Eight Hours for What We Will

Postwar prosperity revitalized the labor movement. German tradesmen (nearly a quarter of the city’s working population) were particularly energetic. Their individual unions—woodworkers, machinists, tailors, cigarmakers, waiters, sjlverplaters, and bookbinders—confederated in an umbrella organization, the Arbeiter Union. English-speaking workers, led by printers and building tradesmen, formed their own citywide central, the Workingmen’s Union. Irish organizations flourished too, both the Longshoremen’s Union and the Laborers United Benevolent Society, which, with its myriad divisions (brown-stone cutters and blue-stone cutters, marble cutters and marble-polishers, hod carriers and derrickmen, sawyers and quarrymen), was the largest labor organization in the city. Seventy thousand were involved in this union resurgence. A larger proportion of the metropolitan working population enrolled in trade unions between 1865 and 1873 than during any other period of the nineteenth century.

City unions launched 249 trade-wide strikes between 1863 and 1873, some of them, like the 1868 bricklayers’ walkout, involving several thousand workers. Some trades were particularly militant and persistent: Steinway’s pianomakers struck in 1863, 1864, twice in 1865, and again in 1869. From 1866 on the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor published yearly reports on “Labor Movements and Strikes.”

Many contests were for higher wages, as workers fought to keep ahead of rising costs. They also sought a fair share of the period’s tremendous profits, most of which accrued to the owners of capital, who flagrantly displayed their riches for all to see. Capitalists groused at these demands. A. A. Low told the Chamber of Commerce that the only real danger to “the prosperity of our port and our city” was “the combinations of men who seek continually to advance the prices of labor beyond what employers can afford to pay.” But pay they did. Rolling in money, employers could easily afford to pur­chase labor peace. Wages in the strategically critical construction trades nearly doubled in the 1860s.


Another labor objective—one that inspired much stiffer resistance from employers—was to cut the working day from ten to fourteen hours down to eight. In May 1865 the Workingmen’s Union launched the eight-hour campaign with a monster picnic in Jones’ Wood attended by fifty thousand. In December a packed mass meeting of over fifty unions at Cooper Institute turned thousands away. The following April an immense rally jammed Union Square.

Speakers at these events—men like Brooklynite William Harding, president of the coachmakers-i-argued that an eight-hour day would ease the crushing workload that made laborers slaves to their jobs. “Labor-saving” machines should start saving labor, rather than just increasing profits. Eight hours for work and eight for sleep would leave eight more in which to develop their human capacities, to be with their families, to get some fun out of life. The working class should get to enjoy the pleasures of the city. There was, Harding reminded his audiences, a fine picture gallery in the Cooper Institute, but not one in twenty workingmen had time to see it. A band gave concerts in Central Park, but artisans hadn’t time to hear it. “Should it not,” he asked, “play for the mechanics in this republic as well as for the millionaire?” Shorter hours would make it feasible for workers to live farther away from their jobs and escape the tenement districts. Shorter hours would cut unemployment, by requiring more workers to maintain existing production levels. Shorter hours would ward off depressions, by boosting wages and increasing purchasing power.

Moving beyond speechmaking, the Workingmen’s Union petitioned New York State to pass an eight-hour law In April 1866 shipyard workers at the Greenpoint yards launched a strike for the eight-hour day. It was broken, but the sounds of labor’s growing militancy were heard up in Albany. State legislators disagreed on how to respond. The ruling Radical Republicans had demonstrated, in the cases of the fire department and the Board of Health, that they were prepared to use government to redress social ills. They liked the eight-hour issue’s potential to attract Democratic workmen to their party. They appreciated the argument that laborers would use the extra time to improve their character as citizens and workers.

But Radicals worried about intervening in capital-labor relations. The idea went beyond guaranteeing the equality of individuals and smacked of “class legislation,” which might open the door to more extreme proposals. Some lawmakers were convinced that workers would use their leisure time to drink themselves into a stupor. Others argued that hours legislation violated both the “natural law” of supply and demand and the “liberty” of the worker. “This is a free country,” said one Republican, “and everybody ought to be allowed to work just as long as he pleases.”

They settled on a spurious compromise, embodied in the Eight Hour Law of April 1867. The legislation set eight hours as the legal length of a working day but allowed longer workdays if arranged by “mutual consent.” If a laborer worked “overtime,” moreover, he or she was not entitled to extra compensation. Nor did the state create an administrative agency to monitor compliance. Employers ignored the law.

Unions decided to enforce it on their own. At the beginning of the 1868 construction season, over two thousand bricklayers struck for a 20 percent reduction of hours (from ten to eight), to be partly offset by a 10 percent cut in wages (from $5.00 to $4.50). Boss masons fought back furiously, supported by investors and clients like Vanderbilt who would brook no impediment to the breakneck and profitable pace of construction. They organized an employers’ association, advertised in other cities for replacement workers, and sued the journeymen under state conspiracy laws.

Other workers, realizing a crucial test of strength was at hand, rallied to the builders’ support. When bricklayers at the new Arnold Constable site insisted on a shorter workday, plasterers and painters walked off as well. Traveling committees went to Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Philadelphia, dissuaded scabs from coming, and got union locals there to provide money and roughly a thousand jobs for their beleaguered New York comrades. The Workingmen’s Union organized a mammoth street procession, headed by two thousand bricklayers, and held a militant rally at Cooper Institute. By 1869 a majority of builders were working eight hours. So were federal employees at the Navy Yard, thanks to the Radical Republican Congress and the Grant administration.

