NYC Turn-of-the-Century Gangs (Irish and Others)


Originally posted at ArtOfNeed blog for the Auld Irishtown Trilogy

By Eamon Loingsigh

Well, I’ve finally turned in the manuscript and in a month or so, I’ll hear back from Three Rooms Press concerning any edits considered.

The last few weeks, I tried to take a wider view of the book and ask some important questions. One of the questions I asked, and what has always weighed on my mind … Why were there gangs anyway? Why do they still exist today?

Over a period of three and a half years of research, my conclusion is really no different than any sociologist or anthropologist or any other person with a sense of awareness: Poverty.

Above, The Gopher Gang circa 1910 with Owney Madden in the back row, middle. He moved to New York in 1902 and immediately joined a gang. He survived the lifestyle and eventually became a millionaire, but his life was diifferent than most.

This has always fascinated me, and I think it fascinates a lot of people too. When the social safety net is non-existent, law is not evenly distributed, alcoholism and drug use, over population and a lack of education persist while there is a general shortage of resources as compared to an over abundance of labor available, groups of people will band together to feed their families. And they will do whatever it takes to feed their mothers, brothers, sisters and the families of their closest, most trusted gang members.

Monk Eastman

In 1917, during a physical, Monk Eastman was asked what wars he had already served in since he had so many knife and gun wounds on his body, “Oh! A lot of little wars around New York.”

There were literally wars happening everywhere in New York and other major cities. Gangs were such a nuisance at the time that there were specific police units that were created to combat against them, like the Strong Arm Squad.

But the police were no match for the gangs of the 1890s and early 1900s Manhattan and Brooklyn. The problem was much bigger than any cop with a blackjack could handle.

Territories were bordered by street names and any gang or gang member that dared cross into a neighborhood that wasn’t their own risked violence.

In Manhattan, street gangs flourished from all the symptoms that creates gangs. There were so many gangs and gangsters that any small business owner didn’t dare open a shop without first paying respect to the local gang.

Monk Eastman, right, was 5’6″ and was as tough as any man in the world. In Michael Walsh’s popular book based on the life of Owney Madden, Eastman takes him under his wing and teaches him the ropes. Soon Eastman is beaten so badly that he almost dies in a tenement bed, alone. 

Paolo Vaccarelli an Italian immigrant also known as Paul Kelly (used this moniker to get into boxing matches when he was young since the incumbent Irish dominated the prize fight racket) paid homage to the Civil War era when he ran a gang called The Five Points Gang. They ruled the area that once was the Five Points in the Lower-mid Manhattan area around what we know now as the Restaurant district “Little Italy” and into Chinatown.

If you were to walk through the incredibly over-populated Lower East Side of the era, you would run across a few members of the Yake Brady Gang, based on the northern end of Cherry Street. Yake Brady himself was probably the brother of Mary Brady, who married a boxer named John Lonergan. Together they had, according to most accounts, fifteen children. Within that brood was the famous one-legged White Hand Gang member of Brooklyn, Richard “Pegleg” Lonergan and the queen of the Brooklyn waterfront, Anna Lonergan.

Also on the Lower East Side were the Swamp Angels, who were known as river pirates along the docks and piers of East Manhattan and Brooklyn. They were based in a horrible set of rowhouses called Gotham Court that dated back to the Civil War. Utilizing the New York sewage system that ran from below Gotham Court to the waterfront, they would steal through them in the middle of the night, take valuable goods of ships tied to the piers and sell them inland.

Babbitt Soap Factory

Sometimes the gangs were named after the factories in their neighborhoods, like the Gas House Gang, named for the humungous gas house tanks on 20th Street and 1st Avenue. The Potashes, which were led by Red Shay Meehan (relation to Dinny Meehan? Who knows), were named after the Babbitt soap factory on Washington and Rector streets.

The Babbitt Soap Factory, right, employed many people, but there were a lot more in the neighborhood that needed jobs. Although there were lots of factories and manufacturing jobs in the city, the population well outnumbered the jobs. A flourishing reason for the creation of gangs.

On the West End of Manhattan were a plethora of low-going gangs, including the ever popular Hudson Dusters. They were known as cocaine sniffing wild boys who fought with other gangs for dominance. Members include Goo-Goo Knox, Honey Stewart and Kid Yorke.  So tough, they were employed by Tammany Hall as muscle during elections.

The Boodle Gang was another survivor of earlier days. In the 1850s, they raided butcher carts and food wagons that ran through their neighborhood, among other rogue forays.

The Gopher Gang, which fought the Hudson Dusters for supremacy of Hell’s Kitchen and the West Side Manhattan, was led by Owney Madden. Working with Tanner Smith’s gang The Marginals and the Pearl Buttons and the Fashion Plates, they eventually took over the area after Monk Eastman all but disappeared and the Five Points Gang leader Paul Kelly tried a more legitimate lifestyle as a labor leader in the International Longshoreman’s Association (hardly legitimate, but a step above street gangs at least).

