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.