Bowery Boys

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Bowery Boys
Bowery Boy.jpg
Bowery Boy of New York City in 1857
Founded by Michael Walsh, William "Bill the Butcher" Poole
Founding location Bowery, Manhattan, New York City
Years active Mid-19th century
Territory The Bowery, Manhattan, New York City
Ethnicity Non-Irish, European-American
Membership (est.) ?
Criminal activities street fighting, knife fighting assault, murder, robbery, arson, rioting
Allies American Guards, Atlantic Guards, O'Connell Guards, True Blue Americans, American Republican Party (American Nativist Party, American Party), Order of the Star Spangled Banner (Anti-immigrant secret society)
Rivals Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies, Roach Guards, Shirt Tails, Chichesters, Tammany Hall

The Bowery Boys were a Nativist, anti-Catholic, and anti-Irish gang based out of the Bowery neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City in the early-mid-19th century. In contrast with the Irish immigrant tenement of the Five Points, one of the worst city slums in America, the Bowery was a much more well-off working class community. Despite its reputation as one of the most notorious street gangs of New York City at the time, the majority of the Bowery Boys led law-abiding lifestyles for most of the week. The gang was made up exclusively of volunteer firemen—though some also worked as tradesmen, mechanics, and butchers (the primary trade of prominent leader William "Bill the Butcher" Poole)—and would fight rival fire companies over who would extinguish a fire. While acting in capacity as a gang (and aided by other Bowery gangs), the Bowery Boys often battled multiple outfits of the infamous Five Points, most notably the Dead Rabbits, with whom they would feud for decades. The uniform of a Bowery Boy generally consisted of a stovepipe hat in variable condition, a red shirt, and dark trousers tucked into boots, this style paying homage to their roots as volunteer firemen.


Moses Humphrey a Bowery grocer was the inspiration for Mose the fireman, the quintessential Bowery B'hoy folk hero

According to one historian, "it would be a mistake to identify the Bowery Boys as a specific group at a specific time . . .there were several gangs who referred to themselves as the Bowery Boys at various times under different leaders during the antebellum years."[1] Mike Walsh was largely considered the leader of the one of the first incarnations of the Bowery Boys.[2] Walsh acted as a political figure to the Bowery Boys and even became an elected official. He reached the peak of his popularity in 1843, when he created the political clubhouse he called the "Spartan Association", which consisted of factory workers and unskilled laborers.[3] Walsh felt that political leaders were treating the poor unfairly and wanted to make a difference by becoming a leader himself. Walsh was sentenced to jail twice, but the Bowery Boys became so powerful that they were able to bail him out during his second trip to jail. The front page of The Subterranean on April 4th read, "We consider the present infamous persecution of Mike Walsh a blow aimed at the honest laboring portion of this community".[4] Due to the threat of violence in the streets, Walsh was let out midway through his sentence. Walsh was considered by many to be the "champion of the poor man's rights". Walsh was eventually taken to Tammany Hall and was nominated for a seat in the state legislature, and even earned the support of poet Walt Whitman. Walsh eventually died in 1859 and his obituary in an edition of The Subterranean read that the leader of the Bowery Boys was an "original talent, rough, full of passionate impulses... but he lacked balance, caution-the ship often seemed devoid of both ballast and rudder". The obituary was thought to be written by Whitman.[5]

During the New York Draft Riots of 1863, the Bowery Boys took part in much of the looting while fighting with rival gangs. By the end of the decade, however, the gang had split into various factions as the Bowery Boys gradually disappeared.

Bowery Boys in the Bowery Theatre[edit]

The Bowery Boys were known to frequent theaters in New York City. Richard Butsch from The Making Of American Audience's said that, "they brought the street into the theater, rather than shaping the theater into an arena of the public sphere".[6] The Bowery Theater, in particular, was a favorite among the Bowery Boys. The Bowery Theatre was built in 1826 and soon became a theater for the working man. Walt Whitman described the theater as "packed from ceiling to pit with its audience, mainly of alert, well-dressed, full-blooded young and middle aged men, the best average of American-born mechanics".[7] Plays even began to appear in theaters frequented by the Bowery Boys with shows about Bowery Boys themselves. Particularly, a character named Moses who many Bowery Boys deemed as "the real thing".[8] It was not uncommon for men to drink, smoke, and meet with prostitutes in the theater. The Bowery Boys dominated the theater in the early 19th century and theater was considered to be a "male club".[9]

The interior of the Bowery Theatre 

In popular culture[edit]


The greatest enemy of the Bowery Boys were the Irish Dead Rabbits gang, with whom they fought pitched battles from the 1830s-1860s. 
View of fight between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys during the 1857 Dead Rabbits Riot in Five Points
Many gangs, including both the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits, clashed with police and Union Army troops in the 1863 New York City draft riots
Bowery Boys on a street corner in the Bowery of New York City

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Adams, Peter (2005). The Bowery Boys: Street Corner Radicals and the Politics of Rebellion. Praeger. p. xviii. 
  2. ^ Adams, Peter (2005). The Bowery Boys: Street Corner Radicals and the Politics of Rebellion. Praeger. p. 1. 
  3. ^ Adams, Peter (2005). The Bowery Boys: Street Corner Radicals and the Politics of Rebellion. Praeger. p. 1. 
  4. ^ Adams, Peter (2005). The Bowery Boys: Street Corner Radicals and the Politics of Rebellion. Praeger. p. 2. 
  5. ^ Adams, Peter (2005). The Bowery Boys: Street Corner Radicals and the Politics of Rebellion. Praeger. p. 3. 
  6. ^ Butsch, Richard. The Making of American Audiences. p. 44. 
  7. ^ Butsch, Richard. The Making of American Audiences. p. 46. 
  8. ^ Butsch, Richard. The Making Of American Audiences: From Stage To Television. 
  9. ^ Butsch, Richard. Bowery B'hoys and Matinee Ladies: The Re-Gendering of Nineteenth-Century American Theater Audiences. 

External links[edit]