In describing a thuggish associate found in Kit Burns’ place on Water Street, Herbert Asbury quotes a section of James Dabney McCabe’s Secrets of the Great City. [see Chapter III of Gangs of New York]. McCabe in turn was quoting a September 26, 1868 New York World article, “Low Life in New York.” The article describes an encounter with George H. Leese at a prayer meeting that Kit Burns agreed to host in his liquor store:
” ‘That’s what I call singing the bloody gospil. The man that wrote that ballad was no slouch,’ cried out George Leese, alias ‘Snatchem,’ one of the worst scoundrels in New York, who is now in the saving path of grace. As a beastly, obscene ruffian, ‘Snatchem’ never had his equal in America, according to his own account. The writer has seen this fellow at prize fights, with a couple of revolvers in his belt, engaged in the disgusting office of sucking blood from the wild beasts who had ceased to pummel each other for a few seconds. This man, with his bulging, bulbous, watery-blue eyes, bloated red face, and coarse swaggering gait, has been notorious for years in New York. The police are well acquainted with him, and he is proud of his notoriety.
‘Snatchem’ asked our reporter if he ever saw such ‘a-rough-and-tumble-stand-up-to-be-knocked-down son of a gun as he in his life.’ ‘Did you ever see such a kicking-in-the-head-knife-in-a dark-room fellow as I am, eh?’ Our reporter meekly answered ‘no.’ ‘I want a quarter-stretch ticket to go to glory, I do. I can go in harness preaching the bloody gospil against any minister in New York. I know all Watts’ Hymns and Fistiana, and I’d like to be an angel and bite Gabriel’s ear off.’
George H. Leese (abt. 1822-1885) had a bit more character than his cartoonish portrayal in the New York World. He was a skilled boxer, adept with or without gloves; and later trained many others to the extent that the New York Clipper nicknamed him the “Demosthenes of the Ring.”
Leese was born and raised in Birmingham, England. He appeared in several high-stakes matches in his home country in the late 1840s against Joe Douglas, Watson, and Dan Betts. Leese and his brothers were strong supporters of the working-class Chartist movement, loyal to local politician George Muntz. As that movement faltered, Leese emigrated to the United States about 1850 and opened a saloon on West Broadway at the urging of other English expatriates. He married a beautiful Englishwoman named Delia, but they divorced in 1859. [Delia later fell on bad times, and in 1870 was sent to prison for a theft of forty cents. Some blamed her downfall on Leese’s influence.]
On August 16, 1854 the passenger steamer May Queen caught fire near Staten Island. Four hundred people were aboard. The ship drifted into shallows, so no other ships could come alongside to take off the terrified passengers. George Leese was a passenger on a nearby ship, the Norwalk. Leese and four other passengers on the Norwalk lowered its lifeboat and made several trips over the the burning May Queen. They rescued about 150 women and children. Other ships later rescued the other passengers. No one lost their life.
Leese’s saloon soon earned a reputation as a hangout for English burglars and thugs, but advertisements made it sound like a lively place.
Leese continued to take boxing matches against foes such as Phil Clare and Dooney Harris, but by 1860 his age and former bad habits forced him into the role of trainer or referee.
He adopted a temperate lifestyle and became a speaker for that movement. He also followed Stephen A. Douglass around the country in the 1860 elections, offering his support in the campaign against Lincoln.
Leese operated saloons off and on through the 1850s and 1860s, but lost his money at faro games. In the 1870s he moved to Rockaway, taking a job as security officer for a resort hotel there. He died in August, 1885.
More often than not, Wikipedia entries for nineteenth-century gangs and criminals are based on recently published, highly-derivative secondary sources, many of which repeat long-established half-truths and errors. So it is refreshing to see that the Wikipedia entry for Johnny Dolan questions Herbert Asbury’s portrayal of Dolan as a fashion-conscious, original Whyo gang leader, responsible for grisly street-fighting implements designed to gouge out eyes and slice bodies. The article editors cite contemporary newspaper accounts of Dolan, which offer absolutely no basis for Asbury’s comments.
It is intriguing to look at the paragraphs on Dolan in Gangs of New York and compare them to a section of an article that Asbury wrote about gangs in 1919. Here is what Asbury wrote about “Dandy Johnny” for his 1928 book (Chapter XI, Section 1):
Another shining light of the old Whyos, before the time of Driscoll and Lyons, was Dandy Johnny Dolan, who was not only a street brawler of distinction, but a loft burglar and sneak thief of rare talent as well; nothing was too great or too trivial for him to steal. His fellow gangsters regarded him as something of a master mind because he had improved the technique of gouging out eyes; he is said to have invented an apparatus, made of copper and worn on the thumb, which performed this important office with neatness and dispatch. His invention was used by the Whyos with great success in their fights with other gangs. He was also credited with having imbedded sections of sharp axe blade in the soles of his fighting boots, so that when he overthrew and adversary and stamped him, results both gory and final were obtained. But ordinarily Dandy Johnny did not wear his fighting boots. He encased his feet in the finest examples of the shoemaker’s art, for he was the Beau Brummel of the gangland of his time, and was extraordinarily fastidious in his choice of raiment and in the care of his person. Under no circumstances, not even to take part in a brawl or raid that promised to be rich in loot, would he appear in public until his hair had been properly oiled and plastered against his skull, and his forelock tastefully curled and anointed. He had a weakness for handkerchiefs with violent red or blue borders, and for carved canes, especially if the handle of the stick bore the representation of an animal. Of these he owned a great store, to which he added as opportunity offered; he frequently promenaded the Five Points and Mulberry Bend with a vivid kerchief knotted about his throat and others peeping from his pockets, while he jauntily swung a handsome cane.
