, Thomas Wing, Michael Boyd, and Thomas J. O’Brien.

The fare they offered consisted mainly of comedic sketches, with a heavy emphasis on blackface minstrels, along with German, Jewish, and Irish caricatures. The same type of acts were found in the most popular Bowery theaters of the time–there was no meanness or violence to speak of. However, that did not stop moralists like Dr. Thomas DeWitt Talmadge, the leading religious orator of Brooklyn and New York in the 1870s, from decrying the wickedness of the theater’s offerings. In response, the Duke’s Thomas J. O’Brien published a masterful mocking letter to the editor of The New York Herald, poking fun at “Tallrage”:

Years later, Henry Campora recalled the origins of the group:

The newspaper feature that brought the world to the boy’s candlelit basement stage was the January 17, 1874 edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which ran a feature spanning 3 pages, accompanied by the engravings seen below.

Though nearly always called “The Grand Duke’s Theater,” a hand-made sign was hung by the stage announcing it as the “Grand Duke’s Oprea House,” with Opera misspelled. The Russian Grand Duke had left the United States in early 1872, so the story of his visit to the dark basement may be apocryphal; but many other notables did take in the show, including the leading theatrical producer in New York, Tony Pastor.

The Grand Duke Theater quickly ran into trouble for operating without a license, which cost $500; however, their legal issues seemed to have faded after this harassment was exposed in newspapers, and so the show went on. The boys were invited to perform at the Cooper Union Institute; and Dave Conroy and Jack Daly were invited to join a variety run at one of Pastor’s theaters. On several occasions, the boys collected their profits for a week and donated them to a benefit cause.

Several of the boys went on to have long careers in vaudeville: Sam Bernard, Dick Bernard, Dave Conroy, Jack Daly, and Frank Bush. The theater’s location at 17 Baxter Street was shuttered when Campora’s family moved to New Jersey, but in 1877-1878 the Grand Duke’s Theater reopened further east, on Water Street, with a new cast of performers. From 1874-1876, The Grand Duke’s Theater spawned some competing theaters run by boys, from which the leading comedy vaudeville duo, Lew Fields and Joe Weber, emerged.

The Grand Duke’s star, Terence Sullivan, died as a young man while swimming off the New York Battery. Another featured performer, Miles O’Reilly, was arrested at age 19 for stabbing his landlord over a rent dispute. This, however, was the only reported act of criminality associated with the theater. Their props and costumes were homemade, not stolen.