The gains proved difficult to sustain, however, thanks in part to Jay Gould. In the slump that followed the unraveling of his gold corner in September 1869, many employers successfully forced hours back up to ten, so the unions turned again to politics. In the fall of 1869, claiming that “both of the existing parties are corrupt, serving capital instead of labor,” the Workingmen’s Union, the Arbeiter Union, and the Irish unions combined to run independent labor candidates. Their electoral initiative was defeated, as were others in 1870 and 1871, so they had to rely on workplace battles to wring concessions on wages and hours from employers.


Many unionists believed labor’s ills were exacerbated by the financial system. New York workers watched the shenanigans on the Stock Exchange, probed the impact of the new banking system, and called for a change in monetary policy. Before the war labor had fought for hard money against the depreciated paper notes issued by banks. Now, with bondholders clamoring for a return to the gold standard, unions backed paper currency. What linked labor’s old “hard” and new “soft” money programs was the insistence that control over currency should be taken from banks and given to government.

The soft money policy was adopted by the new National Labor Union, established in 1866, when officers of nine national unions—all residents of the metropolitan area—met in New York City. The union aimed to coordinate labor activity on a continental scale, support the eight-hour day, and fight the “Money Power.” When Republicans (and Wall Street Democrats) triumphantly passed the Public Credit Act guaranteeing a return to specie payments, many workingmen decried a bondholder victory engineered (they were darkly convinced) by “the Rothschilds and their agents here.”

Another set of participants in the postwar labor movement, the German socialists, supported both the eight-hour day and currency reform but argued that such piecemeal single-issue strategies were doomed from the start, that only a broad-based attack on the entire capitalist order could succeed. The sole survivor of the prewar movement, Friedrich Sorge’s Communist Club, affiliated itself with Karl Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) and in the late 1860s received reinforcements when radical brewers, metalworkers, and printers arrived from Germany. Radical intellectuals arrived as well—followers of Ferdinand Lassalle—who proposed organizing cooperatives, a shopworn approach to which they gave a new twist. Co-ops, Lassalleans argued, could compete with capitalist firms if they got financing from the state, so workers should use the ballot to attain political power.

In 1868 New York’s Marxists and Lassalleans joined forces and plunged into politics. Their platform called for the eight-hour day, currency reform, a progressive income tax, and equal rights for men and women. They got nowhere electorally. But digging in for the long haul, they reconstituted themselves as Section 1 of the IWA, with Sorge as secretary. The IWA, headquartered at Broome and Forsythe (near Fanny Wright’s 1829 Hall of Science), had strong links to the German trade unions, and it became the backbone of a renewed socialist movement in New York City. Like other German-American vereins, the socialists created an array of neighborhood clubs, chiefly organized by socialist women, who arranged bake fests, musical performances, “hen parties,” excursions, and events at the socialist-owned Germania Hall in the Bowery.

Their very success at rooting themselves in Kleindeutschland concerned the ever practical Marx, who sent word from London that the nascent American socialist movement had better expand beyond “foreigners residing in the U.S.” Sorge protested this characterization, calling his members “adopted citizens,” but others admitted that “we Germans do not mingle with Americans in public.” In July 1871, accordingly, two “American sections” were admitted to the International.

The leaders of Sections 9 and 12 were indigenous (and mostly elderly) New York land reformers and labor activists. Some had been engaged in radical politics since the era of the Loco Focos. They included John Commerford, the chairmaker who had presided over the National Trades Union in 1835, Lewis Masquerier, who had helped George Henry Evans found the National Reform Association in 1844, and Stephen Pearl Andrews, the now sixty-year-old abolitionist, anarchist, mystic, Free Lover, and leader of a circle that included Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin.

These survivors of the successful crusade against slavery were determined to create a fully egalitarian society. Andrews and his comrades were radical democrats, convinced that extending citizenship rights to blacks and women was the best way to right society’s wrongs. They also supported a vast range of other reforms—universal religion, universal language, universal world government—some with distinctly crankish aspects. They ardently opposed monopolies, landlords, politicians, and clerics but were also, as Marxists noted with alarm, hostile to class-based movements and sought the “Scientific Reconciliation of Labor and Capital.” Yet it was clear to the Germans that, all in all, the American sections’ democratic egalitarianism and experience with direct action made them a potentially potent addition. For the moment, the IWA flourished—by the end of 1871 there were thirty-three sections, with five thousand members—and it received the endorsement of the English-speaking New York Workingmen’s Assembly led by the sympathetic William J. Jessup.

Working women, on the other hand, though they would have liked to join the resurgent labor movement, continued to be unwelcome. So some responded positively when, as before the war, they received offers of help from middle-class women—this time not religious reformers but suffrage leaders. Stanton and Anthony turned to workers in their search for allies. The Revolution embraced the eight-hour day and greenbackism, agreed that the working class was the source of all wealth, accepted that the rich had stolen their wealth from those who created it, and declared that strikes were legitimate tools of working people.

