Going On The Account: Blogtober – The Pirates of New York – Five

Welcome to the twenty third day of Blogtober, hoping that you had all the turkey you could stand yesterday, whether it was what you ate at the table for your main meal or what you watched if you went out to catch RED DAWN

Yes, I kid, and I opened by picking on a very easy target; I’m slotting this early so as to keep the holiday free, as I had no idea at that time what kind of Pats-Jets game joke would work in the beginning here.  But like Will Rogers said, sometimes you don’t need to make a joke, just let the news speak for itself…

49 to 19, after being down 35 to zip?  That’s a really sick joke, you ask me…   Or a crime, if you want.  Of course calling it criminal, considering the actions of Coach Bill Belichick over time, would seem redundantly silly…


Speaking of criminal acts, we resume our popular history miniseries on the pirates of New York, with…

Part the Fifth: The River Pirates, or Dream Global, Act Local

While the city matured and became respectable in the Nineteenth Century, a curious thing happened to those New Yorkers who want to take to ships and become rovers:  While opportunities to commit mayhem once they sailed beyond the Verrazano Narrows diminished, they actually increased if they stayed closer to shore.

And as the conditions that drove some of them to this act were quite desperate, some of those who took to the rivers were quite spectacular.  In particular, there was one woman who either became or was a legend, who deserves special mention because, well… Well, because…  You don’t have a problem with what we do here now, do you…?

The reputation New York had for being crowded, dirty and violent came more out of the 1800s than the 1900s, although it was pretty bad in the 1970s, as I recall when I was younger.  The influx of immigrants from Europe and urbanization drawing in citizens from the countryside resulted in a radical population explosion throughout the century.  After the American Civil War, some wards in New York that contained lower class families could have between 165,000 to 210,000 people per square mile.   By contrast, Manhattan’s density as of 2000 was only about 69,800 per square mile, one third the population stuffed onto the island.  Compare those figures with what was available for residents in the Nineteenth Century versus today (i.e., lack of indoor plumbing for some until the 1890s, electrification only coming online as of 1882 and then only to addresses able to afford it), and the true misery facing those in these over-crowded areas becomes starkly apparent.

And like many impoverished populations before and since, some elements in the face of squalor turned to crime.

Crime in New York was much like everything else here, in that it was bigger and engaged in with gusto and verve.  Probably the best account of the culture of the streets from that period was Herbet Asbury’s The Gangs of New York, which Salon did a good job of summarizing here.   The book was a sensation when it was first published in 1928, and recaptured the imagination when Martin Scorsese adapted in for his film in 2002.  It’s a history that is well worth pursuing, but for our purposes, we will focus on those known elements who decided to take their mayhem not to the streets, but the rivers.

Do note that we are talking about the “known” elements; as we discussed earlier, no history of a shadow culture can claim to have total authority without acknowledging that for every instance on the record, at least one act would not have been noted.  Do bear in mind that for every success that got a police report, there were possibly a few that did not go down so well that disappeared like a body weighed down and thrown into the middle of the river to hide the evidence.

As the middle of the century came and the city faced an influx of people, criminal gangs sprang up, some to get rich quicker than the honest paths afforded those who moved here, some in response to other criminals preying on the weak.  Most of the river pirates were in it for the money, as opposed to organizing around neighborhood protection or out of ethnic purpose, and many of them called the Fourth Ward their home port, an area of Manhattan on the East river bordered by Catherine Street, Chatham Street, and a west-to-east line drawn down, Spruce Street, Ferry Street, and Peck Slip.

The methods employed by these pirates were understandably somewhat more modest than those used by buccaneers at sea; tighter theaters on the water and lack of equipment meant that those means and ways we usually associate with pirates could not be used here.  The usual MO involved the gang members commandeering a small craft, such a rowboat, and making their way out to a larger craft.  Some pirate gangs had members resort to swimming out to their targets, then climbing aboard them to seize the vessels.

Once aboard, the river dogs would brandish guns if they had them, or otherwise use improvised weapons (usually clubs, sometimes razors).  They would commandeer the craft, offloading the cargo if they had a fence that would receive the goods, otherwise grab what they could from the crew and pocketed the loot in a quick snatch and grab.

In short, they were as much pirates as those found on wider waters, but like everyone who moves to New York they have to work with less space and smaller appliances…

Among the early pirate gangs of note were the Swamp Angels, who terrorized the East River starting in the 1850s.  They helped set the pace for later crews, pioneering the seizure of vessels on the river while setting up a seamless fencing operation to unload and liquidate cargo within hours of taking a craft.  Their success carried through most of the Nineteenth Century, and inspired others to take up the sweet trade on the rivers around the city once the Civil War had ended and revenues from shipping through the port returned to the levels they had been when New Yorkers were profiting on the cotton trade (as we noted last time).

Among the more infamous and better documented of these pirates were the Patsy Conroy Gang, who made a major name for themselves when they raided the brig Mattan, and the Hook Gang, whose schemes for unloading pirated goods by making the fencing look like planned street work may have been the inspiration for many a heist movie plot point.  And for every named group whose members made the newspapers (some 90 newspapers were being published in New York in 1870) or the court records after their arrest, there were likely countless others who had a hand in the trade who didn’t make the grade, or even through one bad night.

Which brings us to Sadie the Goat.

Sadie Farrell may or may not have actually existed; the evidence is scant on her, as is the wont of anyone in the Sweet Trade wishing to avoid undue attention.  And yet her story is so vibrant that the universe would be a much poorer place were she to have just been a fiction; with any luck a second account of her exploits that verify she was here will someday turn up.

What we do know of her is rich, right from her name on.  Please note that her nickname did not come from her looks, nor from her horrible diet (even if she would have had to wait about 100 years for the restaurants at the South Street Seaport to start serving dinner…).  Rather, it came from her MO on the street, where she would walk before her victim, then stop, turn 180 degrees, lower her chin down and head-butt the vic in his chest.  Two accomplices would be there to catch the vic when he fell backwards, holding him as she rifled his pockets to relieve him of his valuables before making a run for it.  The accomplices would either drop the vic or throw him to the ground before high tailing it out of there, to rendezvous with Sadie later and split the booty.

She was quick to seize and board, got what she needed quickly, and hit the seas as fast as she could; a natural born pirate, and a woman after my heart…

At some point after the Civil War, Sadie and a loyal crew decided to go from just using pirate tactics to being real pirates.  As relayed by Asbury, Sadie found herself a sloop that she hijacked and appropriated, then set about to behave like raiders from the Golden Age of Piracy, putting ashore to raid such exotic pirate locales as Peekskill, Wappingers Falls, and Poughkeepsie.  According to one account, she even seized some craft on the river itself, showing some aptitude with boarding actions that took others some time to learn.

By all accounts, her career was brief, a few months at most; while it’s not specified anywhere, we might be able to assume it was the chill of late autumn-early winter and cold winds coming down the Hudson River that drove her to scuttle her sloop and go ashore for good.  Its claimed that she stayed ashore and lived to a ripe old age, which most pirates could never claim to do; had she done so, she would have proven herself better at the game than most.

While Sadie “the Goat” Farrell may have had a happy ending, or at least a quiet one, most of the river pirates were not so lucky.  Patsy Conroy, whose gang was named after him, got sentenced to twenty years for his crimes in 1874 before disappearing into the system.  The Hook Gang were victims of their own success, their aggressive actions encouraging the New York Police Department to form the Steamboat Squad, the first aquatic patrols that form the nucleus of the NYPD Harbor Unit.  Better policing and greater vigilance did their part to rein in the river pirates.

So too did the evolution of crime.  The Swamp Angels, one of the early gangs that helped establish the river pirates, found itself merging with other gangs working the waterfront, ultimately forming the White Hand Gang, an Irish response to counter the Sicilian Black Hand Gang that formed as the Twentieth Century came about.  Both gangs continued their operations of robbing traffic on the piers, and both took on new opportunities as the Eighteenth Amendment became law and countermanding prohibition became a revenue opportunity.

One of the White Hand’s leaders, Richard Lonergan, inheritor of the legacy of the river pirates, met an untimely end as he spouted off at a Black Hand-affiliated social club in Brooklyn against its Italian patrons, many of whom were in the process of forming the Five Families during business hours.  The suspected trigger man who killed this inheritor of New York’s pirate ways was one Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, who soon left Brooklyn to handle things in the new territory, the Chicago Outfit.

Where, just as they had been doing back in New York, he relied on smugglers to bring product ashore, in this case whiskey and other hard liquors from Canada, showing that no matter how far inland criminals go, they ultimately return to the sea, for profitable crimes…

2 thoughts on “Going On The Account: Blogtober – The Pirates of New York – Five

  1. To some extent, if Jenny had requested a paternity test, they’d find bits of Sadie in the DNA, though only a few traces. In a number of crucial ways there is a difference, in that Sadie might be considered more ruthless, less prone to self-restraint, considering some of the damage Sadie and her Fourth Warders supposedly did when they went a’sailing on the Hudson.

    That said, Jenny if asked might be more willing to cite Mary Reid or Grace O’Malley as her inspiration. There’s a big difference in respect you can muster for someone going upon the Seven Seas versus someone for whom “deep water” means the midpoint between Sleepy Hollow and Nyack…


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