A Well Manicured Lady
Hell Cat Maggie – New York – mid 1800s

During the 1800s a number of gangs in New York fought for control of areas such as The Bowery and Hell’s Kitchen. It was not uncommon for soldiers and the National Guard to be brought in to stop the gang fights. The gangs revelled in names such as The Bowery Boys, The Plug Uglies, The Dead Rabbits, The Gophers, The Shirt Tails, The Roach Guards, as well as the innocently named Little Doggies, or The Pansies. Just as today each gang had their own colours – The Roach Guards wore blue striped pantaloons, The Plug Uglies wore large plug hats, and The Dead Rabbits wore red stripes on their trousers. They fought each other and they fought amongst themselves. The Dead Rabbits carried…what else…a dead rabbit impaled on a spike when rioting. The Gophers were so called because of their habit of hiding out in basements.

Gang members came up with colourful names for themselves and each – Ludwig The Bloodsucker, Slobbery Jim, Boiled Oysters Malloy and Eat’Em Up Jack McManus - and for their watering holes – the quaintly named McGurk’s Suicide Hall, Tub of Blood or Cripples’ Home.

Most of the gangs had their female admirers, and some even had special branches for the ladies – such as the Battle Row Ladies Social and Athletic Club which, by all accounts was neither very social nor very athletic. Some of the women were well known – Battle Annie, Sadie The Goat (so called because she head-butted her victims), Ida The Goose, Red Light Lizzie – and many of them actually joined in the fighting – a number of them with great relish. One of these was Hell Cat Maggie.

Maggie had led a life of crime from an early age – having been recruited into one of the biggest street gangs at the time, The Whyos (so called because the gang’s cry sounded like a bird call) by Genteman Jasper, a sneak thief., who came across her in an alleyway knocking lumps out of two older boys. She joined Jasper on his sneak thievery and was a quick and willing learner, becoming adept at both robbing banks and fighting anyone who looked at her wrongly, and some who didn't.

Maggie prepared for battle by filing her front teeth to points and who wore long sharp artificial nails made of brass. The sight of Hell Cat Maggie clawing, biting and screaming was, apparently, enough to make even the most hardened gang member weep. And, at that time, gang fighting was not just a pleasant way to pass a boring afternoon. Any fallers were set upon and beaten to death. Maggie herself was known on occasion to tear the ears off her victims, pickle them in alcohol and keep them behind the bar where she was a bouncer. Well, that’s put me right off the pickeld eggs down The Queen’s Head.

But it wasn’t just about fun. Politics was involved too, and the two major political parties of the time (the democratic Tammany Hall party and the republican anti-immigrant, anti-catholic Native Americans (known as the Know-Nothing Party)) used the gangs to gain control, shut down their rivals, and to steal public funds. Corruption was rife and everything had a price, and everyone’s hand was out. In one area of New York a contractor charged just under $2.9million for a plastering job which should have cost $20,000.

Hell Cat Maggie was a ‘shoulder-hitter’ – someone who was employed by one political party or another to use the threat of violence, or, indeed, actual violence (Maggie’s much preferred option, it has to be said) to ‘persuade’ voters to vote for their candidate. With her sharp teeth and pointed nails Maggie quite literally ripped the Republicans to shreds on election day.

In Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York Maggie was played by Cara Seymour. Maggie’s fate is unknown, but it’s unlikely that she settled down to a life of domestic bliss.

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Comment by carole gill on September 2, 2008 at 11:12pm
How did I not see this?!
Yes, I think it was the Gas House Gang who "resided" in my old neck of the woods (some years before)!
Yup New York was always jumping wasn't it?!
here's a link about McGurk's Suicide Hall--http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/mcgurks_suicide_hall_the_bowery/
Some really sad stories there. and here's a link and a photo of the place.
Great post! what don't you know, girl?!
Comment by Matt on August 31, 2008 at 2:01pm
About the Martin Scorsese's film, in the end when DiCaprio, or rather his character, Amsterdam names off three of the main characters who have had candles put on their bodies, Hellcat seems to be one of the names. Meaning she had died, how though, that's unfortuently not mentioned or shown for that matter.
Comment by LC Fraser on June 25, 2007 at 2:02am
No, I don't think so. My line would be more the hellcat type, or possibly the table dancer type. We were not really good at the whole royalty thing, except in scams.
Comment by Donna Moore on June 24, 2007 at 11:39pm
Damn - I'd really love a wee drink and a pickled ear at the Tub of Blood. Thanks Rosemary!
Comment by Rosemary Harris on June 24, 2007 at 11:34pm
Too bad you're not in NYC today, there's a walking tour of the gangs of NY hangouts this afternoon.
Comment by Donna Moore on June 24, 2007 at 9:11pm
LOL, well, you never know! Errrrr, you didn't have a relative who was a Roman Emperess did you?
Comment by LC Fraser on June 24, 2007 at 5:10am
So what did happen to her? In your opinion.

I am once again amazed at the women you find to profile. Awesome. I keep expecting to see someone from my family there though. Sooner or later that is bound to happen. One of my aunts maybe. In the Roaring 20s. Or my maternal grandmother.

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