It was his passion for these adornments that cost him his life. James H. Noe, a brush manufacturer, decided to enlarge his business during the summer of 1875, and began the erection of a new factory at No. 275 Greenwich street. It was his custom to walk to the property each Sunday morning and observe the progress of the work. On Sunday, August 22, 1875, he entered the structure as usual, and climbed the ladders and temporary stairways to the roof. There he came upon Dandy Johnny Dolan, his eye gouger upon his thumb and a blue bordered handkerchief knotted about his throat, ripping away the lead of the gutters. Mr. Noe marched him downstairs, but when they reached the ground floor Dandy Johnny struck the manufacturer on the head with an iron bar, inflicting injuries from which Mr. Noe died in a week. With his victim unconscious, Dandy Johnny proceeded to rob him, taking a small sum of money and a gold watch and chain, and also carrying away Mr. Noe’s cane, which had a metal handle carved in the likeness of a monkey. Then Dandy Johnny very foolishly tied his own handkerchief about the manufacturer’s face. The story goes that the thug appeared in the haunt of the Whyos in Mulberry Bend with one of Mr. Noe’s eyes in his pocket, but the tale is probably apocryphal.
Compare the above with the following lines, taken from a newspaper feature that Asbury had written nine years earlier (“Real Dangerous Gangster Not of Apache Type as Seen in Movies,” Syracuse Post Standard, August 17, 1919, p. 5)
“Dandy Johnny” was one of the shining lights of the Whyos, an old-time gang that flourished in the late ’90s, and which was the ruling power in the old Greenwich Village district…”Dandy Johnny” was as proud of his manly beauty as he was of his ability as a yegg and loft worker. He had a carved cane which he had had made at considerable expense and which was the apple of his eye. He went nowhere without it, even taking it with him when he went to steal and plunder and kill. The police knew he had it, and more than once a detective found it where “Dandy Johnny” had carelessly left it behind him in a loft he had burglarized. But it always found its way into the hands of a friendly politician and soon returned to the gangster, because in those days the Whyos were politically powerful, and “Dandy Johnny” could wield a blackjack on election day with a certainty of effect that endeared him greatly to the politicians. He was fairly safe, no matter what he did, and no matter where he left his cane, so long as he remained in his own territory.
But Dandy Johnny got ambitious, and hearing of a particularly rich loft laden with great booty, he went into another gang’s territory over in Greene street to pull off the job. Unfortunately for him he found it necessary to kill a night watchman, and in the excitement left his cane lying on the floor beside the man’s body. The trail was plain, and so “Dandy Johnny” was hanged, because all the politicians had not influence enough to save him from a murder charge that proved itself. Even the judges knew that nobody but “Dandy Johnny” could have taken that cane there, and although the gangster was well-supplied with alibis they were to no avail.
Between 1919 and 1928, Asbury added the details about Dolan’s gruesome fighting implements; he embellished Dolan’s taste for fashion and meticulous grooming; and asserted that Dolan had acquired a cane collection and sported loud handkerchiefs. But where did Asbury see that Dolan had been a Whyo gang member?
Almost certainly, Asbury was referencing a New York Tribune article, “Picturesque Gangs of Old New York,” published January 4, 1915. When this article appeared, Asbury was likely still working for the Atlanta Georgian newspaper, though he would soon move to New York City to work for the New York Sun.
On the West Side was the Rotten Row gang, active in the 5th and 8th wards; bad men all–dock thieves, wharf rats and river pirates. Among them “Big” Shanahan, “Jack” Frost, and “Bad Dickie” Blake won renown. It was in their territory that “Johnny” Dolan, of the East Side Whyos, came a cropper. Lured by the richness of Rotten Row, “Johnny” crept through the scuttle of Noe’s brush factory, in Greene st., one black midnight.
It happened that Mr. Noe had spent the evening over his books, and “Johnny” met him in the hall. “Dandy Johnny Dolan” had his swagger stick with him even on burglarious expeditions. Being taken by surprise, he used the stick instead of his fist, and the brush manufacturer crumpled to the floor.
“Johnny” took what was in sight and went his way. But the very demon of thoughtlessness must have been in him that night, for, lying beside the body of the manufacturer, he left his stick. It was a curious stick, with a weighted grip concealed by the carved head of a monkey. Wellnigh all the Sixt’ knew that stick for “Johnny” Dolan’s, and it was not long till “Johnny” paid for his carelessness on the gallows.
This 1915 article is the first mention of Dolan by the nickname “Dandy Johnny.” During his life, Dolan was only reported as “John R. Dolan.” The monkey-headed cane was indeed found on the premises of Noe’s brush factory (not next to Noe’s body), and witnesses identified it as Dolan’s. Dolan admitted that he had one cane, given to him as a gift. Other circumstantial evidence pointed to his guilt: he pawned Noe’s watch the day after the robbery; a handkerchief used to bind Noe was linked to Dolan; Dolan was not at his home the night of the murder and appeared the next day with scratches on his face; and Dolan offered conflicting and unconvincing explanations as to how he obtained the watch.
No newspapers noted that Dolan was well-dressed, or careful about his grooming. At the time of the murder, he had been out of jail for just three months, after serving over two years for an earlier burglary. There were no mentions of Dolan being associated with a gang, or armed with street-fighting weapons, or being a thug for Tammany politicians. The weapon used to fatally injure Noe was a metal paint-can opener found by the murderer on the premises, about the size of a small crow-bar. In short, it appears that Noe’s death was the result of a hard blow made in the heat of the moment by an ordinary thief. “Dandy Johnny,” on the other hand, was a character invented in a newsroom forty years later, and further fictionalized by Asbury over many years. Today, scores of texts about the Whyos still cite Dolan as an early member.
