“Desperate outrages by organized gangs of ruffians have been of frequent occurrence in Brooklyn.”
The words “gangs” and “Brooklyn” go hand in hand, though you wouldn’t really know it since the Manhattan gangs, particularly from the Five Points section, have traditionally gotten all the press over the years. In reality, street and dock gangs flourished in Brooklyn in the 19th and early 20th centuries and even outlasted their more popular brothers just a ferry-ride away.
Listen to: The Story of Irishtown)
The most famous gangster of all time, in fact, called his home Navy Street just outside of Brooklyn’s Irishtown in what we now call the DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, Navy Yard area. Al Capone, or “Scarface Al,” eventually becoming a rising star in the Italian mob, was forced out of Brooklyn by the famed Irish dock gang called “The White Hand.” Settling in Chicago, he made his name there instead of in his own hometown.
Without the world knowing it, Brooklyn has always had the best gangs. And I am here to prove it. For the first time, we have a comprehensive listing of Brooklyn’s gangs unearthing the meanest, rowdiest, drunken, fist-fighting corner loafers, bounty jumpers, bank robbers, highway robbers, political bullies, dock wallopers, pierhouse rats… the most rugged young larrikins of forced tribute and street level insurance the world has not remembered. Until now. With monikers like Joe Grapes, Scabby McCloskey, Pegleg Lonergan, Goose McCue, Pickles Laydon, Skinny Wilson, Yeller Kelly and my own personal favorite, Cute Charlie Red Donnelly.
During genealogical searches into my own family’s history in Brooklyn’s Irishtown and other neighborhoods, and my research for the historical novel Light of the Diddicoy (Three Rooms Press, March 2014), I found a plethora of heretofore barely known and wholly forgotten gangs that resided in the same neighborhoods and streets that still exist today. In the same warehouses, soap and cardboard box factories that have been converted to condos and in the same brownstones and rowhouses that are now peopled by artists and hipsters.
Because this topic, Gangs of Brooklyn, is so big, I had no choice but to concentrate on the times just after The Great Hunger in Ireland until the beginning of Prohibition, which was right around the time when the dominance of Irish-American street gangs sharply decreased, from around 1845-1919. And also to concentrate on the waterfront neighborhoods from Greenpoint down to Red Hook where the vast majority of Famine Irish settled in Brooklyn.
There are way too many gangs to list here. I had no choice but to leave out many of them such as the White House Gang, Kelsey’s Alley Gang, Forty Acre Gang, Black Coat Gang, Butcher Cart Gang, Red Onion Gang and the Frankie Byrne Gang as well as many more.
But to get started, we’ll give a quick background and then begin at the beginning, which is to say The Great Hunger, when so many desperately poor tenant farming Irish were forced to the waterfront neighborhoods of Brooklyn, which was detailed in a previous post called The Brooklyn Irish.
‘Young Dublin’ and the Scalpeens of Brooklyn
Jackson Hollow was a farm owned by the old Brooklyn Schenck family, but afterwards became an area that the heirs of Samuel Jackson fought over. Described differently in different articles, it is generally known as the area currently south of the Navy Yard bordered by Gates Avenue to Flushing Avenue (North to South), then Grand Avenue and Schenck (East to West).
From a February 24, 1858 article in the New York Times, Jackson Hollow’s history was described, “Ten years earlier in 1848… there was an extensive colony of Irish people who had settled on the vacant lots of Fort Greene, which… from the number of pigs and dogs there, was known as ‘Young Dublin.’”
The article then rudely describes how the police made a concerted attack upon this “pigdem” which “rooted” them out. The refugees then moved to Jackson’s Hollow, an area consisting of empty lots and hills at this time. And where eventually, just like in Ireland, they were made to pay rent for squatting there. “Nine out of ten of these shanties have only one room… which does not average over twelve feet square” and “the cradle is seldom empty.”
Because of lack of employment, or an inability to get work due to their being Irish or Catholic or both, finding work was difficult for men, and if they did find work, there was only part-time available. The mothers and children often were found around City Hall begging for coal.