As part of their new concern for the condition of working women in New York City, feminists investigated the situation of seamstresses at A. T. Stewart’s department store, and in 1868, Anthony and Stanton established the Workingwoman’s Association, initially composed chiefly of female typographers who worked in The Revolution’s shop. Publishers confronting strikes by the all-male National Typographical Union had made a practice of training women as compositors, employing them as scabs, then firing (or demoting) them once the men were brought to terms. This had created a pool of semiskilled, semitrained women floating around the industry, whom Anthony through the typographers offered to help organize. The female printers decided to take her up on it, though nervous about being tagged “strong-minded” women of a Bloomer persuasion.

Though Stanton and Anthony hoped the Workingwoman’s Association would in the long run establish unions in every industry employing women and forge a crossclass alliance behind women’s suffrage, in the short term the group provided Anthony with the credentials she needed to join the National Labor Union, whose members she wished to lobby on behalf of women’s rights. The NLU accepted her as a delegate to the New York City convention in 1868, in part because it too was looking for allies. But as soon as Anthony raised feminist issues, it became clear this would be a difficult coalition to cement. The NLU’s base of skilled white craft workers saw working women as competitors. They also believed women were “created” to be “the presiding deity of the home circle,” as one NLU leader argued, there to “console us in our declining years.”

What shattered the alliance was a labor conflict that pointed up the gap between middle-class feminists and working-class unionists. The National Typographical Union, impressed with the new militancy of female printers, moved to placate and incorporate them. They were accepted as an NTU local, and when male printers struck the World, the women refused to replace them. But now Anthony stepped forward as a


The Upstairs Sewing Room at A.T. Stewart’s store on Broadway at Tenth Street, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 24, 1875. While middle- and upper-class women thronged the emporiums of Ladies’ Mile below, regiments of working-class seamstresses toiled under the watchful eyes of male supervisors. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

strikebreaker. She offered the Workingwoman’s Association as a place where publishers could train women to be scabs, arguing (as did employers) that it was only seeking new opportunities for females. Printers at the national convention in 1869 demanded Anthony’s ouster, and got it.

The Workingwoman’s Association did not last much longer, but its existence marked an important development. In the past, the conventional linkages between upper- and lower-class women—charitable enterprises launched by ladies—had been one-sided and condescending. The Workingwoman’s Association, though riddled with mutual misunderstandings, suggested the possibility of a more coequal coalition.


Even with improved wages, the bulk of the working class—still unable to afford public transportation—had to live near their jobs. For most this meant Manhattan’s rim, the tenement-lined streets leading back from the docks into a mixed terrain of heavy industry and light manufacture. The twenty-five thousand ironworkers walked to great foundries rooted on the East and Hudson river shorelines, near their rail and sea lifelines. Clothing sweatshops sprouted in the Lower East Side wards to be near their cheap labor supplies (some women outworkers rarely left their tenements at all). Bohemian cigarmakers too worked at home now that cigar molds made it possible to do so.

The proximity of community to industry cast a pall over daily life. Admixed with foundries and factories were reeking gasworks, putrid slaughterhouses, malodorous railyards, rotting wharves, and stinking manure piles, which gave the working-class quarters their distinctively fetid quality. In the Lower (predominantly Irish and German) East and West Side wards, the stench was compounded by Tweed’s inaction. The race to develop the uptown wards left scant energy or public capital available to rescue the downtown districts, many built on filled-in swampland. Poorly designed sewage pipes were left to spew their putrefying contents into cobblestoned streets, where they mingled With animal wastes, and where at night homeless children slept in abandoned carts and wagons. Cholera and other diseases devastated such streets. In 1866 the death rate reached 195 per thousand in the worst blocks. Even the cantankerous George Templeton Strong muttered, “It is shameful that men, women and children should be permitted to live in such holes.”

Those who could, moved. Conditions were far better in the newer tenements of Yorkville or Harlem, if one had the cash for a horsecar commute downtown or found a job in the factories, stoneyards, or gas tanks moving north along the East River. But sleazy conditions crept uptown too, as speculators threw up rookeries on the damp and low-lying streets leading from First Avenue down to the waterfront. The area’s many vacant lots were used as garbage dumps, through which poor women and children scavenged, and stables from near and far dropped their loads at colossal manure heaps. Conditions on the far West Side were no better. The immigrant residential areas abutting the railyards, factories, and the stinking Manhattan Gas Works at 18th and Tenth were so bad that their upper reaches, around the west 30s and 40s, became known as Hell’s Kitchen (the name borrowed from an old Corlear’s Hook dive or perhaps a local gang).

Other workers fled Manhattan for Brooklyn. Conditions were marginally better in the factory-warehouse districts along the Red Hook waterfront and around the Gowanus Canal, and considerably so in the growing downtowns of Brooklyn proper, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint and in the upper stretches (around Myrtle Avenue) of Bushwick and Bedford. Other laborers settled on the new urban frontiers: the bluecollar, oil-worker town of Hunter’s Point (soon Long Island City), the company town of Steinway, or industrial villages like College Point, Woodhaven, and Mott Haven in the Bronx. In 1869 the German Cabinetmakers Association of New York cooperatively purchased five East Astoria farms, covering ninety-one acres; in 1870 they opened a hotel and a shooting gallery that within two years had blossomed into Scheutzen Park, a seven-acre grove complete with woodland, shooting galleries, and dancing pavilions.

Working women had special problems finding housing. Those who entered service were provided for, of course, though the “new conveniences” seldom reached the topfloor servants’ quarters, whose inhabitants still washed weekly in a tub in the kitchen. Clothing workers continued to pool their low wages and rent a garret or tenement room. But the ranks of single laboring women had grown greatly in the backwash of civil war, a function of mass widowhood, economic dislocation, and a dearth of marriageable men. And many boardinghouses—the chief mainstay of single men—refused to accept single women.