Another phenomena was the New York Jewish gangs. Though they weren’t consi

dered gangs like the Irish gangs. They were a little less organized. If the Italians stuck to family loyalties and moral codes like Camorra or the Cosa Nostra, and the Irish were fist-fighting, street-level racketeers, Jewish thugs were out for themselves in the organized crime racket. 

The Labor Slugger Wars, a little known yet wildly interesting collection of tit-for-tat battles among barely legitimate groups of Jewish gangsters is a perfect platform to analyze their lifestyles. Young men with great monikers like “Dopey” Benny 


Fein, Joe “The Greaser” Rosensweig, Jacob “Little Augie” Orgen and “Kid Dropper” Nathan Kaplan fought for the right to be hired by the unions or companies to kill or maim employees, labor organizers or anyone that presented a problem.

These wars also determined who would provide scabs, or replacement workers when a union strike took place in the Garment District for instance, or a bunch of longshoremen on the docks.  It was a duplicitous lifestyle, to say the least, as they were often hired by both sides of competing organizations to get back at the other. They literally benefited from wars, which is still common today, though somehow considered legitimate (see Halliburton and other war mongering companies). 

Al Smith

“Dopey” Benny Fein‘s mug shot, right. He, along with many other Jewish immigrant gangsters fought for the right to provide strike-breakers and other nefarious doings in New York City.

In summary, gangs were rampant during the Gay Nineties and the early 1900s, and the decline of gangs in the nineteen-teens was due, in part, by the Progressive Era politicians, humanitarians and organizers in New York many years earlier. People like Jacob Riis, the famous photographer and, of course, Al Smith.

Smith grew up working as a youngster in the Lower East Side Fulton Fish Market. Mostly uneducated as a youth, he learned the value of a good work ethic from his father, who died on his way to a polling station to vote. His thick New York City accent didn’t bode well in Albany after he was elected to represent his district there, but through hard work and an extreme amount of charm, he worked his way (almost) to the top. Eventually becoming mayor of New York City, but failing in his bid to represent the Democrats in the 1928 Presidential Election.

Smith represented a new politician. One that wanted to provide for the poor. Give them the chance to succeed too. In Albany, he passed many laws and in my estimation, he and those that followed his lead are more responsible for doing away with gangs than any Strong Arm police squad could ever have done.

Al Smith with his wife, right, at a baseball game. He brought empathy and street-level toughness to Albany and eventually passed laws that helped the poor.

Although Prohibition (which Smith was against, of course) allowed organized crime to flourish in the 1920s, by the 1930s and 1940s, street gangs had all but been eradicated due to a social safety net to help the poor get on their feet, feed their children even if they didn’t have a job yet and cast a caring eye toward the downtrodden, particularly after the passing of the New Deal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. EL

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Tags: Crime, Gangs, Law, Politics, United States

Comment by Kent Williams on June 21, 2013 at 1:27pm

Well done, good research. You are spot on in the causes, and it would take several generations of our people in America to fully remove ourselves from this way of life. I know that in Queens and Newark (NJ) where my Cavan born grandparents spent much of their lives growing up in the 20s and 30s they told me about some members of the community that found less than orthodox ways of making a buck. It was survival. It was also brutal.   

I always thought the "Westies" were the last of the Irish gangs in NYC. According to the NYPD Organized Crime Squad and the FBI, the Westies were responsible for at least 60–100 murders between 1968 and 1986. 

During the days of Prohibition, the story of Irish American gangsters is well depicted in the book "Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster" (T.J. English) and is one of my favorite books on Irish American history. 

With Whitey Bulger now back in the news, I kind of think  he has to be the last of the Irish American organized crime figures left in the U.S.. Or are there still a few small time Irish gangsters still out there? In South Boston maybe? In Queens or the Bronx?   

Comment by Eamon Loingsigh on June 23, 2013 at 1:36pm

Mr. Williams,
You are correct in stating that it was a way of making a buck. With so many people and not enough jobs, gangs were formed to find ways to feed their families. The police often were not in control of the neighborhoods like the gangs were and the courts were always dependent on proof and witnesses, which both quickly disappeared when needed.

Make sure to check out all the other articles at artofneed, Blog for the Auld Irishtown trilogy at:

The first book in the trilogy, called LIGHT OF THE DIDDICOY, will be published by Three Rooms Press on St. Paddy's Day, March 14, 2014.


Comment by Bernard Raymond O'Brien on June 24, 2013 at 2:51pm

I am Irish American, both sides, and grew up in a small midwest town; largely protestant and not Irish.  Not many realize what a tough experience this can be. We never murdered anyone, but it was a hardscrabble place.


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