All accounts of the pre-Civil War New York neighborhood dubbed the Five Points include a description of the horrific living conditions of its largest structure, the Old Brewery. In the 1830s, the building had been converted to habitation, and quickly earned a reputation as the city’s worst tenement rookery, a place where even authorities feared to enter, sheltering hundreds of destitute residents, most of whom were recent immigrants.
Herbert Asbury, when describing the Old Brewery (Chapter I, Section 4), added a moral caution about the vicissitudes of life with a quick reference to one person:
Many of the inhabitants of the Old Brewery and of the Cow Bay dens had once been men and women of some consequence, but after a few years in the dives they sank to the level of the original inhabitants. The last of the Blennerhassetts, second son of the Harman Blennerhassett who was associated with Aaron Burr in the great conspiracy to found a Western Empire, is said to have died in the Old Brewery, as did others whose families had been of equal prominence.
The mention of Harman Blennerhassett Jr. in this context is in error. Blennerhassett died in August 1854; the Old Brewery had been purchased by the Ladies of the [Five Points] Mission in 1852, evacuated, and demolished in December, 1853. The site was rebuilt as the Five Points Mission house in 1854, but it doesn’t appear that Blennerhassett died there, either; a primary source indicated he was residing in a tenement room located outside the normal range of the visitations of the Ladies Mission.
In a nod to the current public interest in Aaron Burr thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, the Blennerhassetts are worth a quick look. Harman Blennerhassett Sr. was a wealthy English lawyer who migrated to America and established an estate on an island in the Ohio River, in what is today West Virginia. There he built an estate viewed as the most extravagant private residence in America. In 1805-1806, former Vice-President Burr met with Blennerhassett and obtained his full support of an effort to obtain lands further West by force. Burr later claimed he had a lease from the Spanish, but most suspected that he intended to establish a new independent state. Burr was arrested for treason, tried, and acquitted for lack of evidence of his true intentions. Blennerhassett, as a central accomplice, was also placed under arrest; but was later freed after the charges against Burr were dismissed. However, the damage to his reputation reversed his business fortune, and Blennerhassett was forced to retreat to Canada and then England with his young family.
In 1854, the Ladies of the Mission published a book, The Old Brewery, and the New Mission House at the Five Points, which contains a chapter on their encounter with the son, Harman Blennerhassett, Jr.:
One morning, Mr. E., one of the visitors of the Mission, invited a lady to accompany him on a visit to a most interesting old gentleman, whom he had found in the vicinity of the Mission. She immediately complied, and on the way, was informed that his name was Blennerhassett.
They entered a forlorn and comfortless room, and found an interesting looking man, delicate and refined in appearance, even amid the utter poverty which surrounded him; and whose manner and language gave unequivocal evidence that he belonged to a different position in society from that which he then occupied. Ho was attended by a colored woman, whose every look and act betokened the most entire and devoted attachment to her master. Yet, no familiarity of word or manner intimated that she had ever forgotten the relative position which, from his birth, she had maintained towards him.
He received his visitors cordially, but with considerable emotion. He referred to his past history and his present circumstances; and he and the old colored woman wept together, as past scenes of happiness and of misery were described. He referred with much bitterness to those who had crowded around his father in the days of his wealth and prosperity, and who could forget his son amid adversity and sorrow.
“Do you see that black woman?” he exclaimed, as she was about leaving the room, “she has more heart than all the people I have known. She has clung to me amid all my poverty and sorrow, without the slightest prospect of remuneration or reward. My father was the friend of hundreds. He set up merchants and mechanics, he patronized literature and the arts, he was courted and flattered in his days of prosperity, and when splendid fetes were given to Aaron Burr and Blennerhassett, there were enough found to do him homage. But when the storm burst upon his devoted Head, how few were found to rally around him, or to befriend his innocent and suffering family! I am poor. I cannot work. I am too infirm; and this old woman (turning again to his devoted servant) has done for me what all the rest of the world have failed to do—given me a quiet home, and a grateful heart.” Yet, as he spoke, the look of interest was succeeded by one of sad and mournful import.
The visitors relieved his pressing wants, spoke kindly to his attached servant, and left to meet the other claims which were pressing them on every side.
Months rolled away, and the old man removed his residence far beyond the lady’s walks. But he was not forgotten; and again and again he was referred to with interest, and commented on as one of the saddest instances of the reverses of human fortune. A record of this visit was preserved, when again in the most incidental manner, his residence was discovered. Two of the ladies immediately called. It was a decent-looking house, but the hall and stairs, proved that it was only a tenement house, and with sad forebodings, we ascended to the upper story. We knocked at the door, and a faint voice said, “Come in.” We entered. One glance at the desolate-looking room, uncarpeted and unwarmed, at the miserable bed, without a pillow or proper covering. One glance at the pallid face, and shaking form of its invalid occupant, and we sat down, (accustomed as we were to scenes of misery) almost powerless to act or speak. Such a tale of want and woe, of physical and mental suffering, was revealed; such loneliness and seeming neglect; such a contrast with what we knew of the early years and prospects of the unfortunate man, that the heart would swell, and the tears would flow, though the trembling invalid had raised himself upon his arm nervously, yet politely, enquiring who we were, and what we wanted.
“We are friends,” said Mrs. D , advancing towards the cot, “and we have called to see if we could not aid you; if we could not do something to make you more comfortable.” He gazed at her earnestly, and said, “I know your countenance. Who are you?” She mentioned her name, recalled the past to his mind, and then gradually led him to the recital of his own woes and wants.
