Piker Ryan’s List of Thug Services

The block below (from The Gangs of New York, Chapter XI, Section 1) is one of the most famous passages in Asbury’s book, and is likely its most cited and quoted piece of text. It is now found in innumerable histories of New York, gang violence, organized crime, works of fiction and even forensic textbooks. Your humble blog author even has the uneasy feeling that he has quoted it in the past. If you suspect (to your great disappointment) that I’m about to debunk it–read on, because there is hope!

…The pioneer in this method of procuring clients was Piker Ryan, who appears to have been a thug of exceptional enterprise. When he was at length brought to book for one of his many crimes, the police found this list in his pocket:

Punching $2

Both eyes blacked 4

Nose and jaw broke 10

Jacked out (knocked out with a blackjack) 15

Ear chawed off 15

Leg or arm broke 19

Shot in leg 25

Stab 25

Doing the big job 100 and up

Ryan made good use of his opportunities, as was apparent from a notebook which was also in his possession. One page was headed “Jobs,” and below the heading were half a dozen names. Some had check marks after them, which Ryan explained meant that the tasks had been completed to the satisfaction of his clients.

Asbury placed this mention of Piker Ryan right in the middle of his discussion of the Whyos, the gang of all-around thieves and thugs that thrived in the late 1870s and 1880s, but who had all but disappeared by the 1890s. Helpfully, Asbury provided a mug shot of Piker Ryan, set among the other famous Whyos.

Asbury’s Piker Ryan

Asbury found this image in Thomas Byrnes’s 1895 edition of Professional Criminals of America, where it appeared as:

And what does Thomas Byrnes say about Patrick Ryan? Byrnes wrote:

ENGLISH PADDY and his companion, Mike Kelly (No. 497), are two English pickpockets.
They have been in this country but a short time, so that nothing much is known of them.
Either or both of them are liable to turn up at any moment. Ryan was sent to the penitentiary
on Blackwell’s Island, New York City, on February 8, 1893, for an attempt to rob a man at
Barclay Street ferry.
Picture taken February, 1893.

There is no indication that Patrick Ryan was ever a Whyo (he arrived years after their heydey), or a violent thug, or went by the nickname “Piker.” Indeed, if you search newspaper archives, book texts, periodical databases, and prison records from the 1870s through the early 1900s, you will not find anyone referred to as “Piker Ryan.” Nor will you find the supposed shopper’s menu of crimes quoted above. And you will not find any reference to “Piker Ryan” in any of Asbury’s listed source material.

Herbert Asbury first mentioned Piker Ryan in an article on gangsters that he wrote for the New York Sun magazine section of July 20, 1919. In that article, Asbury said that Ryan flourished “about 1900 or thereabout.” There was no mention of the Whyos.

Despite Asbury’s inconsistent framing of Piker Ryan’s list, it turns out he did have a source: an October 23, 1909 article in the New York Evening Post entitled “Under Tammany,” written without a byline. The article profiled the unchecked gang activity that took place in New York under the watch of Tammany politician Big Tim Sullivan. Down in the article, the author writes: “They have their prices for any job politicians or other persons may call upon them to perform. ‘Piker’ Ryan’s price list has become a classic, ranging from $5 for ‘chawing off an ear’ to $200 for the ‘big job.'” [Note the price differences from Asbury’s list].

Asbury was an 18-year-old living in Missouri at the time this article was written, so he was not the author. The implication of the mention is that “Piker Ryan’s price list” had been circulated previous to 1909, and that many people had known about it. Perhaps it was once an object in New York’s police museum. However, the original reference to the list, as well as the identity of Piker Ryan, still remain a mystery.

To conclude, there is hope for believing that the list might have really existed. Needless to say, a crook would have to be an idiot to carry around such an incriminating piece of paper. Unfortunately, the fate of pickpocket Patrick “English Paddy” Ryan can’t be traced, but his infamy (likely undeserved, if he was not “Piker”) outlasted him.

The Many French Madames

Herbert Asbury appears to have had an affinity for ferocious female figures, from Gallus Mag [real, but not documented as savage] to Hell-Cat Maggie and Sadie the Goat [fictions] to “Battle Annie” Walsh [questionable]. In Chapter IX, Section 1 he throws into the mix “the French Madame,” the proprietor of a cafe/sex show in Thirty-First Street near Sixth Avenue. She was described by Asbury as being obese and bewhiskered. He wrote:

“She acted as her own bouncer, and acquired great renown for the manner in which she wielded a bludgeon, and for the quickness with which she seized obstreperous women customers by the hair and flung them into the street.”

This nugget of information needs sorting out, because there were at least four different women–all operators of notorious New York establishments located in many different locations–who were popularly known as “the French Madame.” Two of them, Eliza Porret and Matilda Herman/Hermann, come close to matching Asbury’s physical description, at least in girth. Three of these four came to public notice, but little is known of the fourth, other than that she was identified by Porret as the first and original “French Madame.”