Middle-class reformers made some efforts on their behalf. The Female Christian Home and Ladies Christian Association (later the YWCA) founded a Young Woman’s Home to promote the “temporal moral and religious welfare of women, particularly of young women dependent on their own exertions for support.” The Five Points House of Industry, aided by the state, remodeled the old six-story tenement on Elizabeth Street, built in 1855 by the AICP as a “Workmen’s Home,” and renamed it the Home for Working Women. It provided its five hundred boarders and employees with six dormitories, a large dining room, parlors with donated pianos and organs, a sewing room, and a library with daily papers, but it required character references to enter and attendance at prayers to stay.

These initiatives served as models for A. T. Stewart, who wanted to repay his debt to the women who had made his fortune (and perhaps encourage his current employees to remain unmarried longer, and help expand his fortune farther). Stewart built a magnificent hotel for working women of good character on Fourth and 32nd. Its sumptuous apartments, for a thousand women, put it on a par with the city’s top hotels, and Stewart planned to rent them at an affordable $2.50 a week for room and board. But Stewart died in 1876, and his executors upped the charges to seven dollars—knocking out seamstresses and dry-goods clerks but accommodating teachers, bookkeepers, and governesses. When it still continued to lose money, it was shut down altogether after a scant two months of philanthropic life and reopened as a luxury hotel.


Relations between working-class blacks and whites did not improve in the decade after the draft riots, and labor’s new solidarity did not extend across racial lines. When Susan B. Anthony asked why unions didn’t lower their barriers to women, a baffled printer replied: “You might as well ask why we don’t send for the colored men or the Chinese to learn the trade.” White contractors and work gangs collaborated in keeping black workers from the docks, pits, and quarries and in terrorizing those who did get hired, even though the costs of such racial exclusion kept mounting. An 1866 strike by Greenpoint shipyard workers had been successful—until black caulkers were brought in from Portsmouth, Virginia, to replace them, which further poisoned relations.

In 1869 blacks demanded an “equal right to labor with all other classes of our fellow citizens,” calling the exclusion policy “strong evidence of the power which the spirit of slavery and caste still holds over the mind of our white fellow citizens.” The sole positive response came from Section 1 of the IWA, the only white citywide labor group that actively promoted the organization of black workers—one reason the National Colored Labor Convention sent a delegate to the 1870 Paris Congress of the First International.

Excluded from the mechanical trades—a machinist with Admiral Farragut found he couldn’t get a job in the city—blacks remained sequestered in the laboring and service sectors as longshoremen, laundresses, sailors, waiters, barbers, cooks, servants, coachmen, or porters or in a handful of skilled crafts jobs. Excluded from the unions, laborers, longshoremen, and artisans gathered in the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, founded in 1808 and still going strong, while black caterers, coachmen, barbers, and seamen formed their own organizations.

Despite the generally dismal circumstances, the city’s shrunken black community began to regenerate itself. At war’s end there were but 14,804 African-Americans in New York and Brooklyn combined, five thousand fewer than in 1840, and they constituted a scant 1.4 percent of the total population. The populace grew 26.7 percent between 1865 and 1870 and jumped by another 53.6 percent over the next decade, partly through natural increase and partly via the flow of immigrant freedmen who began to trickle north, primarily from Virginia.

Internal migration was more dramatic. In the 1860s and 1870s, though some blacks still lived in Greenwich Village, like “sardines in a box in rickety-old houses,” many more had migrated to enclaves in Hell’s Kitchen. These were among the meanest areas in the city but were within walking distance of such longshore and service jobs as remained open to them. Churches relocated accordingly. St. Mark’s Methodist Episcopal and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal moved uptown. New congregations opened as well, like Mount Olivet Baptist, which appealed particularly to southern newcomers. Philanthropists followed too. The Quakers’ New York Colored Mission settled on West 30th Street to seek the “religious, moral and social elevation of the Colored People”; it offered Sunday school, Bible classes, aid for the sick and underfed, and a nursery school to get children out of apartments “while laundry work was carried on.”

Brooklyn had been attracting blacks since the draft riots, though here too numbers remained small. In 1870, out of a total Brooklyn population of approximately 420,000, roughly fifty-six hundred were African Americans, and they were scattered across widely separated communities. The Fort Greene Park area, south and east of the Navy Yard, and the stretch along Atlantic Avenue to the western border of Bedford both witnessed black development in these years. The black enclave at Weeksville-Carrville still hosted 650 in 1875, though much of the area was destroyed when Eastern Parkway and other streets were cut through the area, and it soon lost its African-American character.


New York’s working people divided along racial and ethnic lines at play as well as at work and in their residential quarters, in part because so many leisure-time activities were themselves structured around existing communal institutions: fraternal orders, benevolent societies, political and social clubs, militias and rifle clubs, unions, churches, and family groups.

After the war Kleindeutschland’s Germans enhanced the already considerable number of spaces devoted to community pastimes, adding Walhalla Hall, Beethoven Hall, and a new Turn Halle, among many others. Here German confectioners, upholsterers, barbers, horseshoers, morocco dressers, and goldworkers could hold their fall and winter balls.

German (and Irish) associations also traipsed en masse to pleasure spots around the metropolitan area. At first, the favorite Manhattan venue was Jones’ Wood, where the Schermerhorn and Jones families had leased their grounds to entrepreneurs who established a commercial picnic ground and hotel there. The proprietors then rented out the space to ethnic, social, athletic, and religious groups, who arranged their own excursions or festivals. Germans arrived in great numbers—by steamboat or the Second and Third Avenue street railways—to dance to German music, watch gymnastic exhibitions, and drink lager beer. The Scottish Caledonian Society held track and field games at Jones’ Wood, and Irish church groups and temperance societies held annual excursions and fund-raising picnics.

Improved transport made trips farther afield practical too. The Journeymen Plumbers traveled (along with Wallach’s Brass Band) by steamboat and barge up the Hudson to hold their annual picnics at Dudley’s Grove. Nearby rural Queens County was even more popular. Every Sunday four to five thousand would cross to Hunter’s Point on the 34th Street ferry and fan out to various country retreats for picnics. On one fine afternoon in 1872 so many Germans flocked to Schuetzen Park to hear the Prussian Guard Band play that over a thousand were turned away. Steamers ferried massive crowds directly to weekend resorts like Witzel’s twenty-seven-acre establishment at College Point for eels, clams, and beer and to Coney Island, whose west end was an increasingly popular destination.

Working people avoided the new Central Park at first—aside from special occasions like July 4—as Olmsted’s rules forbidding German singing society picnics or Irish church suppers made it clear that visitors were welcome only on bourgeois terms. Things changed when Tweed’s charter transferred power from state to city. The Tweed regime did not, as the New York Times was convinced it would, turn the park over to rowdies, peddlers, and prostitutes. Tammany politicians actually improved the park—while lining their pockets and those of well-connected contractors. It also loosened park rules, expanded permissible activities, and added new attractions like boat rentals, Sunday pony rides (though religious groups blocked Sunday concerts), and a children’s carousel, turned by a blind mule in the basement. Above all the Democrats renovated the Arsenal Zoo in 1870. By 1873 park attendance had jumped 43 percent, and the zoo, a free attraction, was the destination of roughly one of every four visitors (especially after circus owners like P. T. Barnum began quartering animals there). Working-class visitation continued to soar in the late 1870s, as the Sixth Avenue El cut twenty minutes off travel time from downtown and more working people had moved within walking distance. Sundays in the park were now dominated by working-class visitors, especially Germans.

Alongside these communal activities the city’s expanding commercial culture attracted people on a more individual basis. On Saturday evening, their week’s wages in hand, working people still headed for the Bowery. From its lower reaches in the Five Points up to its northern end where it spilled into the Union Square Rialto area, the Bowery was aflame with gas-lit clusters of white, red, blue, and green glass globes. The street itself was filled with entertainers: four- or five-piece German bands playing waltzes and schottisches, organ grinders with gaudily attired monkeys, black quartets singing spirituals, street vendors hawking hot corn and fresh oysters (the latter served raw, with pepper sauce, for a penny apiece). Illuminated signs—a good half now in German—pinpointed the tremendous variety of indoor attractions, including the Lagerbier saloons, the Weinstuben (“Grosses Conzert, Eintritt Frei”), and huge establishments like the Atlantic Garden where German families sang songs of the fatherland or listened to orchestras perform Strauss, Wagner, and Beethoven.

Popular theaters—including the old Bowery, still going strong—offered melodramas like The Three Fast Men, or New York by Daylight and Gaslight and dramatized stories from the New York Weekly like Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl. Many featured elaborate special effects and mechanisms, such as trains, fires, and live animals. Some houses specialized in Irish dramas in which virtuous peasant girls and high-minded patriots joined forces to confound designing English dukes. As in prior generations, actors engaged in colloquies with the peanut-and sausage-munching audiences (families held mini-picnics in the second tier). Marching down front after a particularly patriotic speech, they would demand, “Isn’t that so, boys?” and receive an earsplitting affirmation. Other houses presented musical extravaganzas, burlesque, and French opéra bouffe.

Bowery dime museums presented mechanical contrivances, flea circuses, and wax figures: one such establishment had a fake Dante’s Inferno peopled by the likes of Tweed, Gould, and Henry Ward Beecher. A panorama building housed a Gettysburg cyclorama where audiences stood while unfolding canvases depicted the clash of armies (accompanied by narration from a uniformed veteran). Lent’s New York Circus at 14th Street (just across from the elite’s Academy of Music) boasted equestrian rings—larger than Astley’s in London or the Cirque Napoleon in Paris—where one could see horseback riders, high-wire artists, clowns, and animal acts.

“Variety” shows refused to specialize in any one popular entertainment form but mixed them all. Starting in 1865 Tony Pastor, a former clown and veteran concert saloon entertainer, ran one out of an old Bowery theater. Tony Pastor’s was known as a bar-free family house, a place to take one’s maiden aunt. It mixed blackface minstrelsy, clog dances, magicians, acrobats, tableaux vivants, sing-alongs with Tony, and plays presenting idealized pictures of life on the Lower East Side (like The Little Fraud, in which Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart made their first appearance in September of 1872).