Many questions were asked and answered, and much information elicited; but in a broken and sometimes incoherent manner on his part, and we could not describe the interview and give it the interest it possessed, for those who saw and listened to the mournful tale in that cold and dreary room. We promised him permanent relief, and assured him that so far as our means and our influence could prevail, he should never again know the destitution from which he had so deeply suffered. We told him God had sent us, and we hoped to benefit his soul and body. We left, and immediately sent him sufficient”bedding and clothing to make him perfectly comfortable. In a subsequent interview, many facts were related. For though weak in body, and occasionally confused in expression, his memory seemed unimpaired, and he gave a continuous account of his past life. To our utter surprise, we found he was but fifty years of age, though we had judged him much older from his appearance.
We sketch his history as narrated by himself. “I was the second son of Harman Blennerhassett, bearing my father’s name; and was born on the Island in the days of my father’s greatest prosperity. My infancy and childhood were guarded by the love of a most devoted mother, and my education during my youth was mostly superintended by my father at home. I afterwards went to school in Canada, and finished my education. Then having a predilection for the law, I entered the office of David Codwise, in New York, and studied three years for that profession. Not being particularly successful, I found my early taste for painting, reviving in all its strength, and resolved to yield to the visions which were forever floating through my brain, banishing all legal details, and unfitting me for the prosecution of that arduous profession. I placed myself under the instruction of Henry Inman, and soon became a proficient in the art, and supported myself comfortably by my labors. During this time, my parents were in Canada and Europe. But in 1831, my father died, and my mother returned to this country. We took a house in Greenwich street, (that colored woman accompanied her) and although straightened in our means, did not suffer from actual poverty. My mother’s health and heart were broken, and she rapidly declined. Watched by that faithful servant and myself, she sank peacefully away, and was interred in Robert Emmet’s vault, by a few faithful and sympathizing friends. It is false,” he exclaimed, with the utmost indignation, “it is false, that her last days were spent with an Irish nurse. It is false, that sisters of charity followed her to the grave. She was a member of the Episcopal Church, and was buried according to their form, in Mr. Emmet’s vault; and the man who wrote that life, knows nothing of my father’s history. For all the authentic documents are in that trunk,” pointing with his finger, “and I only can supply them. I aided Wallace to write his sketch. I lent the papers to Matthew L. Davis, when he wrote the life of Aaron Burr, and I alone can give the proper information for my father’s biography. Why did they not apply to me?
“After my mother’s death, I moved to street, where you first found me; and since then, I have lived here. An old friend paying rent, and a kind Irish woman assists me in my room, &c.; but I am feeble and suffering. I am dreading paralysis, and, ladies, I need attention, and such as you only can give.” And as he spoke, his frame shook with a strong nervous agitation, and he turned imploringly from one to the other, and was only soothed by the promise that they would do what they could to make his declining years comfortable and happy. May there be “light in the evening time I”
The trunk of papers that Harman Jr. had in his room supposedly contained a full account of the intents of the Burr Conspiracy, and had not previously been in the possession of Harman Blennerhassett Sr.’s biographer, William H. Safford. Safford wrote that biography in 1850. After Harman Jr.’s death, the trunk of papers went to his brother Lewis (Harman Jr. was not really the Last of the Blennerhassetts!). Lewis then placed them with a cousin, Richard Blennerhasset of St. Louis. In 1859, Richard’s wife Theresa (according to her letter in the Feb/ 8. 1879 Cincinnati Enquirer) sent them to the biographer, William H. Safford, for subsequent publication in 1861. However, she mentions that Safford never returned the papers, which she gave to him with that understanding.
To what degree Harman Jr.’s downfall was due to his own faults is not known. In the recounting of his life to the Ladies of the Mission, he failed to mention an 1831 marriage to Sarah W. McKinnen, who apparently was still living in 1854.
“Seven Sister’s Row,” was mentioned by Asbury in Chapter IX, Section 1 as the “most celebrated single group of these places [bagnios]” in 1860s New York City. He lifted this piece of information from one of his listed sources, James Dabney McCabe’s 1868 book, Secrets of the Great City. It’s worth quoting McCabe’s text on this, considering that what he claims has been unconfirmed for over 150 years:
THE SISTER’S ROW — This is the name given to a row of first-class houses in West Twenty-fifth street, all fashionable houses of prostitution. A woman came to this city from a New England Village, and was enticed into one of the fashionable dens. She paid a visit to her home, dressed up in all her finery. Her parents believed her a Broadway saleswoman, but to her sisters, one by one, she confided the life of gayety and pleasure she led, and one by one the sisters left the peaceful village, until, at last, the whole seven sisters were domiciled in the crime-guilt palaces in West Twenty-fifth street. Thus, one sister ruined six in her own family; how many others in the same place is unknown.
Asbury embellished this somewhat, adding that each of the houses were adjoining and that they were “near Seventh avenue”; that they were the most exclusive and expensive bordellos in the city, accepting only gentlemen visitors attired in evening dress; and that they donated Christmas Eve proceeds to charity. Additionally, Asbury indicated the seven houses “were opened” by the sisters, implying that they were the proprietresses–an assertion not made by McCabe.
Despite all attempts at discreetness, one would think such a remarkable landmark would have become common knowledge. However, “Sister’s Row” isn’t mentioned in any New York newspapers either prior to or following McCabe’s 1868 book. It also isn’t mentioned in any other books until Asbury rediscovered McCabe in 1928. During the same period, many other notable houses of ill-repute were often chronicled.
The brownstone row-houses on the streets of the West Twenties were built in the 1840s, and by the 1860s were selling for between $4000 and $17,000 each. The odds that seven sisters coming to New York from a New England village would be able to afford such an investment (regardless of their talents!) boggles the mind.
Seven Sister’s Row, for these reasons, could be dismissed as a total myth…but there appears to be more than a little truth in the tale.
