Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

19th Century Gang Violence in Pelham: Thugs Attacked Pelham Town Constables with Baseball Bats in 1886

In 1886, the Town of Pelham was a sleepy little backwater northeast of New York City.  Nevertheless, by the 1880s, New York City residents had discovered that City Island in the Town of Pelham was a beautiful little oystering and fishing village that easily could be reached by steamboat for day excursions, picnics, and chowder parties.

City Island Becomes an Excursion Destination for Criminal Gangs of New York City

As City Island became more popular as an excursion island, the sleepy little Town of Pelham began to experience terrifying events.  Among those who found City Island a popular destination for excursions away from New York City were organized crime gangs that became notorious for hosting terrifying "chowder parties" on City Island where they terrorized local residents and vandalized local property.  

The Town of Pelham found itself entirely unprepared to deal with such big city problems.  By 1886, according to one report, "New York City gangs are the dread of City Island."  As the gang problem grew, City Island even began setting up "special telegraphic communication" with New York City, New Rochelle, and other nearby communities during the summer months to enable it to call for help when needed.  The gangs were simply too much for the handful of Town Constables and local Deputy Sheriffs (who were tasked with enforcing the law) to handle.

The Notorious Brooklyn Gang Known as the "Smoky Hollow Gang"

One of the most notorious New York City gangs that visited City Island was the infamous "Smoky Hollow Gang."  The Smoky Hollow Gang was a Brooklyn gang of young thugs that existed at least as early as 1867 and operated along the Brooklyn waterfront at least until 1930.  The "main headquarters of the gang" was the Sixth Ward in the neighborhood of South Ferry, but its operations extended as far south as Red Hook and as far east as Wall Street Ferry.  See DARING RIVER THIEVES -- The Exploits of Some of the Most Notable OffendersThe Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 13, 1892 p. 16, cols. 4-5.  The organized crime gang was widely known for an event on February 29, 1880 when a New York City police officer named Thomas M. Stone tried to arrest a member of the gang for loitering.  Members of the gang jumped the officer and beat him severely.  Officer Stone died after his skull was crushed with a paving stone by one of the gang members.  See Officer Stone's Death; Will Political Influence In Brooklyn Save The Murderers?, N.Y. Times, Apr. 2, 1880.  See also OFFICER STONE'S MURDERERS -- MEMBERS OF THE "SMOKY HOLLOW GANG" ON TRIAL FOR THEIR LIVES, N.Y. Times, May 13, 1880.  

The Smoky Hollow Gang maintained a labyrinth of shanties, deserted huts, and sheds in the Sixth Ward in Brooklyn as well as "dens" in the tall grass of the salt meadows near Gowanus Canal where they hid from authorities and also hid their plunder after robberies and burglaries.  See DARING RIVER THIEVES -- The Exploits of Some of the Most Notable OffendersThe Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 13, 1892 p. 16, cols. 4-5.  

The gang operated along the Brooklyn waterfront for nearly seventy years.  Indeed, in 1930, the fifty-five year old leader of the Smoky Hollow Gang was attacked and shot after he tried to control too much territory including the territory of a rival gang.  According to a news account at the time:

"Brooklyn Gangleader Found Shot, Stabbed 
Smoky Hollow Chief Near Death After Attempt to Rule Realm of Slain Donnelly

NEW YORK.  Jan. 31 -- (/P) -- A Brooklyn waterfront gang leader was near death today because he tried to take in too much territory.

For years, said police, James Murray had led without friction Brooklyn's Smoky Hollow gang, which ruled that section of the borough along the Atlantic basin.  But with the slaying two days ago of Charles 'Red' Donnelly, leaving leaderless the White Hand gang, which operated along the East river near the Brooklyn bridge.  Murray started casting envious eyes and had visions of consolidation with himself as leader.  

A meeting of the Smoky Hollow dock workers was called for last evening with representatives of the White Hand gang present.  During the meeting the lights suddenly went out.  A few minutes later when someone turned them on Murray was found shot in the head and stabbed and slashed in the hands and face.

Just before lapsing into unconsciousness at the hospital he said, 'my boys will take care of this.'

He is 55 years old and has a police record that includes a ten year term in Sing Sing."

Source:  Brooklyn Gangleader Found Shot, Stabbed -- Smoky Hollow Chief Near Death After Attempt to Rule Realm of Slain DonnellyLewiston Evening Journal [Lewiston, Auburn, Maine], Jan. 31, 1930, p. 16, col. 5.   

A host of legends and folklore have survived regarding the notorious Smoky Hollow Gang. a group of cop killers, thugs, river pirates, smugglers, bootleggers, thieves, and home invaders.  One of the most colorful legends is that the gang used Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue Tunnel (the world's oldest subway tunnel) as its secret gathering place.  See Brooklyn Has The Oldest Subway In The World, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul. 23, 1911, p. 3, cols. 1-7; The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel -- A Romance, N. Y. Times, Jan. 23, 1893.