After the 1840s, Jackson Hollow was known as “one of the worst of Brooklyn’s numerous shanty towns,” according to a May 9th, 1885 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article that looked back to the 1850s and 1860s. These shanties literally were made of tarps or brush that covered a hole in the ground for its numerous squatters. In Ireland during The Great Hunger, these holes in the earth, created after being evicted during the Famine, were called “Scalpeens.” And the similarities are no stretch in imagination. This underlies the intense poverty of the time. In a Dec. 18, 1863 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, it was described thusly “Lying in the very heart of the city, and given over to hogs and cows, and to the squatter sovereigns who have erected wretched shanties upon it.”
From these humiliating and loathsome origins came the murderous Brooklyn gangs. Alienated in Ireland, their family members dying by the plenty, evicted from their homes, sent as human cargo on coffin ships, only to land in a strange place called “Brooklyn” with no chance to work, hatred for their foreign language and their religion and above all else, starved. Is there any wonder why these Irish immigrants gathered together along ethnic communal lines to beg, borrow and, without blame; steal?
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Jackson Hollow Gang – (1840s-1901) One of the most prevalent and certainly long-lasting gangs in Brooklyn. The area formerly known as “Jackson Hollow” was the gang’s home turf. An 1858 article in the New York Times, which was essentially a crude census of the “inmates” of the squatters in the area was described thusly, “Upon Grand Avenue, North of Myrtle Avenue, there are 44 shanties having 230 inmates… Between DeKalb and Lafayette Avenues, 20 shanties having 90 inmates… A total of 340 shanties having 1,427 inhabitants of the Hollow… How this large number contrive to subsist at all is a wonder.” It had many gangs, but one in particular dominated from their original arrival in the 1840s due to The Great Hunger in Ireland to the turn of the century when they were still committing crimes in Brooklyn, the Jackson Hollow Gang… In July of 1876, the Jackson Hollow Gang made a big splash in all the New York dailies, including the New York Times, when on the corner of Steuben and Myrtle avenue, they killed on Officer Scott of the Fourth Brooklyn Precinct. When Officer Scott told “a gang of rowdies” to disburse, they verbally abused him and then crushed his skull with a brick thrown at him. Still in operation during the elections of November, 1901 where the gang was planning to perform robberies while the police were busy at the poll stations. One of the gang members William “Solly” Ryan, who was a very well known boxer, beat up and bit officer John Egan at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street. A second officer arrived and helped subdue, then arrest Ryan. The gang was described as “an organization composed of the most desperate criminals in the city. Hardly a day passes that some outrage is not traced to the agency of these ruffians. Scott is not the first policeman who has been sent to an untimely grave by this band of outlaws.”
Neighborhoods they roamed: Clinton Hill, Downtown, Irishtown, Navy Yard, Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg.
Some of the gang members were: James McQuaid, George W. Sanders, Edward Wheelihan, John Hurley, Edward Hill, Christopher Callahan, James O’Neill, John Conlon, Philip Craddock, Thomas McGuire, Peter McCabe, James Connolly, Thomas Baldwin, John Connors, John Gallagher, William Phalen.
Tillary Street Gang – (1849-1881) Originated in the late 1840s, was a politically motivated gang within the Brooklyn Republican Party representing the newly arrived Irish, the gang was described as “the hardest gang in the neighborhood of City Hall.” In the area from Tillary Street to Hudson Avenue in Irishtown, “no policemen dared to patrol that beat alone.” Known for political intimidation, some members were also charged with robbery. First appearing in the newspapers in 1849 at City Hall during a Republican nominations meetings, the Tillary Street Gang, described as “mostly Irishmen” stormed the front row and “had evidently prepared themselves for a row.” Twenty years later in 1869 we find them again amidst a riot between them and another gang in front of a saloon on the corner of Johnson and Navy streets where one James Dunnigan was shot and killed. In 1870, a 19 year-old member of this gang snuck into a lodging at night and when confronted by the occupant, shot at him, then fled. When police went to the young gangster’s home, his mother complained to them about not being able to control him. In 1876, a gang member shot at saloon-keeper Philip Duffy, missing him. After being arrested at a local rookery where the Tillary Street Gang hung out, the gang member was released as Duffy refused to press charges. In 1881, the Tillary Street Gang crowded around the polling places in Brooklyn, which the reporter stated were intimidating pollers that supported Democrat “Boss” McLaughlin. A few years earlier, a Tillary Street Gang member broke up a Fourth Ward Republican Association meeting by storming to the podium and shaking his fist in the face of the association’s president. The meeting was quickly adjourned.
