Category Archives: Gangs of New York

The Christmas Riot of 1806: Anti-Catholic violence mars the holiday

 

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, there have been 816 New York law enforcement officers who have died in the course of duty. Most of those who have died in the page six years succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses. The last firearm-related death, Paul Tuizzolo, sadly came just a last month, killed in a gunfight in the Bronx.

The official count considers all NY officers from as far back as 1802 and the days of the New York City watch under the supervision of its renown High Constable Jacob Hays, pictured below. (See our podcast Case Files of the NYPD for more information.) Hays would be the sole administrator of this early form of law enforcement and would lead the group until the formation of the New York Municipal Police in 1845.

The gruff looking Jacob Hays.

The watch’s first casualty came in 1806. The man’s name was Christian Luswanger, murdered in the line of duty during a very unthinkable altercation.

 

In 1806, New York was still a city shaking off its colonial trappings and still finding its identity. The mayor of New York that year was 37-year-old DeWitt Clinton, the well connected nephew to the former governor of New York and a man with great things in his future. The British had been gone for over two decades, and the city and its port were rapidly growing. But the real jump starts to the city’s economy and expansion — the Erie Canal, the debut of the steamboat, the Commissioners Plan — would come in the next decade.

New York was small but restless. When mayor Edward Livingston formed the night watch in 1801, it required only a handful of men, overseen by a Watch Committee on the city council (or Common Council). By 1806, all watchmen reported to Hays, and the constable reported to the council, who often directly advised on priorities. “The Captains of Watch in the first district [should] be particularly attentive to the neighborhood of Burling Slip,” according to the minutes of one council meeting.

Broadway and City Hall, in 1809. The mobs of the so-called ‘Augustus Street Riot’ would have scuffled just to the west of this illustration. (Courtesy NYPL)

 

Hays supervised a couple captains for each of New York’s wards — captains with such sturdy names as Magnus Beekman, Nicholas Lawrence, Gad Dumbolton and William Van Wart. Those captains had other men reporting to them, including Christian Luswanger, of which almost nothing is known — regular watchmen didn’t appear in the council payrolls, only the captains — nothing at all, except for the event which took his life. An event sometimes referred to as the Christmas Riot, the Highbinders Riot or the Augustus Street Riot, so named for the forgotten street where many of the rioters lived*.

The original St. Peter’s Church at the corner of Barclay and Church Streets.


In 1806, St. Peter’s Church  — at Barclay and Church Street — was the only parish in town if you were a practicing Catholic. (The current St. Peter’s, sometimes called Old St. Peter’s, a simple, neo-classical gem near the WTC site, was built over the location of the old structure in 1840.) Its most famous congregants would be Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American to be declared a saint, and the venerable Pierre Toussaint, who’s currently interred at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Built in 1785, St. Peter’s was a perpetual target of anti-Catholic sentiment, and indeed, horrific violence would erupt here on Christmas morning 1806. As worshippers gathered for midnight mass, a group of nativist rowdies gathered outside, prepared to disrupt services.

One source, perhaps drawing from a contemporary New York Evening Post article, calls the group of about fifty a ‘gang’ called the Highbinders. However I’m not exactly sure it was any kind of an organized gang. The word ‘highbinder’ would eventually come to mean any kind of gangster and would even be slang for a corrupt politician. The first ‘gang’ of New York is commonly thought to be the Forty Thieves, who wouldn’t surface for at least another twenty years.

Simply consider them a massive of drunken, anti-Catholic thugs — sailors, according to one source, “a nativist gang of apprentices and propertyless journeyman butchers” according to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace — all looking to cause trouble.  Still another newspaper referred to them as “a desperate association of lawless and unprincipled vagabonds.” [source]

Parishioners ran to get their alderman who successfully convinced the group to disperse for the evening.

However the mob which returned the next night — Christmas night — far more incensed, only this time the churchgoers were ready, armed with weapons. The defenders at St. Peter’s were not merely parishioners but other Irish immigrants who had heard about the prior evening’s altercation and came looking for a fight.