A row of adjoining houses-of-ill-repute did exist on West 25th Street. In 1864, a special council of physicians conducted a survey of the area, and their notebooks still exist at the New York Historical Society. The NYHS Reference Librarian, Mariam Touba, pointed out page 49 of one of the notebooks, on which it is noted that Numbers 55 1/2, 57, 59, 61, 63, 65, and 67, “The seven houses of ill-fame.”
The streets were renumbered in the late 1860s. In 1870, a little pamphlet called the Gentlemen’s Companion (a guide to bordellos, also held by NYHS) was published. In it, the same houses (minus one, No. 107), now re-numbered, are described, along with the names of the madams: 103 run by Mrs. [Jane E.] Prescott; 105 run by Mrs. Kate Wood; 109 kept by Nettie Smith; 111 kept by Mrs. Jolly; 113, Mrs. King, and 115, Mrs. Bennett.
Mrs. Prescott, 42, and Kate Wood, 40, were listed in the 1870 as both hailing from Connecticut. Mrs. Bennett, 26 from England, had two young women, Lillie Bennett (16) and Martha Bennett (19) living in her house. Mrs. Jolly was listed as Margaret Jull in the 1870 census. Mrs. King was Emma King, 40, of New York.
Very close, but not seven sisters. But there was a “Seven Sisters!”
On November 18, 1871, the New York Herald published a short piece, “The Infamous Dens of Twenty-Sixth Street.” Note that McCabe, Asbury, and all citations since their time have always mentioned Twenty-Fifth Street (between 6th and 7th), whereas this article speaks to the situation one block north:
Of all the streets in the city, neither Greene nor Wooster street excepted, West Twenty-sixth street is the worst in moral infamy and quiet dark crime. It was here the notorious Seven Sisters located after being hunted out of the Eighth ward, and here they still remain. Their success uptown has excited the envy of several brazen strumpets who traffic in the prostitution of young girls. Some time ago a woman named Adelaide Beaumont, residing in this street, was sent to the Penitentiary for enticing girls of ten years and under into her place for purposes of prostitution, and now another depraved female named Emma Walters, of 139 West Twenty-Sixth street, is arrested for a similar offence…
A more specific reference was made in 1872, during a heated political spat between Representative C. C. Bowen of South Carolina and the state’s Governor, Robert K. Scott. Scott was a former Union officer, and was viewed by former Confederates in South Carolina as a corrupt carpetbagger. Scott’s behavior as Governor–including an affair with actress Pauline Markham, questionable state contracts, and missing funds–provided Bowen with plenty of material. Speaking in a session at the State Capital, Bowen declared, “If you want to see moral nakedness, go to Williard’s Hotel in Washington. On the hotel books you will find Scott’s name in connection with a notorious woman, from Philadelphia, who occupied the same room with him. Follow him from Washington to New York and go to No. 112 West Twenty-sixth street, (a noted house called the Seven Sisters, or Palmetto House) and learn his doings there.”
[Bowen’s “Palmetto House” remark was meant to convey that Scott was such an enthusiastic patron of the establishment that it was unofficially renamed in honor of the State he governed.]
These two items place the Seven Sisters on Twenty-Sixth Street between 6th and 7th, a notorious section of the Tenderloin. Nearby were Adelaide Beaumont’s bagnio at No. 127; Dr. Henry D. Grindle’s abortion clinic at No. 120; and Mrs. Doran’s baby farm at 148, where infants carried to term were left for her to sell (and where unsold tiny bodies were found in the basement.)
No. 112 West 26th was sold by order to the NY Supreme Court in January 1874, and later became a Baptist Temple.
Was there ever a set of seven sisters involved? Sisters had been known to follow each other into the sex trade, but seven is an unlikely number. The phrase “Seven Sisters,” however, was high in the public consciousness in the 1860s. This was the title of a burlesque musical production presented by Laura Keene, which premiered in New York in 1860 and ran for years, before touring the country and experiencing multiple re-stagings. It was known for the singing and dancing of its titular figures, young woman clad in low-cut dresses, and dismissed by many as immoral.
Herbert’s Asbury’s primary source for his remarks on the Hudson Dusters gang of Greenwich Village (found in Chapter XII, Section 2) was a long feature article in the January 18, 1914 edition of the New York Sun, entitled “Inside Life of a New York Gang.” The author, listed only as “One Who Was Among Them,” dated the founding of the gang to about 1905 (whereas Asbury suggested the late 1890s) and the originators to be “Kid York” and “Circular Jack.” These two names appear in none of the dozens of other newspaper articles written about the Hudson Dusters between 1910 and 1925, but reappear in Asbury’s text. Since Asbury’s publication, these two nicknames have been accepted as real, when in likelihood they were merely aliases invented by the Sun reporter to protect his sources. [In newspaper archives, “Kid York” was an East Boston boxer of the early 1900s, and “Circular Jack” was the name given to an unknown writer of politically embarrassing flyers in Hartford, Connecticut, also in the early 1900s.]
The first mention in New York newspapers of the gang named the “Hudson Dusters” occurred in February 1912, reporting on their wild gun-battle against a neighboring gang, the Marginals. A different article appearing later that same month described them as idle youths, frequenting the Abingdon Square area of Greenwich Village. They were accused of robbing steamship passengers, local stores, and stealing from passing merchant wagons. They had some protection from prosecution by the area’s political clubs, for whom they provided polling station intimidation. Patrolmen had been beaten or shot at by them; but complaining officers were reprimanded by their superiors due to those political connections. Officer Dennis Sullivan was beaten, had his badge and weapon stolen, and then was mocked in a flyer spread in the neighborhood, an incident that Asbury relates. Asbury didn’t go far beyond the 1914 Sun article, although there are other interesting aspects to this gang.
