Sin at the Seaport: NYC's Forgotten River Pirates and Rat-Baiters

In the mid-1800s, New York City's most depraved dives were clustered along the East River waterfront. Though difficult to imagine today, the quaint, cobblestone streets surrounding the South Street Seaport were once overrun with bars and brothels that catered to sailors, sporting men, and even river pirates. 

 

 

In 1850, the Chief of Police, George W. Matsell, estimated that there were between four and five hundred river pirates in the New York City area. The pirates were divided among fifty waterfront gangs, including the Daybreak Boys, Slaughter Housers, Short Tails, and Swamp Angels who got their name from their ability to travel to and from the waterfront inside the city's sewers.

 

 

For much of the nineteenth century, pirates stalked the waters of the East River, terrorizing sailors and stealing from unguarded ships. In fact, the waterfront was so dangerous that for many years the police would only enter the neighborhood in groups of six or more. In 1858, a harbor police force was formed in an effort to combat the rampant piracy. They monitored the East River in rowboats and regularly patrolled the sewers.  

 

 

In addition to looting cargo ships, the pirate gangs preyed on the seamen that patronized the bars and boardinghouses along Cherry and Water Streets. The most notorious of the dry-land gangsters specialized in drugging and robbing sailors. Nicknamed ‘crimps,’ ‘peter players,’ and ‘knockout artists,’ these thieves would sneak a ‘knockout drop’ (laudanum or chloral hydrate) into their victims' drinks. Once they were unconscious, the sailors would be robbed or ‘shanghaied,’ which was the practice of kidnapping drunk seamen and delivering them to departing ships. By the time they awoke, the sailors would already be out at sea and unable to escape. “The sailors who come to this port” wrote a contemporary observer, “[are kept] in a state of the most abject slavery…a captain in want of a crew applies to one of these landlords for men…the men are made drunk, and in this state they…are sent to sea.” Knockout drop overdoses were common and resulted in many accidental deaths. Conveniently, some businesses in the area had trapdoors installed so they could dump to corpses directly into the East River. 

 

 

When they weren’t working, many of the pirates patronized a bar called the Hole-in-the-Wall, located on corner of Dover and Water Streets. It was run by a well-established crook named One-Armed Charley Monell. The tough crowd was kept in line by Gallus Mag, a six-foot tall Englishwoman, who kept a pistol at her waist and a bludgeon strapped to her wrist. Though she was “proficient in the use of both weapons,” Mag preferred to inflict damage with her teeth, which she filed into razor-sharp points. “It was her custom,” wrote Herbert Ashbury, “to clutch…[a man’s] ear between her teeth and so drag him to the door, amid the frenzied cheers of the onlookers.” If her victim tried to fight back, Mag would simply bite his ear off and calmly add it to the jar of dismembered trophies that she kept pickled behind the bar. Her ferociousness scared pirates and police alike, who claimed that Gallus Mag was “the most savage female they have ever encountered.” Under her reign, the Hole-in-the-Wall became known as the “most vicious resort in the city.” 

 

 

An equally raucous crowd could be found two doors down at the infamous Sportsmen’s Hall, a three-story combination bar, brothel, and gambling den owned by Christopher ‘Kit’ Burns. The main room was arranged into an amphitheater. In the middle was a ring or ‘pit’ where starving wharf rats were forced to fight dogs, humans, and even each other. The rats were collected by neighborhood boys, who were paid five to twelve cents a head. Rat-baiting was the most popular betting sport for much of the nineteenth century and matches drew hundreds of spectators.

 

 

Sportsmen’s Hall attracted a colorful crowd, which one visitor described as the “most depraved and infamous [men] on the entire New York City Island.” George Leese, a member of the Slaughter House pirates gang, was one of the more infamous patrons. He was nicknamed ‘Snatchem’ for his

ability to steal anything from anybody. He was a self-described “kicking-in-the-head-knife-in-a-dark-room fellow” who always carried two pistols in his belt and a knife in his boot. Despite being illegal, bare-knuckle boxing proliferated along the waterfront. In addition to being a pirate, Snatchem was the “official bloodsucker” of the boxing matches, meaning that “when one of the pugilists began to bleed from scratches and cuts inflicted by his opponent’s knuckles, it was Snatchem’s office to suck the blood from the wound.” Another notable regular was Kit Burns’ son-in-law, Jack. When thing’s got dull, Jack would offer to bite the head off a rat for ten cents or decapitate the animal for a quarter. 

 

 

Though no patron was quite as notorious as Kit himself, who was one of the last leaders of the Dead Rabbit gang. Unlike other rat-baiters, Kit had a soft spot for his fighting dogs. He fed them well and had a reputation for doting on them. His affection, however, did not make them any less lethal. For example, one of his terriers held the city-wide record for killing one hundred rats in under seven minutes (for context, a “good rat dog” averaged the same number in forty-five minutes). When the dog died, Burns had him stuffed and mounted over the bar. For a short period of time, Kit also owned a baby bear, which reportedly had his own seat at the bar. After the bear fell ill and died, Kit had his skin made into a rug. 

 

 

In 1868, a group of clergymen tried to clean up the waterfront area by transforming the worst saloons into places of worship. The ever-enterprising Kit Burns somehow managed to convince the priests to rent out his rat pit for weekly sermons. For several months, the pious worshipped in the amphitheater undeterred by the “sickening odor [that] came from the dogs and debris of rats’ bones under the seats.” Though the church paid him a whopping $150 dollars per hour, Kit was bothered by the dirty looks that the worshippers gave him. One reporter quoted him as saying:

 

"I’m damned if some of the people that come here oughtn’t to be clubbed. A fellow ’u’d think that they had never seen a dog-pit afore. I must be damned good-looking to have so many fellows looking at me.” 

 

One night, Kit finally had enough and told reporters that “them fellows have been making a pulpit out of my rat pit and I'm going to purify it right after them.” Soon after, Kit began to pelt the congregation with rats. The crowd fled and unsurprisingly, that was the last sermon held at Kit Burns’ place. Afterwards, the bar returned to its normal operations, but was eventually raided and forced to close down, following a campaign by the newly-founded ASPCA in 1870. 

 

By the end of the century, the dives had disappeared and the harbor police force eliminated the worst of the waterfront gangs. When transatlantic ships replaced clipper ships, New York’s major port was relocated to the Hudson River, which is deeper and wider than the East River. The vice followed the sailors. Many of the bars and brothels that remained were torn down to build the Brooklyn Bridge, which subsequently changed the way that people used and moved through the area. 

 

 

The buildings that housed both the Hole-in-the-Wall and Kit Burn’s Rat Pit are still standing today. However, tours tend to overlook their seedy past and focus instead on their architectural significance and other respectable features. The former site of the Hole-in-the-Wall was most recently a bar, which was forced to close after Hurricane Sandy. Kit Burn’s Rat Pit has been transformed into a luxury apartment building with it’s past euphemistically described as a “dance hall” on Street Easy. Wonder what the broker said when future tenets asked about past rodent infestations... 

 

Hole-in-the-Wall

279 Water Street

New York, NY

 

Kit Burn's Rat Pit

273 Water Street

New York, NY

 

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