Many other Irish New Yorkers stood watch over their homes on Augustus Street, waiting for the anti-Irish mob to arrive there. That night, the two groups clashed in the streets, a few dozen men on each side, attacking each other on the streets around City Hall.

In this melee, the watch were called to quell the violence and arrest the rioters. Jacob Hays may have been there; several of his captains certainly were. Watchman Luswanger was called to join them. Somewhere along the way, a rioter stabbed Luswanger, and the watchman “expired without a struggle.”

The streets of Five Points in 1827, a short distance away from the riotous events of 1806.

Apparently, this did nothing but bring more rioters into the chaos.

Diarist and fellow rowdy William Otter presents a vivid recollection of these events, although he does not mention Luswanger:

“The church was surrounded with a motley crew of Irish and sailors … engaged in deadly conflict … The mob fought from the door of the church to Irish town, being the distance of about a fourth of a mile …. 

“[W]e fell to and drank as much as we pleased, and while we were refreshing ourselves the mob came in and began to break bottles, glasses, pitchers, barrels and all and every thing they could find in the shop; and fought on till day light through Irishtown; laying all Irishtown waste; a great deal of property was d was destroyed by the mob, and a great deal of human blood shed.”

It took most of the night watch and the light of day to dissolve the rioters. Ten men, all Irishmen, were arrested. The mayor offered a reward for any information on Luswanger’s demise, but danced around firm condemnation of either group. I’m gathering from the lack of evidence that the case of who stabbed the watchman remains unsolved.

NOTE: One of my prime sources on this article states that the watchman’s name was Christopher Newfanger, not Christian Luswanger. I believe the latter is correct, and it is the name officially recognized by the police department.

*According to Forgotten New York, Augustus Street “was later called City Hall Place and in 1941 it was again renamed for Patrick Cardinal Hayes who had died in 1938.” Today the street is gone, contained in the pedestrian plaza of Civic Center, near St. Andrew’s Church. 

NOTE: There are no images or illustrations of the Highbinders Riot. The riot depicted at top is actually of a Lower East Side riot in the 1860s.

PODCAST REWIND: Wrath of the Whyos, vicious gang of New York

The Whyos (pronounced Why-Ohs) were New York’s most notorious gang after the Civil War, organizing their criminal activities and terrorizing law abiding citizens of the Gilded Age. Find out when they lived, how they broke the law and who they were — from Googie Corcoran to Dandy Johnny, as well as two particularly notable guys named Danny.

ALSO: How much does it cost to have somebody’s ear bitten off?

ORIGINALLY RELEASED MARCH 28, 2009

FEATURING 2016 BONUS MATERIAL: Greg reads an excerpt from Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, recounting the sad fate of Dandy Johnny Dolan.

THIS IS A SPECIAL ILLUSTRATED PODCAST!  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible with AAC/M4A files, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. (This will work as a normal audio file even if the images don’t appear.)

For this and our older episodes (Episodes #5-#75), subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

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Famed comic creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had a fascination with early gang life and once illustrated their adventures for a 1947 comic book called Real Clue Crime Stories.

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Another artist for the a different issue of the same comic book took a crack at the story of Dandy Johnny Dolan that same year:

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Comic art above courtesy the Jack Kirby Museum

 

A vivid illustration from the New York World, January 23, 1888, outlining the players involved in Danny Driscoll’s murder of Beezy Garrity.

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The violent execution of Driscoll lead the World to run a further article (see the right side of the page) condoning the use of a new form of execution — by electrocution.

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Faces of the Whyo Gang: Googy Corcoran, Clops Connolly, Big Josh Hines and Baboon Connolly


 

Mulberry Bend: The lair of the Whyos (picture by Jacob Riis)

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The pulpy cover of Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York.

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Screaming Phantoms, Tomahawks, Phantom Lords, Dirty Ones and other gangs of 1970s Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The Dirty Ones, a notorious gang from Williamsburg.