Let us start by looking at the other clue that Asbury offered, the locale of Thirty-First Street near Sixth Ave, for this seems to confirm that he was referring to Eliza Porret. In the early 1880s, she ran the Cafe Riche (named after a much more illustrious Paris nightspot) at 54 West Thirty-First Street, near the intersection with Sixth Avenue. Later in the 1880s, the Cafe Riche moved to 40 West Twenty-Ninth Street, and after being shut down, moved again and resurfaced as the Cafe Bijou. But many referred to her places as “the French Madame’s.” The entertainment they offered was similar to that found at McGlory’s and The. Allen’s: young women dining with men and encouraging them to drink, can-can dancers, and private rooms offering more intimacy. The healthy profits her places made were mainly derived from liquor sales.

Her 1888 marriage reveals that her maiden name was Elise Zimmer of Bern, Switzerland, and that the name Porret represented her first marriage. Her 1888 nuptials in New York City were to Friedrich Carrard, also from Switzerland, but she never used his name in her dealings. As much as she made, she lost huge sums in legal disputes with disreputable partners and patrons, not to mention the bribes needed to keep her places open. After the city Excise Board denied her liquor license in 1889, she retired to a farm in Flemington, New Jersey and lived off property incomes until her death in 1891. While not quite the terror that Asbury described, the New York Herald did note that she was “a large, fat, evil-looking woman, with a masculine manner and an imprudent stare.” More generously, a different writer for the same paper saw her as a “well-preserved and dignified-looking woman of middle age,” attired in rich furs.

Eliza Porret told the newspapers that she had taken over the Cafe Riche from the original French Madame, whom she called Mme. Aimee Vermorel, who died in Paris in 1877. It is possible that Porret was alluding to Vermorel as the operator of the old Parisian Cafe Riche, but there are other references that suggest that Porret had been the protege of a “French Madame” in New York.

Luc Sante, writing in Low Life, Lures and Snares of Old New York, also said the French Madame was fat and bewhiskered, and ran her dive at Thirty-First and Sixth. Again, Sante seem to be talking about Eliza Porret, but names her as Matilda Hermann. In this, Sante is almost certainly mistaken, because Matilda Hermann was a brothel madame who owned several houses on Third Avenue. She was dragged in front of the Lexow Committee in 1894 to detail the bribes she had paid to local policemen to stay in business, and then left the country to help form a criminal community in South Africa with the notorious Joseph Lis. It was the reports of the Lexow Committee that called Matilda Hermann “the French Madame,” so that is likely where Sante found that association.

The fourth French Madame was a contemporary of Eliza Porret, known to New Yorkers as Louisa Chaude. Her maiden name was Louise Fichet, born in France, who came to America and married a Frenchman, Eugene J. Chaude in 1875. They later separated, but she remained known as Madame Chaude, the French Madame, proprietor of the Maison Tortoni. The Tortoni was located on the northwest corner of Lexington Ave and Thirtieth Street.

The Maison Tortoni was a step above a dance-hall dive, and earned a reputation of having excellent food and drinks, as well as being finely furnished. Yet it, too, thrived on offering dances in private rooms. Like Matilda Hermann, Louisa Chaude was brought before the Lexow Committee in 1894 to detail the bribes she had paid to the police and city officials. The Maison Tortoni had closed its doors several years earlier. During its heyday in the 1880s, newspapers often called Mrs. Chaude “the French Madame.”

It seems that wherever you turned in the Tenderloin–Satan’s Circus–there was a different French Madame waiting to entertain you.

The Green Dragon, Attacked and Unstuck in Time

The Green Dragon was the name of an iconic tavern in Boston, Massachusetts, said to have been the location where the Boston Tea Party was planned. In New York City, the name has a different heritage. The Green Dragon Hotel was opened in December 1834, at 162 Bowery by a young Englishman, A. Unsworth. He manufactured ginger beer on location, and advertised his tavern as being run on the “English system,” offering a variety of English ales and the house specialty, welsh rarebit. Unsworth wanted to maintain a cozy Old World atmosphere, but after being open just a few months, he made a miscalculation. When some members of a local volunteer fire company barged into his establishment one evening, already drunk and rowdy, he refused to serve them. This gang of firemen represented the “American” contingent, i.e. second or third generation native-born citizens, who resented the recent influx of Irish and “Dutch” (German) immigrants, to say nothing of freemen of color. Unsworth’s slight was not forgotten.

In late June of 1835, less than a year after anti-abolishionist rioters had wrecked residences and storefronts in hysteria over rumors that the city’s notable abolitionists were promoting miscegenation, a new riot broke out in lower Manhattan based on similar nativist fears. In this case, the leading cause appears to have been the announcement of the formation of an Irish-American local militia, the O’Connell Guards. Local militias had been one of the institutions that conveyed power to nativist fraternities, and the formation of an Irish (Catholic) unit was perceived as an intolerable threat. Two or three hundred young rowdies roamed the Five Points and Bowery districts, destroying properties known to be associated with the Irish.

As the mob reached the Bowery, the offense of Mr. Unsworth was recalled. The rioters broke his windows and entered the hotel, breaking all the furniture and fixtures of the saloon. It was a strange conflation of nationalist animism: Unsworth, an Englishman, was thought to be anti-American; Irish-Americans had little love for the English, and could hardly be thought of as the Green Dragon’s main clientele; Unsworth, for his part, had probably thought he was honoring his adopted country’s beginnings by naming his hotel after Boston’s revolutionary tavern. Shortly after this point, police were finally able to disperse the mob before further damage could be done.