Searching for the original mentions of the Hudson Dusters leads one down a fascinating rabbit hole, suggesting that its founding members were tutored in the fine art of letter-box stealing and check-forging pioneered by one of the most successful criminals of the late 19th-early 20th century, Charles Tischer, aka Charles Fisher. The knowledge of how to run a check-forging ring was passed down to a first generation of Hudson Dusters, but with their arrests the gang devolved into just another juvenile delinquent street turf gang.
Just a month after their shoot-out with the Marginals, another newspaper article appeared in the March 14, 1912 edition of the New York Times announcing the arrest of Joseph Devine (aka Joseph Elliott) and Willa Harris (aka May Smith) for check forgery. Devine was noted as a member of the Rough Ocean gang of forgers, but was formerly a Hudson Duster. According the the Herald, both Rough Ocean and Hudson Dusters had been forgery gangs led by James Ford, now in Sing Sing. Ford’s leadership of the forging ring was inherited by William Boland (aka Little Nemo), also now in prison. Joseph and his brother James Devine were Boland’s lieutenants.
James Ford, born in 1887, first was noticed by authorities in 1905 (age 18), when he was caught trying to pass a forged check in Brooklyn. That episode earned him a five year sentence in the Elmira Reformatory. He was released early, but was arrested again in 1908 for forgery among his gang members at their pool hall at 112 Greenwich Ave., in the heart of what would become Hudson Duster territory. Among those others arrested were Joseph Devine and William Boland. That earned Ford six years at Sing Sing, which he was still serving in 1912. William Boland, who was arrested with Ford in 1908 but was later released, was caught in 1910 by authorities in New York and was accused of running a nation-wide forging ring. He was, at that time, 22 years old. The police grabbed Joseph Devine with Boland, but could not press charges against him, leaving him free to run the ring until March, 1912.
So how did these young men learn how to operate a sophisticated forgery ring, which involved making duplicate keys to mailboxes, chemical alteration of check forms, and a talent for handwriting imitation? A 1910 article on Boland’s arrest offers the only clue. The Brooklyn Union of July 1, 1910 notes: “[Boland] is a pupil of James Ford, alias ‘Rough Ocean,’ now serving six years in Sing Sing. Ford learned the forgery business from associates of Charles Fisher, an old-time professional, now with two associates awaiting trial in the Tombs for extensive forgeries.”
This is the only documented link between the first Hudson Dusters and the forgery mastermind Charles Fisher [sic Tischer], but the techniques used by Ford/Boland/Devine were the same as those pioneered by Fisher in the 1880s and 1890s. But there is an additional fact that is impressively weird. Back in 1895, Charles Fisher and three associates, including his alleged spouse, “Sheeny” Rachel Hurd, were captured for running a letter-box forgery operation in Baltimore. When arrested, police found Fisher was using two aliases: “J. B. Ford” (noted in some articles as F. B. Ford) and “William Boland.” In 1895, the real James Ford and William Boland would have both been 8 or 9 years old. Coincidence? Hardly. But still mysterious.
Herbert Asbury mentions the name “Pete Williams” three times, all in paragraphs found in Chapter IV, “River Pirates,” section 1. Williams is only mentioned as the owner of a “low gin mill” at Slaughter-House Point, the informal name of the corner of Water Street and James Street, a block away from the docks, but earlier even closer to the water before the slips were reclaimed. It was there, Asbury averred, that in 1852 Nicholas Howlett and William Saul plotted to raid the ship William Watson [sic the ship’s actual name was the Thomas Watson], a crime that ended with a murder and their capture.
There was indeed a porterhouse at that corner, infamous for the crimes committed within its doors and by the clientele that frequented it. It had the worst reputation among a dozen different notorious Water Street dives active from the 1840s through the 1880s. Multiple murders occurred there. However, Pete Williams was not the owner, and invoking his name in this context is an injustice to the significant legacy of Pete Williams, the Five Points dance-hall proprietor who was, perhaps, the most successful black American in the first century of the new country. Within his establishments a new form of dance was born.
In failing to mention the real Pete Williams, Asbury missed one of the most significant aspects of the Five Points area during its notorious heydey. At best, the omission can be blamed on Asbury’s sources, as listed in his bibliography. They don’t mention Williams, with the exception of Frank Moss’s American Metropolis, which was the direct source for Asbury’s citation of the owner of Slaughter-House Point dive being Pete Williams. The real problem may be that Asbury relied on sources that were written in the 1870s-1890s, twenty or thirty years after the events described. Asbury’s source material consisted of reporters who accepted recalled old memories over historical research with documents. In the case of Pete Williams (and there are other examples), Asbury’s sources also discounted or ignored mentions of black Americans. While recounting the human stories of an impoverished area is laudable; skewing that history with racism is shameful. Asbury mentioned other, later dance halls: John Allen’s, Harry Hill’s, The. Allen’s, etc.; but not the establishment that paved the way for them.
There were many references to Pete Williams, if Asbury and his sources had bothered to look. Charles Dickens described a visit to Almack’s (the name given his place by Williams) in his American Notes. Dickens was delighted by the creativity of the dancers and the mixture of classes and races found within the confines of the establishment–a contrast to the deplorable conditions that Dickens noted elsewhere in his Five Points tour.
Reporter George G. Foster, in his 1850 book New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches, devotes a chapter to Almack’s and other dance halls. Foster was not impressed by the place, but still noted its fame; and also went into detail (and innuendo) about its owner, Pete Williams. From Foster we learn that Williams was a great theater fan. During New York’s infamous Astor Place Riot (in which the English actor William Macready was driven off the stage), the rowdy crowd was calling cheers for Pete Williams. Why Asbury did not use Foster as one of his listed sources is a minor mystery.
