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Society for Historians of the Early American Republic

New York City Tavern Violence and the Creation of a Working-Class Male Identity Author(s): Michael Kaplan Source: Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Winter, 1995), pp. 591-617 Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3124015 . Accessed: 16/04/2014 16:39

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Michael Kaplan

On the evening of December 29, , 1829, Barney Murphy peacefully drank a pint of wine at the Citizen's Retreat. Suddenly two other clients at this neighborhood tavern, John Bufsing and William Kin-

kaid, dragged Murphy into the center of the barroom, "cutting his face" with a knife "in a shocking manner." Although tavern keeper James C. Smith broke up the fight, Murphy later returned with his wife Margaret and his brother James, along with a group of neigh- bors. They beat Kinkaid in the street and then tried to enter the tav- ern. Smith refused to let them come in. The enraged crowd threw stones at the tavern, breaking windows and forcing the tavern keeper "to retreat with his family to the cellar for safety."'

Michael Kaplan, who will receive a Ph.D. from New York University in January 1966, is completing a study of violence and political culture in New York. He would especially like to thank his mentor Carl Prince, his other teachers at N. Y. U., Patricia Bonomi, David Reimers, and Daniel Walkowitz, as well as those who offered comments at different stages of this essay's writing: Thomas Curran, Robert Ernst, Jeff Finlay, Robert Forbes, Timothy Gilfoyle, Paul Gilje, Stephen Goot, An- thony Gronowicz, Graham Hodges, John Inscoe, Anya Jabour, Steven Jaffe, Ri- chard John, Walter Johnson, Catherine Kelly, Lelia Roeckell, Randolph Roth, Edward Tang, and Shane White. Thanks also to the editors and referees of the Jour- nal for their suggestions. I People v. Barney Murphy et al., Jan. 12, 1830, District Attorney's Indictment Papers, New York Court of General Sessions (New York Municipal Archives). For Mike Walsh's comments on the participation of women in neighborhood violence, see The Subterranean (New York), Feb. 13, 1847. See also People v. Elizabeth Burns, July 15, 1841, District Attorney's Indictment Papers.

JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC, 15 (Winter 1995). ? 1995 Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.

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Tavern violence was central to the life of the urban workingman. Historians such as Paul Gilje, Elliott Gorn, and Christine Stansell have started to show us the importance of violence in working-class formation and the development of New York City.2 However, re- searchers focusing on political, racial, or gender-related conflict have tended to assign a secondary role to tavern violence, treating tavern brawls as something apart from these larger social issues. Yet the ex-

plosive growth in the number of taverns between 1830 and 1860, their roles as centers of working-class recreation and social life, and the corresponding increase in the frequency of tavern disturbances like the one above suggest that tavern violence embodied the major threads of social conflict and change in the antebellum city. Tavern disturbances helped define the new, democratic, urban working-class culture of the mid-nineteenth century. Such brawls fostered a distinct

working-class male identity that was centered on the boisterous public assertion of physical courage, independence, class pride, and Ameri- can patriotism. Both native-born and immigrant workingmen con- tributed to forging this identity, the massive scale of antebellum

immigration only adding intensity to the process. As the "walking city" broke down and communities re-formed along class, race and ethnic lines, the tavern emerged as a locus of these new working-class communities. Disturbances in taverns often revealed the day-to-day stresses generated in these communities by urban growth and disor- der.3

2 Paul A. Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular DIisorder In New York City, 1763- 1834 (Chapel Hill, 1987); Elliott J. Gorn, "'Good-Bye Boys, I Die a True Ameri- can': Homicide, Nativism, and Working-Class Culture in Antebellum New York

City," Journal of American History, 74 (Sept. 1987), 388-410; Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York, 1986). Other important studies of violence include, Carl E. Prince, "The Great 'Riot Year': Jacksonian De-

mocracy and Patterns of Violence in 1834," Journal of the Early Republic, 5 (Spring 1985), 1-19; Paul O. Weinbaum, Mobs and Demagogues: The New York Response to Col- lective Violence in the Early Nineteenth Century (Ann Arbor, 1979); David Grimsted, "Ri-

oting in Its Jacksonian Setting," American Historical Review, 77 (Apr. 1972), 361-97; and Pamela Haag, "The 'Ill-Use of a Wife': Patterns of Working-Class Violence in Domestic and Public New York City, 1860-1880," Journal of Social History, 25 (Spring 1992), 447-77.

3 On the construction of male identity in the nineteenth century, see Mark C. Carnes and Clyde Griffen, eds., Meanings for Manhood. Constructions of Masculinity in Victorian America (Chicago, 1990); David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renais-


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In order to understand this peculiar working-class culture emerg- ing in the urban environment, we need first to place New York's

workingmen-the b'hoys as they came to be called-in their social and cultural context, with taverns at the center of their day-to-day life. Then we can see how their behavior in these taverns defined a

special democratic culture in violation of middle-class norms, and

against excluded groups like African-Americans and women. In these

ways, tavern violence served to put the working-class understanding of Jacksonian rhetoric of white male political equality into practice among persons who were simultaneously coming to terms with the

declining social and economic status of working-class men in the Jack- sonian metropolis.4 Here perception of disappointment or declining status-what sociologists have termed "relative deprivation"-was just as important as the reality. Richard Stott has recently suggested that while native-born artisans were losing status as they were forced into factory work, Irish immigrants in New York actually experienced a rise in status relative to where they were coming from. While such

immigrant gains were true in many cases, still they often fell short of the heightened expectations of material success and social acceptance that had motivated immigration in the first place. Difficulty in main-

taining their self-perception as independent citizens, or in realizing

sance (Ithaca, 1989), 1-8, 72-107; E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transfor- mations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York, 1993); Leonard

Harry Ellis, "Men Among Men: An Exploration of All-Male Relationships in Victo- rian America" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1982), esp. 126-93; and Anya Jabour, "William Wirt and the Contradictions of Masculinity, 1802-1817," paper presented at the Fifteenth Annual Meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, July 23, 1993, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. For a view of the tavern's role at the end of the nineteenth century, see Jon M. Kingsdale, "The 'Poor Man's Club': Social Functions of the Urban Working-Class Saloon," American Quarterly, 25 (Oct. 1973), 473-89.

4 Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Work-

ing Class, 1788-1850 (New York, 1984) is the major work on the formation of working class culture in the urban Northeast. In addition, see Amy Bridges, "Becoming American: The Working Classes in the United States Before the Civil War," in Ira Katznelson and Aristide R. Zolberg, eds., Working Class Formation: Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States (Princeton, 1986), 157-96; Paul A. Gilje and Howard B. Rock, eds., Keepers of the Revolution. New Yorkers at Work in the Early Republic (Ithaca, 1992); Howard B. Rock, Artisans of the New Republic: The Tradesmen of New York City in the Age of Jefferson (New York, 1979); and David A. Zonderman, Aspirations and Anxieties: New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System, 1815- 1850 (New York, 1992).


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their rising immigrant expectations, lay at the root of violence by New York's workingmen.5

In these emerging working-class communities the leading charac- ter was the "b'hoy." Hard working, hard living journeymen artisans or unskilled laborers, b'hoys embodied the theatrical qualities re- flected in Mose, the brawling butcher and fire laddie. Mose was a

working-class hero, celebrated in minstrelsy for his bravery in taking daredevil risks as well as his unfailing chivalry towards women.

Though born into "an humble walk of life, he was every inch a man!" For the pioneer journalist George Goodrich Foster the b'hoys were a true manifestation of the democratic American spirit. "The b'hoy of the Bowery, the rowdy of Philadelphia, the Hoosier of the Missis-

sippi, the trapper of the Rocky Mountains, and the gold-hunter of California are so much alike that an unpracticed hand could not dis-

tinguish one from the other." Like Davy Crockett, his "brother" in manner, the b'hoy was ever sensitive about his "honor" (the central

ingredients of which were physical prowess and courage). Freed from the bonds of social deference, these men had a contempt for all pre- tensions to aristocracy, valuing the mutuality of the street, the tavern, the theater, or the fire company. A b'hoy found status and acceptance among his peers through his success and the figure that he cut in these arenas. Loyalty to his fellow b'hoys was valued above all. All of this placed the b'hoy in opposition to developing middle-class norms of sober, responsible manhood.6

5 W. G. Runciman, Relative Depravation and Social Justice. A Study of Attitudes to Social Inequality in Twentieth-Century England (Berkeley, 1966), 9; Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton, 1970), 24-26; David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (Chapel Hill, 1988), 101; Ri- chard B. Stott, Workers in the Metropolis. Class, Ethnicity, and Youth in Antebellum New York City (Ithaca, 1990), 72-84, 186-90.