The Smoky Hollow Gang of Brooklyn Terrorizes City Island in 1886

In August, 1886, the Smoky Hollow Gang of Brooklyn decided to hold a "chowder party" together with a baseball game and a football game on City Island.  Up to 125 men including gang members and their acquaintances hired a steamboat, loaded it with seventeen kegs of beer, and were rip-roaring drunk when the steamboat arrived at the public pier on City Island on a Sunday morning.  

According to one account, the men stormed to the center of the island, kicked down a fence and gate surrounding a large open lot just off of main street and began playing ball.  Members of the gang were loud and profane, playing while nearby church services were underway.  Local laws forbid the playing of baseball or football games on Sundays because such events had become so loud and disruptive.  The situation was like a keg of powder ready to explode.

Although various news reports differ over precisely what happened, it appeared that at 12 noon as church services ended, a local church deacon named John M. Bell came upon the men and was upset by the noise and profanity.  Mr. Bell informed them of the local law and told them that although they could not play anymore that day, they were welcome to return on any weekday and resume their athletic contests.  The gang members and their friends shouted Bell down, derisively, and rained abuse on him.  He hurried away and returned with two Town of Pelham Constables.

The first Constable to arrive was William Munson.  According to one account, when he arrived he was set upon by the gang with baseball bats.  They broke his nose, battered his face and, when he drew his gun, they knocked it from his hand.  He was pulled away from the savage beating by Bell just as the second Constable, James Anderson, came running and launched into the crowd swinging his billy club.  Soon, however, his blows were "repaid with interest" by the gang.  After he was knocked to the ground three times, a local butcher who ran to the scene waded into the fray and rescued Anderson.

By then the entire population of City Island seemed to converge on the scene.  Outnumbered, the "excursionists beat a hasty retreat" back to the steamboat at the public dock.  In the meantime, communications went out from City Island for police launches from New Rochelle and New York City to stop the steamboat and arrest the thugs.  By the time the launches could get into the water and get organized, however, the steamboat dumped its load of human garbage back in New York City and the thugs melted into their labyrinth of warrens, hovels, and dens.  

Engraving Depicting Nineteenth Century
New York City Gang Members.  These
Were "Bowery Boys," Another Notorious
New York City Gang Like the Smoky Hollow Gang.

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Below is the text of two articles about the incident involving the Smoky Hollow Gang on City Island described above.  Each is followed by a citation and a link to its source.


It is said that bass and weak fish are being caught at Pelham Bridge.

Joseph L. Vincent died Sunday last, at the residence of his brother-in-law in Harlem.

The attention of Highway Commissioner Cochran, or whoever has charge of that district, is called to some bad places in the road at Pelham Bridge.

Pelham will have one representative on the Grand Jury, and four on the Petit Jury, next month.  They are:  Geo. W. Sembler, C. Von Leihn, -- Alexander, James Prout and Vincent Barker.

A race between the yachts Susie S., Capt. Ira Smith, and Amanda, Capt. Samuel Seaman, is to take place off City Island, to-day.  The Amanda was built by E. A. Willis, of Port Washington, and many think she will beat the Susie S.

Contractors are invited to send sealed proposals to E. W. Waterhouse, Town Clerk of Pelham, to raise, with broken stone, the grade on the road on City Island, betwee Wm. Brazil's residence and Joseph Abraham's store, and also on the shore road between City Island road and Pelham lane.  The notice has not been very extensively circulared, so we give the town this free advertisement, and contractors whatever benefit they can get out of it.

Augustus B. Wood the well known boatbuilder of City Island, has been sued by his sister-in-law, Mrs. Imogene Banta, through her counsel, Martin J. Keogh, to recover $5,000 for an alleged aggravated assault, which it is claimed affected Mr. Banta's health.  The prominence of the parties on the Island, causes the case to attract much attention.  It is expected that the case will be tried at the approaching Supreme Court term in this county. -- New-Rochelle Press.

City Island was invaded last Sunday, by a gang of roughs from New York, styling themselves the 'Smoky Hollow Chowder Club,' and what transpired is told by the New York Times as follows:

'About 125 young roughs, many of them evidently under the influence of liquor, went ashore and repaired to an open lot just off the main street.  They had brought the necessary apparatus with them, and soon vigorous games of foot and base ball were in operation.  It was church time, and most of the inhabitants of the quiet little village were at divine service.  There is a law in the county against playing any such games on Sunday, and when Deacon John M. Bell, one of the first to leave the church, at 12 o'clock, heard the shouts and profane language which issued from the field near by he was much disturbed.  He walked down the street, and when he came within hailing distance of the player addressed them in a mild and fatherly way, nothing doubting that his authority would be instantly respected.  When he told them they were breaking the law, but were welcome to come some week day and play to their hearts' content, they shouted derisively:

'Ketch on to the dominie!  He thinks we're Sunday School kids.'

