The Bloody Sixth

Joshua Brown

  • The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury
    Arrow, 366 pp, £6.99, January 2003, ISBN 0 09 943674 4
  • Gangs of New York directed by Martin Scorsese
    December 2002

Under the headline ‘The Dead Rabbits Immortalised’, the New York Evening Post reported on 10 July 1857 that a one-penny song sheet was selling feverishly ‘in the lower part of the city’. Written by ‘Saugerties Bard’ and to be sung to the popular Dan Emmett minstrel tune ‘Jordan’, it began:

They had a dreadful fight upon last Saturday night,
The papers gave the news accordin’;
Guns, pistols, clubs and sticks, hot water
and old bricks,
Which drove them on the other side of Jordan.
Then pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
For Bayard is a hard street to travel;
So pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
The Bloody Sixth is a hard ward to travel I believe.

The 4 July Dead Rabbit-Bowery Boy Riot in the infamous Five Points slum district in the heart of the equally notorious ‘bloody ould’ Sixth Ward of lower Manhattan capped a long struggle between Mayor Fernando Wood and the Republican-dominated New York State legislature. At issue were a stringent new temperance law and a state-controlled police department, both designed in part to undermine the corrupt Democratic mayor’s power base: Irish immigrants and the saloons that were their essential political institution. A state supreme court decision on 3 July in favour of the legislature had seemed to mark the end of local misrule. But the riot that occurred late in the afternoon of the following day, resulting in 12 deaths and at least 37 injuries, shed light on the violent groups that peppered working-class communities and provided the foot soldiers for New York’s Democratic Party.

Most subsequent accounts construed the Dead Rabbit-Bowery Boy Riot as the most violent in a string of battles between Irish and nativist gangs and an extension of the struggle between Mayor Wood and the politicians in Albany. In this view, the Irish Dead Rabbits stood in for the Mayor while the nativist Bowery Boys were surrogates for the new Metropolitan Police. Whatever the interpretation – the most recent, in Tyler Anbinder’s meticulous Five Points,[*] convincingly argues that the Bowery Boys gang was neither nativist nor anti-Wood (it may have had Irish members) and that its momentary support of the state police was due to internecine Democratic rivalries – the 1857 riot has been taken to be emblematic of a lawless and brutal era. As with other moments of civil unrest, an extraordinarily violent incident came to be seen as representative of the everyday.

Even so it’s safe to say that, until this December, few people knew about the riot or the gangs that composed the lower echelons of New York politics. Even before the events of 1857 had faded from the memory of contemporaries, overshadowed by the Civil War and the traumatic events of the 1863 Draft Riots, police reports and press coverage generated a fog of rumour and innuendo that mesmerised and confused later chroniclers. Among the distortions was the notion of the huge and vicious Dead Rabbits gang. After failing to subdue the riot, the police may have renamed the pro-Wood Roche (or Roach) Guard, giving it a more forbidding name in order to exaggerate the adversity they had faced; or, along with reporters, they may have mistaken an ominous vernacular term for an actual gang. In the street ‘flash’ of the day, a ‘dead rabbit’ meant a ‘very athletic, rowdy fellow’, and thanks to Daniel Cassidy of the New College of California we now know that this is an Anglicisation of the Irish phrase ‘dod raibead’, which has the same meaning. Along with sensational accounts of the Dead Rabbits’ exploits, the invented gang name outlasted the squalid neighbourhood that had supposedly spawned such mayhem. Five Points was built over the soupy landfill that had once been a polluted lake, and Charles Dickens observed during the 1840s that ‘all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.’ The mysterious name merely denoted the intersection of Baxter, Worth and Park Streets, now buried beneath the city courts.

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[*] Plume, 544 pp.,$16, October 2002, 0 4522 8361 2.