6 E. Z. C. Judson [Ned Buntline], The Mysteries and Miseries of New York (5 vols., New York, 1848), V, 14-15, 37-46, 60-67; The Knickerbocker (New York), 27

(1846), 60; Stott, Workers in the Metropolis, 213-16; David S. Reynolds, Walt Whit- man's America. A Cultural Biography (New York, 1995), 104. For the background and

development of the Mose cycle, see Richard M. Dorson, "Mose the Far-Famed and World-Renowned," American Literature, 15 (1943), 288-300. See also, George G. Fos- ter, New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches, ed. Stuart M. Blumin (Berkeley, 1991), 169-77; Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor. Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York, 1982), xv, 25-87, 149-74; and Elliott J. Gorn, "'Gouge and Bite,


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By creating and taking part in a flamboyant youth culture of after hours commercial entertainment, New York's b'hoys were distin-

guished from earlier generations of workingmen. If, as E. Anthony Rotundo argues, middle-class men in the nineteenth century drew their sense of who they were from their work, then a genuine conflict

emerged between middle- and working-class definitions of manhood: the b'hoy was a b'hoy precisely because his work was not the center of his life. Where a Jeffersonian artisan defined himself by his craft and a Jacksonian lawyer by his career, the urban b'hoy displayed his true self not at the factory but at the tavern or the fire house. Unlike their fathers and their own genteel contemporaries, these young men drew their primary identity from the world of leisure.7

Rejecting middle-class notions of civility, the b'hoys came to be seen as one of the "dangerous classes" most responsible for urban disorder. Dour old Philip Hone lamented in 1839 that "The City is infested by gangs of hardened wretches . . . brought up in Taverns," who patrolled the streets "'making night hideous."' Even Foster, whose romantic descriptions increased their celebrity, admitted that there was a dark side to the culture of the b'hoys. Forced by poverty and constricted opportunity to rely on brawn to affirm their esteem, the b'hoys were caught in a cycle of violence that they could not break. Sometimes this resulted in feats of heroism, whether in putting

Pull Hair and Scratch': The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Back- country," American Historical Review, 90 (Feb. 1985), 18-43. Charles Sellers defines male honor as including "strength, courage, storytelling boast and wit, and such manly skills as riding and shooting-accompanied by considerable cursing, whiskey- drinking, and fighting." Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846

(New York, 1991), 14. See also Charles H. Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenerian of the City of New York (1816-1860) (New York, 1896), 270-71; Peter G. Buckley, "To the Opera House: Culture and Society in New York City, 1820-1860" (Ph.D. diss., SUNY Stony Brook, 1984), 294-409; Elliott J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (Ithaca, 1986), 136-47; Edward K. Spann, The New Metropo- lis. New York City, 1840-1857 (New York, 1981), 344-49; Stansell, City of Women, 89- 101; and Wilentz, Chants Democratic, 257-71. It should be made clear that the term b'hoy as used by Foster and by other writers, newspapers, and court records of the period, is a generic term for a working-class rowdy of varying ethnicity as a class cultural type. It does not refer to any specific gang, such as the Bowery Boys.

7 Rotundo, American Manhood, 168-69.


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out a fire or fighting in the Mexican War. Far too often, however, according to Foster, their virtues paled:

their courage is quarrelsomeness; their frankness is vulgarity; their magnanimity subsides to thriftlessness; their fun expands to rowdy- ism; their feeling of friendship and brotherhood seeks dangerous activity in mobs and gangs who conspire against the public peace.

Reviled by genteel citizens as "men who set life at defiance," these workingmen, native-born and Irish, both learned and displayed their unique style of rowdy democracy in the taverns of New York City.8

Irish and German immigration profoundly transformed the ante- bellum metropolis. The 1840s and 1850s saw the creation of a new immigrant working class whose numbers soon overwhelmed the na- tive-born working population. This mass immigration by the Irish in particular sparked the fear that the city's economy could not effec- tively absorb all who came. The result would be "an excess of labor- ers beyond the demand, which," according to the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, "inevitably di- minishes the rewards of industry, and leaves many unemployed."9 At stake were Jacksonian claims of equal opportunity and empowerment for white workingmen. Abundant and cheap Irish immigrant labor provided the brute muscle power that made the economic expansion of New York City possible-and also undermined the status of estab- lished, skilled, native-born workers. This led to a more rigid social stratification that made a mockery of Jacksonian rhetoric. Native- born masters and journeymen fought to hold on to their economic and social roles as independent producers and citizens, while un- skilled Irish workers, often fresh from Ireland's countryside with vir- tually no knowledge of American traditions of artisan republicanism, struggled for basic material survival.10 Unprepared by their

8 Philip Hone Diary, Dec. 2, 1839, Jan. 1, 1840 (New-York Historical Soci- ety, New York); "The B'hoys," New York (NY)Tribune, Oct. 4, 1848; The Bowery Tragedy! The Trial of Joseph Jewell for the Murder of Luciese Louis Leuba, one of the City Watch with the Speeches of the Counsel, Judge's Charge, &c. (New York, 1836), 14. See also John H. Griscom, The Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of New York (New York, 1845), 23; and The Man (New York), June 26, 1835. 9 New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, Seventh An- nual Report (New York, 1850), 24-25.

'0 James D. Burn, Three Years Among the Working-Classes in the United States During the War (London, 1865), 14-30; Robert Ernst, "Economic Nativism in New York City During the 1840's," New York History, 29 (Apr. 1948), 170-86; Peter Way,


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traditional peasant way of life to cope with the harsh realities of the new metropolis, the Irish turned for solace (as did their native coun-

terparts) to the drinking and camaraderie of the tavern. These Irish workers could be seen as a major source of increasing urban disorder. "The beastly vice of drunkenness among, the lower labouring classes is growing to a frightful excess," the elite social commentator John Pintard wrote, "owing to . . . the multitudes of low Irish Catholics, who restricted by poverty in their own country from free indulgence, run riot in this." Pintard's impressions were no doubt confirmed when William McGlaughlin and a group of Irish Catholic cartmen

impudently overturned the carriage of Protestant merchants John Dunn and Charles Carlton. Not only did the cartmen fail to show

proper deference to their social superiors, but some fifty of their fel- low Irishmen, attracted by the commotion, rushed out of the several nearby taverns where they were drinking and joined in the fun. 1

By the 1840s, the Irish had become so identified as street and tavern brawlers, that such incidents were referred to as "an Irish row." William Carver, a British-born storekeeper suffered a crisis of faith in democratic principles in the spring of 1833, when his property endured a series of attacks by a gang of Irish boys. The beleaguered storekeeper concluded that his Irish neighbors were "the descendants of the Ishmalites, that we read of in the Bible, whoes hand is against every man, and every mans hand against them." Carver's sentiments were not isolated. One charitable organization went so far as to call for the "introduction of a more select class of emigrants into the country." Of course, tavern violence was far from an Irish monopoly and the Irish experience encompassed far more than the rude culture of the streets; but Irish immigrants enlarged the central role that the tavern already played in American working-class life.12

"Evil Humors and Ardent Spirits: The Rough Culture of Canal Construction Laborers," Journal of American History, 79 (Mar. 1993), 1397-1428; Michael Feldberg, The Philadelphia Riots of 1844: A Study of Ethnic Conflict (Westport, 1974), 19-40; Bruce Laurie, Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850 (Philadelphia, 1980), 53-66, 124-33, 147- 59; Douglas T. Miller, "Immigration and Social Stratification in Pre-Civil War New York," New York History, 49 (Apr. 1968), 157-68; Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York, 1985), 107-10, 131- 35, 193-279; Spann, New Metropolis, 23-44.

