New York City Underworld – 19th Century Corruption

In the 19th century, New York City became a centre for immigrants that had come to the city looking for a better life. Most of them settled on or near ‘Five Points,’ the intersection of five streets in Lower Manhattan. This area became associated with some of the deepest levels of poverty in the entire United States. The list of crimes committed daily included stealing, quarrels and assaults. Shopkeepers sold questionable products, and the area was crammed with crumbling buildings, whorehouses and starving residents, struggling to survive.

Between the years of 1830 and 1900, the area went through great economic and social changes. The gap between middle and lower class citizens began to widen, and the higher levels of society strived to come with ways to fix the slums. Originally people of Irish, German and African American descent all lived in blocks together, and they were joined by Chinese, Italians and other nations over the years. Even though there were many skilled workers among the residents, employment was seasonal and they were significantly underpaid for their labour. The number of unskilled people in the NY slums doubled that of other cities, and this continued to increase.

The area was a breeding ground for rats, pigs and other scavengers and the closely packed living conditions meant that there was a high level of disease among inhabitants. About 25% of the children were orphans and, as more people migrated, living conditions became worse and crimes escalated.

Five Points Fights

Some of the rivalry in the area turned into full-fledged criminal activities and fights became a regular part of life in Five Points. There were two main reasons that people fought:

Politics – Even though most of them were ethnically based, street gangs developed in the area partially due to their political association. These gangs initiated free-for-all fights for ballot boxes, or to drive away rival voters. They ‘belonged’ to politicians and maintained strongholds by ‘cracking heads.’ This was done using the ‘slung shot,’ a homemade weapon which consisted of a ball of lead shot from a sling.

Entertainment – Bare-knuckled prize fighting, illegal animal fights and minstrel shows (also known as blood and thunder plays) were popular forms of fighting for entertainment. The levels of the plays varied and many could be viewed in saloons or in The Bowery, the theatre reserved for the working class.

Corruption in High Places

The New York City police was officially formed in 1845. Before its inception, however, crime had been controlled by an informal justice system. As early as 1846, police officials were given permission to arrest anybody who looked like they were about to commit a felony, and this system of ‘preventing’ crimes continued into the start of the 20th century. By the 1870s, more than one thousand suspicious looking people were arrested annually and this number doubled within the next 20 years. Many of those arrested would be locked in cells and starved, as encouragement to confess to the crimes that they had been about to commit.

A corrupt system between those who were breaking the law, and those who were supposed to be upholding it was put into place. The 19th century police force was described as ‘a dark, mysterious layer of the life of a great city.’ Patrol officers were tolerant of petty crimes, and turned a blind eye, if they received regular payment known as ‘percentage copper.’ This system of blackmail was well-known throughout the police department and included pickpockets, prostitution and gambling. More serious offences would be solved by judges, police and criminals coming to an agreement among themselves.

Upper levels of the police force were also a part of the corruption, with an 1875 investigation revealing that detectives managed the financial relationship between police captains and the criminals within their precinct. Many of them became wealthy due to their close monitoring of this activity. Journalists publicly accused the authorities of using illegal methods in the name of the law, branding them as ‘crooked crooks.’

The police force argued that there were more criminals than honest people in the slums, and if they were all arrested there would be nowhere to keep them. Thieves were given the opportunity to return stolen items for rewards, no questions asked. This benefitted victims, whose main concern was that their property was given back, as well as those who committed the act in the first place as they were probably doing so to be able to eat. This fuel the symbiotic relationship between the detectives and the criminals of the New York underworld, and the citizens appreciated the opportunity to continue surviving under the harsh conditions of the streets.

When Thomas J. Byrnes became superintendent of police in 1892, he put additional measures in place to keep criminals under control. As he had moved up through the ranks Byrnes knew that it would be useless to try and eliminate crime (both on the force and in the streets), so he selectively addressed high profile criminal activities that could be controlled. His successes included opening detective offices in Wall Street and near the New York Stock Exchange, two high target areas, so that the police would never be far from these places. He also established a ‘dead line’ where thieves would be allowed to continue their plunder on the east and west sides of Manhattan, outside the stipulated area.

Byrnes was also an influential and outspoken crime writer, publishing Professional Criminals in America in 1866, which was a compilation of underworld figures at the time along with their images. He also wrote other revealing stories during his time on the force. Herbert Asbury also detailed the organized crime of the period in his 1928 book, The Gangs of New York.

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