Bill the Butcher: He died a true American, but not how you think.

Make text smaller Make text larger

My first "Old Smoke" column recounted the adventures of Hon. John Morrissey, Congressman and heavyweight boxing champion of the United States, who once, according to the Philadelphia Bulletin, told the House of Representatives that he "had reached the height of my ambition. I have been a wharf rat, chicken thief, prize fighter, gambler, and Member of Congress." This was some twelve years after his indictment for the murder of William "Bill the Butcher" Poole, the 19th-century anti-Catholic street-fighting man whose memory, until recently, survived only among readers of Herbert Asbury’s masterpiece, Gangs of New York. Now, thanks to Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film, freely adapted from Asbury’s book, Bill the Butcher is now far better known than during his own lifetime.

Or after a fashion, anyway. A few days ago, my wife pointed out a New York Post article about a recent ceremony held in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery: a granite headstone was placed at Poole’s hitherto unmarked grave, inscribed with Poole’s legendary dying words: "Good-bye, boys, I die a true American." The article even had someone playing "Taps" over the old reprobate–a gesture that Green-Wood’s president, Richard Moylan, seemed anxious to justify to audiences for the film, which sets Bill’s death, at the climax of the movie, in the midst of the Draft Riots of 1863.

"He was a bad guy, really," Moylan observed in his capacity as an historian. The riots in question comprised a week of unrestrained mob violence–burning, looting and lynching–directed predominantly at the city’s black population. "We did it for all those who lost their lives in the riots," the Green-Wood president explained.

The trouble with using Bill Poole to commemorate those killed in the 1863 riots is that Poole was murdered in February 1855, some eight years before. Bill the Butcher had as much to do with the Draft Riots as Bob the Builder. As an artist, of course, Scorsese isn’t trying to present history or depict Poole as an historical person. His interest in the figure lies elsewhere, in truths far more profound than one finds in the recitation of mere fact.

But there’s a disingenuous quality to the little incident at Green-Wood. Moylan claimed the Butcher’s gravestone was about history. To me, it seemed all about promoting tourism and making money.

More than six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, William Poole stood out in an age of small men. He began his career in the Bowery Boys, New York’s most important street gang. Unlike today’s gangsters, the Boys were working men–whether laborers or self-employed small businessmen like Poole, who was a butcher by profession as well as avocation. They were also, as Asbury wrote, "the most ferocious rough-and-tumble fighters that ever cracked a skull or gouged out an eyeball." Here, too, Poole stood out, for he fought like a berserker.

By the mid-1850s, Poole had drifted into freelance political enforcing. His personal gang controlled the Christopher St. waterfront. Militant supporters of the Know-Nothing party (so called because its members answered all questions about the movement from outsiders with the phrase, "I know nothing"), Poole and his men bitterly opposed Irish-Catholic immigration, hating the immigrants as cheap labor competing for their jobs and loathing the politicians who pandered for the immigrant vote.

New York City’s Nativists were not all thugs. The Know-Nothings had elected James Harper–a partner in the Harper Brothers publishing house–mayor for one term. In other states, they elected governors, congressmen and state legislators. Regaining City Hall through ballot box stuffing and terror seemed entirely possible. Seen in this light, Bill the Butcher was a pioneer in using street fighters to dominate a nominally democratic society. Two generations later, the same idea would occur to Benito Mussolini.

Poole emerged from the shadows by joining forces with political boss Captain Isaiah Rynders. The Captain, a former riverboat gambler and knife fighter, operated his political organization, the Americus Club, from a bar on Park Row across from City Hall. A one-time U.S. Marshal, Rynders was a virulent racist who left the Democratic party during the 1850s for the Nativists. Among his new friends was Bill Poole.

It was during this time that young John Morrissey charged into the Americus Club and challenged every man in the bar. Asbury states that Poole was among the dozen or so thugs who accepted Morrissey’s challenge with a flurry of mugs, clubs and bung starters. Rynders was moved by Morrissey’s audacity and courage (Morrissey convalesced in his best bedroom, complete with attending physicians and nurses) and even offered him a job. Morrissey declined, largely because he detested Bill the Butcher.

The Butcher then announced he would seize the ballot boxes at an upcoming election. Some honest and wealthy citizens, knowing the police would not enforce the election law, retained Morrissey. Before the polls opened, Morrissey had stationed some fifty men in and about the building, ordering it held to the death. As Asbury writes, "He also let it be known that there would be no adverse criticism if Bill the Butcher’s bullies were permanently maimed, and that ears and noses would be highly regarded as souvenirs of an interesting occasion."

Poole and his men rushed the building around noon. On observing Morrissey and his welcoming committee, the Butcher paused, glaring at the Tammanyites. But hatred did not overwhelm Poole’s common sense: the Butcher knew how to count, and so he left with his men. This made Morrissey’s reputation, and Tammany permitted him to open a small gambling house without undue police interference, which soon made him a wealthy man.