My new column for A24 Films (a tie-in to the new movie A Most Violent Year) is up on their site devoted to culture and events from 1981.

For this article, I look at what some of the dangerous undercurrents to life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1981. “By the 1970s, Williamsburg was best known for its steeply rising crime rate, harboring both violent street-gang activity and organized crime.” You can read the whole article here.

During my research for this piece, I found this rather startling map in the New York Times, August 1, 1974, charting out the various turfs of northern Brooklyn street gangs.  This is not a souvenir from the film The Warriors, but an actual list of the many violent gangs which kept Brooklyn a very dangerous place to walk around in during the 1970s.

Gang activity was so especially vicious at this time — particularly gang-vs-gang violence — that Luis Garten Acosta, the founder of El Puente youth outreach program, called northern Brooklyn ‘the killing fields’ in 1981.

I dug a little further to find some specific incidents which involved some of these gangs.  I’ve put numbers by the gangs so you can find their dedicated turf on the map above:

September 16, 1972 — A gang altercation among the members of the Young Barons (44) resulted in the death of one young man and another whose nose was cut off. 

— August 21, 1973 — Several members of the Devils Rebels (19) were walking around Bushwick when they were accosted by the Screaming Phantoms (11).  Two boys associated with the Devils Rebels were stabbed and killed.  Police report “the Screaming Phantoms operated out of the Williamsburg area and had been ‘way out of their area’ at the scene of yesterday’s gang fight.”

— February 25, 1974 — The Times reports on the extortion schemes of various northern Brooklyn gangs, mentioning the Outlaws (28,29), the Tomahawks (48), the Jolly Stompers (not listed) and B’Nai Zaken (41).

— October 12, 1973 — Several gangs have been cast as extras in a new film called The Education of Sonny Carson, including the Tomahawks (48), Pure Hell (22) and the Unknown Riders (43).

The 1867 St Patrick’s Day riot: No peace in the Lower East Side

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reported on a ‘riot’ which occurred on Saint Patrick’s Day 1867 at the intersections of East Broadway, Grand and Pitt Streets, one block below Delancey Street and the Williamsburg Bridge (which was decades from being built by that date).

The parade began on East Broadway, with regiments assembling here (“slush and snowdrifts … disregarded”) to march throughout the city.

A bit after noon, a wagon driver, hemmed in by mounds of snow, got caught at Grand and Pitt street, blocking the parade route.  He was immediately set upon by angry marchers.  When a police officer interceded to protect the driver, he, too, was assaulted, “knocked down and severely injured by being trampled upon.”

Other officers arrived, and soon Grand and Pitt was the scene of senseless violence.  “The Hibernians broke their staves of office and used the fragments as shillelaghs and clubs, with such effect, that the officers were the recipients of several ugly scalp wounds and bruises.”  Another report lists the unique weaponry as “sword canes, society emblems and other missiles.”  One officer was wounded with a sabre. Soon the street corner filled with policemen, and the violence subsided. [source]

The whole event seemed to last no more than thirty minutes.  But the New York Times, a fairly anti-Democrat, anti-Irish paper in the mid 19th century, was truly outraged: “We trust there is no Irishman or Irish American, outside of a small lawless minority, that does not feel keenly the disgrace brought upon such celebrations as that of yesterday, by the wanton and brutal assaults upon the Police.”

Who were the Short Tails? The crazy, violent habits of the real Lower East Side gang

One of the few photos ever taken of any New York street gang was this image shot in 1887 by Jacob Riis of the Short Tails  under a pier in Corlears Hook. 

The Short Tails were a particularly nasty gang of criminals who terrorized the Lower East Side and the docks of Corlears Hook roughly during the period of the Gilded Age.  By the 1910s, this sinister assemblage had been absorbed into other street gangs — some say Monk Eastman‘s criminal organization is an off-shoot — and largely disappeared as a physical threat to innocent New Yorkers.