Neighborhoods they roamed: Irishtown, Fulton Street Landing (DUMBO), Navy Yard
Some of the gang members were: James Curry, Robert Berry, Pat Foley, Thomas Howard, James & Mathew Carberry, John Kilroy, Thomas Kilmead.
North Fifth Street Gang – (1860s) A gang that centered its operations around bounty jumping during the Civil War. Members would accept money to go to war so that a richer boy wouldn’t have to, then go AWOL with the money in their pocket.
Neighborhoods they roamed: North Williamsburg
Some of the gang members were: “Punch” Devlin, Jack McCormack a.k.a. “McAlpine.”
Pete Rogers’ Gang – (1860s) Were involved in the robbery and bounty jumping business during the Civil War. A clever, expert burglar, Rogers had a crew that followed him. After robbing a bakery on Union Avenue, Rogers disappeared until he was implicated in a New Jersey robbery, for which he escaped and was never heard from again.
Neighborhoods they roamed: Williamsburg
Some of the gang members were: Pete Rogers, “Matches” Read, Charley McGarvey
The Velvet Caps of Irishtown – (1860s-1870s) Not too much is known about this gang, but what is known can be attributed to Michael J. Shay, a.k.a. The Gas Drip Bard, who often wrote into the Brooklyn Standard Union’s Old-Timers‘ section. He described The Velvet Caps of Irishtown as famous for wearing skin tight pants, like real “dudes” of the era, with blue shirts and caps made of velvet, obviously. In a 1924 article, he wrote about “The Seige of Irishtown” when the Marines were sent into Irishtown in 1873 through the Navy Yard in order to put a stop to the illegal distilleries that made Irish “poteen” and was sold without Uncle Sam’s gaining his tax from it. “Whiskey was the prevailing beverage down there, water was mainly used to wash with,” The Gas Drip Bard proclaimed. So when the Velvet Caps of Irishtown, a local gang close to the distillery owners, found out the Marines were on the way, the gang took a large still and attempted to throw it into the East River until the siege was over. The Marines caught up to them however and a terrible fight ensued for which they had neither the weapons or the numbers the Marines did. The Gas Drip Bard was there when it happened, he says in the 1924 article. No doubt a young and impressionable youth at that time, however. He then repeated the poem written by one Johnny Manning, a previous Irishtown bard and “the leading literary genius of Irishtown in those good old days.” Here’s an excerpt:
“The first place that was taken was in Little Water Street,
The Dutchmen with their axes were a fearful crowd of beats,
They dragged a still out carelessly and threw it on the ground,
Saying ‘Soldiers, watch those Velvet Caps, they’re the boys of Irishtown.’”
(The “Dutchmen” were the Marines under Revenue Officer Silas B. Dutcher)
Neighborhoods they roamed: Irishtown
Battle Row Gang – (1871 -1890) This gang, according to an 1875 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was “composed of the scum of the Fourteenth Ward (Williamsburg).” They were known mostly as “fighters and rowdies” who hung out at “Crow” McGoldrick’s saloon on Union Avenue and North First Street.The Battle Row Gang became famous in the area when Henry Rogers in July of 1871 killed an officer Donohoe and became the first person in many years to suffer the death penalty in Kings County by hanging. In June of that year, two opposing elements of this gang had a horrendous fight where “pistols, knives, fists and slungshots were freely used and the battle raged furiously and unrestrained” for thirty minutes. It started in what we now call Highland Park when one gang pushed a trolley on its side while filled with their opponents. One dying member, Patrick Cash, was asked to name his assailants, to which he replied “I’d die with the name of the fellow in my throat, before I’d give him away.” In 1879, two members of the Battle Row Gang were charged with many thefts from chicken farms in Queens. After stealing them, they sold them to butchers in their Williamsburg neighborhood.
