Nineteenth-Century Murder in New York


Jacob Riis, Hanged at the Tombs: The Verdict of the Rogues’ Gallery, ca. 1889

Jacob Riis, Bottle Alley, Mulberry Bend. Headquarters of the Whyo Gang, ca. 1888-98

This picture was evidence at a murder trial. The X marks the place where the murderer stood when he shot his victim on the stairs… In fifteen years I never knew a week to pass without a murder there… it was the wickedest, as it was the foulest, spot in all the city… The old houses fairly reeked with outrage and violence. When they were torn down, I counted seventeen deeds of blood in that place which I myself remembered… The district attorney connected more than a score of murders of his own recollection with Bottle Alley, the Whyo Gang’s headquarters. The Battle with the Slum, 1902.

This was in the Sixth Ward, where the infamous Whyo Gang until a few years ago absorbed the worst depravity of the Bend and what is left of the Five Points. The gang was finally broken up when its leader was hanged for murder after a life of uninterrupted and unavenged crimes, the recital of which made his father confessor turn pale, listening in the shadow of the scaffold, though many years of labor as chaplain of the Tombs had hardened him to such rehearsals. The great Whyno had been a “power in the ward,” handy at carrying elections for the party of faction that happened to stand in need of his services and was willing to pay for them in money or in kind. Other gangs have sprung up since with as high ambition and a fair prospect of outdoing their predecessor.

Jacob A Riis, How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York, p. 104

Bottle Alley is around the corner in Baxter Street; but it is a fair specimen of its kind, wherever found. Look into any of these houses, everywhere the same piles of rags, of malodorous bones and musty paper, all of which the sanitary police flatter themselves they have banished to the dumps and the warehouses. Here is a “flat” of “parlor” and two pitch-dark coops called bedrooms. Truly, the bed is all there is room for. The family tea-kettle is on the stove, doing duty for the time being as a wash-boiler. By night it will have returned to its proper use again, a practical illustration of how poverty in “the Bend” makes both ends meet. One, two, three beds are there, if the old boxes and heaps of foul straw can be called by that name; a broken stove with crazy pipe from which the smoke leaks at every joint, a table of rough boards propped up on boxes, piles of rubbish in the corner. The closeness and smell are appalling. How many people sleep here? The woman with the red bandanna shakes her head sullenly, but the bare-legged girl with the bright face counts on her fingers–five, six!

Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971, p. 54


Jacob Riis, Rear tenement in Mott St., scene of an unavenged murder, ca. 1888-98

To this tenement my business as a police reporter led me. A home had been murdered there: a drunken husband had killed his wife. I know it is a common belief that drunkenness accounts for pretty nearly all the poverty there is. I do not find it so. It did in this case and there are enough such and to spare; but I think the verdict of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, once upon a time, came nearer the truth, namely, that forty percent. of the helpless poverty was due to drunkenness, or the drunkenness due to the poverty. I forget the exact way they put it, but that was the sense of it, and it was good sense.

Jacob A. Riis, The Peril and Preservation of the Home. Philadelphia: G.W. Jacobs & Co., 1903, pp. 104-105

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