On this date in 1853, two chiefs of the New York street gang Daybreak Boys were hanged at “the Tombs” jail in Manhattan.
It was a yeasty era in the Big Apple, burgeoning with immigrants into one of the great urban centers of the world. The city’s stupefying growth — it would triple in size during this generation — fertilized a thousand niches, neighborhoods and enclaves, all the boroughs’ glorious mess.
Not for the last time in the city’s history, organized crime* flourished, too:
Gangs were sometimes necessary as a support system for the new immigrants, who were otherwise powerless. Soon, the gangs were the undisputed rulers of their districts, and the politicians soon began to call upon them for assistance. Before long, an election day in New York City meant sinister looking men armed with clubs hovering around the polling places ensuring that people voted for the “right” candidate.
Other gangs operated independently of the political machines and served only themselves and answered to no one. They were found mostly along the waterfront of the Fourth Ward, and were likened to bloodthirsty pirates who plundered vessels in the harbor, killing anyone who got in their way.
The Daybreak Boys was one such gang. Operating out of Pete Williams’ gin mill at the intersection of James and Water Sts., an area known as Slaughterhouse Point, the Daybreakers were the terror of the East River in the early 1850s. Between 1850 and 1852, they were credited (blamed?) for the loss of $100,000 in property and at least 20 murders. The origin of their name is uncertain, though that they were known to operate on the East River sometimes into the early morning is a theory. The phonetic spelling of “b’hoy” soon became a badge of honor for men in the area, for a man was not truly considered part of the “in” crowd if he were not “one of the b’hoys.”
It was an era Martin Scorsese depicted in Gangs of New York:
The Prohibition-era book that gave title and inspiration to that film is the go-to source on the Daybreak Boys, among many other contemporaneous criminal syndicates. Nicholas Saul, hanged in his 20th year, co-founded and led the gang of youthful toughs. Their evolution towards murderous piracy on the Hudson and East Rivers set the backdrop for this day’s drop: they had killed a watchman during an unsuccessful raid on a ship the previous summer, and been cornered and arrested by police.
Local luminaries — including the gangster played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the Gangs clip above — turned out for the occasion to pay the condemned tribute, shaking hands with the young men on their way to the gallows.
The Daybreak Boys would have a few years left in their run yet. A fellow with the estimable nickname of Slobbery Jim inherited leadership — talents that would later serve him as an officer in the Confederate army — and the enterprise didn’t peter out until the depredations of kindred river raiders drove the New York Police Department to establish its Harbor Unit.
* Often colorfully named.