Irish Gangs of New York

It was during the Victorian era of the mid-to-late 1800s, that New York City was rocked by an epidemic of gang violence. Crime was rampant in Manhattan neighborhoods such as the Five Points, near modern day Chinatown, an area that became infested with thieves, hustlers, and street thugs, and dealt in any vice imaginable. The Five Points took its name because it marked the intersection of three streets, Cross St. (today’s Mosco St.), Anthony St. (today’s Worth St.), and Orange St. (today’s Baxter St.), which came together to form an irregular intersection with five corners. In the mid 1800’s the area was primarily an Irish neighborhood, housing many of the destitute immigrants whom were fleeing the Great Famine. Public perception at the time was that the Irish were criminal by nature, and the appalling slum conditions only contributed to that attitude. Families were crammed into one or two rooms. Outhouses were too few and sewage and pigs ran freely in the streets. The whole neighborhood stank. Middle-class tourists, escorted by police, would go “slumming” in the Five Points just to see if the lurid tales told by re¬porters were true.

gangs2The reputation of the Five Points was so wide¬spread that author Charles Dickens, the chronicler of London’s underside, on a visit to NYC, wanted to see the the Five Points area for himself. His colorful description of the scene appeared in his book American Notes concluding, “all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.”

The area was rife with crime and spawned many street gangs. Some of the more infamous of these gangs were the Forty Thieves, who operated between the 1820s and 1850s in the Five Points. A gangster named Edward Coleman, who was later hanged for beating his wife to death, led them. During the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, the Bowery Boys, one of the more storied of New York gangs, were the principal foes that clashed with the Five Points gangs. The Dead Rabbits, a crew of Irish immigrants, was one of the most feared gangs to emerge from the Five Points. They were an extremely violent gang, particularly when brawling with their sworn enemies, the Bowery Boys.

One of their most infamous events occurred on July 4th 1857, when one of their street fights with the Bowery Boys turned into a bloody riot, which resulted in 12 deaths. The Whyos, formed from the remnants of several defunct Five Points out¬fits was one of the more dominant street gangs from the 1860s to the 1890s. This was one tough gang. One hood named “Dandy” Johnny Dolan supposedly carried a copper eye gouger and wore shoes outfitted with axe blades. Another named Piker Ryan carried a price list of the gruesome deeds he would per¬form. A simple punch in the face cost $2.00, chewing off an ear was $15.00, the Five Points 1852 and a murder “doing the big job” cost $100.00.

gangs1The Five Points Gang was founded in the 1890s when gangster Paul Kelly united the remaining members of the Dead Rabbits, Whyos, and other Five Points gangs under his own banner. It is said that Kelly marshaled an army of 1,500 thugs in bloody turf wars with a Jewish gang run by the famed Monk Eastman.

The Five Pointers influence eventually waned in the 1910s but not before they had helped train the next generation of mobsters. Some of their initiates included Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Johnny Torrio, and others. By the beginning of the twentieth century the Five Points had essentially disappeared, as streets were redirected and renamed. Modern office buildings now reside on what had been a slum, known round the world.

From 1992-1998 archaeologist Rebecca Yamin analyzed some 850,000 artifacts unearthed during the construction of a federal courthouse in what used to be the Five Points. Housed at the World Trade Center, nearly the en¬tire collection was destroyed on 9/11, but not before it had been inventoried. Gangs of New York a book by Herbert Asbury published in 1928, portrayed the Five Points. It is also the basis of the Martin Scorsese film of the same name, though the film was criticized for many historical inaccuracies.

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