Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 954

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 954

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This is the grave of William Poole, better known as Bill the Butcher.

Born in 1821 in Sussex County, New Jersey, he grew up in New York after his family moved to the city in 1832 so his father could open a butcher’s shop. Poole would follow his father into the family business and run the shop after his father stopped working. But Poole was very much a boy of the streets as well.

New York City was a raucous place. This was an era of a very aggressive masculinity among the working-class. We often focus on the reformers of these decades–the abolitionists and the temperance activists and the religious revivalists and the women’s suffrage workers. But all of these people were a fairly small part of the population and moreover were often upper middle class professionals. We spend a lot less time thinking about the type of people those reformers felt needed reforming. That very much includes the working class city dwellers of the time. While the reformers were beginning to shape Victorian values, in the cities, young men formed gangs. In New York, these became broadly known as the Bowery Boys. These were young men, often pretty thuggish, who dressed fancy, fought a lot, sexually harassed (and often raped) any woman who chanced by, engaged in theft and other low-level crimes, and occasionally killed. So these were not exactly people we might want to emulate today, but they were important at the time as representative of white working class masculinity.

Poole became one of these people. He helped start what was called the Washington Street Gang, a precursor to the Bowery Boys. Now, these weren’t simply gangs. They were also firefighting units. The wooden cities of the early 19th century burned. It became part of the working class masculinity of the time to prove yourself through fire fighting and different gangs competed with each other for putting out fires. This also included Poole. But the problem with all of this was that the gangs often prioritized screwing over the other fire companies than fighting the fires themselves, so rather than go all in for fighting the fire, they often spent a lot of time sabotaging the other companies. Meanwhile, the fires raged.

Another things these people valued was brutal streetfighting. The era of modern boxing coming out of the early 20th century has often placed rules in our minds about boxing that don’t reflect the history of streetfighting. There’s a scene in Deadwood, when Swearingen’s henchman fights George Hearst’s henchman to the death in the street. It’s a tough scene to watch. This is a great vision into just what kind of streetfighting took place in New York and other cities around the country. Poole was a master of this. He became well-known for his no holds barred streetfighing, very much including gouging people’s eyes out or biting off their nose and then beating them to death. Some of these fights were actual boxing matches, others were street fights. As an example, in 1846, he and a buddy were engaging in a dog fight on the street. When some bystander tried to save the dog, Poole gouged out his eye. He was also a master with the knife. Embracing the gangster life, he sold his butcher shop and opened a bar where he ruled the roost.

Poole lived near Five Points, which was the center of working-class life in New York, infamous among the upper classes for its violence, prostitution, filth, and overcrowding. At the same time that Poole rose in this society, the Irish began flooding in, escaping the potato famine and general British oppression of their people. Poole, like many of the Bowery Boys, hated the Irish. Some of it was anti-Catholicism, some of it general xenophobia, some of it the ability to bully those with less power. So they began to beat up the Irish. This led the Irish to form their own gangs. Soon, ethnic warfare raged in the streets of Five Points. So it made sense for Poole to become a political activist as much as a gangster. What was the difference anyway. The Bowery Boys were preventing the Irish from voting through violence. Tammany Hall and the Democratic Party supported the Irish and brought them in as part of the political machine. So Poole gladly put his Bowery Boys into the Know-Nothing Party as grassroots political activists, if grassroots political activism can include beating the shit out of the Irish. Even before this, Poole was the Whig Party nominee for alderman in 1848, though he lost. Moreover, he was named in 1853 to be on the city’s Board of Education. Was there anything upstanding about Poole to qualify him for such a role? No. But what did that matter?

It’s hardly surprising then that Poole’s end would be pretty sordid. Basically, he and the city’s Irish leadership hated each other. A guy named John Morrissey was a Tammany activist and employee. He was also a bare-knuckle prize fighter. There was a fight between Morrissey and someone supported by Poole and the nativist gangs. There were a lot of shenanigans and Morrissey was named the winner. Poole was outraged. Poole and Morrissey fought soon after. It seems that Poole won that fight. Morrissey was not going to let it sit at that. In 1855, his enforces found Poole at a bar and shot him, once in the leg and once in the chest. He died a few days later. He was 33 years old. Morrissey would later end up in Congress.

The reason Bill the Butcher became well known today is thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis’ incandescent portrayal of him (though a highly fictionalized portrayal using a different name) in Scorsese’s excellent if flawed Gangs of New York, which is easily the best cultural production I’ve ever seen on the lives of the long-forgotten early 19th century city. While DDL has many of the greatest performances in modern cinema, perhaps only in There Will Be Blood was his power more dominant.

William Poole is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other people associated with the Know-Nothings, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Nathaniel Banks is in Waltham, Massachusetts and Lewis Charles Levin is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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