Five Points. Then, Again.

With infant mortality, disease, prostitution, violent crime and sheer population density on the rise, Five Points quickly became the most dangerous neighborhood in the world. Urban legend has it there was a murder a night in the Old Brewery which housed about a thousand of the city’s poor. That’s a mortality rate which is only rivaled by the top two deadliest prisons in the world today.Five Points also came to embody the very definition of the great American melting pot. The combination of New York fully emancipating African Americans in 1827 and the Irish fleeing their homeland due to the Great Potato Famine during the 1840’s caused these two groups, penniless and destitute, to pour into this neighborhood in search of new beginnings. This notably was the first time in history that whites and blacks voluntarily lived and worked side by side in America. Here’s a factoid for you: the resulting fusion of African and Irish dancing in the Five Points pubs created what we know today as modern tap dancing.The city police were more than happy to simply leave this neighborhood to its own bloody devices, which created a spectacular opportunity for enterprising gutter criminals. Unionizing had its merits and before long the slum became ruled by gangs with some pretty colorful names: The Dead Rabbits, Bowery Boys, Shirt Tails, Plug Uglies, Roach Guards. Don’t be fooled by the cutesy names because these were all some very, very bad dudes. And they were not mere thugs, folks! They were political in their aspirations and used their criminal coalitions to influence local politics. Acting as brutal enforcers, each gang would work at driving a cowering population to the polls with knives, pistols and brickbats to ensure that their “favored” candidates won elections.jacob riis, nyc, new city gangs, bandits roost, five pointsYou always knew who was who by their distinct style of dress. The Bowery Boys favored black stovepipe hats, and red shirts red shirts, the Plug Uglies all wore plug shaped hats stuffed with wool and leather (which not only protected the head but could double as a blunt weapon)… and then there were the Dead Rabbits. Although I’m sure the gangs were all fearsome, I think I’d be most frightened of the Dead Rabbits. To start, these guys had a height requirement of 6 feet to join the gang, so they were universally enormous for that era…and they carried long spears or pikes with actual dead rabbits impaled on them. Talk about a compelling campaign strategy! Seeing a posse of them coming would be sufficient to get me to vote for Michelle Bachmann. Virtually unchecked, these gangs were able to grow in power and influence so it was only a matter of time before they would would clash with one another– and on an epic scale.

About the Author |
We earn our living selling New York City. The next day is never like the last. The last is never ordinary. We witness all sorts. We listen to the City’s noise. We devour its phenomenal food. On the Real is our documentary. It is your pack of unfiltered New York 100s.