Neighborhoods they roamed: Williamsburg, Bushwick, Queens,
Some of the gang members were: Patrick Cash, “Buck” Doolan, The Powell family, Richard Brien, Edward Kane, Patrick Head, John Pieman, George Fleming, William & James Carberry, John Dougherty, Johnny Reynolds, John Donohoe, Nellie Larkin, Patrick O’Mahony, Patrick Carney.
North Sixth Street Gang – (1870s) Former Forty Thieves gang leader “Skinny” Wilson was one of the leaders of this gang. Some of the elder gang members were also one time members of the Battle Row Gang. They were notorious for burglary and highway robbery. Leaders often spent long stints in Sing Sing, which led to a lot of turnover.
Neighborhoods they roamed: North Williamsburg,
Some of the gang members were: “Skinny” Wilson, “Goose” McCue, “Sugar” Van Wagner, Jack Dunne, Jim Kirwin.
Atlantic Avenue Gang – (1870s) A gang that was “about as hard a looking set of young desperadoes as one could meet in a day’s travel.” Members of this gang were arrested in 1875 for mugging a man on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Boerum Street.
Neighborhoods they roamed: Cobble Hill
Some of the gang members were: James Harrigan, Thomas Hays, Thomas Thornton, Charles Nesel.
Myrtle Avenue Gang – (1872-1885) Known as simple hooligans who were charged with assaulting many police officers and drunken rowdyism. In 1883 In 1885 one member interrupted a Civil War Veterans picnic at the old High Ground Park (no longer exists) at the corner of Myrtle and Throop. He was “put out” three times, the third time he punched the officer who clubbed and arrested him. The gang assaulted another police officer also that year by throwing paving stones and fighting him while “working the growler” and getting themselves drunk and loud by singing old songs. At one point the gang split in two, the “Dusters” supported by the much bigger Jackson Hollow Gang, and the “Barkers,” who clashed at a saloon at 254 Myrtle Avenue.
Neighborhoods they roamed: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick,
Some of the gang members were: Joe Grapes, Paddy Burns, Scabby McCloskey, Patrick Lally, Pierce Keating, Maggie McGrath, Dan Callahan, John McCann, John March.
Patchen Avenue Gang – (1876-1881) Burglars & bank robbers. This is not necessarily a Brooklyn gang, though it’s most famous leader “Red” Leary was famously apprehended there by the Pinkerton Agency. In 1876, this gang successfully robbed the Northhampton Bank in Northhampton, Massachusetts of $1.6 million. In 1879, Leary was arrested and by 1881, the rest were rounded up by Robert Pinkerton, son of Allan Pinkerton who created the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
Neighborhoods they roamed: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Fort Hamilton
Some of the gang members were: “Shang” Draper, “Red” Leary, Robert “Hustling Bob” Scott, Gilbert Yost, Thomas Dunlap, Billy Porter.
The Kettle Gang – (1877-1886) These “youthful highwaymen” in Williamsburg once roamed in an area known as “Pickleville” and were called the Kettle Gang. They got their name from the empty kettles or growlers they carried with them as they sat outside small businesses to beg, annoy and threaten people for enough money to fill their kettles up with beer. This practice, according to the New York Herald in 1885, eventually became known as “working the growler.” In September of 1877, two men were involved in a prize-fight inside a shanty that the gang occupied. August Baxter of Melrose Street and “Wopper” Seidler of Bushwick Avenue were both arrested. A crowd of gangsters and their followers attempted to wrest the two boxers away from police at Bushwick Avenue. There were multiple complaints of this gang mistreating women over the years. In 1879, a man was knifed in a robbery at Bridge and Tillary streets. Police blamed the Kettle Gang. In 1881, three men were raided in their hangout because they “disturbed the whole neighborhood by their orgies.” Which probably meant they were drunk and disorderly, instead of naked and copulating. The Kettle Gang also ran around the Wallabout Bay waterfront area and the Upper East Side of Manhattan where they were known to have long feuds with the police, including throwing rocks and paving stones at them from building tops, known as “Irish confetti.” In 1886, two Kettle Gang members were arrested for offering a Polish man employment, then choked and robbed him.
