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.

Francis A. Stevenson’s “Black and Tan”

Herbert Asbury, in recounting the fame of the dive known as the Black and Tan (Chapter IX, Section 2), made the same mistake he had made with George H. “Snatchem” Leese: he overlooked the dynamics between the criminals, the local politicians, and the sporting society of lower New York. The proprietor of the Black and Tan was a man named Francis A. “Frank” Stevenson (1847-1906), whom Asbury (mimicking his sources) incorrectly spelled as “Frank Stephenson.” Copying his sources, Asbury portrayed Stevenson as physically akin to a vampire:

…a tall slim man with a curiously bloodless face. Contemporary writers marked his resemblance to a corpse; his face was almost as white as snow and his cheeks were sunken, while his eyebrows and hair were black as ink. His eyes were deep set. and very keen and piercing. It was his custom to sit bolt upright in a high chair in the center of his resort, and remain there for hours without displaying any other sign of life than the baleful glitter of his eyes.

Frank Stevenson was a boxing referee, prize money backer, and fight manager in the 1880s and 1890s, just the sport transitioned from open-ended bare-knuckle bloodfests to gloved, limited-round fights. He was in the ring with legendary fighters during their greatest bouts, including John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Jake Kilrain, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Jack Dempsey. Stevenson also backed black fighters, even though it was an era in which John L. Sullivan prevented any black fighters from challenging his heavyweight title.

Though well-known and respected as a honest man within the sporting community, Stevenson was demonized by the press, moral authorities, and (some) police officers, due to his several dives and dance halls, the most notorious of which was the Black and Tan located at 153 Bleecker Street. The enmity toward Stevenson was not just due to the fact that his dives catered to sins and vice (licentious dancing, prostitution, drinking) — what seemed to draw especial outrage toward Stevenson was that his establishments allowed a free mix of races: black, whites, and shades in between.

Stevenson’s critics paraded their racism. George Walling, the NYPD Superintendent prior to the heydey of Stevenson and his dives, wrote:

It is the resort of black men as well as white, but the girls are all white! This mixture of races is all the more revolting ; and the scenes which go on here in this underground dive are as bad as imagination can picture them. The main room is only about thirty feet square and is low-ceiled. There are tables around the sides of the room, and the space in the centre is reserved for dancing. At one end is the bar, kept by four bar-tenders, behind each of whom hangs a murderous-looking club to which the patrons of the dive are not strangers. One will see fifteen or twenty women in the room, and as many burly, brutal negroes. There are only traces of beauty in the women’s faces. Whatever sign of woman-hood that might have been there once is gone now.

The Black and Tan appears to have originated as a “policy shop,” i.e. an illegal lottery operation that catered to the African-Americans, who were starting to return to New York City in numbers after draft riots of the 1860s had driven many out. The area around Bleecker Street was called by some (not approvingly) “Little Africa.” Around 1881, Stevenson quietly added the basement dance hall, and his dive quickly earned a reputation as a lively resort. The Black and Tan flourished about six years, and endured at least one police raid. By the late 1880s, Stevenson had opened a different establishment, The Slide, a few doors down Bleecker Street. He later arranged for it to be run by his brother, Tom Stevenson.

The Slide gained renown as one of the few establishments where homosexuals could meet without harassment.

A police crackdown in 1892 spelled the end for many Bleecker Street dives, including those of the Stevenson brothers. Tom was sent to prison for a year for running a disorderly house, but Frank’s involvement was carefully arranged through middlemen, so he escaped punishment. He later opened another resort a few blocks distant, but it never eclipsed the notoriety of the Black and Tan. Meanwhile, Stevenson made a great deal of money from his sports gambling.

He died in 1906 at the age of 59 from complications of an automobile accident, leaving a wife and four adult children. Interestingly, his short obituary in the New York Times did not mention his dives, nor did it allude to his large role in the sporting world. Instead, it mentioned that he was a member of Tammany Hall and a friend of Richard Croker. This nugget of information explains a great deal–“Boss Croker” was the head of the political machine that had huge influence in New York City during the late 1880s and early 1890s. It was with Croker’s blessing that the vice dens of lower Manhattan thrived.

Scotchy Lavelle, Promoter of the Bowery Underworld

Though Herbert Asbury’s concept for The Gangs of New York may be justly lauded, his lack of original research and dependence on flawed secondary sources resulted in a very uneven text, in which some events and personages are magnified out of proportion, while others are given too scant attention. One of those shortchanged by Asbury was James H. Lavelle, better known as “Scotchy Lavelle,” but also by the more common variant, “Scotty Lavelle.” From the late 1880s through the 1890s, Lavelle’s dives in Chinatown harvested the pay of countless sailors, and gave “slumming” visitors from uptown and outside New York City a taste (some of it contrived) of Bowery low-life. More adventurous souls could even be helpfully steered from Lavelle’s saloons and dance halls to the opium dens operated by his Chinatown neighbors.

What little that Asbury says about Lavelle can be found in Chapter IV, Section 3, where Lavelle is listed as a Fourth Ward tough associated with Patsy Conroy’s gang of river thieves. Asbury mentions as an aside that Lavelle later operated a Chinatown resort. He mentions Lavelle’s Doyers Street dive again in Chapter XIV, Section 3, as an example of the white-owned gangster resorts that flourished in the heart of Chinatown in the 1890s.

Lavelle’s association with Conroy’s river thief gang dates to a January 1874 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a column that was reprinted and cited many times. There’s no question that Lavelle was a Lower East Side street tough–he was sent to Sing Sing in 1871 (for assault with a deadly weapon) that was initially supposed to be a sentence of 18 months, but when the judge was informed of Lavelle’s “notorious” history, he changed his sentence to five years. Lavelle was released in 1875, went to a picnic in New Jersey, got into a fight, and nearly killed a man. He was arrested in New York by none other than Captain Clubber Williams and sent to New Jersey to answer that charge.

“Scotchy” seems to have mellowed in the mid-1880s, when he embarked on his career as a saloon operator. He ran bars in several different locations in the triangle area of Chinatown bounded by Pell Street, Doyers Street, and Chatham Square. The place that made him famous was 10 Doyers Street, right in the “Bloody Angle” of that short crooked street. Today that street looks much the same as it did in his times, full of shuttered doors and modest Chinese-run enterprises, but without the white-run dens in inequity. One newspaper source asserts that Lavelle rented this property from Richard K. Fox, who then published the National Police Gazette, which had devolved from exposing official corruption to glorifying its effects.

Like Fox, Lavelle was an ardent fan of the martial arts, providing backing to both boxers and wrestlers. As a veteran street fighter himself, Scotchy was famous for coaching his waiters into being “mixed-ale amateurs,” i.e. vicious bouncers. But Lavelle also catered to uptown “slummers” looking to get a glimpse of the low-life, and partnered with Chinatown power-brokers who ran opium dens. Lavelle was a mentor and sponsor to an 1890s celebrity, “Chuck” Connors, who made a career of playing the part of a Bowery hustler. Asbury devotes more space in The Gangs of New York to the exploits of Connors than he does to Scotchy Lavelle, but while Connors was entertaining, it was Lavelle who knew all the dynamics among the street gangs, the Chinese, and the local ward politicians; this made it possible for him to operate fairly unmolested from the mid-1880s to the early 1900s.

Photo by DeShaun Craddock via Flickr; Creative Commons license for non-commercial use

In 1891, Lavelle worked to organize the Downtown Athletic Club (not the same as the one reorganized in the 1920s). At one of the early meetings, an attendee questioned Lavelle’s assumption of the presidency of that organization, which prompted a brawl in which Lavelle bit the man’s ear off (shades of the legendary Gallus Mag of twenty years earlier, but Lavelle’s episode is fully documented).

Though he catered to slummers and sailors, real violence did occur on Lavelle’s doorstep (and sometimes inside) in Doyers Street, thanks to the running battles between the Five Points gang and the Monk Eastmans and the Tong wars of the late 1890s and early 1900s. Before his death in 1908, Lavelle operated a dance hall at 7-8 Chatham Square, just around the corner from Doyers Street. He commuted to his old haunts from far north in the Bronx, where he lived with his wife and four children.

Doyers Street is a must-see for anyone looking for a remnant of the old New York City underworld, and much of its legacy belongs to Scotchy Lavelle.

 

Bill Lowrie, Cow-Legged Sam, and The Rising States

A major challenge in verifying the anecdotes related by Herbert Asbury in The Gangs of New York consists of not only identifying his source material and the embellishments he made to those sources, but also the validity of that source material itself. In many cases, Asbury’s sources were books written by professional newspapermen who–like Asbury himself–was relating barely-remembered names and events that took place decades earlier. Moreover, like Asbury, the writers of his source material had their own source material, rather than direct knowledge of what they wrote, and little access to documentary evidence.

Today, we take for granted the access provided by digitized newspapers, census records, court cases, etc; and before those existed, libraries and government entities provided microfilm documentation, while newspapers and libraries maintained clipping morgues, sorted by names, events, and subjects. Asbury’s sources, who wrote in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, had no such resources to call upon, other than bound copies of newspaper issues collected by libraries–the mining of which requires time and patience. Instead, Asbury’s sources relied on human memory and a very small selection of saved newspaper articles. People living in the nineteenth century had a very different perception of their recent past, because it receded so quickly.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when we delve into the facts behind the river pirates Bill Lowrie, Cow-Legged Sam McCarthy, and the saloon named The Rising States. There are fragmentary facts that suggest all existed, but the clues are so minimal and contradictory that it is hard to assess whether their notoriety was deserved. First, let’s summarize what Asbury related about these three in Chapter IV, Section 1:

  • The Rising States dive was opened on Water Street near Oliver Street by Bill Lowrie and his girlfriend, Molly Maher.
  • After the criminals Saul and Howlett were executed in 1853, leadership of their gang of river pirates (named by Asbury as The Daybreak Boys, which I’ve noted elsewhere was incorrect) devolved to Bill Lowrie and Slobbery Jim (James White.)
  • Soon after The Rising States opened, Lowrie was convicted of a burglary and sent to prison for fifteen years.
  • Cow-Legged Sam McCarthy took over leadership of the gang after Slobbery Jim fled New York City upon killing Patsey the Barber; and after Lowrie was sent to prison. McCarthy also inherited the affections of Molly Maher. After a few months, McCarthy abandoned the river thieving business and fell in with a gang of burglars hitting uptown targets.

The Rising States was in existence years before any of the river pirates came to public attention. It served as a sailor’s hotel at the corner of Water and Oliver Streets at least as early as 1848, and was still being cited as a “den of infamy” in 1865. However, there is no documentation that connects either a Lowry/Lowery/Lourie/Lowrie, etc. or a McCarthy with a saloon at this address, although a 1859 article does indicate that Cow-Legged Sam’s father ran a “low den” on Water Street–but doesn’t specify the address (there were many “low dens” along Water Street).

Cow-Legged Sam (a nickname referring to a clubfoot deformity) was a Fourth Ward tough, said to weigh 200 pounds in an age when that was behemoth, who made news for just a brief period, in 1858-1859. He was arrested for stealing money from a black sailor; and for passing counterfeit money on vendors in the city’s James Wood park. Two papers indicated his real name was Patrick McCarthy, but he used the alias “Sam Kirk,” and was called Cow-Legged Sam by others. More details about Sam, his family and his fate, are lacking.

The real puzzle is “Bill Lowrie,” the name that Asbury lifted, like his allusion to Charley Monell, from Charles Sutton’s The New York Tombs, Its Secrets and Mysteries, published in 1874. Sutton was quoting a Brooklyn Eagle article, “River Thieves,” published in January of that year (and later, in 1882, as a chapter of the National Police Gazette‘s serialized book, Crooked Life in New York). [“Bill Lowrie” also appears on Frank Moss’s American Metropolis, published in 1890, but adding nothing beyond what had been mentioned in 1874 in the Brooklyn Eagle.] So all references to a “Bill Lowrie” can be traced to one newspaper article from January 1874…which was wrong.

A thorough scour of 1850 – 1880 newspaper archives, the flash press, books, and prison records finds no William or Bill Lowry/Lowrie/Lawry/Lourie/etc., etc.

Two years earlier than the Eagle article, in 1872, Edward Crapsey published The Nether Side of New York, in which he devoted attention to famous river pirates:

“Among the first-class river thieves whose methods and dangers have been told, there are some who stand out in bold relief from their fellows as desperate and successful outlaws. James Lowry and Tom Geigan, two of this class, are relics of the Saul and Howlett gang, to which they belonged as “kids,” being then mere boys not more than ten years of age, but already noted for aptitude in crime. During the seventeen years which have elapsed since that terrible epoch they have been constantly engaged in harbor depredations whenever at liberty.

“Both have often been arrested; both have been subjected to several brief terms of imprisonment and have returned, to be again, as they have been all these years, the terrors of the East river. During their long careers they have stolen property to the value of hundreds of thousands of dollars; yet they have always lived on scanty allowance, and, it is said, are as poor now as when they served
Saul and Howlett by crawling into cabin windows. Both are men of extraordinary physical powers, which are yet unimpaired, notwithstanding their years of exposure, during which they have scarcely been visited by the rheumatism, which is the common and most terrible foe of all their tribe, as it cripples and drives out of the vocation more river thieves by seventy times seven than the law ever did or ever can. Both are men who have made thievery an art, and have practiced it with supreme indifference to everything but their own safety and profit.”

Moreover, a year before Crapsey, the New York Tribune called out James Lowrie as a river pirate:

So it appears that the mystery is solved: that “Bill Lowrie” was really “James Lowrie.”

But not so fast–just as was the case with Bill Lowrie, aside from these two mentions, a thorough scour of 1850 – 1880 newspaper archives, the flash press, books, and prison records finds no river thief named James Lowry/Lowrie/Lawry/Lourie/etc., etc.

But there are multiple citations involving a notorious river pirate named John Lourey/Lowrie. In March of 1876, the New York Times reported the arrest of “noted river pirate” John Lowery. He was sent to Sing Sing as John Lourey, 39, a machinist and resident with wife Mary of 16 Batavia Street (a now-vanished street in the Lower East Side a half block from Cherry and Roosevelt Streets).  His sentence was fifteen years, indicating it was not his first offense.

Bill, James, or John? All have newspaper citations, but only one has a Sing Sing record: John.