Much incensed, Mr. Bell went for the only two constables who were within reach, James Anderson and William Munson.  Secure in the belief that they would at once end the trouble, Munson approached the crowd who were playing football.  They withdrew sullenly on hearing what he had to say.  He had no such fortune with the others however.  He was attacked suddenly on all sides by half a dozen of the men, who used their base ball bats freely.  His nose was broken, his face was battered, and when he drew his pistol it was knocked from his hand by a heavy blow from a bat.  Deacon Bell made a feeble attempt to rescue the unfortunate officer from his assailants, but was signally unsuccessful.  Anderson, the other policeman, came running across the bridge and did some vigorous clubbing, but it was repaid with interest.  After he had been knocked down three times, Archibald Robinson, a sturdy butcher, picked him up and protected him.

'Reinforcements soon came from the villagers, and the turbulent excursionists beat a hasty retreat.  A telephone message was at once sent to Police Headquarters in the city and the steamboat squad were directed to keep a sharp lookout for the boat R. M. Burke and her patrons.  Four policemen from New Rochelle patrolled the waters on the Sound in search of them, but without success.

The excursionists landed without being overtaken by the steamboat squad."

Source:  PELHAM AND CITY ISLAND, The Chronicle [Mt. Vernon, NY], Aug. 24, 1886, Vol. XVII, No. 909, p. 3, col. 2.  

The Police Boat Sent for to Look After the Smoky Hollow Gang of Brooklyn.

Among the young but promising gangs of Brooklyn that hope to rival the boss toughs of New York is the Smoky Hollow Gang that lives about South Ferry.  One of its leaders was sent to the penetentiary recently for pounding a man's head with a stone until he died and several others are up for minor offenses.  The gang, organized the Smoky Hollow Chowder Club and, with some Jersey city friends, they hired the tug W. R. Burke for a Sunday chowder party.

Capt. James Lounsbury, formerly called 'Big-headed Jim,' started with his barge yesterday morning to Pacific street, Brooklyn, and then went to Morgan street, Jersey city.  Altogether some thirty-five toughs were taken on board.  They had seventeen kegs of beer.  It was tapped as soon as the boat pulled off the dock, and before the tug was up to Blackwell's Island, where one or two stray members of the gang are spending the summer, the Smoky Hollow Chowder Club was making right merry with itself.

The destination of the trip was City Island, opposite New Rochelle.  New York gangs are the dread of City Island.  The people would rather have all of Pharaoh's seven plagues dropped on them at once than one chowder party.  They have special telegraphic communication established with Connecticut, New Rochelle, and New York during the summer, that they may speedily call down the cohorts of the law on the chowder parties of the unrighteous.  There are also a few constables and deputy sheriffs whose ambition it is to preserve the peace of the island.  To enable these officials to make a living and protect itself the authorities of the island have passed sundry ordinances prohibiting Sunday ball playing, beer drinking, chowder parties, and dances.  The constables are commanded to enforce the laws and statutes of the burgesses and other great men of City Island.

Before the Smoky Hollow chowder party was within sight of City Island, it was severally and collectively boiling drunk.  To pass away time there were a few fights, in which a score or more of hats were thrown overboard, and everything was smashed except the beer kegs.  Big-headed Jim was glad to get rid of his passengers, and he tied up to the public pier at City Island and dumped his load, while the crew began removing everything smashable in preparation for the trip back.

The Smoky Hollow Chowder Club swooped down on the island like a horde of carpet-baggers on South Carolina.  They kicked down the fences and gates and took possession of a field to play ball in, while a few of the lazy ones bossed the chowder making.  The game of ball had hardly started when a mild blue eye and timit voice came to the field and quoted a clause in the ordinances which forbids base ball playing on Sunday, under penalty of $5 fine.

This was what the Smoky Hollow Chowder Club had been pining for.  It surrounded the polite little man and spoke unto him rudely.  They were going to play ball, they were, and they'd like to know who should say them pay in the heyday of their chowder party.  The polite little man remonstrated.  he said he was a City Island constable and showed a badge that might have been a deputy sheriff's badge.  In a polite way he added that he knew of no possible way by which the fine could be avoided, and that he was there to enforce the law.  To save trouble, however, he was willing to collect the fine in advance and go away.

At this the Smoky Hollow Chowder Club arose in simultaneous wrath and smote the polite little man.  Some one buffeted his ears and both his eyes were blackened.  When he was chastened by those who got at him first the rest of the gang spanked him.  Then they went on and played their game of ball.

But the polite little man went around over the island and notified all the inhabitants, and word was sent to New Rochelle and to Police Headquarters in this city.  The police boat Patrol started off in pursuit.  By the time it got to City Island the Smoky Hollow Chowder Club was on its way home, milking the beer kegs for another round.  The police boat returned at twenty-five minutes past 6, an hour after the tug was tied up at Pier 10, East River, for the night."

Source:  ROUGHS AT CITY ISLAND -- The Police Boat Sent for to Look After the Smoky Hollow Gang of Brooklyn, The Sun [NY, NY], Aug. 23, 1886, Vol. LIII, No. 357, p. 3, col. 3.  

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