Neighborhoods they roamed: Williamsburg, Bushwick, Irishtown, Wallabout Bay waterfront, Upper East Side-Manhattan
Some of the gang members were: “Pop” Reilly, “Crook” Connorton, “Snow” McLaughlin, “Rake” Kelly, “Buck” Walsh, “Brock” Harrington, Thomas “Fat Farley” White, Charles Kleka, James McGarra, John Seitz, Robert Garrity, Henry Frank, Andreas Brennis, John Somerendyke, Andrew Wheeler, Edward McGuire, Joseph Betts, Adam Scharf.
Meeker Avenue Gang – (1870s) Their hang out was Sullivan’s Saloon, which was located at the corner of Meeker and Graham Avenues. Members of this gang were also in the North Sixth Street Gang after being driven out of Sullivan’s Saloon, although in 1875, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported this gang forced entry into a saloon to get free beer. Some of the elder gang members were once in the Battle Row Gang. One member was charged and convicted for stealing a pair of shoes valued at $2. In 1873, the gang invaded a saloon at 333 Devoe Street and trashed it, taking the owner and his wife as hostage when the police showed up. An Officer Ward’s face and cheek was grazed by a bullet from the gang.
Neighborhoods they roamed: Greenpoint, Bushwick
Some of the gang members were: James Carmen, Daniel Powers, James Kiernan, Abe Gibson, Thomas Brady, Tom McDonald, Jim McGuire
Gang of the Green (1885-1892) – The “green” referred to in this gang was the “open space between Bushwick and Greenpoint,” The New York Herald reported. An off-shoot of the infamous Battle Row Gang, this was a small-time gang known for highway robbery, drunken revelry, fighting with police and muggings who had a headquarters on Union Avenue. In 1885, a gang member simply known as “Bender” attempted to rob a taxi of its cash box. In September of 1886, on the corner of Union and North Second Street at a bar called Fagin & McDonald, one of the owners was challenged to a fight outside by a patron. A donnybrook ensued and five men were arrested. In June of 1891, a drunken gangster brawled with a police officer, kicking him multiple times in the head before eventually being subdued. In November, another gang member robbed two Chinese men who owned a laundry store at 337 Second Street. One of the gang members was stabbed in the neck with a pen-knife, then arrested. After sentencing, the judge said to him, “I know… that you are a member of the notorious Gang of the Green. I want to say that every time a member of your gang is convicted before me, I will give him a long sentence. I consider it my duty to do all that I can to break up the gang.” The next month, another gang member was arrested at the corner of Graham and Driggs for a stabbing. In 1892, a gangster kicked several teeth out of a policemen’s head while being arrested for “assaulting his mother.” In 1896, businessmen and reporters blamed the gang for a riot and ruining seven trolley cars by blocking the tracks, throwing rocks and shooting at the trolley cars. In reality, the violence was spurned by a union strike which didn’t stop the trolley company from hiring scabs to continue service. The gang had been broken up by this time, but the trolley owners had no problem equating unions with the behavior of gangs.
Neighborhoods they roamed: North Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick
Some of the gang members were: Bender, Charles McDonough, Felix Farmer, James McDonald, Frank Bradley, Jerry Quirk, Timothy Hubbard, Edward Powell, Edward Stillman, George Kennedy, William Mannion.