A month later, Unsworth had repaired his establishment and renamed it the York Hotel. He took ads out in several newspapers, in which he explained that “it was my uniform earnest desire to give to my house a respectable reputation,” and that was his reason for denying service to drunkards. He also described several times when he had thrown his doors open to firemen exhausted from their efforts. Finally, he denied any anti-American feelings; on the contrary, he had “freely and openly acknowledged the many favors shown me as a ‘stranger in a strange land.'”

Writing in 1927, nearly ninety years after the Five Points Riot, Herbert Asbury magically transported the attack on the Green Dragon from 1835 to 1857, during the Dead Rabbits riot. Moreover, Asbury got the affiliations all wrong. Asbury wrote:

“Early the next morning the Five Points gangs, reinforced by the Roach Guards, marched out of Paradise Square and attacked a resort called the Green Dragon, in Broome street near the Bowery, a favorite loafing place of the [Bowery] Boys and other Bowery gangs.”

And so, according to Asbury, it was not the nativist American rowdies who destroyed the Green Dragon, but the Irish-American gangs. And–Asbury gratuitously added–they also drank all the liquor in the place. Asbury’s version of the wreck of the Green Dragon has made its way into countless New York City histories, immortalizing his sloppy approach to research (if not an intentional anti-Irish bias).

As for Mr. Unsworth, one can only hope this did not sour his desire to be a gracious host. Let us all raise a ginger beer in his memory.

The Hartley Mob and the Molasses Gang

In his chapter on the Whyos (Chapter XI, Section 2), Asbury cites two gangs that were contemporaries of the Whyos: the Hartley Mob and the Molasses Gang. His source material for these mentions was Frank Moss’s American Metropolis, From Knickerbocker Days to the Present Time, published in 1897. Asbury embellished Moss’s account of the Hartley Mob, whom Moss mentioned as using a hearse to transport stolen goods. Asbury spiced up the account by adding that the Hartley Mob used a hearse and funeral carriages to surprise rival gang members in a street fight. Let us set aside Asbury for a moment and wonder at Moss’s confidential sources, for no mention of a “Hartley” gang or mob can be found in any New York City newspapers, history books, memoirs, or prison records. Thomas Byrnes, in the 1895 edition of his Professional Criminals of America, makes a passing reference to a Frank Hartley, a well-known “west-side pickpocket” arrested in 1890–but there is no mention of him heading any gang. The corporeality of the Hartley Mob becomes more unlikely the harder one has to dig to confirm it.

A much more rewarding experience is to be found in tracking down the sources of Asbury and Moss’s anecdote on the Molasses Gang, for this is indeed one of the great criminal yarns of nineteenth-century New York. The story goes like this: a gang of till-tappers targets a old German storekeeper, and two of them enter his establishment and present an unusual request: they have bet each other as to how much molasses that one of their high-hats can hold. Though skeptical, the German complies with their wish and fills the hat to its brim with the thick syrup. Then, one youth quickly pins the storekeeper’s arms, while the other dumps the hat-full of molasses over the storekeeper’s head. While he is temporarily blinded, a third man rushes to rob his cash drawer.

For twenty years, this tale of clever crooks pranking an old storekeeper was retold in books and newspapers, and was dubbed “the molasses trick.” As late as 1906, it found its way into a book that Harry Houdini wrote on the methods of criminals–although Houdini placed its origin in the outskirts of London, England. However, the first account printed in book form that names the perpetrators appears to be Thomas Byrnes’s 1895 edition of Professional Criminals of America. In that book, profile criminal #221, James Dunnigan (alias Hughes, alias Dunn) is credited with originating this crime, in company with “Billy Morgan, Blind Mahoney, and two others.” Both Asbury and Moss repeated these names, but left out mention of the two others.

However, a much different picture emerges if you track the mentions of the “molasses trick” that appeared in newspapers between 1883 and 1914. Several other criminals are mentioned as originating the stunt: Patrick McGrath; Patrick McGuire; Albert Hawthorne; Robert Hawthorne; James McGuire; Charles Arets; William Rogers; William Clancey; John “Limpy” Burke; Edward Hawthorne; “Kennedy”; John “Jack” Kiely/Keely; Joseph “Big Joe” Larimer; and Michael Davis, alias Dunn. Obviously, it would make sense to give credence to the earliest mention of the incident.

The crime occurred on February 3, 1883 and was reported upon the next day by the New York Times:

So here we have the first mention of the crime, but who were the criminals? They were not apprehended until a year later, during which time they committed scores of other till robberies; and when they were caught (by Byrnes’s detectives), they were named as: Patrick McGrath, Patrick McGuire, and Albert Hawthorne (Brooklyn Union); or, Robert Hawthorne, James McGuire, and Charles Arets (Buffalo Evening News). The three men were tried in February, 1884, and sent to Sing Sing under the names: James Brady, Robert Hawthorne, and James McGuire.

Brady’s Sing Sing entry notes that he had previously been imprisoned under the name James Kelly in 1875; and in 1878 as James Murphy, alias Cavanaugh. James McGuire had previously been sent to Blackwell’s Island as James O’Brien.