" John Pintard, Letters of John Pintard to His Daughter Eliza Noel Pintard Davidson, 1816-1833, ed. Dorothy Barck (4 vols., New York, 1937-1940), III, 51-52; People v.

John Martin et al., Aug. 14, 1833, District Attorney's Indictment Papers. See also Gilje, Road to Mobocracy, 245-46.

12 People v. Bernard Gillen et al., July 9, 1833, District Attorney's Indictment Pa-


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By mid-century there was a growing variety of different public houses serving food and drink in New York City. The more expen- sive "six-cent" houses were more properly designated as a "tav- erns," "hotels," or (after 1840) "saloons." These generally catered to a clientele of skilled artisans, clerks, and tradesmen. The cheaper "three-cent" houses were usually called porter houses. Day laborers, cartmen, seamen, and the like filled this second group, which were often strictly segregated by race. In addition there were eating-houses throughout the city. Of refectories (the cheapest of these), an observer noted, "all who may wish for a good meal, and are not too scrupu- lous respecting their company for the time being, can certainly pro- cure it here." As many as one half of all the public houses in the city were actually oyster cellars, which catered to the popular craze at that time for oysters. Gambling was a main attraction in most public houses. By 1840 many so- called bowling saloons had also appeared, where groups of men would amuse themselves with this increasingly popular pastime.13

Taverns performed a variety of informal functions for the people of their neighborhoods. Public houses had always been a preferred spot for the negotiation and consummation of business transactions. The rise of Tammany Hall and other mass political organizations served to focus working-class political life in the tavern. The tavern keeper played a pivotal role in New York politics, with many bosses and aldermen doubling as tavern keepers. Tavern keepers often were on intimate terms with the police: Officer William Bell even served as a middleman for the sale of a saloon from one owner to another.14

pers; Judson, Mysteries and Miseries of New York, II, 75; New York Association for

Improving the Condition of the Poor, Ninth Annual Report (New York, 1852), 35. For the growing diversity and sophistication of the Irish-American community, see Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 263-79, 313-44; Hasia R. Diner, Erin's Daughters in Amer- ica: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, 1983), 43-119; Michael

Kaplan, "The World of the B'hoys: Urban Violence and the Political Culture of Antebellum New York City, 1825-1860" (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1996), chap 5.

13 The British Mechanic's and Labourer's Hand Book (London, 1840), 64-67, 77-78, 81-82 (quotation at 82); Matthew P. Breen, Thirty Years of New York Politics Up-to-Date (New York, 1899), 252; People v. Fontaine H. Pettis, July 15, 1841, District Attorney's Indictment Papers; Blumin, ed., New York by Gas-Light, 84-91.

14 People v. William Harper, Nov. 12, 1845, District Attorney's Indictment Pa-

pers; New York Tribune, Apr. 18, 1843; Working Man's Advocate (New York), Sept. 14, 1844; Breen, Thirty Years of New York Politics, 249-57; Augustine E. Costello, Our Firemen. A History of the New York Fire Departments, Volunteer and Paid (New York, 1887), 536-37; Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City, 1825-1863 (New York, 1949), 162- 63, 285; William H. Bell Diary, Dec. 28, 1850 (New-York Historical Society).


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As centers of working-class political communication, taverns were

clearinghouses of information on jobs and public events-or public disturbances. When Tammany ward boss Isaiah Rynders wanted to recruit followers for the Astor Place Riot in May 1849, he carefully organized the printing, distribution, and display of inflammatory pos- ters at public houses throughout the city. To their credit, tavern keep- ers would also sponsor charity dances, often for the benefit of women whose husbands had been killed or injured in work-related accidents. At a time when both government and private social welfare organiza- tions were in their infancy, taverns formed an essential part of the local survival network.15

Just as important, taverns served as forums for the airing out and

publicizing quarrels and neighborhood grievances. Hard pressed to prevent the multitude of petty spats from escalating into violence, one tavern keeper accepted this role, saying "that being a citizen of the United States and owner of the store he considered himself a consta- ble and preserver of the peace. .. ." Unfortunately, such quarrels had a way of getting out of hand, especially when they involved eth- nic hostility, fire company rivalries, political factionalism, or class- based cultural values, such as whether or not to serve drinks on a Sunday.16

Tavern proprietorship was also an important avenue of upward mobility for the immigrant Irish. Petty entrepreneurs usually opened up cheap porter houses for the benefit of their own countrymen. One (biased) English observer quipped of the Irish that "their ambition seldom extends beyond this mode of employing their savings." Tam- many Hall used its political power to help license Irish tavern owners. While few saloon keepers ever became rich, the start-up capital for a saloon was quite modest, and they soon became social centers of the

15 New York (NY) Herald, Jan. 16, 1850; People v. William Donaldson, May 17, 1848, District Attorney's Indictment Papers; New York Herald, Apr. 19, 20, 1849; People v. Dennis Gilhooley, Sept. 18, 1848, District Attorney's Indictment Papers; New York Tribune, Dec. 8, 9, 13, 1848; Spann, New Metropolis, 67-91, 117-38.

16 People v. Edward Pollock, May 17, 1839, District Attorney's Indictment Papers (quotation); Wm. P. Hilliard v. Samuel Brown, July 22, 1839, Police Court Papers, (New York Municipal Archives); John G. Tibbets v. Alexander Graham, Nov. 24, 1839, Police Court Papers; People v. William B. Adams & Alexander Andrews, Apr. 13, 1832, District Attorney's Indictment Papers; Francis McBarron v. William Gibbs, July 12, 1839, Police Court Papers; People v. Henry Wheeler et al., Dec. 15, 1841, District At- torney's Indictment Papers.; People v. Peter Williams, Dec. 8, 1843, ibid.; People v. Frederick Simon, June 13, 1849, ibid.


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Irish community."7 For native-born and Irish alike, the tavern was a refuge from the

harsh shocks and buffetings of urban American life. It provided a so- cial space of warmth, security, and the mutuality of fellow country- men, away from the growing anonymity of city streets and the squalor of the tenements. But taverns also were avenues for new im- migrants into American culture, and they transformed American cul- ture in the process. During the 1840s George Foster insisted that the tavern embodied the diversity, democracy, and unrestrained bawdi- ness of the Jacksonian era metropolis. He and other writers saw dan- ger and conspiracy in the new urban geography, churning out descriptions of an alien and alluring demimonde existing "within a stone's throw of the City-hall, in the centre of the most Christian country on the earth."18

Sober working-class folk feared the impact of these centers of il- licit pleasure and wild excitement on the morality of their neighbor- hoods. The spectacle of barrooms overflowing with a "crowd of immigrants, 'runners,' cartmen, 'dock-loafers,' and blackguards gen- erally," was an outrage to all notions of order and civility. Nonethe- less, noted a British observer in 1840, a "mechanic has very little choice left him" other than the drinking-house if he wanted to enjoy any sort of leisure. Statistics compiled by police chief George Matsell in 1849 revealed the existence of at least 4,524 liquor-selling establish- ments in New York City, of which 760 were unlicensed. By 1855 the number of licensed drinking houses had grown to 5,500, making

17 Burn, Three Years Among the Working-Classes, 15; Charles H. Haswell, Reminis- cences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York, 379; Daily Plebeian (New York), Apr. 20, 1844; British Mechanic's and Labourer's Handbook, 267-68; Ernst, Immigrant Life, 63-64, 90-91, 124-25; Carol Groneman Pernicone, "The 'Bloody Ould Sixth': A Social Analysis of a New York City Working-Class Community in the Mid Nineteenth- Century" (Ph.D. diss., University of Rochester, 1973), 111-12, 121-22; W. J. Rora-

baugh, "Rising Democratic Spirits: Immigrants, Temperance, and Tammany Hall, 1854-1860," Civil WarHistory, 22 (June 1976), 138-57.

18 Samuel I. Prime, Life in New York (New York, 1847), 173-76 (quotation at

175); Blumin, ed., New York by Gas-Light, 85, 106, 146-48; Judson, Mysteries and Mis- eries of New York, I, 33-35. See also Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women. A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven, 1982), 1- 32. For analyses of Foster as a decipherer of the urban social panorama, see Stuart M. Blumin, "Explaining the New Metropolis: Perception, Depiction, and Analysis in Mid-Nineteenth Century New York City," Journal of Urban History, 11 (Nov. 1984), 9-38; and Steven H. Jaffe, "Unmasking the City: The Rise of the Urban

Newspaper Reporter in New York City, 1800-1850" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard Univer- sity, 1989), 338-91.


