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.