Tammany Hall merged politics and entertainment, already stylistically similar, in its new headquarters (1868) just off Union Square at 141 East 14th Street. The Tammany Society kept only one room for itself, renting the rest to entertainment impresarios: Dan Bryant’s Minstrels, a German theater company, classical concerts and opera. The basement—in the French mode—offered the Café Ausant, where one could see tableaux vivant, gymnastic exhibitions, pantomimes, and Punch and Judy shows. There was also a bar, a bazaar, a Ladies’ Cafe, and an oyster saloon. All this—with the exception of Bryant’s—was open from seven till midnight for a combination price of fifty cents.

All-male audiences could enjoy raunchier entertainments. After 1874 Robinson Hall presented the cancan—“funny, frenchy, spicy and sparkling”—which was such a hit the theater changed its name to Parisian Varieties. This inspired the Columbia Café to open in 1875 with “the Latest Parisian Novelties,” including risqué pieces like Cleopatra’s Amours and Fifty Nice Girls in Naughty Sketches. The competition soon generated full-fledged girly shows—“spicy French Sensations” such as Beautiful Minnet Dances from the Jardin Mabille, Paris and The Sultan’s Harem, or Secrets of the Seraglio.

Raunchier still—and far more participatory—were the concert halls at the Bowery’s lower end, in the Five Points, or along the waterfront. Many were gas-lit basement dives—like Sailor’s Welcome Home or the Jolly Tar—which cajoled sailors through their red-curtained doors down to rooms where pianos rolled and drinks were brought to bare tables by waiter-girls. Other desires could usually be accommodated on the premises—in gambling rooms, cockpits, boxing rings, or ersatz seraglios complete with women in Turkish costumes.

Finally, there were the real workshops of commercial sex, brothels geared to male laborers. The female laborers here worked in unappealing conditions. The madams, entrepreneurs of sex, charged their girls—the appropriate term, as many of the whores were between ten and fifteen—weekly board and took half their income. Given their vested interest in productivity, the madams insisted on a high-volume, high-turnover strategy. On Saturday and Sunday nights lines formed outside the most successful houses. One Stakhanovite of sex serviced fifty-eight men in three hours. The more routine (but still strenuous) rate averaged between from seventy to a hundred encounters a week, at one to two dollars for ten to fifteen minutes in the sack.


Sensational fiction was another working-class pleasure—quite different from the genteel fiction served up in Harper’s or Scribner’s—which New York publishers specialized in generating. The front counters of corner groceries sold story papers like Beadle and Adams’s Saturday Journal and George Munro’s Fireside Companion. Aimed at the


Inside John Allen’s Dance House on Water Street, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 8, 1868. Allen provided small rooms in the rear of the house for prostitition, each of which he equipped with a Bible. In 1868, he began allowing prominent evangelists to hold prayer meetings in his establishment, which soon lost its clientele and was converted into a revival hall. (General Research. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

entire family, they offered eight pages of illustrated adventure stories and domestic romances, usually three or four serialized episodes per issue. The installments were then collated and reprinted as pamphlet novels selling for a nickel or ten cents and packaged in “libraries.”

The form was pioneered by Erastus Beadle, a small New York City publisher of ten-cent song and etiquette books, who in 1860 began bringing out a weekly series of pamphlet novelettes known as Beadle’s Dime Novels. During the Civil War these handy, pocket-sized (four by six inches, a hundred pages) “yellow-backs” became enormously popular with young soldiers. Beadle published four million by 1865. Competitors sprang up immediately. George Munro, a clerk in the Beadle enterprise, started his own operation in 1863, and by the 1870s his firm had become one of the largest mass-fiction publishers in the country.

Dime novel entrepreneurs employed journalists, teachers, and clerks to hack out formulaic literary commodities. The intended audience was composed of skilled craftsmen, factory workers, and laborers, at times sorted out ethnically, as with the Ten Cent Irish Novels and George Munro’s Die Deutsche Library, though none addressed blacks. Many serials spoke to young female domestic servants, but the overwhelming targets were young men and boys.

The papers and booklets, heavily advertised, were distributed nationally by the monopolistic American News Company (formed in 1864) along the new trunk railway lines. But their premier audience, and often premier subject, lay in the city itself, especially in the case of crime thrillers. In this poe-initiated genre, a professional villain, often of “foreign” blood, was tracked down and jailed, murdered, or banished back to his “foreign” clime by a stern and paternal detective. The most famous, Old Sleuth, first appeared in the 1872 “Old Sleuth, the Detective; or, the Bay Ridge Mystery,” in George Munro’s New York Fireside Companion. The New York private eye (his card read “Sleuth, Detective”) was a spectacular success. Crime dimes—like Alger’s books—helped demystify the city. They showed, as the plot rolled along, how to secure a cheap room, open a bank account, go shopping, and avoid con men. They also provided a vicarious peek at upper-class exotica such as masked balls and Fifth Avenue mansions.

Western adventures, another wildly popular genre, were also churned out en masse in the metropolis. The West had long been promoted by city-based land reformers as a rural Utopia of small republican farm communities. The dime novel West—peopled by savages, scouts, desperadoes, and dance hall madams—was a more individualistic place, where white men could make a new start, a world of gambling, gold, and guns where—unlike the city—masters of property and capital were not in control. Out west unfettered heroes like “Ralph Rockwood, the Reckless Ranger” or “Deadwood Dick” and even “Calamity Jane” triumphed over greedy villains—often bankers. The most triumphant of all was Buffalo Bill.