Both Robert Hawthorne and James Brady (better known as James Kelly) had long criminal careers, stretching into the early 1900s. The final word on the “Molasses Trick” has to go to Brady/Kelly, who penned a full-page article for the Sunday, March 29, 1914 edition of the New York Herald magazine, titled “The Story of a Life of Crime.” In his account, recalled more than thirty years later, Brady/Kelly said his companions were Bobby Hawthorne, Tommy Murphy, and “McGlone”. He also recalled that the storekeeper’s name was “Schmidt” and that the crime occurred in 1878; and that he was arrested right after the crime in a bar when a detective caught him reeking of the smell of molasses.

It’s as if someone took the truth of the matter and poured a hat of molasses over it.

Denver Hop at the Morgue

In his chapter on “The Whyos and Their Times,” (Chapter XI, Section 1) Asbury cites a Bowery dive known as the “Morgue” as being one of the last haunts of the Whyo gang. In it–according to Asbury–the Whyos had their last great battle, caused by a disagreement between Denver Hop and English Charley which led to gunplay. Asbury wrote: “soon a score of men joined in with revolvers, but all were drunk and no one was injured.”

Asbury’s source for this information was Frank Moss, in volume 2 of his American Metropolis. Moss identified Denver Hop and English Charley as members of a party of petty thieves and panhandlers, suggesting they were relics of the Whyo gang, and that their disagreement was over the division of spoils. Moss’s source was a November 21, 1896 article in the New York Evening Journal entitled “Duel at Close Range,” which does not invoke the name “Whyo” at all. The newspaper account makes it clear that the two men, and others with them in the bar, were professional beggars, i.e. panhandlers, who comprised a community in the Bowery/Chinatown area at that time.

According to the Journal account (and those of other newspapers), the shots were only exchanged between the two men. One eyewitness said that only four shots were fired. The saloon was owned by “Herman Brown & Brother,” and was indeed nicknamed the “Morgue.” It was run as a Raines Law hotel, i.e. it was allowed to serve liquor through the night because it also rented rooms and offered food items.

The Whyo gang flourished in the late 1870s and early 1880s, with its members involved in a variety of crimes: pickpocketing, muggings, thievery, gambling, pimping, and as hired muscle. By 1888, many of their leading lights had been jailed. By 1896, the date of this incident, the Whyos had long been supplanted by other gangs.

Denver Hop’s real named was Edward Johnson, alias Henry J. Marshall. His many arrests from 1894-1925 were for pickpocketing. He was born in Salt Lake City, and earned his nickname from a wooden leg (a severe handicap for a pickpocket, since police detectives could spot him easily by his gait). His arrests occurred throughout the United States, from California to Boston, a pattern shared by many professional pickpockets.

Denver Hop was real, as was the Morgue. But the Morgue had a short existence in the mid 1890s; and by the time of Denver Hop’s first appearance in New York City, the Whyos were only a memory. There is a lot that can be said about the Whyos and their most celebrated alumni, but Denver Hop wasn’t one of them.

Billy McGlory, Dive Landlord

Billy McGlory (real name William H. McGrory, 1850-1927) was, during the 1880s and early 1890s, among the handful of New York City’s most notorious dance-hall operators. His most successful establishment was the Armory Hall, located at 158 Hester Street, but his other dives: the Windsor Palace, Burnt Rag, Burnt Rag No. 2, Hotel Irving, etc. appealed to the same clientele: those who appreciated dancers kicking up their legs doing the can-can and leaving later that evening with their new gentlemen friends (and slummers who enjoyed the spectacle of debauchery).

Wikipedia has a fairly complete and accurate entry on Billy McGlory, that strays from the truth only when it relies on Herbert Asbury as a source. When McGrory was five in 1855, the family was living in the Sixth Ward, not far from the Bowery, but his father was a grocer and his mother managed several boarders living in their house. Before Billy was nine, the family had moved to 354 West Sixteenth Street in the Sixteenth Ward (today’s Chelsea section of Manhattan), far from the Bowery and the Five Points. There is no evidence that he was a gang member, though he ran with thieves at an early age. McGrory’s father, Patrick, died in 1859, leaving Bill’s mother, Honora, to lead the family. She had some assistance from her son from a prior marriage, John Tomlinson, who went on have a very successful career in musical/comedy theater under the name Johnny Thompson.

Though not poor, the McGrory family was hardly peaceful. In 1866, Billy was arrested under the name “Gilbert McGlare” for robbery and, though only 16, was sent to Sing Sing for five years (he was registered as being 18). This fact never surfaced during his later life, and even NYPD Superintendent George W. Walling seemed unaware of this background; Billy was always reticent about discussing his early years.