Then Herbert Asbury‘s Gangs of New York happened, vaulting a number of once-forgotten street gangs into a realm of historic romanticism.  Even here, the Short Tails play second fiddle to more organized and mythic groups of young men such as the Dead Rabbits, the Whyos and, ahem, the Bowery Boys.

Confusingly, there was once a gang called the Shirt Tails who coexisted with other Five Points gangs, but this group of ruffians was long gone by the time the Short Tails terrorized neighborhoods to the east of their turf.**

The Short Tails feature as the principal villains in Mark Helprin’s New York fable Winter’s Tale, the film version of which opens today in movie theaters.  Their fictional leader, Pearly Soames (played by Russell Crowe), is a maniac with a penchant for gold and dangerous hideaways.  He and his mob pursue the narrative’s hero Peter Lake (played by Colin Farrell) through the streets of a tinted-postcard New York that seems to shift like a kaleidoscope.

 

The original Short Tails were less romantic in nature, and less oppressive. (Helprin’s version:  “Pearly and sixty of the Short Tails went marching through the street like a Florentine army.”)  Still, their scant appearance in newspapers of the era reveal a most malevolent group of men and boys.  What were some of the traits of this menacing band?

They were headquartered at the corner of Rivington and Goerck Street.  That’s around the area of Baruch Playground today.  Back then, it was a stone yard.  In 1882, these ‘East Side desperadoes‘ began terrorizing a German-owned saloon in the area, attacking the proprietor with a broken beer glass.  In August, the leader of the Short Tails, Frank Nixon, was seriously injured in a shoot-out here and later arrested. [source]

 Goerck Street from a much later period (1939) at Stanton Street, just a block from the gang’s headquarters. (NYPL)

They were an outgrowth of another gang called the Border Gang, so named because they were on the border of two police precincts.

They loved beer. They loved it so much they were known for their habit of “rushing the growler,” filling up buckets of beer from local saloons and taking it back to headquarters.  “The man who went for it would simply march out of the saloon with the filled receptacle [without paying for it], and if the barkeeper attempted to stop him, he would make a few remarks of a maledictory sort, interlarded with profanity and obscenity” and threaten to bring the wrath of the entire gang down on the saloon if he didn’t “hold his yawp.”  [source]

They were unrelenting murderers and thieves.  The gang’s loathsome crimes seem especially brutal, even today.  From a report in 1884: “The members of the gang are known to the police as hard drinkers, thieves, pickpockets and highwaymen.” [source]

They were skilled at boat-related crimes.  The Short Tails, being stationed near the piers along Corlears Hook, often committed crimes upon vessels along the water front.  The unfortunate members of the Young Men’s Cathedral Association learned this the hard way during an river outing in 1886.  “Some members of a notorious gang of desperadoes, calling themselves the Short Tails, smuggled themselves on the boat, got drunk and began to fight.” [source]

Corlears Hook in the 1870s, right before the era of the Short Tails. (NYPL)

Their schemes could sometimes be quite dastardly and clever.  They perfected a naughty little trick in 1896 involving wagons which lined up along the water’s edge.  As some Short Tails pushed the wagons into the river, others would run to the owners and offer to rescue their drowning wagons for a fee of $3.  This money would be used almost entirely on buying beer. (I guess saloon owners got a bit more aggressive by the 1890s!)  “When the money was spent they returned and pushed two more trucks into the water.”

