American Mobsters – The Bowery Boy Street Gang

The Bowery Boys were an anti-Catholic, anti Irish Gang of the 1840’s through 1860’s, that fought tooth and nail with the other gangs, most notably the Dead Rabbits from the Five Points Area. Unlike the other gangs of its era, who were just plain thugs, crooks, robbers and murderers, the Bowery Boys, who ruled the Bowery area just north of the Five Points, were mostly butchers and mechanics, bar bouncers, or small businessman. They wore a uniform of sorts, with red shirts and black trousers, the pants of which were shoved inside calf-skin boots. Most of the men had oil slicked hair covered by black stove-pipe hats.

The Bowery Boys were ardent volunteer firemen, who aligned themselves with the Know-Nothing, or American political party, which lasted from 1849 to 1856, and later the Democratic Party. All of the big politicians of the time, including Boss Tweed and future first President George Washington, were at one time volunteer firemen in Lower Manhattan. The Bowery Boys were attached to various firehouses, with names like the White Ghost, Black Joke, Dry Bones and Red Rover. Each of the other downtown gangs, like the Dead Rabbits, Roach Guards and the Plug Uglies, were also affiliated with various fire houses too, and the completion over who would arrive first at a fire was fierce and sometimes bloody. The Bowery Boys were said to love their fire engines almost as much as the loved their women, and the worse thing that could happen, was to arrive at a fire and find that all the fire hydrants had already been taken by other firehouses.

The Bowery Boys had a trick to prevent this embarrassment from happening. As soon as a fire alarm sounded, the biggest Bowery Boy around would grab an empty barrel from a grocery store and run to the fire plug closest to the burning building. He would turn the barrel over, cover the fire hydrant with the barrel, sit on it and defend his position, by fighting men from other firehouses, who were trying to remove him and the barrel from the fire hydrant. It was said that sometimes the fights for the fire hydrants were so ferocious, the Bowery Boys didn’t have time to actually extinguish the fires.

The most famous Bowery Boy of his time was “Butcher” Bill Poole, a butcher by trade and a volunteer at Red Rover Fire Engine Company #34, at Hudson and Christopher Streets. Poole was a bear-knuckle fighter of much renown. His arch-enemy was John Morrissey, an Irish immigrant and strong-arm-man for Tammany Hall. Morrissey fancied himself a fighter too and he challenged Poole to a bare-knuckles fight. Poole hated the Irish and Catholics with a passion ( Morrissey was both), and he gladly accepted accepted the challenge.

The two men squared off on July 26, 1854, at the Amos Street Dock near Christopher Street. As Morrissey extended his hand to fight, Poole feinted him, and instead grabbed Morrissey is a frontal bear hug. He lifted Morrissey up into the air and squeezed the breath out of him for a full five minutes. Wiser heads jumped in and separated the men, before Poole crushed Morrissey to death. Morrissey was hurt so bad, he couldn’t walk the streets of New York for a full six months, but when he did, it was curtains for Poole. On February 25, 1855, Lew Baker, a friend of Morrissey, shot Poole at Stanwix Hall, a bar on Broadway near Prince Street. Poole lingered on for a little more than a week, but he finally died on March 8, 1855.

The downfall of the Bowery Boys started during the savage three-day New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Incensed at the imminent possibility being drafted into the war down south they wanted to do nothing with, thousands of gang members took to the streets of New York City on July 13, looting and burning down stores and houses, and violently killing Negroes, whom they blamed as the cause of their predicament. The Bowery Boys, in actions normally adverse to their nature, were an integral part of these deadly riots, where hundred of people were killed and thousands more injured. The New York State militia was called in to quell the riots, and when the dust settled three days later, the drafting of New York City men into the armed forces continued.

Many Bowery Boys were drafted into the war. Some died, some returned badly injured, or missing arms and legs, and others joined rival gangs. By the end of the 1860’s, the Bowery Boys ceased to exist, but other gangs rose from their ashes to take their place.