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them more accessible to young workingmen than the theater or other places of mass leisure. By sheer numbers, taverns overwhelmed in the

working-class wards of lower Manhattan.'9 Quantity and accessibility begin to explain the importance of tav-

erns for understanding the social conflicts that shook the antebellum metropolis. The true significance of the taverns, however, came from what went on inside their doors. Here those downwardly mobile na- tive workers and immigrants whose expectations of upward advance- ment were met only sporadically found common ground in a rough, democratic, male-gendered world of drinking and brawling. Amidst a "fog of tobacco-smoke," a distinctively masculine atmosphere reigned in the taverns, with "Men clustering in front of the bar; men sitting, spitting, drinking and smoking, . . . men cursing, quarreling, or striking the table at cards." Reflecting the ethnic diversity of the city, "a perfect Babel of clamor" prevailed in the saloons, though "as may be guessed, the 'rich Irish brogue' . . . is predominant." Here the workingmen's lore and values were articulated and passed on. In

drinking houses on virtually every corner in the working-class wards, could be found the young apprentice:

listening with the utmost attention to the stories he hears related of daring robberies, prize-fights, adventures with women, &c., &c., till at length he forms the desire to become the hero of similar scenes to which he has heard described with so much gusto. Here he learns to drink intoxicating liquors, because he sees others do it, and imagines that it is one of the essentials requisite to make a man.

In short, taverns were the communal institutions-the public spaces-in which young native-born and immigrant working-class men constructed their social identities, creating the persona of the b'hoy.20

19 Thomas B. Gunn, The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses (New York, 1857), 264-65; British Mechanic's and Labourer's Hand Book, 63, 71-72 (quotation at 63); The Subterranean, July 11, 1846; New York Tribune, June 13, 1850; People v. Nathaniel Dockham, Feb. 18, 1831, District Attorney's Indictment Papers; George W. Matsell, "Semi-annual Report of the Chief of Police, Jan. 7, 1850," Documents of the Board of Aldermen (New York, 1850), 72; D. T. Valentine, ed., Manual of the Corporation of the

City of New York for 1855 (New York, 1855), 336; Stott, Workers in the Metropolis, 221- 22; Rorabaugh, "Rising Democratic Spirits," 146; Spann, New Metropolis, 249.

20 Gunn, Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses, 112; America's Own and Fireman's Journal (New York), Aug. 6, 1853.


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In the taverns, the b'hoys created their own unique role models. One such figure was "The Philosopher," the intellectual of the crowd, who interpreted local and national politics. As he tended to be long-winded, The Philosopher was often interrupted with cries of "he's blowing too strong." The offending upstart would then be told "to go to that warm country in which they would all probably rendez- vous someday." More important than The Philosopher was "The Fighting Man," the ideal to which all workingmen aspired, whose reputation was such that none dared trifle with him unless ready for a contest of strength and courage. This all-purpose brawler was also the b'hoy who had connections with political power. "He is hand-in- glove with the Aldermen of the Ward, and gets the 'stuff,' at election times, 'to give to the boys."' This culture of drinking, boasting, and honor-driven brawling, reproduced patterns of behavior common among the b'hoys' pagan Celtic ancestors in the first century B.C. In a rough and tumble world where a man's reputation and readiness to use violence provided status among his peers and gave meaning to his life, taverns were the schools in which a workingman learned who he was and who he needed to be.21

Treating was central to tavern life. Patrons expected that the tav- ern keeper would display his own mutuality by giving some drinks on the house. This was what John Jones and his buddies expected, when they went to the Broadway tavern of James Roberts in September 1832. Roberts, known as "Black Bob," proved less than accommo- dating, so Jones and his gang proceeded to beat him up, breaking tumblers, decanters, and furniture in the process. Just in case their displeasure had not been made clear, the gang "pissed on the floor until it ran out of the Front door." One member of the gang, John Howe, remarked to a neighbor of Roberts's the next day, that he would have "pissed in Bob's face." Such boasting of "having had real sport at Black Bob's" led to the gang's eventual arrest, but much of the motivation behind a tavern brawl lay in this display of a proud working-class male camaraderie. Howe was unconcerned that such talk could get him in trouble. Glorification gave meaning to the deed.22

21 Ibid. On similar customs among the Celts of antiquity, see Barry Cunliffe, The Celtic World (New York, 1993), 42-43; Hilda Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions (Syracuse, 1988), 47-48, 78-89; Early Irish Myths and Sagas, trans. and ed. Jeffrey Gantz (New York, 1981), 179-87, 219-55; and SimonJames, The World of the Celts (New York, 1993), 70-74.

22 People v. John P. Jones et al., Oct. 12, 1832, District Attorney's Indictment Papers. In 1836, the butcher Joseph Jewell boasted of killing a watchman in a tavern


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Interethnic conflicts between native-born and immigrant youths often was played out in tavern violence. By means of such confronta- tions, immigrant and native b'hoys demonstrated their honor and manhood to each other. In November 1836, for instance, a group of native-born workingmen, including James Meinell, Jr., and George Darrand, challenged John Sweeny, an Irish leather dresser and a Rose Street tavern keeper, to a contest of honor. Called down for

throwing a barrell through the Irishman's window, the native youths responded by asking "What if we did, what do you want to make of it?" Sweeny, along with his journeyman John Ryan commenced a brawl with the native youths. In the midst of this commotion, Sween- y's wife came out of the tavern, only to be knocked down against the iron railing in front of the house. "Murder," she cried out, "my Husband is killed!" Meanwhile a gathering crowd of native laborers seized the two Irishmen and carried them to the watch house. At least some of the native workingmen had established roots in the commu- nity (Meinell's father, James Sr., was a master artisan for whom Ryan had occasionally worked). Odds were good that public opinion and the magistrates were against them. Therefore, despite the defen- sive nature of their actions, Sweeny and Ryan adopted a deferential pose. Still, Sweeny insisted that his honor was at stake. As he ex- plained to a police magistrate, "I only intended to have a little satis- faction for the injury done to myself and my wife."23

Another incident a little over two years later further illustrates the tensions that accompanied the growth of immigrant communities in the city. It also shows how easy it was for native-born and immigrant youth to push each other into deadly displays of honor. On February 13, 1839, an evening of pub-crawling turned into a violent confronta- tion between a native-born gang and men from a close-knit Irish neighborhood on the Lower East Side. Irishman Lawrence Gaffney was celebrating the opening of his porter house on the corner of Broome and Willett Streets, for which he had just received a liquor license from the Board of Aldermen. It was a major event when an Irish entrepreneur both achieved public legitimacy and helped create

riot, though this was open to question. As a witness noted, Jewell was "much given to boasting of exploits he never performed." The Bowery Tragedy! 11. For other treat- ing related brawls, see People v. John McManicle, Apr. 14, 1837, District Attorney's Indictment Papers; People v. Henry Wheeler et al., Dec. 15, 1841, ibid. On treating in general, see Burn, Three Years Among the Working-Classes, 48-49; Sherri Cavan, Liquor License. An Ethnography of Bar Behavior (Chicago, 1966), 114-32; and Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hoursfor What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (New York, 1983), 59-61.