Some of them loved music.  In fact, the earliest record (from 1881) that I could find of Short Tail-related violence involved an accordion! “Policeman Philip F. Mahoney … observed a crowd of forty young men last night … standing at the corner of Delancey and Sheriff Streets.  One of the gang was playing an accordion and Mahoney directed them to move on, as it was 11:30 o’clock.  The accordion player refused to stop playing, whereupon Mahoney attempted to arrest him.  The gang set upon him and took his club away.”  The accordion player and other members were later arrested. [source]

Delancey Street required extra police duty because of them. Officers of the NYPD wised up after the accordion incident, patrolling the area in pairs of two — “one to protect the other.”  The gang was certainly no match for the most hearty of souls in the police force.  One officer in the 1880s, avenging a friend killed by a Short Tail, stormed right into their headquarters “without club or firearm of any kind” and personally throttled a great number of them, “grab[bing] two of the more notorious by their coat collars” and dragging them to jail.  [source]

** Neither the Short Tails nor the Shirt Tails are related to this group. (Courtesy Rob Starobin on Twitter )

Tough Enough: Teen Criminal Mugshots from 100 Years Ago

Okay, maybe it’s just me that does this, but occasionally I love perusing the document archives of the New York Department of Records, a treasure trove of municipal maps and photography from the past.

Buried amid the grisly crime photographs and disaster images are an interesting array of mugshots.  With little information attached, we can only try to figure out the lives of these people through their clothing and expressions.

Below I present to you a few of the junior mugshots from the Department of Records, those teenagers and young adults who commits a host of unknown crimes between 1910 and 1920. Try and imagine what their lives might have been like, what might have driven them to commit the crimes in which they were captured, or whether were even guilty at all. Whatever happened to these young men? If I can find more information on them, I’ll update this post.

I’m linking directly from the Department of Records, so you can click into each entry and drag the images around. Please give it a few seconds to load. Their website is a bit tricky.

Name: L. Rose
Taken: 1916-1920
 

Name: Louis Cohen
 Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Benny Stern
Taken: August 13, 1913

 Name: “Wolf”
 Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Unknown
 Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Jone
Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Goffe
Taken: 1916-1920

Name: McAvoy
Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Unknown
Taken: March 17, 1911
Name: W. Dorsch
Taken: 1916-1920

A very strange coincidence surrounds New York’s most famous gangsters and ‘Boardwalk Empire’ inspirations

Many of the early 20th century’s most renown gangsters were born in late January!

Today is Al Capone‘s birthday. (He’s pictured above in his infamous mugshot.) It’s also the birthday of gambler/ Jewish mobster Arnold Rothstein.  Joe Masseria, early New York Mafia leader, was also born on this date — January 17, 1886.

Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson — the inspiration for Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson — was born January 20, 1883.  Frank Costello, leader of the Luciano crime family post-Prohibition, was born January 26th.

Papa Johnny Torrio, Capone Chicago mentor, was born on January 20, 1882.  Frankie Yale, another of Capone’s gangster employers, was born January 22, 1893.

And if we extend the coincidence even further to times of death, Lucky Luciano died of a heart attack on January 26, 1962.  Meyer Lansky died in Florida on January 15, 1983.  The bootlegger George Remus died on January 20, 1952.

Most of the men above are depicted in some form or another on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. In fact most of the characters from that show appear to have late January birthdays.

I’m not too knowledgable about astrology, but is there something about the gangster way of life that appeals to those that reside on the Capricorn-Aquarius cusp?

Perhaps I should be afraid. My birthday was a few days ago. (Ack.)

Pic courtesy NYPL

Execution in Five Points: Piracy, slave trade and the Tombs

Sometimes you can look back at history and think that nothing ever changes. And sometimes you find something that makes New York seem extraordinary unrecognizable, a city besieged by near barbaric crises.

The image above depicts a scene from February 21, 1862, in the courtyard of the famous Tombs prison in the Five Points neighborhood. The notoriously dank and foul-smelling complex was the scene of a great many public executions since its opening in 1838, but the one which took place on February 21 was particularly urgent, the crime cutting to the core of America’s central dilemma.

The man being hanged was Nathaniel Gordon, and his crime was international slave trade. America was in the throes of a Civil War between the North and South, waged with slavery as its central issue. But the import and export of slaves into the United States has technically been banned decades earlier, and the U.S. Piracy Act of 1820 included human cargo in its definition of international piracy. This did not deter Gordon, who sailed to North Africa in 1860 and loaded a boat with almost 900 people, intending to sell them to Southern plantations.