In 1869 the publishers of the New York Weekly signed Astor Place riot veteran Edward Z. C. Judson—better known as Ned Buntline—to write a series of sensational westerns. On a trip to interview Frank North, a well-known frontier scout, Buntline ran across William S. Cody, whom he considered a more promising candidate, gave him a more crowd-pleasing cognomen, and began writing. In December Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men appeared in New York, the first of 550 dime novels about Cody to follow.

By the time Cody came to New York City (in 1872) as Bennett Junior’s guest, Buntline had turned out three sequels and produced a play. When Cody took in the perfor­mance at Niblo’s Gardens—and received an ovation—he realized the commercial possibilities of becoming the author of his own melodramas, rather than a star in someone else’s. Jettisoning Buntline, whose bombastic style had become a liability, he took on as a press agent Major John M. Burke, one of the earliest geniuses of publicity.

For the 1873-74 season, Cody joined forces with Wild Bill Hickok—another metropolitan media star, who had shot to fame after publication of an article in Harper’s Monthly—persuading him to come to New York and play himself. Cody sent precise instructions: “You will land in New York at the 42nd St. depot. To avoid getting lost in the big city, take a cab at the depot and you will be driven to the hotel in a few minutes. Pay the cabman two dollars. These New York cabmen are regular holdup men, and your driver may want to charge you more, but do not pay more than two dollars under any circumstances.” The cabbie charged him five, and Hickok refused stoutly. When the cabbie announced he would “take the rest out of your hide,” the long-haired Hickok flattened him with a roundhouse swing. Despite this impressive entrance, Hickok couldn’t make the jump to performer for the metropolitan masses. He found “making a show of yourself” ridiculous and embarrassing and finally headed back west. Cody, however, was making a fortune with his growing repertory of western dramas, ground out by Bowery hacks on a piecework basis, and the Buffalo Bill Combination launched an eleven-season run.


Like their detective hero Old Sleuth, dime novel aficionados found plenty of criminality close to home. The laboring quarters were the primary stomping grounds for the city’s gangs—though “gangsters” was increasingly the more appropriate term—and host to a newly professionalized criminal fraternity that grew up on the underside of working-class life.

The old Bowery Boys and Dead Rabbits, for all the mayhem they inflicted (mainly on each other), had not been really criminal organizations. They were, rather, part of the rowdy republican universe; the same skilled craftsmen and laboring men often turned up as volunteer firemen or militia units serving semicivic functions.

Now, however, following the lead of antebellum river pirates, many gangs preyed professionally on citizens and businesses. They broke into houses in daylight, beat and robbed strangers by night, levied tribute on merchants and factory owners, stole from warehouses and railroad yards. The piers remained a favorite thieving ground, with their piles of unprotected goods heaped up for easy plunder. An estimated million dollars’ worth of merchandise was stolen annually in the late 1860s by river thieves like the Hell’s Kitchen Gang headquartered around Eighth Avenue and 34th.

Some of the post-Appomattox crime wave was the doing of battle-hardened veterans, familiars of pain and death, but the period also saw a rapid growth of juvenile and teenage gangs (now called “hoodlums,” a word newly arrived from San Francisco). New legions erupted from the slum streets: the Baxter Street Dudes; the Nineteenth Street Gang (on Tenth Avenue); the Fourth Avenue Tunnel Gang (denizens of the 34th to 42nd Street horsecar conduit, led by young Richard Croker). Some were willing to contract out their violent services if the price was right: the Whyos, early pioneers of mayhem for money, would blacken eyes, break jaws, shoot legs off, or “do the big job” all according to an established scale of prices.

Crude criminality was countered by crude policing. Before patrolman Alexander S. Williams graduated so gleefully to the Tenderloin, the huge former ship’s carpenter had worked the Houston Street and Broadway area. On his first day out he selected two of the toughest local hoods, knocked them cold with his club, and hurled them through the window of their favorite saloon. Reportedly averaging a fight a day for the next four years, Clubber Williams (as he soon became known) was promoted in 1871 to captain in the Gas House district, home to the Gas House Gang. Williams formed a strong-arm squad that proceeded to club local gangsters senseless, with or without provocation. “There is more law in the end of a policeman’s nightstick,” Clubber reflected, “than in a decision of the Supreme Court.”

Street gangs were arguably less significant in New York’s outlaw annals than a much smaller confraternity of criminals who dwelt in the working-class world but modeled themselves on the professional classes above them. Eschewing brute force, these more resourceful outlaws prized planning and analysis, and they scanned the contemporary landscape for entrepreneurial opportunities. Happily for them, almost every new enterprise developed by legitimate businessmen could also be considered a novel source of profit by their netherworld counterparts. As the postwar economy grew more specialized and sophisticated, so did those who preyed upon it.

With the tremendous expansion in the circulation of easily negotiable paper—greenbacks and federal bonds—and concomitant increase in everyday impersonal commercial transactions, a crew of sophisticated counterfeiters, forgers, and white-collar con artists sprang into being. The City Bank forked over seventy-five thousand dollars in exchange for a check purportedly signed by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Liquid assets had to be shuttled about the financial districts, so gangs waylaid messengers carrying money or securities between banks or, on a grander scale usually associated with the Wild West, hijacked rail shipments: the Tenth Avenue Gang boarded an express train of the Hudson River Rail Road at Spuyten Duyvil and got away with an iron box stuffed with greenbacks and government bonds.

As an ever-growing number of banks filled up with deposits, safecrackers and bank robbers made New York City their national headquarters. Some people called the robbery of Rufus Lord’s Exchange Place office in 1867, in which a three-man team made off with cash and securities worth over a million dollars, the first “truly professional” crime. But that isolated coup was as nothing compared to the body of work sustained over years by George Leonidas Leslie (or Western George, as he was known) and his colleagues. This Ohio immigrant lived a remarkable double life. At one moment he was an independently wealthy man-about-town, known for his impeccable manners, his tailoring, his love of books, and his membership in several excellent clubs. At other moments he headed a highly sophisticated gang of bank robbers whose careful preparations—obtaining architect’s plans of the building under scrutiny, or constructing special burglars’ tools—helped pull off perhaps a hundred jobs like the robbery, in 1869, of the Ocean National Bank at Greenwich and Fulton, which netted them over threequarters of a million dollars. Beginning in 1875, Western George spent three years preparing for his master heist, a knockover of the Manhattan Savings Institution on Bleecker and Broadway, arrangements that included purchasing a duplicate of the Manhattan’s vault in order to ferret out its weak spots. In the end his team of specialists made off with nearly three million dollars, though it turned out that not all the bonds were negotiable.

Not all the opportunities afforded by the city were on this munificent scale, but there was as much work available for the minnows of crime as for the whales. Crowded streetcars became traveling meccas for the hordes of pickpockets (and, on occasion, the hijacking of an entire vehicle). Packed department stores turned into stamping grounds for light-fingered ladies. Commercial sex offered great opportunities for panel game entrepreneurs, some of whom, like Shang Draper, were highly organized: he had thirty salaried women working out of his saloon on Sixth Avenue between 29th and 30th streets enticing drunks to a house with sliding panels behind which confederates waited to relieve preoccupied marks of their possessions. Even old-fashioned muggers got up-to-date by purchasing knockout drops—chloral hydrate or morphine—from one of Diamond Charley’s traveling salesmen; a teaspoon’s worth in the victim’s beer saved time and muscle.

Professionals avoided violence as much as possible; of the forty-eight murders in 1868, almost all were committed by “youthful ruffians.” The best ones avoided drink and drugs, kept themselves in shape, and exchanged tips and tricks only with one another. Slowly a professional community emerged among the perhaps twenty-five hundred full-time criminals. Certain concert saloons became well-known hangouts, like Paddy Quinn’s Island No. 10, on Catherine Street just off the Bowery, or Bill Varley’s joint, in the basement of a Bowery hardware store.

This community had a distinctive hierarchy of criminal careers, ranked by skill and daring. Robbery, the premier form, had its own subspecialties: bank robbers ranked from bank-sneaks of the first class at the top down through damper-sneaks, safe-blowers, safe-bursters, and, the lowest grade, safe-breakers. Somewhere near the bottom in the community’s estimation dwelt the ghouls—grave robbers like the ones who snatched A. T. Stewart’s remains shortly after they were buried in St. Mark’s, and demanded a ransom of twenty thousand dollars from his widow, which the hard-nosed lady took a good two years to pay. The Vanderbilts took Stewart’s postmortem dilemma very much to heart and had Richard Morris Hunt design them an impregnable mausoleum on Staten Island.

Fencing too got professionalized in this period. Pawnbrokers and junk dealers still operated, but the smart thieves and prominent pickpockets like William Burke (better known for his later western exploits as Billy the Kid) patronized sophisticated operators like Rosenburg, who fronted as a respectable jeweler on the lower Bowery, or Traveling Mike, who frequented the Thieves Exchange (near Broadway and Houston).

The state-of-the-art practitioner, however, the queen of fences, was unquestionably Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum. This 250-pound, black-bonneted matron got her start after the war running teams of young pickpockets, supplying them bail if arrested and fencing their harvest from a clapboarded wing behind her haberdashery store at Clinton Street on the corner of Rivington. In time Marm concentrated on financing and directing operations of gangs of bank and store burglars, though, being a proto-feminist in her own way, she always found time to help female pickpockets, blackmailers, and con women get their careers off the ground. She particularly enjoyed throwing fancy dinner parties, á la Mrs. Astor, for members of the criminal fraternity.

One reason Marm Mandelbaum could dine in relative repose, despite the perils of her profession, was that she had the law firm of Howe and Hummel on an annual retainer of five thousand dollars. Big Bill Howe and Little Abe Hummel were as odd a pair, in their way, as Fisk and Gould were in theirs, and equally at the top of their field—the newly specialized profession of criminal law. Howe, like Fisk, was given to gaudy attire and clusters of diamonds and was also a master showman. In the courtroom his inspired rhetoric or ready tears worked wonders for his clients, famous and shady alike. The Gould-like Hummel—small, tidy, and precise—sported not gems but a death’s head watch charm and was master of the more subtle legal maneuvers.

Behind the lawyers were policemen and politicians. The Gilded Age witnessed an elaboration of the linkages between crime and politics established before the war. Politicos turned to gangsters for an election-day supply of muscle power and repeaters. Bill Varley’s joint was not only the resort of well-known burglars, it was also election headquarters for the energetic campaigns of electoral fraud waged during 1868 and 1870. Bribery and corruption of law enforcement officers became as commonplace as it was in the mainstream business world. The newly professionalized underworld nexus of criminals, fences, lawyers, police, and politicians would grow and deepen in coming generations, but the fundamental structure had been put in place.

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