The McGrory family’s internal strife frequently made headlines:

  • Honora–Billy’s mother–was married three times: first to John Tomlinson, then to Thomas Lane, and lastly to Patrick McGrory.
  • In 1885, Billy’s younger brother Michael came home drunk and started breaking furniture. Someone in the house called the police, who arrested the 20-year-old bartender. A judge sentenced Michael to 3 months at Blackwell’s Island, and warned Honora not to intercede on her son’s behalf. She said she would not.
  • Honora had a daughter, also named Honora, who married Hugh Campbell, a thief sent to Sing Sing in 1875. While her husband was jailed in 1877, young Honora drew the attentions of a bartender named James Hennessey. Outside their house, Mother McGrory and Billy attacked Hennessey, while young Honora tried to defend him. Her sister Mary then jumped on young Honora. The family fight had to be broken up by a squad of patrolmen. Honora later divorced Campbell and married Hennessey.
  • In December 1878, a patron of Billy’s dive was attacked, and brought charges against Billy. Before the case could be heard, the victim was discharged from his hospital bed by two of Billy’s companions, who brought him to the McGrory home to “recuperate.” The man later claimed that he had been kidnapped.
  • By 1883, Billy had gained infamy for hiring thugs to be his waiters. Two of them earned lodgings at Sing Sing prison.
  • Billy’s sister, Mary McGrory, married a NYPD patrolman, H. Irving Houghtaling. Houghtaling once had his skull fractured while directing traffic, and on another occasion tackled a fleeing murderer.
  • In 1886, a boarder of one of Honora’s properties named John “Nut” Moran was shot as he pursued his calling as a burglar. He limped back to the McGrory house and later died in his room.
  • By 1893, Billy had fallen on hard times, but his mother still retained rental properties in Hoboken, New Jersey and Brooklyn, as well as several healthy bank accounts. Billy returned to his old homestead and tried to have his mother declared incompetent. Billy’s siblings objected, and the law was on their side. As a result, Billy was written out of his mother’s will when she died in 1896. However, he brought suit in a New Jersey court after her death over property she had there.

Billy kept a low profile after his dives had been closed, but it’s possible he just became more careful about having properties registered in his name. He died in his seventies in Orlando, Florida in 1927.

Hell-Cat Maggie and Wild Maggie

One of the most popular figures in The Gangs of New York–book or movie–is Hell-Cat Maggie, a ferocious female allied with the Dead Rabbits gang of the Five Points (see Asbury, Chapter II, Section 3). Her prominent feature was a set of teeth filed to points, employed in riots and street brawls against other gangs. She is often mentioned in the same breath as two of Asbury’s other Amazonian figures, Gallus Mag and Sadie the Goat, though Asbury himself sets Maggie’s ascendancy to the early 1840s, years before the other two. As seen in other posts, Gallus Mag was a real person, a barkeep of intimidating size, but apparently good-natured. However, Sadie the Goat did not exist before Asbury wrote about her in 1927; and (to the disappointment of many) Hell-Cat Maggie was no more real than Sadie. Asbury alone is to be credited for these fictions. They did not appear in any of his sources, nor did they appear in any other books, newspapers, or periodicals.

Filing teeth to points or the use of metal claws as weapons does not seem to have much martial value, and no examples can be found in the annals of New York City. Filing teeth to points was a practice that nineteenth-century Westerners saw and reported on among certain African and Indonesian tribes, but it was done as a cosmetic ritual. Asbury might have thought that was an effective image to portray the savagery of the Five Points gangs. However, the end result is that his fabrications distort history, and do a disservice to the real women who endured, suffered, and sometimes thrived despite extreme poverty on the streets of Manhattan.

But Asbury also mentions another famous Maggie, the juvenile leader of the Little Forty Thieves gang, “Wild Maggie Carson.” (Chapter XI, Section 3). Maggie was a young Irish girl of the Five Points portrayed in one of Asbury’s named sources, the 1854 bestseller Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated by Solon Robinson. Contrary to Asbury’s “Little Forty Thieves” assertion, Robinson said that Wild Maggie was too young for brawling, and that the worst she did was curse and taunt Protestants. In Robinson’s story, she is convinced by a missionary to do work in a house of industry and reform herself, saving her family. Robinson asserted in the New York Tribune that Wild Maggie was based on a real girl named Margaret Ryan, which prompted back-and-forth accusations between neighborhood residents and Protestant missionaries, as seen in this letter to the editor [Mr. McClain, the author, was not an Irish Catholic; he served on the board of a Methodist Church]:

So, what about the Little Forty Thieves? A gang going by that name can not be found outside of Asbury’s text.

An Asbury Non sequitor: Littlefield the Chiropodist

Asbury’s Chapter VI, Section 1 of The Gangs of New York (on the Police and Dead Rabbit riots of the late 1850s) begins with two very disjointed paragraphs in which he attempts to convey the tumultuous changes in American society of the 1850s. He does this by naming some of the cultural icons of the period: preacher Henry Ward Beecher; dancer Sontag; singer Adelina Patti; Uncle Tom’s Cabin; actor Edward Askew Sothern….and the 1854 debut of America’s first chiropodist, “Dr. James Littlefield.” These paragraphs read as a capricious hodge-podge, capped by the mention of Dr. Littlefield, who was hardly a cultural touchstone. What was Asbury thinking?