Street fighting between Tammanyites and Nativists was usually about power: sometimes it was even about sports. Poole’s death stemmed from a boxing match between Tom Hyer, the Young American and Nativist brawler, and Yankee Sullivan, beloved of Tammanyites and Irish Catholics. One of Sullivan’s fans, an ex-Bowery Boy and ex-cop named Lewis Baker who had, as a judge observed, "a most unaccountable passion for disorderly scenes and associates," got into a bar fight with Hyer, who had a knack for that kind of groin-kicking, bottle-smashing, eye-gouging, window-breaking work. After a cop refused to intervene in what he considered a dispute among gentlemen, Hyer (bleeding from gunshot and stab wounds) beat and kicked Baker senseless and left him in the street.

Baker’s troubles only began, however, when he ran into Bill Poole in the Gem, a Canal St. dive. Poole had once beaten Yankee Sullivan senseless himself and, feeling that Baker had been disrespectful to Hyer, nearly finished the job the Young American had begun. This time, the cops interfered. Poole left the bar insisting that whatever might remain of Baker after their next meeting would "scarcely be worth the attention of an undertaker." Thereafter, Baker went out only with a bodyguard, usually one Paudeen McLaughlin, whose disposition, Asbury notes, "had been particularly murderous since his nose was chewed off during an affray at the Five Points."

Some time later, Poole and Morrissey met in a Broadway watering hole. Morrissey wagered $50 in gold that Poole could not name a place where Morrissey would not meet him in a fight. Poole named the Christopher St. pier–his home turf. Morrissey handed Poole the money. He then asked for another location. Poole suggested the Amos St. dock (at the end of today’s W. 10th St.). They agreed to meet at 7:00 the next morning. Morrissey arrived with a dozen men. Poole did not show. Two hundred of his men did, however, beating Morrissey and his men until, as Luc Sante notes in Low Life, "a delegation of Tammany politicians" rescued them.

Poole and Morrissey next met on Feb. 24, 1855, in Stanwix Hall, a newly opened bar on Broadway near Prince St. Morrissey was playing cards when he heard Poole. Morrissey strode up, spat in Poole’s face, and drew a pistol. It misfired. Poole drew his own pistol. Either Morrissey or Mark Maguire, a friend of Morrissey’s, then asked Poole, "You wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man, would you?" Poole swore and threw his pistol on the floor. He picked up two carving knives from the free lunch counter and, hurling them into the bar, invited either Maguire or Morrissey to fight it out. Both declined. After all, Bill the Butcher knew the use of knives, and he was famous for throwing a butcher knife through an inch of pine at 20 feet. Then the cops arrested them both and released them almost immediately outside the bar.

Morrissey reportedly went home to 55 Hudson St. for the night. Poole, however, soon returned to Stanwix Hall. Baker, McLaughlin, and several other Tammany sluggers were there. McLaughlin jostled Poole. When Poole turned, the noseless Tammanyite spat three times in his face and challenged him. Poole slapped five $10 gold pieces on the bar, offering to fight whoever would cover his bet.

Then one Turner, another Tammanyite, flung open his cloak and drew a Colt revolver. While trying to aim at Poole, he shot himself in the arm, screamed and fired again, hitting Poole’s leg. The Butcher fell, and Baker, placing his own pistol against Poole’s chest, shot him in the heart and abdomen. Poole scrambled to his feet, probably on pure adrenalin, and grabbed a carving knife from the bar. The Tammanyites fled as one. Poole screamed that he would tear Baker’s heart from his living flesh. As Poole’s legs gave out, he flung the knife at Baker, the blade quivering in the doorjamb as the Butcher collapsed to the floor.

Everyone surrendered except Baker, who hid in Jersey City until March 10, when he sailed on the brig Isabella Jewett for the Canary Islands. The authorities remained passive (after all, Baker was an ex-cop) until George Law, a wealthy Nativist, lent his clipper yacht Grapeshot to the police; they overhauled Baker about two hours off Teneriffe and brought him back in irons. Baker, Turner, Morrissey and McLaughlin were indicted and repeatedly tried for murder. The prosecution was abandoned only after the third hung jury.

Bill the Butcher lived fourteen days after the shooting. According to Asbury, his doctors found it unnatural that he should live so long after taking a bullet in the heart. Certainly he had time to compose his last words. He died with Hyer and other friends about his bed. They gave him a hero’s funeral, with thousands lining lower Broadway as a half-dozen brass bands and more than 5,000 men marched in his procession from Christopher St. to Whitehall St., whence his remains were ferried to Brooklyn. Asbury observed that new plays were hurriedly written and current productions revised so that as the curtain fell, the hero could drape himself in an American flag and cry out, "Good-bye, boys, I die a true American," to thunderous applause.

That, too, was all about money.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters