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The Plug Uglies were a street gang (though most often referred to as a political club) that operated in the westside of Baltimore, Maryland from 1854 to 1860. The Plug Uglies coalesced shortly after the creation of the Mount Vernon Hook-and-Ladder Company, a volunteer fire company whose truck house was on Biddle Street, between Pennsylvania Avenue and Ross Street (later Druid Hill). They were originally runners and rowdies affiliated with the Mount Vernon. Plug Ugly captains included John English and James Morgan. Other prominent members were Louis A. Carl, George Coulson, George "Howard" Davis, Henry Clay Gambrill, Alexander Levy, Erasmus "Ras" Levy, James Wardell, and Wesley Woodward. The gang associated with the emerging American Party (the Know Nothings) in Baltimore.
Like similar associations in Baltimore and other United States cities during this period, the Plug Uglies' street influence made them useful to party politicians anxious to control the polls on Election Days. The Plug Uglies were the central figures in the first election riot in Baltimore in October 1855. Together with the Rip Raps, they were also actively involved in deadly rioting at the October 1856 municipal election in Baltimore and in similar violence at the Know-Nothing Riot in Washington in June 1857. At the Washington riot, the National Guard called out to quell the fighting, shot and killed ten citizens. Accounts of the Washington riot appeared in newspapers nationally and gained widespread notoriety for the Plug Uglies.
Besides election-day fighting, the gang was involved in several assassinations and shootings in Baltimore. Most notably, Plug Ugly Henry Gambrill was implicated in the murder of a Baltimore police officer in September 1858. Gambrill's trial (presided over by judge Henry Stump) and the subsequent deadly violence relating to it, made the crime one of the most sensational of the era.
The violence of the Plug Uglies and other political clubs had an important impact on Baltimore. It was largely responsible for the creation of modern policing and a paid, professional fire department, as well as court and electoral reforms. These reforms, together with the election of a Reform municipal administration in October 1860 and then the Civil War, led to the breaking up of the Plug Uglies.
Fallacy of the New York Plug Uglies
Herbert Asbury's book Gangs of New York has led to a popular misconception that the Plug Uglies were a New York gang. Historians and researchers, in locating the gang in New York, have followed Asbury, whose book blends fact and fiction. In Low Life (page 363), Luc Sante notes, "It is a compelling if somewhat ragtag book, cobbled from legend, memory, police records, the self-aggrandizements of aging crooks, popular journalism, and solid historical research. Tracing some of Asbury's wilder assertions became a sub-theme to my research, and indeed I was able to take a number of them back several stages before reaching a dead end."
Contrary to Asbury's assertion, there is no evidence of an organized gang called Plug Uglies operating in New York (see discussion page for this entry for a fuller description of this lack of evidence). Instead, the New York event to which the Plug Uglies are most often linked provides positive evidence that they were a Baltimore gang. On July 4, 1857, large-scale rioting erupted in New York. City newspaper accounts in the days following universally describe the fighting as being between the Dead Rabbits (an offshoot of the Roach Guards) and the Bowery Boys (some of them also identified as the Atlantic Guard). In at least two newspapers (New York Tribune and New York Times), these New York gangs are compared to the Baltimore Plug Uglies, whose name was fresh in the mind of the public because of the Know-Nothing Riot in Washington only a month earlier. According to the Tribune of July 6, 1857 (page 7), "The notoriety give [sic] to this Club of rowdies [Dead Rabbits] by these riots is destined to make them rivals--in point of unenviable reputation--of the 'Plug Uglies' of Baltimore, and renders a sketch of their rise and progress interesting." The description appeared under a sub-headline that read, "Plug Uglies Outdone". Asbury, who clearly read the newspaper accounts of these riots, inaccurately lumped the Baltimore Plug Uglies in with the infamous New York gangs of the Five Points district. All later accounts of the Plug Uglies as a New York gang, including Martin Scorsese's popular film Gangs of New York (2002), trace back to Asbury. None offer any primary source evidence of Plug Uglies operating in New York. Asbury's source may well have been Matthew Hale Smith's Sunshine and Shadow in New York, which avers that "The Bowery Boys, Plug Uglies, and low New York patronize this place [the Bowery Theatre], and the plays are of the Dick Turpin and blood-and-thunder school." Like "Bowery Boy," "Plug-Ugly" soon became a generic term, and Smith's usage may simply reflect this.
- Asbury, Herbert (1927) . The Gangs of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knoff. ISBN 0-09-943674-4.
- Haskins, James., Street Gangs, New York: Hastings House, 1974.
- Kobler, John., Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: J.P. Putnam's Sons, 1971.
- Peterson, Virgil., The Mob: 200 Years of Organized Crime in New York. Ottawa, Illinois: Green Hill, 1983.
- Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime (3rd ed.). New York: Facts on File Inc., 2005.
- Tracy Matthew Melton, Hanging Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore's Plug Uglies, 1854-1860 (2005). The story of the Plug Uglies.
- Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum (2001). A rich and well-researched description of the neighborhood named by Asbury as the home of the Plug Uglies. Anbinder finds no Plug Uglies there.
- Herbert Asbury, Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (1927). The source of the original fallacy of the New York Plug Uglies. A good, but not reliable, read.
- Luc Sante, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991). An excellent account that largely corrects Asbury on points.
- Martin Scorsese (director), Film Gangs of New York (2002).
- Plug Uglies!!! (Baltimore, 1856) song sheet. Shows the Plug Uglies as a Baltimore gang. The politicians referenced in the song include Henry Winter Davis, William Pinkney Whyte, and William P. Preston, all prominent Baltimore figures. View this song sheet at the American Memory site at the Library of Congress website  (keyword search "Plug Uglies").
- New York (Daily) Herald, July 6, 1857, page 7. Describes the Plug Uglies as a Baltimore gang.
- New York (Daily) Times, July 7, 1857, page 1. Describes the Plug Uglies as a Baltimore gang.
- Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury official website
- The Legend of Old Smoke Morrissey by John William Tuohy
- On April 26, 1860, Erasmus Levy led the mob which broke up the Maryland Republican Convention. "Maryland Republican Convention.; MEETING AT BALTIMORE--THE HALL MOBBED, AND THE CONVENTION DISPERSED.". New York Times archive. April 27, 1860. Retrieved March 27, 2012.
- Asbury, Gangs of New York (1927)
- Hale Smith, Matthew (1868). Sunshine and Shadow in New York. Hartford: J. B. Burr. p. 669.