Gangs of New York (19th Century)

A map of Collect Pond and the Five Points neighborhood


“Poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife enough where we are going now” wrote Charles Dickens in his book American Notes. 1 The now orderly streets of Lower Manhattan were once at the mercy of the multiple gangs that dominated in the 19th century. Some of the most prominent and powerful gangs were the rivals, the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys, whose skirmishes scattered from what is now Chinatown to the Civil Center. The Dead Rabbits hailed from Five Points, an area home to mostly Irish and German immigrants, as well as African Americans. The Dead Rabbits was made up mostly of young Irish men. Other Five Points gangs that would often join them in their fights against their enemies were the Plug Uglies, the Shirt Tails and the Chichesters.2 Their rival gang, the Bowery Boys were made up of volunteer firemen and were not immigrants. Under the Bowery Boys, who are named for the area they are from, gangs called “True Blue Americans, the American Guards, the O’Connell Guards, and the Atlantic Guards” gathered together. 3 The names of the Bowery gangs with terms referencing “America” and “guards” implicates a greater meaning behind these gangs and their fights.

Although the members of the gangs were often youths, these actions of these gangs of New York had greater effect than just the areas they lived in. These gangs were influenced and used by the politics of New York at the time. In the mid-19th century, the New York City was continuously receiving a steady flow of immigrants, especially from Ireland and Germany. As predominately Catholic immigrants, entering into a Protestant area brought animosity amongst the people, especially among the working class who were already struggling to survive. As a gang made up Irish immigrants, the Dead Rabbits, like other Irish immigrants in Five Points, supported and were supported by the political machine of Tammany Hall. A Democratic political organization, Tammany Hall catered to the immigrant vote by standing up for their rights and defending them against the nativist feeling at the time. On the opposite of the political spectrum was The Bowery Boys, who were founded by William “Bill the Butcher” Poole, and were a strongly anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, and nativist group. The opposing ideologies of the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits manifested itself in fights and riots throughout the mid-19th century, making one of the biggest riots of the time, until the Draft Riots in 1863.

[1] Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation,

[2] Rebecca Yamin, “Lurid Tales and Homely Stories of New York’s Notorious Five Points,”           Historical Archaeology, vol   32, no 1 (1998), 74-85,

[3] Ibid.


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  1. Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation,
  2. Rebecca Yamin, “Lurid Tales and Homely Stories of New York’s Notorious Five Points,” Historical Archaeology, vol 32, no 1 (1998), 74-85,
  3. Ibid