They called themselves by such names as the Roach Guards, the Dead Rabbits, the Shirt Tails, the Plug Uglies and in the 1840s and 1850s, the sidewalks of New York City were their unchallenged domain. The police were powerless as the huge street gangs, each claiming a spot of urban turf, took whatever they wanted and occasionally battled each other to the death.
The Plug Uglies, a fierce mob off six-foot Irishmen, wore plug hats stuffed with wool and leather to serve as helmets. Heavy stomping boots added to their wardrobe. Each man went into battle with a brick-bat in one hand, a bludgeon in the other, and a pistol in his pocket. The toughest rival gang member feared a Plug Ugly.
The Dead Rabbits adopted their name when a foe threw a rabbit corpse at them during a stormy meeting. From then on, the gang marched into battle behind a dead rabbit hanging from a pole. So good were they at the art of ‘persuasion’ that in 1856 they helped re-elect Mayor Fernando Wood, who won by 9,000 votes in an election that featured at least 10,000 fraudulent ballots.
Occasionally, various gangs would join forces against the infamous Bowery Boys. Not typical street criminals, all of the Bowery Boys held day jobs; the fact that they were also volunteer firemen ensured their influence with the politicians of Tammany Hall.
Open warfare erupted on 4 July 1857, when the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits invaded the Bowery. As 1,000 gang members fought, reported one newspaper, ‘brick-bats’, stones and clubs were flying thickly around.’ A cop who tried to break up the fight was knocked down, stripped, beaten with his own nightstick. Wearing only his cotton drawers, he managed to crawl back to the police station. After two days of pitched battle, and with the help of the National Guard, order was finally restored.
The Molasses Gang was named for its modus operandi. Members would ask a store clerk to fill a hat with molasses, to settle a bet. Then they’d jam it on his head and rob the store while the victim wrestled with the sticky mess.