Pete Williams’s legacy has been restored in recent decades by more astute historical research. Pete can be found in Tyler Anbinder’s Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood…; Brooks MacNamara’s The New York Concert Saloon; and Nigel Cliff’s The Shakespeare Riots. Williams has earned several recent mentions in blog and newspaper articles, particularly in the wake of the success of a recently-opened Harlem bar, 36 Orange Street, named in honor of one of the longtime Five Points addresses of Almack’s.
So if it wasn’t Pete Williams, who was it that owned the porterhouse at Slaughter-House Point? There was a succession of owners, a changeover that can be attributed to frequent police raids and other risks. In 1858, the year of one of its most famous murders–the knifing of Patsey the Barber by Slobbery Jim–it was run by William Lockwood. An earlier owner was named Pete: Peter Matthews; but it is unclear if he was the proprietor during the 1852 events involving Saul and Howlett.
In The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury invokes the name of a particular band of river pirates–the Daybreak Boys–nearly as often as the city’s other feared street gangs: The Bowery Boys, The Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, and the Whyos [see Asbury, Chapter IV, Section 1]. Since Gangs was published in 1928, the notorious Daybreak Boys have been enshrined in countless texts about New York gangs and the city’s criminal underworld. The individuals that Asbury named as the founding members of the Daybreak Boys were indeed infamous criminals, as were several of the toughs he named as their successors as leaders of this gang. However, there is no documentation that any gang ever went by this name; and the first use of the appellation–years later–appeared in a context that referred to different young offenders. Asbury bears some, but not all, responsibility for the myth of the Daybreak Boys.
The first use of the name dates to a book, The Nether Side of New York, written in 1871 by journalist Edward Crapsey (who had moved to New York a few years earlier) which was first published in serial form by The Galaxy magazine in early 1871. Crapsey opens his chapter on harbor thieves by recounting the crimes of William Saul and Nicholas Howlett, ending with the murder for which they were convicted and executed in early 1853. Crapsey states that these two led an organized band of river pirates composed of a dozen members, all under 18 years of age. He then states: “That crisp January morning when they were strangled by due process of law in the yard of the Tombs prison, where so many since that time have suffered, was the last of their band and its methods.” Crapsey credits Inspector George W. Walling with the apprehension of Saul and Howlett.
Crapsey goes on to describe the successors to Saul and Howlett as being gangs that congregated at Slaughter-House Point (corner of Water and James Streets), Hook Dock, and Charlton Street. Two pages later, he names James Lowry and Tom Geigan as active “relics” of the Saul/Howlett gang. Then, Crapsey describes a lower type of thief, the ship tackle thief. Next, he moves on to introduce a new paragraph:
Another gang is called the “Daybreak Boys,” from the fact that none of them are a dozen years of age, and that they always select the hour of dawn for their depredations, which are exclusively confined to the small craft moored in the east River just below Hell Gate. They find the men on these vessels locked in the deep sleep of exhaustion, the result of their severe labors of the day; and as there are no watchmen, they meet little difficulty in rifling not only the vessels but the persons of those onboard.
This description is far removed from the gang of Saul and Howlett; of Bill Lowry/Lowrie and Slobbery Jim (James White); and later (in the 1870s) the hardened adult river pirates led by Patsy Conroy and Denny Brady. Crapsey was talking about a gang of pre-teens active at the beginning of the 1870s who victimized small vessels for minor plunder. A little later in his chapter, Crapsey tells an anecdote about the Daybreak Boys way-laying a small sailboat on the Hudson piloted by three wealthy lads no older than themselves. They stole the boys’ pocket money at knifepoint, then pressed them to row to the dock at Thirty-Fourth Street. There, an alert police officer nabbed the hijackers.
Though it is tempting to say that Crapsey fabricated the name, it was later used in 1887’s Recollections of a New York Chief of Police by George W. Walling–who, as a young police captain, had personal experience in investigating several of the crimes committed by the violent, ambitious river pirates. Walling’s recounting of the “Daybreak Boys” is a clear paraphrasing of the same portrayal of a more recent, minor group of delinquents offered by Crapsey, including the anecdote about the attack on the little sailboat. Like Crapsey, Walling’s Daybreak Boys were more recent and distinct from the earlier pirates of the 1850s.
Once Crapsey and Walling introduced the name “Daybreak Boys” into the peerage list of the New York underworld , it took on a life of its own. In his 1897 book American Metropolis, From Knickerbocker Days to The Present Day, author Frank Moss swept together all notable river pirates under that banner and declared: “Saul and Howlett belonged to the gang called the “Daybreak Boys.” In one year twelve of that gang were shot. It was this warfare that brought about the use of the police patrol boats.”
Writing in 1928, Herbert Asbury expanded the scope of the Daybreak Boys’ criminal history to include all the Fourth Ward river pirates from Saul and Howlett in the early 1850s to Slobbery Jim and Patsey the Barber in 1858. [Moreover, Asbury transposes the first names of the two alleged founders, dubbing them William Howlett and Nicholas Saul–an error now found in dozens of works citing Asbury.] The Daybreak Boys were now on a par with the era’s most infamous street gangs. At no point in time would anyone in the Five Points or Fourth Ward have any idea who the Daybreak Boys were. They are a myth.
Edward Coleman is the first criminal named in Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York, and is later presented as a chieftain of the first gang of the Five Points, the Forty Thieves. The first mention of Coleman comes in section 2 of the first chapter, “The Cradle of the Gangs”:
The Hot Corn Girl became one of the most romantic figures of the Five Points, and her favours were eagerly sought by the young bloods of the district, who fought duels over her and celebrated her beauty and sparkling wit in song and story. The earnings of the best-looking girls were considerable, and it soon became the custom for a Five Points hero with a loathing for labor to send his young and handsome wife into the street each night carrying a cedar bucket filled with roasting ears, while he cruised along in her wake and hurled brickbats at the young men who dared flirt with her. The first hanging in the tombs grew out of such a situation. Edward Coleman, one of the original gangsters of Paradise Square, became enamoured of a young woman known throughout the Five Points as the Pretty Hot Corn Girl. He married her after fierce fights with a dozen protesting suitors, and finally murdered her when her earnings failed to meet his expectations. He was put to death in the Tombs on January 12, 1839, soon after its completion.