From a vivid description from Harper’s Weekly, the boat was overloaded with “eight hundred and ninety-seven (897) negroes, men, women, and children, ranging from the age of six months to forty years. They were half children, one-fourth men, and one-fourth women, and so crowded when on the main deck that one could scarcely put his foot down without stepping on them. The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive.”

Gordon was caught just 50 miles offshore and brought to the United States for trial. He would have received a stern sentence even before the war, but with the conflict in full swing by the time of his trial in late 1861, Gordon’s defense team never stood a chance. Despite pleas from wealthy supporters, Gordon was sentenced to die on February 7, 1862. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentence by two weeks, and Gordon’s supporters might have even convinced him to commute it further had Lincoln’s young son Willie not died of typhoid on February 20.

One notable fact about this execution is the Tombs (pictured above, in 1863) is a city prison, but the crime was a federal offense, the only such national execution to have taken place here. Most federal executions took place at military installations. For instance ‘Pirate’ Albert Hicks was hanged on Bedloe’s Island, home of Fort Wood (and today the residence of the Statue of Liberty). Robert Cobb Kennedy, one of the Confederate conspirators who attempted to torch various New York hotels in November 1864, was executed at Fort Lafayette off the coast of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Gordon was also the last person ever executed by the U.S. government for violations of the Piracy Act.

For more details on the execution, check out the great Corrections History blog which details the messy particulars of the execution.

Illustration above courtesy New York Public Library

New Year’s Murder: Return of the Tong Wars 1912



“On New Year’s Day they presented any celebration in Chinatown with fireworks. There have been murders sometimes when the whole joyful populace of the crooked streets of Doyers, Mott and Pell have been patriotically celebrating with gunpowder an historic anniversary.” — New York Times, 1/16/1912

The streets of Chinatown were relatively quiet in 1911, a delicate truce drawn between the neighborhood’s two rival gangs, the On Leong and the Hip Sing tongs. But few strolled down narrow Pell Street without fear that old rivalries might return. Fierce battles had erupted throughout the past decade, culminating in dozens of bloody altercations throughout 1909 and 1910. (We outlined some of the violence in our podcast last year on Manhattan’s Chinatown.)

A committee of Chinese businessmen finally mediated a truce between the two tongs, but few suspected that hostilities would disappear. The control of On Leong Tong, who had once ruled the Chinese underworld for much of the 1890s, had been whittled away by the interloping Hip Sing Tong. Hip Sing’s leader, the flamboyant Mock Duck, often meandered down Pell conspicuously garbed in diamonds and a chain mail vest.

Although Hip Sing was subject to the truce, their allies — and the only other Chinatown tong of significant influence — the Four Brothers, were not. This imbalance of control, favoring Hip Sing and keeping Mock Duck in power, was bound to erupt.


At right: Pell Street in 1899. The address 21 Pell Street is out of frame, just to the right.

And so it did one evening one hundred years ago, on January 5, 1912, at Mock Duck’s fan-tan parlor at 21 Pell Street, today the location of the First Chinese Baptist Church. Members of Hip Sing were gathered there, merrily gambling the night away under the glow of dangling light bulbs when three assassins from the On Leong Tong, armed with their trademark Smith & Wessons, burst in and began shooting.

Mock Duck himself may have been in the room that evening. He was certainly there, calmly sipping tea when police arrived. One of his gang members, Lung You, lay dead on the floor, while another, the ‘president’ of Hip Sing, Chung Pun Sing, was seriously wounded and fled to his home.

Witnesses led police to On Leong’s headquarters at 14 Mott Street. By the end of the day, over two dozen Chinese gangsters and bystanders had been arrested, including Mock Duck himself. He was charged with owning a gambling parlor, a fact that could not have been surprising to anybody at the Elizabeth Street police station. He was quickly released.

Top pic courtesy Library of Congress.