23 People v. John Sweeny & John Ryan, Dec. 13, 1836, District Attorney's Indict- ment Papers.


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a social center for his community. "My friends in the neighbour- hood," Gaffney recalled, "said that I must give them a house warm- ing." Throughout the evening and into the early hours of the morning, some forty of Gaffney's friends and neighbors were treated to drinks while gleefully dancing in the back room of the house.24

Around two-thirty that morning Gaffney's joyful celebration was disrupted by Ezra White, Joseph Start, and a gang of young journey- men in the shipping trades, who also served as volunteer laddies with Engine Company 33. In their constant search for drink and excite- ment, such gangs were responsible for ever-increasing disorder in the city. And what better way to get both than to intrude uninvited on the rival Irish? Although tavern keepers were expected to display hos-

pitality to the men of their community, such treating did not neces-

sarily extend to outsiders and often served as a way in which a

working-class community set its social boundaries. Therefore, Lawr- ence Gaffney and his neighbors refused to treat Ezra White and his pals. Angry and spoiling for a fight, the native b'hoys tried to batter down Gaffney's door, while the tavern keeper and his friends fought to keep it shut.25

However serious the affray, both sides often saw the night watch as a common enemy. Sometimes feuding native and Irish b'hoys could be brought together in defense of their very right to fight and settle their differences on their own when law enforcement officers presumed to intervene. In the case of Gaffney's party, when watch- man William Wright gathered a posse to intervene on behalf of the Irish, both sides told him to get lost. Joseph Start demanded '"you go away and let us have a knock down among them," while Gaffney informed Wright that this was a "family quarrel" not requiring the services of the watchmen. Any implication that things were under control, however, was sadly untrue: just as Gaffney was telling the watchmen to leave, Ezra White lunged at the tavern keeper with his knife, killing one of the guests.26

Philip Hone, who served as foreman of the grand jury that in- dicted White for murder, thought this incident symbolic of the disor- der threatening the city. Obviously native and immigrant workingmen could not be allowed to fight their battles with impunity. Just as obviously, young, good-looking rowdies such as White could

24 People v. Ezra White, Mar. 15, 1839, ibid. 25 Ibid. 26 Ibid.


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play on the gullibility of juries while using ward political connections to escape punishment. White must be hanged, Hone insisted. The "peace of society required it . . . and circumstances combine to make this unhappy man, a fitting and useful example, much needed in New York at this time." For his part, Lawrence Gaffney had not wanted his celebration marred by a row, but he feared even more the inter- vention of authorities, who were not known for their compassion for the Irish. This was a serious mistake. No doubt he hoped that a little rough and tumble would confirm the mutuality of the tavern and al- low young natives and immigrants to gain respect in each others' eyes. In some instances this did work. But high-spirited tavern vio- lence had a way of spinning out of control. In this case, as in so many others, the antics of the b'hoys ended in tragedy.27

The decade of the 1830s was also one of explosive racial antago- nism that reached a crescendo in the great Anti-Abolition Riots of

July 1834. Racism was central to white working-class identity in ante- bellum New York. Young workingmen gained a sense of power and democratic brotherhood among themselves by excluding and perse- cuting African Americans. Blacks in the North faced a barrage of po- litical and social disabilities. Denied access to the polling booth, most schools, and all but the lower rungs of the occupational ladder, their status as free men and women was hollow indeed. Gustave de Beau- mont, Tocqueville's travelling companion, noticed that as long as free blacks showed humble deference to whites, "as long as they hold themselves in a position of inferiority," they were protected by the more enlightened portion of the white community. But at any asser- tion of equality, "the pride of the whites is aroused and the pity in- spired by misfortune gives way to hatred and scorn." As a black artisan poignantly warned his grandson "dort't carry your head too high." Not surprisingly, taverns were flash points for racial animosities, and black tavern keepers often became the focus of much resentment. That there were any black tavern keepers reveals a degree of social and economic mobility in the black community that could be

27 Philip Hone Diary, Feb. 14, July 13, 18, Dec. 2, 1839; People v. Ezra White,

Mar. 15, 1839, District Attorney's Indictment Papers. A detailed transcript of the trial proceedings in the Court of Oyer and Terminer is provided in "The Trial of Ezra White for the Murder of Peter Fitzpatrick," New York Herald, July 11-17, 1839. Because of irregularities in the judge's charge to the jury and in the sentence of death, a mistrial was declared, and White was eventually re-tried and sentenced to four years imprisonment in Sing Sing. See New York Herald, July 17, 1839; and New York Tribune, May 14, 24, 1841.


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offensive to whites.28 Attacks by whites on black taverns were aimed both at the moder-

ately successful owners of those taverns and their largely working- class clientele. Such attacks, emerging from a desire to deny the legiti- macy of the entire African-American free community, took on a sav- agery not present when white b'hoys battled it out in their own taverns. When white b'hoys attacked a white tavern keeper and his customers, it was usually in response to a specific insult or offense

(such as a failure to treat). Race alone, however, proved reason enough to assault black tavern keepers and their customers. Cato Al- exander, for example, was an African-American tavern keeper, whose tavern on the Old Harlem Road was famous in New York's elite cir- cles both for the excellence of its drinks and the refinements of its owner's company. A stop a Cato's was a must for foreign travelers to the city in the 1830s. Tyrone Power, the Anglo-Irish actor, pro- claimed Cato '"a great man, foremost amongst cullers of mint, whether julep or hail-storm," and a worthy namesake of the famous Roman orator.29

It was this very social visibility, violating the harshest social boundary in Jacksonian America, that brought Cato to the brink of disaster. On a snowy evening in January 1831, the brothers George

28 For discussion of the July 1834 riots, see Gilje, Road to Mobocracy, 162-70; Linda K. Kerber, "Abolitionists and Amalgamators: The New York City Race Ri- ots of 1834," New York History, 48 (an. 1967), 28-39; Leonard L. Richards, "Gentle- men of Property and Standing". Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (New York, 1970), 113-22, 150-55; Weinbaum, Mobs and Demagogues, 21-33, 44-49; and John M. Werner, Reaping the Bloody Harvest: Race Riots in the United States During the Age of Jack- son, 1824-1849 (New York, 1986), 115-65. On the development of the free-black community in New York and the North, see Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery. The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago, 1961), 64-112, 153-86; Shane White, Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810 (Athens, GA, 1991), 150-84; and Alessandra Lorini, "Public Rituals, Race Ideology and the Transformation of Urban Culture: The Making of the New York African-American Community, 1825-1918" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1991), 1-107. Gustave de Beaumont, Marie. or Slavery in the United States. A Novel of Jacksonian America, trans. Barbara Chapman (Stanford, 1958), 243; Freedom's Journal (New York), Apr. 20, 1827; Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, July 10, 11, 1834. See also Harriet Mar- tineau, Retrospect of Western Travel (2 vols., London, 1838), I, 41. For early examples of white hostility to black tavern keepers, see People v. Andrew & Elizabeth Mickle, New- York City-Hall Recorder, 1 (Jan. 1816), 96-97; Gilje and Rock, eds., Keepers of the Revo- lution, 228-29; and Gilje, Road to Mobocracy, 161-62.

29 Tyrone Power, Impressions of America, During the Years 1833, 1834, and 1835 (2 vols., London, 1836), I, 58-59.


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and Andrew Luke, who owned their own tavern and grocery, along with a gang armed with chains and accompanied by prostitutes ap- proached Cato's establishment and used a ruse to gain admittance. One of the women pretended to faint, and Cato opened his door to provide her smelling salts. When Cato then announced that he had to close up for the night, he and his pregnant wife, Eliza, were beaten by the gang. The next day at the Lukes' tavern, Andrew Luke proudly announced that he had struck Cato Alexander between the eyes, and that Cato "would not get over it in some time." John Priest, his head wounded in the attack, demanded revenge for his in- juries: "no such damn Negro should live." Accordingly, that night the Lukes and their gang laid siege to Cato's tavern, demolishing much of his property. Cato believed that had they actually broken into the house, his family would have been murdered.30

Why did Cato Alexander arouse such hostility? He had given no apparent offense; instead, Cato was attacked apparently for being an economically and socially successful black entrepreneur. As the owner of his own well-appointed establishment and a man of importance in his neighborhood and the larger white community, Cato was a threat to the racial order. As white tavern keepers themselves, the Lukes saw Cato as an unacceptable rival, a black man who did not know his place, thereby challenging a crucial social boundary.31

This sense of illegitimacy about a free and economically viable African-American community can also be seen in the case of John Russell, who kept a tavern and boardinghouse for black men near the Screw Dock on the East River. Contempt for free working-class blacks played a larger role here than in the attack on Cato. Catering to a booming seafaring trade, Russell maintained a large staff of Afri- can-American workers, but among the neighborhood's white resi- dents, Russell's house had a bad reputation. He "pandered," they claimed, "to the depraved taste of certain of his black customers" and was dishonest in his dealings with ships captains. In the eyes of many whites, the black working-class was morally depraved and de- generate, thus leaving itself open to attack. Russell denied any charges of illicit activities, insisting that his staff and customers were honest, hard-working men. A combination of economic success and questions about its legitimacy made Russell's refectory a target of

30 People v. George Luke et al., Mar. 16, 1831, District Attorney's Indictment

Papers. 31 Ibid.


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white moral outrage.32 In December 1838, though he had been given no specific offense,

twenty-year-old Thomas Burke had had a run-in with African-Ameri- cans at Russell's tavern. In the fracas he lost his cap. Believing that he now had a grievance, Burke collected a gang to teach these uppity blacks a lesson. After destroying much of the glassware and furniture at the bar, the whites were driven out by Russell's manager, Charles Foote, who "seized a Kettle of Hot Coffee & threw it upon them."

Outraged by this humiliation, Burke led an even larger gang back to the tavern a few hours later. Using a sign to break in the door of the refectory, the whites again destroyed more furniture and savagely beat any black customers they could find. Determined to fight back, Foote organized his workers for battle, arming them with shovels and sticks. Using a hatchet, Foote severely injured Burke (who would later die from his wounds). Finally, one of the black waiters escaped and alerted the watch, who arrested everyone, black or white. The watchmen showed little sympathy for their black prisoners, allowing them to be beaten on the way to the watch house by white rioters still at large. In the morning, although they voiced concern about the moral character of Russell's business, the magistrates decided that these blacks had been legitimately defending themselves and author- ized their release.33

The racial assaults on both Cato's tavern and Russell's refectory were much more than simple brawls. Unlike the conflicts in white taverns, these two incidents of racial violence looked more like tiny wars. And that difference distinguished racial tavern violence as a special type. Whatever their personal or communal grievances, work-

ing-class youths, whether native-born or Irish, looked upon each other as equals, as legitimate citizens of the republic. Their brawls in the taverns allowed them to respect each other as men. Throughout the antebellum decades incidents like these would continue-strong evidence of a fierce animosity, fueled by economic competition and status anxiety, between the native-born and immigrant working clas- ses and the free African-American community. Despised by the na- tive-born bourgeoisie, the immigrant Irish turned their wrath upon the even more despised blacks. Edward Abdy, the English abolition- ist, observed of the Boston Irish in 1833 that "nearly all of them, who

32 New York Herald, Dec. 12, 15, 1838. 33 People v. James Ingersoll et al., Jan. 14, 1839, District Attorney's Indictment

Papers; People v. Charles Foote, Feb. 13, 1839, ibid.


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have resided there any length of time, are more bitter and severe against the blacks than the native whites themselves. It seems as if the disease were more virulent when taken by innoculation than in the natural way." The same holds true for New York.

African Americans, whether tavern owners or workingmen, could never be the equals of the white b'hoys.34 Hatred of the blacks, as David Roediger has argued, was one block on which white working- men constructed their identity as American citizens. In July 1863 this hatred would erupt in New York's Draft Riots, the worst outbreak of urban mass violence in all of American history. With emancipation redefining the purpose of the war between the states, the hard-pressed native and Irish b'hoys made it clear that they would rather risk their lives facing down the United States army than fight a rich man's war to liberate black slaves. It produced one of the ugliest chapters in the tortured history of race relations in the United States.35

Gender discrimination played a part in the formation of New York's working-class culture similar to the part played by race. Once again, taverns were a locus of violent gender confrontation. Christine Stansell and other researchers in women's history have unearthed a shocking level of misogyny in early American life. Women were be- lieved to be irrational and often were denigrated for their economic dependence on men. This made them, along with servants and chil- dren, incapable of exercising the same political will as an independent male producer. Furthermore, the antebellum years saw a commercial- ization of sexual relations and the rise of an extensive subculture of prostitution at the same time that the change from workshop

34 John Runcie, "'Hunting the Nigs' in Philadelphia: The Race Riot of August 1834," Pennsylvania History, 39 (Apr. 1972), 187-218; Edward S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America (3 vols., London, 1835), III, 319- 20; Elizabeth M. Geffen, "Violence in Philadelphia in the 1840's and 1850's," Penn-

sylvania History, 36 (Oct. 1969), 381-410; EmmaJones Lapsansky, "'Since They Got Those Separate Churches': Afro-Americans and Racism in Jacksonian Philadel-

phia," American Quarterly, 32 (Spring 1980), 54-78. 35 David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness. Race and the Making of the American

Working Class (New York, 1991), 11. See also Anthony Gronowicz, "Artisans and

Ideology: The Democratic Party and Its Impact on Racial Attitudes in Antebellum New York City," paper presented at the Fifteenth Annual Meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, July 23, 1993. On the Draft Riots, see Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (New York, 1990); and Adrian Cook, The Armies of the Streets. The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 (Lexington, 1974). For a comparitive view with racial rioting in a rural setting, see Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North (New York, 1991).


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production to the industrial wage economy often undermined work-

ing-class male authority. In fact, as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese points out, male pretensions to authority in the market-driven nineteenth century could only be maintained if women internalized a sense of inferiority and dependence. As the economic basis of gender defer- ence disintegrated, working-class men often turned to violence, espe- cially wife-beating and rape, to command the "respect" they considered their due.36

Factory work and the leisure-based youth culture of the 1840s and 1850s thus created danger as well as opportunity for working-class women. For the first time, young women in large numbers made their way by themselves through the streets of the city in search of work-or fun. Finding a small measure of independence and excite- ment in their otherwise dreary lives, such "g'hals" appeared to threaten the democratic brotherhood and masculine prerogatives of the working-class neighborhood b'hoys. Seemingly innocent activi- ties, such as a rowing excursion or a Sunday afternoon picnic, might turn into nightmares of violent degradation. Ned Buntline, for in- stance, told the story of how Angelina the sewing girl encountered a gang of rowdies while on her way home with her earnings. To their offer of money for sex, this g'hal proclaimed her independence: "I take no money sir, but that which I earn by honest labor!" As luck would have it, Angelina was rescued from her tormentors in the un- likely person of "Big Lize," a neighborhood woman with a reputa- tion for putting aggressive men in their place. Demanding "What d'ye mean by stoppin' this 'ere gal against her will?" Lize single-

36 For the tangled nature of antebellum gender relations, see Timothy J. Gil-

foyle, City of Eros. New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920

(New York, 1992), esp. 76-116; Gilfoyle, "Strumpets and Misogynists: Brothel 'Ri- ots' and the Transformation of Prostitution in Antebellum New York City," New York History, 68 (Jan. 1987), 45-65; Haag, "'Ill-Use of a Wife,"' 462-71; Marybeth Hamilton, "'The Life of a Citizen in the Hands of a Woman': Sexual Assault in New York City, 1790-1820," in William Pencak and Conrad Edick Wright, eds., New York and the Rise of American Capitalism. Economic Development and the Social and Political History of an American State, 1780-1870 (New York, 1989), 228-48; Marilynn Wood Hill, Their Sisters' Keepers: Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870 (Berkeley, 1993); Stansell, City of Women, esp. 20-30, 55-62, 77-101, 171-92; and Elizabeth Fox- Genovese, Feminism WVithout Illusions. A Critique of Individualism (Chapel Hill, 1991), 23-24. For theoretical approaches to gender violence past and present, see Edwin M. Schur, The Americanization of Sex (Philadelphia, 1988), 8-15, 144-55, 178-90; Riane Eisler, Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body (San Francisco, 1995), esp. 201-43; and Robert Wright, The Moral Animal. The New Science of Evolutionary Psychol- ogy (New York, 1994), 98-101.


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handedly pummelled the b'hoys into submission. The threat of vio- lence was never very far away from those working-class women deter- mined to preserve their own niche. Although Angelina, with the help of Lize, was able to make good her assertion of independence from male control, most g'hals were not so fortunate.37

Sociologist Edwin Schur has listed four conditions contributing to widespread sexual violence: (1) depersonalization, leading to sexual indifference; (2) devaluation of women into sex objects; (3) wide- spread socioeconomic inequality; and (4) culturally induced habitua- tion to violence.38 All of these conditions were present in Jacksonian New York. To this we can add an important distinction between indi- vidual and gang rape. An individual rapist simply asserted his power over a woman, but in a gang rape each rapist was also displaying his masculine prowess to his violent colleagues. Gang rape thus served as a ritual of male bonding. Just as they did when they fought each other in the taverns, b'hoys found respect in each others' eyes and ce- mented their ties by taking part in a gang rape. Operating out of taverns, groups of rowdies would search the streets looking for women who appeared vulnerable and independent at the same time. By asking John Underhill for directions to Beekman Street, eighteen- year-old Irish immigrant Ann Murphy fit the bill. Underhill offered to take Murphy to his sister who would provide the information. In- stead he took her to The Cottage, a Broadway porter house kept by William Dingler, where she was raped. Murphy accused her attackers of having "taken advantage of her because she was a poor unpro- tected girl." Unprotected-yet willing to venture on her own and risk the dangers and freedoms of the city.39

37 For examples of gang rapes at picnics and rowing excursions, see People v. John Bishop & Henry Losee, Aug. 17, 1839, District Attorney's Indictment Papers; People v. George Hawks et al., Dec. 15, 1841, ibid.; and Judson, Mysteries and Miseries of New York, I, 11-13. For allegations of sexual immorality among factory girls, see Children's Aid Society, Seventh Annual Report (New York, 1860), 6; William W. San- ger, The History of Prostitution (New York, 1859), 534-35; and Stansell, City of Women, 125-26, 266.

38 Schur, Americanization of Sex, 155. 39 People v. William Dingler et al., Dec. 14, 1842, District Attorney's Indictment

Papers. In a similar incident, a gang of b'hoys on trial for raping Sarah Dolson Mans near a tavern were acquitted on testimony from tavern drinkers that they were of good character and had been at the bar all evening. People v. Alexander Edwards, Feb. 14, 1845, District Attorney's Indictment Papers; New York Evening Post, Jan. 25, 1845.


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This pattern of young women being kidnapped and raped in tav- erns while going about their business was repeated over and over

again. On a May afternoon in 1850, Ann Stuart, a nineteen-year-old just five days off the boat from Scotland, left her sister's house to seek employment. On her way to the emigrant office, Stuart was met by an Irish bartender named Patrick Murray, who along with his friend Jonas Meeker, dragged her to Henry King's porter house on Pine Street where Murray was employed. The b'hoys "treated" Stuart to brandy in the unoccupied tavern, and then they overpowered and raped her. Reading through the details of this rape in the court re- cords, one is struck by the casual brutality and the utter lack of con- cern shown by the b'hoys for the humanity of the woman they terrorized. For instance, they argued callously over who should go first. Meeker, the more reluctant, "thought she was diseased." Mur- ray boasted he was "damned if I am afraid"-but just to be sure, he examined Stuart's "private parts" with a lighted candle. Boasting of his physical and social power, Murray threatened to kill the young woman or have her arrested if she did not cooperate. This sort of power display, as much for the other man as for the woman fueled the brutality of many rapes.40 Police sergeant Arthur Van Houten had seen Ann Stuart being escorted to the Pearl Street tavern but he made no move to protect her. Peering through the keyhole, the policeman seemed to take a voyeuristic pleasure watching the rapes, doing noth- ing to aid the struggling woman. Perhaps fearing for his own safety, the officer became a passive accomplice to the rapists. Only when it was all over, did Van Houten and a second policeman break into the tavern and arrest Murray and Meeker. At their arraignment, Murray and Meeker tried to claim that the girl had forced herself upon them. Stuart responded that she had wanted nothing more than simple di- rections. Innocent as this was, it set up a situation in which a young woman displayed both independence and vulnerability, going her own way without male protection. For the b'hoys this signalled an opportunity to gratify their sexual desires, bond with each other, and assert their masculine prowess, powers for which they had increas- ingly little use in the larger world.41

Two years after the Stuart rape, Bridget Heney, a married woman whose husband was in Ireland, suffered the same treatment.

40 People v. Patrick Murray & Jonas Meeker, May 24, 1850, District Attorney's Indictment Papers.

41 Ibid.


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When she asked a young man's assistance in finding her way to Mul- berry Street, Heney was taken instead to a tavern where she was

raped many times. Escaping to look for police, she was captured by two other b'hoys pretending to be officers and dragged back to the tavern. Heney made matters worse for herself by demanding money from her attackers and offering some to the phony cops for protec- tion, making herself look like a prostitute. So argued John Griffin, one of the attackers, when finally he was arrested. "I suppose they are going to give us ten years for getting our hide," he boasted crudely. For Griffin, getting his "hide" and making sure that his buddies knew it, made him a man in his eyes and theirs.42

All classes generally distanced themselves from this wanton sexual violence. Real masculinity, even for many working-class men would not be affirmed by brutalizing women. George Templeton Strong put it succinctly: "Destroy [womanhood's] claim to concession and pro- tection and courtesy . . . and manhood is gone too." Middle- and upper-class men, like Strong, did not often resort to violent sexual co- ercion and almost never participated in gang rapes. They were able to ground their manhood in social and economic success, establishing themselves as benevolent patres familias. This was an option rarely open to the b'hoys. In the taverns where these stories originated, pa- ternalism was being redefined. Here the social and economic author- ity of working-class men was in actual decline, and women's public display of independence threatened men's images of themselves. Such women would have to be punished and reminded of just how much more powerless they were than the b'hoys of the new metropolis.43

Collective social action (and this can include informal group vio- lence) usually is centered on either a struggle for control of material

42 People v. George Holberton et al., Feb. 11, 1852, District Attorney's Indictment Papers. Edwin Schur writes that "Lower-class males . . . are socialized-perhaps even in a higher degree [than privileged males]-to be sexually aggressive. But on top of that they are subject to the general feelings of frustration, deprivation, and hostility that social and economic disadvantage produce. . . . When 'getting' sex is viewed as central to self-esteem, and even one's sense of manhood, males with few other resources may resort to violence." Schur, Americanization of Sex, 15.

43 George Templeton Strong, The Diary of George Templeton Strong, ed. Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas (4 vols., New York, 1952), II, 129; Burn, Three Years Among the Working-Classes, 76-78, 80-85, 89-93. For attempted rapes by bartend- ers on barmaids in their taverns, see People v. Elijah H. Pritchard, Dec. 18, 1848, District Attorney's Indictment Papers; and People v. Owen Devlin, Mar. 10, 1854, ibid. For an example of a brutal gang rape in a Hell's Kitchen shanty, see People v. Peter Curran et al., Apr. 11, 1850, ibid., also covered in the New York Evening Post, Mar. 4, 1850.


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resources or the communication of symbolic meanings and codes. Most tavern violence in Jacksonian New York, whether brawls be- tween b'hoys, racial attacks, or gang rapes, shared a quality of carni- val or saturnalia. Tavern rows were rituals through which young male workers used recreation to construct their identities as b'hoys. In doing so they rejected middle-class notions of self-control in favor of a more animalistic concept of manhood that valued rambunctious assertions of physical prowess and dare-devil courage. "Human life," wrote the cartman Isaac Lyon, "is short at the best, and quite uncer- tain." Constant physical danger was an inescapable part of the daily life of the young male worker. Through their battles in the ritual space of the tavern, the b'hoys demonstrated their stoic resolve and dignity in facing the tough knocks that life threw at them. And in this way, the b'hoys communicated whom they believed themselves to be, and who they believed to be their enemies.44

In other words, group violence in New York was the product of difficult life conditions interacting with the specific characteristics of the culture and the structure of society. In such a situation, material and psychological needs seemed most easily satisfied by mistreating marginal subgroups. Workingmen fought each other in taverns to demonstrate the democracy of their manliness to each other; they fought others to retain control. When working-class women flouted

domesticity with its assumption of male authority, by seeking inde-

pendence through employment and the freedom to walk the streets, b'hoys retaliated with sexual brutality. When black tavern keepers showed that they could, despite assumed inferiority, succeed as entre-

preneurs, white b'hoys destroyed their property. When black work-

ingmen asserted something like equality with whites by freely patronizing their own drinking and eating houses, b'hoys responded with a savagery that revealed their moral outrage and a desire to pun- ish anyone transgressing their notions of the rightful order of things.45

44 Alberto Melucci, Nomads of the Present. Social Movements and Individual Needs in

Contemporary Society, ed. John Keane and Paul Mier (Philadelphia, 1989), 1-9, 54; Grimsted, "Rioting in Its Jacksonian Setting," 384-85; Isaac S. Lyon, Recollections of An Old Cartman (1872; rep., New York, 1984), 22; Blumin, ed., New York by Gas-

Light, 170-73; "The B'hoys," New York Tribune, Oct. 8, 1848; Gorn, "'Good-Bye Boys, I Die a True American,"' 406-10; Haag, "'Ill-Use of a Wife,"' 457-61; Way, "Evil Humors and Ardent Spirits," 1398-1401.

45 Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil. The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence

(New York, 1989), 4, 17, 62.


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The result is a disturbing example of how an honored American principle, the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent, virtuous producer, could be transformed into a tool of repression. Political rhetoric in the Age of Jackson glorified the common man, who through his own hard work achieved a "modest competence" for himself: such a man was the model American. But the reality of ante- bellum economic development, resulting in vast wealth for some who could take advantage of the new means of organizing resources and labor, limited opportunity for the mass of urban working men. In "this city, where there is so large a redundance of labor," observed the philanthropists of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, "even the possession of skill affords no guaranty either for employment or good wages."46

Out of a burning sense of betrayal, the b'hoys of New York cre- ated a violent, masculine identity predicated on the assumption that they alone were true Americans. In their twisted view, neither the Anglophile elite, nor degraded African Americans, nor women of any class were worthy of upholding the proud legacy of equality and inde- pendence bequeathed by the American Revolution. Their status as independent producer-citizens now in question, the b'hoys satisfied their need for validation by attacking groups less powerful than them- selves and less able to fight back. Very rarely did they challenge the power or cultural prerogatives of New York's elite, and when they did do so-most notably in the Astor Place Riot of 1849 and the Draft Riots of 1863-the military arm of the government quickly sup- pressed them. One upper-class New York University student caught a glimpse of what was happening when he noted that "everything" at Astor Place "has an appearance of destruction and wanton sacrifice, to satisfy the pleasures and whims of an enraged and bewildered pop-

46 New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, Ninth Annual

Report (New York, 1852), 26-27; Lawrence Frederick Kohl, The Politics of Individual- ism. Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era (New York, 1989), 21-56, 201-27; John Ashworth, 'Agrarians' and 'Aristocrats': Party Political Ideology in the United States, 1837-1846 (New York, 1983), 21-34, 190-93; Daniel Feller, "Politics and Soci- ety: Toward a Jacksonian Syntheis," Journal of the Early Republic, 10 (Summer 1990), 135-61; Marc W. Kruman, "The Second American Party System and the Transfor- mation of Revolutionary Republicanism," ibid., 12 (Winter 1992), 509-37; Douglas T. Miller, Jacksonian Aristocracy. Class and Democracy in New York, 1830-1860 (New York, 1967), 128-54; Sellers, Market Revolution, 8-31, 152-57, 337-48, 384-95.


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ulace."47 Fighting those above them and going down in defeat only reinforced the b'hoys sense of social inferiority. Fighting those below them, whom they could defeat assuredly, convinced the b'hoys of their power and manhood.

It was Captain Isaiah Rynders, populist politician and mob or- ganizer, who most eloquently expressed the workingmen's belief in a democratic liberty bound up in strong drink and manly violence. Ral- lying his followers at Tammany Hall in 1855, Rynders denounced the New York state prohibition law as a tyrannical ploy to impose evan- gelical values on New York's hard-drinking working class. "I . . . drink what I like when I can get it," Rynders declared to the cheers of the b'hoys. "I thank God I have hitherto had what I want to eat, and as much as I needed to drink." Some years earlier, he had voiced the fear that workingmen were becoming cowards, "that the noble examples of our forefathers have been, in a measure, lost upon many of their sons of the present day, and that we are becoming unworthy of the glorious inheritance which they have bequeathed us." Politics- out-of-doors, Rynders proclaimed, was a right that Americans had not surrendered. Invoking the memory of the Revolution, he con- cluded, "We don't want mobs in this country, but it may be neces- sary, in order to maintain our rights, that we have revolutions on this, as well as on other subjects. ... That is the appeal that all men on this earth have had to make." Such language confirmed the worst middle- and upper-class fears about demagoguery in Tammany Hall, while proclaiming the determination of the b'hoys to stake out their claim on the American political landscape. But elite fears were mis- placed. B'hoys could do very little to shake the security of the city's merchant and industrialist patricians. Instead it was those least able to defend themselves, working class women and African Americans, and most especially the b'hoys themselves, who bore the brunt of their violent assertions of red-blooded American manhood.48

47 Edward Neufville Tailer Diary, May 11, 1849 (New-York Historical Soci-

ety). 48 New York Tribune, Apr. 28, 1855; Isaiah Rynders, Oration DeliveredJuly 4th,

1851 (75th Year of our National Independence,) by Captain Isaiah Rynders before the Old Guard, at their Annual Festival (New York, 1851), 3. On the political controversies raised by the prohibition law, see Rorabaugh, "Rising Democratic Spirits," 149-52; Spann, New Metropolis, 372-75; and Paul O. Weinbaum, "Temperance, Politics, and the New York City Riots of 1857," New-York Historical Society Quarterly, 59 (July 1975), 246-49. Parallels to the violent culture of the b'hoys can be found among the canal laborers in rural America. See Roger E. Carp, "The Limits of Reform: Labor


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In the end, the world of the b'hoys was a world of tragedy and loss. These were the young men for whom the dream of material in- dependence and social equality, promised them in Jacksonian rheto- ric, had become mirage and illusion. Those who realized this, yet could not accept it, created their own world of violence and camara- derie where for a brief time, they could prove to themselves that they were men of honor and worth. Tavern disturbances were rituals that affirmed values among workingmen that were central to Jacksonian American culture as a whole-but rendered here in brutal parody. Thus "domesticity" to the b'hoys became misogyny and gang rape. Scientific "proofs" of racial inferiority played out as brutal attacks on "the other." And manliness itself, once the cornerstone of the roman- tic citizen ideal, justified beastly behavior and wanton violence. Walt Whitman gave voice to the sentiments of manliness:

O the joy of a manly self-hood! To be servile to none, to defer to none, not to any tyrant known or unknown, To walk with erect carriage, a step springy and elastic, To look with calm gaze or with a flashing eye, To speak with a full and sonorous voice out of a broad chest, To confront with your personality all the other personalities of the earth.49

In the rough-and-tumble world of the taverns, Whitman's message seemed plain enough to b'hoys from the streets of New York.

and Discipline on the Erie Canal," Journal of the Early Republic, 10 (Summer 1990), 191-219; and Way, "Evil Humors and Ardent Spirits," 1397-1428. For an examina- tion of how ideas of independence and virtue were used in the South as an ideological justification for slavery and the subordination of women, see Stephanie McCurry, "The Two Faces of Republicanism: Gender and Proslavery Politics in Antebellum South Carolina," Journal of American History, 78 (Mar. 1992), 1245-64.

49 Walt Whitman in "A Song of Joys," The Complete Poems, ed. Francis Mur- phy (New York, 1975), 211-12.


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  • Article Contents
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  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Winter, 1995), pp. 569-741
      • Volume Information [pp. 729 - 741]
      • Front Matter [pp. 590 - 656]
      • A Troublesome Legacy: James Madison and "The Principles of '98" [pp. 569 - 589]
      • New York City Tavern Violence and the Creation of a Working-Class Male Identity [pp. 591 - 617]
      • The "Country" versus the "Court": A Republican Consensus and Party Debate in the Bank War [pp. 619 - 647]
      • Review Essay
        • Was Madison More Radical Than Jefferson? [pp. 649 - 655]
      • Editors' Page [pp. 657 - 660]
      • Book Reviews
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      • Publication Notices [pp. 709 - 716]
      • Recent Dissertations [pp. 717 - 728]
      • Back Matter