Writing in 1927, Asbury invoked an image that had been promoted in popular culture for many decades: the Hot Corn Girl. In his bibliography, Asbury lists as one of his sources Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated by Solon Robinson, a collection of short stories about the Five Points area published in 1854. This bestseller was adapted into stage plays and songs, all centered on the tragic death of the poor, but good-hearted, innocent Hot Corn vendor, Katy. The association between Five Points and the Hot Corn Girl must have been too strong for Asbury not to highlight, and he did so by mention of the real-life murder of Ann Coleman in 1838, the main inspiration for Robinson’s Katy. Ann was 23, of mixed-race, originally from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Asbury’s source for the story of the murder of Ann by Edward Coleman was likely a serialized chapter of The Tombs its History, Romances and Mysteries, by Samuel A. Mackeever, which appeared in the National Police Gazette, December 11, 1880. Mackeever’s write-up included dialogue and embellished details (he also wrote fiction) that Asbury repeated–details that are absent from contemporary newspaper accounts of 1838-39.
However, neither Mackeever nor any of those 1838-1839 accounts suggested that Edward Coleman was a captain or member of the Forty Thieves, or any gang at all. In fact, Mackeever and the contemporary newspaper reporting clearly state that Edward Coleman was black–not Irish; and that he had come to New York from Philadelphia in the mid-1830s, where he had been a mat-maker. No sources mention that he had any prior criminal background. Asbury, on the contrary, makes this connection more explicit in his second and final mention of Edward Coleman, in section 1 of chapter 2, “Early Gangs of the Bowery and Five Points”:
The first of these speakeasies was established about 1825 by Rosanna Peers in Center street just south of Anthony, now Worth street. Piles of decaying vegetables were displayed on racks outside the store, but Rosanna provided a back room in which she sole the fiery liquor of the period at lower prices than it could be obtained in the recognized salons. This room soon became the haunt of thugs, pickpockets, murderers, and thieves. The gang known as the Forty Thieves, which appears to have been the first in New York with a definite, acknowledged leadership, is said to have been found in Rosanna Peers’ grocery store, and her back room was used as its meeting-place, and as headquarters by Edward Coleman and other eminent chieftains. There they received the reports of their henchmen, and from its dimly lit corners dispatched the gangsters on their warlike missions.
If Edward Coleman’s gang status was a fiction, what of Rosanna Peers and the Forty Thieves? The Forty Thieves were real enough, as attested by this pithy note in Chester, Vermont’s Freedom’s Banner of April 29, 1829: “Outrages of one kind or other are daily and nightly committed at the Five Points, New-York, principally by a gang called the ‘Forty Thieves.’ The orderly portion of the citizens contemplate a revolution in that quarter.” Later in 1829, several papers ran a story about the arrest of one of the Forty Thieves, Henry Sutton, who was subsequently sent to Sing Sing. Sutton is the only name associated with the Forty Thieves that has surfaced thus far. All mentions of this gang, nicknamed the “Forties,” seem to date from 1828-1829.
As for Rosanna Peers, her name can be traced to one of Asbury’s cited sources, The American Metropolis, From Knickerbocker Days to the Present, Volume III, by Frank Moss. Moss credits the grocery of Rosanna Peers as being the original purveyor of cheap whisky and other bad allurements in the Five Points area, but stops short of linking her to any specific gang. Did the Forty Thieves gather at Rosanna Peers’ grocery? Possibly–but Frank Moss was published in 1897, and no other mentions of a person named Rosanna Peers have been uncovered.
There are more interesting aspects to the crime and fate of Edward Coleman than Asbury’s spurious association with the Forty Thieves. Scholars of Edgar Allan Poe have pointed out that several phrases in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) match phrases used to describe Ann Coleman’s murder. An account of the Coleman murder appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper (when Poe resided in that city) right next to a column that reviewed Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Edward Coleman’s crime was widely reported, noted for the savage slashing of Ann’s throat and near severing of her head–similar to Poe’s Rue Morgue depictions.
Coleman’s execution, aside from being the first to take place in New York’s Halls of Justice and House of Detention (the Tombs), was notable for another reason: after being declared dead, Coleman’s body was subject to grisly medical experiments. Dr. J. R. Chilton, a chemist, applied his “galvanic multiplier” electric current to Coleman’s chest muscles, leg muscles, and jaw muscles to stimulate reflexes in the corpse. Whether Coleman ever agreed in advance to these Frankenstein-like experiments is questionable, as is the issue of whether a white person would have been treated similarly.
Finally, the December 3, 1838 issue of The Christian Advocate and Journal reprinted a full transcript of the address given by Coleman’s judge (Edwards) upon sentencing him to death. In his speech, Edwards defends the civic value of execution for heinous crimes, remarking that only the terror of death can restrain the vindictiveness of man:
Upon this solemn occasion is it usual, though it can hardly be necessary, to admonish you of the importance of preparing yourself to meet your Creator. Circumstanced as you are, with your days emphatically few and numbered, with this world and all its allurements receding from your view, and the prospect of another opening upon you, it is not in human nature to be insensible to the importance of preparing to meet your Creator. To Him, therefore, let your most fervent supplication be raised, for He will soon be your all–you will have none left but Him.
And so it was: Literature, Science, and Religion all used Edward Coleman to their own purposes…and so did Herbert Asbury.