Of Dutchmen and Dead Rabbits


An Excerpt from the essay by Peter Quinn

Between 1845 and 1855, the Great Hunger left over a million Irish dead and sent two million-a quarter of the population-abroad. At least one million of these crossed South Street. These immigrants changed every aspect of New York: its politics, sports, religion, economics, entertainment, crime, and law enforcement.

Consider the life and times of John Morrissey. Bare-knuckler, roustabout, gang leader, gambler, and politician, he lived barely half a century, from 1831 to 1878, yet his life in many ways embodied the epic journey of impoverished Irish immigrants from the tradition-bound, famine-ravaged parishes of rural Ireland to the jam-packed precincts of New York, the fastest-growing urban agglomeration on the North American continent.

Born in Tipperary, Ireland, Morrissey came as a young child with his parents to Troy, New York. He arrived in Manhattan at age 18. Brash, well-built, and fearless, he could justly claim for himself the self-description penned by Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”: “Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding/No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them/No more modest than immodest.”

Morrissey was not one to stand in line, hat in hand, and await the kindness of strangers. Upon his arrival, he barged his way into the Empire Club at 24 Park Row, saloon-cum-headquarters of Captain Isaiah Rynders, and started a fight. A stalwart of Tammany Hall, Rynders was suitably impressed. He recruited Morrissey as immigrant “runner” (a thug who took charge of those just off the boat and, more often than not, fleeced them of whatever they had) and “shoulder-hitter” (an enforcer who made sure voters cast their ballots the way the party bosses wanted).

Early on, he earned the moniker “Old Smoke” when his opponent knocked him over a hot stove and pinned him atop the burning coals. Morrissey managed to get back on his feet. Clad in his smoldering coat, he gave his foe a thorough thrashing.

In 1851, lured by the prospect of instant riches, Morrissey joined the stampede to California. He made his first fortune panning for gold not in rivers or streams but at the gambling tables of San Francisco, where he ran an establishment specializing in faro, a hugely popular card game that, even when played on the up-and-up (rare as that was), favored the house.

He also won acclaim as a bare-knuckle boxer, turning a skill he learned in the streets into a source of national and international notoriety. His prowess in the ring became the subject of a traditional ballad, “Morrissey and the Russian Sailor,” which celebrated a bout “way down in Tierra Del Fuego in South Americay.” On knocking out his opponent, Morrison proudly boasts, “I can lick you Yankee boys or you surly Russian bear/To the honor of old Paddy’s lands, these laurels I still will wear.”

Despite the ballad’s popularity and the reinforcement it gave to Morrissey’s ringside reputation, the fight was fictitious. Morrissey’s strength and stamina, however, were real. He won the world championship in 1853, defeating Yankee Sullivan in a contest that lasted 37 rounds.

Morrissey returned to New York to mine the opportunities for fame and riches that were burgeoning in the wake of the city’s preeminence as America’s commercial and financial hub. Yet while the city was exploding in size and wealth, it was also home to a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and growing ethno-religious tensions. In 1849, the Astor Place Riot, sparked by a perceived insult paid to an American actor by a British one, left 25 dead and scores wounded.

At the molten core of the city’s volcanic tensions was the struggle between “Native Americans” — a term the Protestant descendants of the Anglo-Dutch settlers, ignoring the Lenape, appropriated for themselves-and the hordes of newly arrived Irish Catholics. Nativists were as determined “to put the Paddies in their place” as the Paddies were to make New York their home.

The animosity between Yankee and Paddy was epitomized in the vendetta between Morrissey and William “Bill the Butcher” Poole. An accomplished pugilist and leader of the Nativist gang the Bowery Boys, Poole spearheaded the fight for control of the New York streets against Morrissey and his gang, the Dead Rabbits. (Myth has it the gang’s name derived from the deceased bunny skewered on a stick that preceded them into battle. More likely, it reflected the gang’s Irish identity-and perhaps Morrissey himself, with “rabbit” being an Anglicization of the Irish word raíbéad, a big, hulking fellow, and “dead,” an intensifier.)

Poole and Morrissey indulged in fisticuffs at least twice, and although the accounts are unclear, it seems Poole came out on top both times. On February 24th, 1855, they bumped into each other in Stanwix Hall, a newly opened saloon on Broadway, near Prince. Morrissey spit in Poole’s face and pulled a pistol, but it misfired. Bill the Butcher unsheathed his knife. Luckily for Morrissey, the police arrived and broke up the fight. The affair was finally settled when associates of Morrissey returned that evening and shot Poole in the heart. He lingered for two weeks before uttering his parting words: “Goodbye, boys. I die a true American.”

A final showdown between the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits took place two years later, in 1857, when the gangs faced off in “the battle of Paradise Square.” This time it was Morrissey and his gang who claimed victory. By then, however, Morrissey’s sights were set on claiming a higher status than that of a successful street thug; he put his energies into his gambling interests and politics.

Following the end of the Civil War, he won election as a U.S. congressman and state senator. He insinuated himself into the realms of privilege and power, rubbing elbows with the social elite who flocked to the resort he helped establish in Saratoga, New York-the Las Vegas of its day. Born to poverty, feared fighter and street brawler, head of the infamous Dead Rabbits, “Old Smoke” died at home, in his own bed, a respected politician and millionaire.

As the career of John Morrissey made clear, barely two centuries after its founding, New York had morphed into a roiling, contentious colossus. Jammed into the space between the Battery and Union Square were parallel worlds, all part of the same city yet separated by frightening disparities in wealth, health, and public safety. Squalor co-existed with splendor; gruesome was neighbor to glamorous.

After the Great Fire of 1835, the Wall Street area was rapidly rebuilt and began its transformation into a global financial arena in which bulls and bears (and the occasional wolf) battle it out to this day. Where the Tontine Coffee House at Wall and Water once satisfied the modest tastes of brokers and traders, a voracious appetite for opulence took root. Delmonico’s opened its doors at 2 William Street and gave New Yorkers a taste of haute cuisine and high-class service, including a sommelier to guide choices in wines.

Across from City Hall, between Vesey and Barclay Streets, the Astor House established itself as America’s first deluxe hotel. Guests enjoyed private baths, with hot and cold running water, and relaxed at its circular bar, where bartender Sherwood “Shed” Sterling served up Mint Juleps and other “cock-tails” to a roster of visiting celebrities and men so rich a word was coined to describe them: “millionaires.”

Directly opposite and nestled below Barnum’s American Museum stood Jerry Thomas’s Exchange Saloon. A showman in his own right, Thomas is remembered as the “father of American mixology” and author of the country’s first bartender’s recipe guide.

And a few blocks south, at the City Hotel, Orsamus Willard won a following for his peach-brandy punch and the way he never forgot a patron’s name.

To the east (near today’s Foley Square) was the Five Points, a mix of dilapidated houses, brothels, dives, dumps, and unlicensed premises populated by Irish- and African-Americans, and epitomized by the Old Brewery, an overcrowded rookery rumored to be home to every sort of felony and deviltry. The Five Points’ reputation drew as many people as it repelled, including novelist Charles Dickens, who on his 1842 book tour ventured from the Astor House to do a bit of “slumming” and have a look around. In his American Notes for General Circulation, he remarked that debauchery had made the very houses seem prematurely old.

The unruliest neighborhoods were on the waterfront, with their sagging rows of rooming houses, dance halls, whorehouses, and run-down tenements. Water Street enjoyed special notoriety. At the corner of James and Water, Pete Williams ran “The Slaughterhouse Point,” a gin joint that served as headquarters for the Daybreak Boys, a much-feared band of murdering, marauding thugs.

Nearby, on Cherry Street, was Dan Kerrigan’s. A onetime seminarian and former boxer, Kerrigan became a fulltime Tammany Hall fixer and bookmaker who helped pioneer development of the “Tenderloin,” the city’s West Side vice district.

Around the corner, at 273 Water Street, was Kit Burns’ Sportsman’s Hall. Burns and Tommy Hadden, who ran a Cherry Street “crimp house” where sailors were robbed and shanghaied, began their careers as leaders of the Dead Rabbits. The sporting events Burns hosted weren’t limited to bare-knuckle bouts. Most popular of all was the rat pit, in which rodents and dogs engaged in a nightly bloodbath.

The Hole in the Wall,” at 279 Water Street, was presided over by Gallus Mag, an English giantess who supposedly bit off the ears of misbehaving customers and kept them preserved in a pickle jar behind the bar. In one infamous incident, she tore off the ear of gang leader and river pirate Sadie “the Goat” Farrell, sending her into exile on the West Side.

The Hole was closed down in 1855, after hosting seven murders in three months. The crowning outrage was the murder of Patsy the Barber by a fellow Daybreak Boy, Slobbery Jim. With the Hole’s patrons looking on, Slobbery slit the Barber’s throat and stomped out what life he had left in him as he lay sprawled on the floor.

A little father north (304 Water Street) was John Allen’s Dancehall. Son of a respectable upstate family, Allen followed his brothers into the life of the New York underworld. He married Little Suzie, petty criminal and sometime prostitute. Together, they operated a “concert saloon” staffed by females in alluring outfits. If not entirely original, the combination of sex, music, and heavy drinking proved popular in the male-dominated world of New York’s “sporting life,” and it was widely imitated.

Dubbed the “wickedest man in New York,” Allen tried to parry the efforts of reformers to close him down by sponsoring the “Water Street Revival.” After suddenly “seeing the light,” he and his fellow saloonkeepers turned over their premises for the preaching of moral reform and religious conversion. It sounded too good to be true-which of course it was-and was quickly revealed as a hoax.

Most accounts of these “lowlife” areas were written by scandal-mongering journalists, crusading reformers, and prohibitionists for whom no prose was too purple. Did Hell-Cat Maggie really file her teeth and wear brass claws? Was there a murder a night in the Old Brewery? Exaggeration almost certainly played a part. Yet there seems little doubt Water Street made its reputation as “the most dangerous street on the continent” the old-fashioned way: It earned it.

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Written by Ben Schaffer