Rainmakers Gang (1894 – 1904) – A gang that lived under the docks along the waterfront of North 1st and North 4th streets and in tenement basements. Known as “dock rats,” they stole from factories, barges, railroad freight yards, brawled with police and assaulted and robbed local Jews by throwing bricks and cobblestones at them (hence the moniker “Rainmakers”), then demanding money. In 1900, two members were arrested for asking for a drink at a saloon owned by Samuel Goldstein, then grabbing the whiskey bottle from him. In 1903, this gang was blamed for starting a fire at 288 Wythe Avenue, beating a patrolman and mugging residents for “beer money.” In 1904, the gang started a riot with local “Hebrews” at the corner of Wallabout Street and Harrison Avenue. At the signal, the gang through paving stones and other missiles at “defenseless” Jews. Other local Jews returned the favor and a riot ensued.
Neighborhoods they roamed: North Williamsburg, Greenpoint
Some of the gang members were: Peter “Captain” Mulholland, John Sullivan, James Quinn, Thomas Powers, Michael Moylan, Robert Molloy, Patrick Murray, John Cunningham, John Kiernan, Francis Enright, Harry Fisher, Thomas Sanders, Charles Samm, John Woods, Henry Lehman, John Ricker.
The Dump Gang – (1890s) In March of 1894, seventeen of the gang members were arrested after a raid by police underneath a pier at the garbage dump on the waterfront where they lived during the winter. The officer told a judge they “lived like water rats.” By covering up holes in the pier with canvas and using coal fires, they stayed warm. The leader, “whose proud boast it is that he never worked and never will” along with the others were sentenced at the Tombs Police Court. For food or alcohol, they begged and filled up soda bottles with cheap whiskey or beer growlers. They often stole things like rope from ships along the East River and traded it in for cash. In 1898, a man was beaten to death and had his eyes gouged by this gang.
Neighborhoods they roamed: Newtown Creek, Greenpoint and Long Island City, Queens, Lower East Side-Manhattan.
Some of the gang members were: “Nigger” Jack, “Yeller” Kelly, Patrick Corcoran, William & Dennis Young
The White Hand Gang – (1905-1925) The most infamous gang of Brooklyn acted as an umbrella organization for other Irish-American gangs that paid tribute to it, including the Jay Street Gang, Red Onion Gang and the Frankie Byrne Gang and others. Known as a dockland gang, they forced longshoremen and local factories, warehouses, ships and pier houses to pay them “tribute.” They were also known for “ginzo hunting” and their hatred of Italians was legendary as they even named their gang in reaction to the Italian “Black Hand.”
Neighborhoods they roamed: Irishtown (headquarters), DUMBO, Navy Yard, Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook.
Some of the gang members were: “Wild” Bill Lovett, “Pegleg” Lonergan, Dinny Meehan, “The Swede” Finnigan, “Cute Charlie, Red” Donnelly, “Non” Connors, Matty Martin, Tim & James Quilty, Petey Behan, Harry Reynolds, Garry Barry, Philip Large, Mickey Kane, Eddie MaGuire, Eddie Lynch.
The Jay Street Gang – (1904-1914) Originally an Irishtown gang from the 1870s who were a collection of “vulgar bruisers,” according to the Brooklyn Daily Union in June, 1871. “Wild” Bill Lovett was a young leader in the 1910s. Although he was small, he was a ferocious fist-fighter who commanded a group of about 20 young longshoremen along the Brooklyn waterfront in the mid 1910s. They forced other laborers to pay “tribute” to them after a day’s hard working, or forced them to pay for the right to work. They also were known to shake down gambling joints or warehouses and ship captains. Eventually Lovett (although never charged) probably killed Dinny Meehan, the leader of the much bigger White Hand Gang, who Lovett was more than likely paying tribute to. Lovett then took over the White Handers after going on the lam for a while in Chicago. Some doubt whether he ever accepted Meehan as a leader in the first place, though most believe the Jay Street Gang was one of the many Brooklyn waterfront gangs that lived under the White Hand umbrella.
Neighborhoods they roamed: Irishtown (headquarters), DUMBO, Navy Yard, Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Some of the gang members were:“Wild” Bill Lovett, John Lonergan, Richie “Pegleg” Lonergan, “Dago” Tom Montague, “Cute” Charlie “Red” Donnelly, “Pickles” Laydon, Jim Healy, Arthur & Charlie Johnson, Belle Marion, Daniel Hustis, Charles Stanton.