Alas, he wasn’t thinking–he was just poaching from his source material, Nation-Famous New York Murders (1913) by Alfred Henry Lewis. Moreover, it was a very ill-advised appropriation, because Lewis had a very distinctive, conversational writing style (he would have been a great monologist) that was alien to Asbury. Also, the Lewis source paragraph was written about a much more limited, 2-3 year period, 1852-1855, prior to the killing of Butcher Bill Poole. Here is the Lewis text:

These, you are to understand, were not timid, but strenuous, days. Franklin Pierce was President, with Governor Marcy of New York — he who, in Jackson’s iron hour, had announced as his declaration of political faith that “To the victors belonged the spoils of the enemy” — as his Secretary of State; Fannie Wright was lecturing against marriage, and in favor of free love; Commodore Stevens had taken his skimming dish, the America, and beaten the English to a standstill off the Isle of Wight; animal magnetism, which had been mesmerism, was reappearing as hypnotism; Jones Wood, opposite Blackwell’s Island, was in process of being rejected by the city authorities as a public park — upon the thoughtful argument that it offered too many East River opportunities for quietly shoving overboard an undesirable acquaintance — to make way for the acceptance of Central Park which, at a popular cost of $5,169,369, was preferred in its stead; the Black Ball clipper Sovereign of the Seas, with four feet of green water washing her forward decks, her masts bending like whips, had hung up the record of 13 days and 19 hours between the Liverpool lights and Sandy Hook; Kossuth, the Hungarian liberator, was on his way to these shores ; Adelina Patti, cetat eleven, was singing at Niblo’s; river pirates Hewlett and Saul were being hanged; Lola Montez was trying to draw old-time crowds — and failing — as Mazeppa at the Broadway; Doctor Kane was poking about, blue-nosed and frozen, among arctic ice in futile quest of Sir John Franklin; Sontag was alarming the pulpits and enchanting the town with her high-kicking; the razor-strop man, the four-cent man, the ginger-bread man, the lime-kiln man, and the blue man were abroad as public nuisances in Nassau Street; Cow Bay and Murderers Alley were becoming interesting features of the Five Points; the city council, with Bill Tweed and Slippery Dick Connelly as head-liners, was creeping into celebration as the Forty Thieves; the great new play, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was in the midst of its phenomenal run of two hundred nights at the National; Putnam’s Monthly, in charge of editor Briggs, Parke Godwin and George William Curtis contributing, was shoving painfully from shore; the elder Sothern, who would later become Lord Dundreary, was holding, under the theatrical alias of Stewart, the half-paid boards in Barnum’s lecture room; the Times, Henry J. Raymond, editor, was in its swaddling clothes ; Corn Doctor Littlefield, as the first “chiropodist,” had just opened his toe parlors at 413 Broadway; while down in the Governor’s room at the City Hall, Washington Irving was presiding over the memorial service held in honor of his dead rival, Fenimore Cooper, to which the Mayor then and there present contributed a false note with what the Tribune spoke of as his “Fernando Wooden smile.” Truly, as was said above, these were not idle, but strenuous, days.

Asbury, during his translation of this material, left out more half the names; he indicated that everything he mentioned took place in the decade (not 2-3 years in the mid 1850s) before the Civil War, and he inexplicably deemed mention of Dr. Littlefield worth retaining. Perhaps Dr. Littlefield’s life and career had some significance that has been lost to current generations?

Well, no. John [not James!] Edward Littlefield (1815-1864) was a successful chiropodist (a now obsolete term for podiatrist) and family man, who made no newspaper headlines outside his advertisements. He was not the first chiropodist to practice in America: two foreign-born doctors were advertising their practices prior to Littlefield; and Littlefield began announcing his services in 1841, not in the 1850s. Lewis and Asbury should have tread more lightly on Dr. Littlefield’s toes.

The Honeymoon Gang, First Avenue Regulators

In Chapter VI, Section 1 of The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury inserted an anecdote he copied from George W. Walling’s 1887 book, Recollections of a New York Chief of Police. Though Walling often cribbed accounts he found in newspapers, his remarks on the Honeymoon gang were drawn from his personal experience:

The same year [1853] I was promoted to be captain of police in the Eighteenth Ward. The station was on Twenty-ninth Street, between Madison and Fourth avenues. “Squatters” [street corner rowdies] were plentiful in this locality. Fights were of frequent occurrence, and the precinct was by no means as orderly as it is now. There was one especially notorious party of ruffians, known as the “Honeymoon Gang.” It was named after its leader. For a long time the members of this gang had everything their own way, and I determined to clear them out of the ward. Taking five or six of my best men, all in citizen’s dress, I began hunting the ruffians, and in a few weeks, by dint of some pretty hard “licks,” judiciously administered, the ward was cleared. At this time there was no regular surgeon attached to the force to care for prisoners, and we had to frequently call upon one who lived near the station to dress their wounds. His fee was $1.00 for attending to a single cut. Not infrequently one head would be worth as much as $5.00 to him.

Asbury named Walling’s enforcers a “strong-arm squad,” but that term was not used until the early 20th Century. The use is apt, though, because the city’s newspapers, as early as the 1840s, opined that the problem of street rowdies needed to be solved by the “strong arm of the law.”

The leader of the Honeymoon Gang was Patrick Honneyman (the spelling used in his funeral notice; newspapers called him Honeyman). The uncommon name may sound familiar to aficionados of American criminal history: James Honeyman was one of the first bank robbers (1831) in the country’s annals of crime. However, Patrick Honneyman, born in Ireland in 1833, arrived alone in New York City in 1849, so its unlikely he was related.

The Honeymoon Gang, also known as the First Avenue Regulators, was one of the gangs of “rowdies” that plagued the street corners of many city wards, comprised of idle young men. There was often a heavy overlap between these gangs and the companies of volunteer fire companies; Honeyman appears to have been allied with Engine Company No. 46, particularly during its running battles with Engine Company No. 30.

Walling might have temporarily moved the Honeymoon Gang off the street corners of the Eighteenth Ward, but by no means did he break them up. In March 1854, the gang was involved in a riot among three fire companies: 30, 46, and 48 on the borders of the Twenty-first and Eighteenth Wards. Honeyman was arrested and sent to the Tombs, his bail set at $5000–a tremendous sum.

In November 1857, Honeyman and his pals were arrested for a polling place riot in the Twenty-Second Ward. The police chased them off, but they left a trail of ransacked stores and saloons in their wake. Honeyman was nabbed again and had his bail set at $1000.

In November 1859, a group of self-professed “workingmen” nominated Honeyman for Alderman of the Fourteenth Ward, but most people in that ward seemed totally unfamiliar with who he was, and he garnered only a few votes. A couple of weeks later, in the last week of November, Honeyman was accused of passing counterfeit bills by another young Irishman, Patrick Fannan. This led to an altercation that was broken up by their respective friends, but they vowed to settle the matter in a more formal ring fight. They met at the foot of Twenty-Eight Street on the East River, and battled several rounds. Fannan got the best of the fight, and threw himself down on Honeyman several times. Ultimately, it was broken up. Honeyman first appeared to have no serious injuries, but over the next few days his condition worserned. He died on December 9, 1859, and with him died the Honeymoon Gang, aka the First Avenue Regulators.

Asbury used a broad brush when describing “gangs,” but the city-dwellers of the nineteenth-century made more nuanced distinctions. The Honeymoon Gang were the definitive “rowdies.” A New York Herald article from August 31, 1879 entitled “The New York Rowdy: His Gradual Surrender of Old Haunts and Habits” helps us understand:

The Traditional New York rowdy, the terror of suburban watering places and excursion parties, and the street-corner scarecrow of belated and unprotected females–ay, and of many males as well–appears to be gradually passing away. Time was, not many years ago, that he flourished without restraint or interruption, made whole neighborhoods impassible for decent people, and turned the summer resorts convenient to the city into scenes of howling riot. His appearance was a familiar one on the street corners. He seldom allowed more hair on his face than a mustache, usually died black, with traces of its original color appearing half an inch from the roots, but as a rile he went beardless, wore a soft felt hat with the brim bent down in front and bent up behind; pegged boots, with high resounding heels; a long black coat and the loudest style of lavender or fancy pantaloons tight above the knees. In summer he dispensed with shirt collars, and seldom troubled himself with the encumbrance of a pocket handkerchief. He was accustomed to chew great quantities of fine-cut tobacco, and as he stood on corner to spit halfway across the street, just in front of a passing lady. When he smoked he held his cigar at an upward slant of forty-five degrees. His face had usually a florid color, and his breath impregnated the air around him with the odor of unrectified whiskey. His laugh and voice were both loud and metallic, and his every other link in the chain of his conversation was either a profane or obscene epithet. His daring and ferocity were never properly developed except acting with a gang, for on his own hook he was sneaking and spiritless. The day had no enjoyment for him when he and his companions failed to wreck a bar, to make away with whiskey and beer without payment, pound the barkeeper to a jelly, and scare the women and children almost to death…

…Sergeant Haggerty, of the Seventeenth precinct, who was ten years in the Volunteer Fire Department and has been twenty years on the police force in the most densely populated wards of the east side, said: “The Eighth, Eleventh, Thirteenth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth wards are not near so bad as they used to be. In times past the rowdy element was recruited from the volunteer fire and target companies. Now there are no volunteer fire and very few target companies [local militia clubs]. Corner loafing is pretty well abolished. When I first went on the force the rowdies would monopolize almost every corner. They belonged to different gangs that have no existence now. Around Eleventh street was the Dry Dock Gang; in Thirteenth street, the Comrade Guards; around Avenue B, the Atlantic Blues, about Fifteenth Street, the Honeymoon Guards, and then there was the First Avenue Regulators and the Gotham Guards. They’d congregate on a corner and then one gang would likely stray off and get licked by a different one, and at such times it was dangerous for a man to notice any of them; but all that element has disappeared. Of course, they still gather on corners, but they have to do it stealthily, for the police have orders to keep the corners clear, and they fly for their lives when a policeman makes his appearance, but in old times they had no fear like that.

“What has become of the former rowdies?”

“I know lots of former rowdies who are settled down in business, married and living respectably, and some who are holding high positions in the city government.”

“What was their object in collecting on corners?”

“Their object was fighting, and the great point was to find out which crowd would fight the longest and sustain the greatest punishment. Men used to take pride in showing the scars they received and in relating how nearly beaten to death they were. These men would never tolerate a thief in their society. One might do anything else, from pitch and toss to manslaughter, but a thief was something they couldn’t abide.”

Crazy Lou, the Dive Denizen

The way in which Herbert Asbury embellished his source material–which often consisted of the embellishments of earlier writers–can be demonstrated in a story found in Chapter IX, Section 2. While discussing a dance hall saloon named the Black and Tan, Asbury tells the sad story of a regular customer, a woman known only as “Crazy Lou.” Asbury’s source for this story was George W. Walling’s Recollections of a New York Chief of Police, published in 1887. However, in contrast to the title of his book, Walling relied more on plagiarized newspaper articles than his own memory. Such was the case with the story of Crazy Lou, which first appeared in an unattributed article titled “In the ‘Black and Tan'” in the July 26, 1885 edition of the New York World.

To demonstrate how writers embellish, let’s look at all three versions: The World, Walling, and Asbury, starting with the earliest, the newspaper account from 1885 [ellipses within the quote indicate that some racist asides were removed]:

But here is a picture of an old woman who sat for two hours in the Black and Tan a night ago, and the story told of her might be attributed to a fanciful pen were it not actually witnessed.

She came into the dive at midnight, a frayed, worn shawl thrown around her shoulders and the ends clasped by her trembling fingers. She sat down at one of the round tables. No one spoke to her, and only once in a while a dancer said, “Crazy Lou.”

Ten years ago this woman came into the Haymarket. The habitues of Tom Gould’s must remember how her capricious will fashioned for years the customs of the women around her. She smoked opium in Pell street, danced at McGlory’s in Hester street, sang at The. Allen’s in Bleecker street, and last night sat in the Black and Tan. She was not forty years old. She looked seventy. A fortune had passed through the thin fingers clasping the shawl.

Two o’clock came and the woman arose, pulled her shawl around her, and went out…She had tottered up the three steps to the street and bent her course westward…The woman shuffled along. The sights had no magnetism for her. She had grown grey and wrinkled in their services.

She passed out of the thoroughfare and crossed West Broadway. Surely a strange place for one of her race to live in, the follower thought, but nothing is strange under the stars in Bleecker street.

When the woman crossed West street and walked out on one of the long, deserted piers the reason flashed across the brain why she had come so far. The recollection of the life she had led, beginning with the wine suppers at the Haymarket and finishing under the lamps of the Black and Tan made one think that, like many of her other fallen sisters, she had come to the river.

She sat down on a bulkhead and looked at the water. A watchman approached and tapped her on the shoulder. The woman started and dropped her shawl. She turned to big dark eyes up at his and said: “Don’t touch me. Leave me alone, do you hear? They have driven me out because I can’t pay my room rent, and I want to rest.”

“Now see here, lady,” the watchman answered, in an argumentative tone of voice, “you must find another place to rest.” She did not reply, but looked out at the water flowing by past the big and little vessels in the river. “I want to rest,” she finally said, and then suddenly: “Don’t you know me? Don’t you know Lou? Why everyone knows me. Everyone used to know me, but they don’t now.”

Crazy Lou was not at the Black and Tan last night.

George W. Walling took this article and shortened it, losing much of the pathos:

I am told that, until recently, there was an old woman with a pathetic history who used to frequent the Black-and-Tan. Her name was Crazy Lou, and she would come in promptly at midnight and go away at two o’clock. Her face was wrinkled with years of vice. She wore an old worn shawl, and shivered in the warm room as if she were cold. No one spoke to this woman more than to say: “Hello, Crazy Lou!” and her only answer was a smile.

She had began her career in the Haymarket, a beautiful, attractive girl of seventeen. She had sat at the tables in the Cremorne and at Tom Gould’s. She had danced at Harry Hill’s and Billy McGlory’s, and finally at the Black-and-Tan. One night while the winds were blowing chill she gathered her shawl about her and went out from the dance-hall into the street. Slowly she picked her way along, and then those who were watching her lost sight of her. The next morning a corpse was found floating in East River. Crazy Lou came to the Black-and-Tan no more.

Clearly, Walling’s account, when found by Herbert Asbury, needed to be built back up again:

For many years one of the regular frequenters of the Black and Tan was an old woman known as Crazy Lou, who was said to have been a daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. At the age of seventeen she was seduced, and coming to New York to seek the author of her shame, fell into the hands of procurers, who sold her to one of the Seven Sisters in West Twenty-fifth street. When her beauty faded she was dismissed, and thereafter became a frequenter of the Haymarket, the Cremorne, Harry Hill’s, Billy McGlory’s, and finally the Black and Tan. In her old age she lived on scrapings from garbage pails, and the few pennies she could beg or earn by selling flowers. But each evening she went regularly to the Black and Tan, arriving promptly at midnight and remaining for exactly two hours. She wore a faded, ragged shawl, and always sat at a certain table in a corner, where Stephenson [sic] in person served her with a huge tumbler of whiskey which cost her nothing. This she sipped until the time came for her to leave. But one night she failed to appear, and the next morning her body was found floating in the East River. Stephenson expressed his sorrow by setting a glass of whiskey on her accustomed table each night at midnight for a month, permitting no one to sit there until two o’clock in the morning.

Clearly, more than one “fanciful pen” lent itself to the legend of Crazy Lou! No other evidence of her existence can be found.