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Gangs of New York

William Poole, aka Bill the Butcher, was born 200 years ago

William Poole, born 200 years ago today in New Jersey, was one of the most infamous villains in New York City history.

As a young man, he operated as a butcher at Washington Market (in the area of today’s Tribeca neighborhood) and that legitimate occupation lent him his nickname earned by his more disreputable activities — Bill the Butcher.

Poole was a thug, a thief and a celebrity, leader of a Christopher Street gang which morphed and coalesced with others to become one of the most terrifying group of criminals in New York — the Bowery Boys.

We kn0w details of his life not only from classics like Gangs of New York but because of the unique nature between gangs and city politics in the mid 19th century. Street gangs were often aligned with political and social beliefs about the changing city — particularly the ships of newly arriving immigrants from Ireland.

The Bowery Boys were an instrument of the Know Nothings, a nativist movement which violently rejected the Irish newcomers. Their attacks on immigrants on the streets of Five Points were so severe that Irish gangs soon formed in retaliation, collectively referred to in the press as the Dead Rabbits.

This street level violence echoed the loftier nativist debates happening at City Hall and in the penny press. But Poole was no dignified man. His habits of proving himself a real ‘native American’ were distinctly chaotic and bloodthirsty.

Just one example from the New York Daily Herald, January 16, 1846: “William Poole and Smith Ackerman were amusing themselves by putting two dogs to fight in Christopher Street, creating a most disgraceful riot.” When a man stepped in to stop the dog fight, Poole and Ackerman gauged out his eye.

The journalist Herbert Asbury was so fascinated by Poole that in his classic Gangs of New York, he devotes an entire chapter to the man’s brutal murder in 1855.

New York Times, March 10, 1855

Poole was shot through the heart at Stanwix Hall (579 Broadway) by Tammany Hall sluggers Lewis Baker on behalf of Poole’s rival John Morrissey.

“Despite his wounds,” writes Asbury:

Poole lived for fourteen days after the shooting, to the vast amazement of his doctors, who declared vehemently that it was unnatural for a man to linger so long with a bullet in his heart.

But at last, while other Native American gladiators watched anxiously by his bedside and relayed bulletins to a sorrowful crowd in the street, Bill the Butcher died, gasping with his last breath: ‘Good-bye, boys, I die a true American!‘”

He was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in a funeral befitting a decorated war hero with thousands of mourners and over 150 carriages in a long, mournful procession.

The words ‘I die a true American!’ were actually emblazoned upon the side of the hearse carrying his flag-draped coffin.

New York Daily Herald, March 12, 1855

In the 2002 film Gangs of New York, directed by Martin Scorsese, a version of William Poole (named William Cutting) is depicted with genuine grit and horror by Daniel Day Lewis.

While the film is entirely fictional — liberally taking from various tales from Asbury’s book — Lewis’ Bill the Butcher has a grotesque and villainous quality that the real William Poole would have loved.

For more information, check out our podcast on the movie Gangs of New York:

2 replies on “William Poole, aka Bill the Butcher, was born 200 years ago”

This is such trash. The Dead Rabbits never existed. Find one single reference to them from before the 1857 riot. Find one actual person at any time who identifies himself as a member of the “Dead Rabbits.” People in this period organized themselves by electing presidents and secretaries and treasurers and announcing meetings. Who was the Secretary of the “Dead Rabbits?” Who was the Treasurer? You don’t have an answer.

Face up to the reality that Tyler Anbinder has already proven. The Dead Rabbits did not exist, and the Bowery Boys were not a gang.

Look at Bill Poole’s funeral procession. Every description of it. There was no attendance by any such group as “the Bowery Boys.” They were not a gang, they were a subculture, like goths or punks or hippies.

The people involved on that side of the Dead Rabbits riot were members of the Original Hounds, the Short Boys, and several other formal NY state militias. They were not criminals, even though some of them lived in the Five Points. Most of the people who lived in the Five Points were law-abiding people. Not career criminals, not gang members. They were poor, but organized themselves the same way that everyone else in NY did. The spectacle of drunkards that tourists described did not define everyone in this community. Anbinder documents how they saved money and improved their lives by saving money on rent in this shitty neighborhood.

Have you even read the first-hand sources? Go back and look at them.

In The Allen’s later description of the events surrounding the death of Bill Poole for the Police Gazette, the phrase “Dead Rabbits” never appears. They did not exist.

You delete my comments and just hide from reality. You are perpetuating a fantasy that Herbert Asbury painted decades later out of rumor and imagination. There is literally nothing supporting the existence of a “Dead Rabbits” gang, or of a gang per se called the “Bowery Boys” in contemporary periodicals. Is it just because of the name of your blog?

We don’t allow hostile rants in the comments section. This isn’t a political blog. It’s for people to share stories and exchange information about New York history. If you have a complaint, email us.

This article was merely to mark the birthday of a legendary historical figure who has become famous in current pop culture because of the film Gangs of New York. It was not a dissertation or an expose on 19th century gang activity; it was just a two-minute bit of fun for people who are familiar with the book and movie. Many people understand that Asbury was often a fabulist (or more charitably, a folklorist). Topics like the b’hoys, the complicated descriptions of ‘gangs’ and even the true nature of the Dead Rabbits (See here) have been regularly explored on this website and podcast, as well as by leading historians and writers of these subjects.

If you have an upcoming project about Asbury and the gangs of New York, I’m sure our readers and listeners would love to know more. Please let us know when it is available. Perhaps we could use the occasion to focus more critically upon Asbury’s influence in a future show.

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