The Chicago Fire of 1871, also known as the Great
Cow-legged Sam, Slobbery Jim, Sadie the Goat, Dandy Jim Dolan, Dick the Rat and Hell Cat Maggie lived in Manhattan’s hotbed of thieves. Members of the Forty Thieves, Plug Uglies, Dead Rabbits and the Daybreak Boys were a memorable crew; from biting the head off live rats, wearing brass eye-gougers and stringing ears around their necks, it was a brutal existence in a hellish world. Even the author Charles Dickens who was used to seeing poverty in London was shocked, calling it: ‘a world of vice and misery.’ Let’s take a look at some of this lost world’s most mythologized inhabitants:
#1 Cow-Legged Sam and Slobbery Jim
Both vicious robbers, they were feared for their murderous looting of cargo boats. Their headquarters was in the gorgeously-named Slaughter-house Inn. But a gang of psychopaths was never going to get along and one night in the Hole-in the Wall while dividing up the spoils Slobbery Jim got into a fight with Patsy the Barber. Their quarrel over sharing out the twelve cents they had stolen resulted in Slobbery Jim trying to bite Patsy’s nose off, slitting his throat and stamping him to death.
#2 Sadie the Goat
Female gang members could be just as fierce and Sadie Farrell was nicknamed after her habit of charging and head-butting victims before robbing them. Her reputation for river robberies also earned her the nickname Queen of the Waterfront. Sadie was so tough that when a female rival named Gallus Meg bit off one of her ears in a bar brawl, she simply stole the ear back, pickled it and wore it on a necklace for the rest of her days.
#3 Dandy Jim Dolan
Among this ragged crew, Jim stood out not only for his dress but for his improvised clothing weapons. He wore a special pair of shoes with blades in the sole and a copper ‘eye-gouger’ on his hand. During a robbery he used his gouger and stole the victim’s eyes – they were found in his pocket on his arrest. Convicted of murder and sentenced to hang, his tough guy act finally burst as he collapsed in tears.
#4 Kit Burns & Dick the Rat
Kit Burns ran the deceptively decent-sounding ‘Sportsman’s Hall.’ It was actually a rat-pit where crowds of toughs gathered to bet on grey wharf rats as they fought terrier dogs. For an additional fee Kit’s son-in-law Richard Toner, known as “Dick the Rat” offered extra entertainment – he would bite the head off a mouse for ten cents and the head off a wharf rat for a quarter.
#5 Hell Cat Maggie
A female member of the Dead Rabbits, Maggie loved to fight and had her teeth filed to points so as to bite her opponents better. She also wore a brass fingernail cover to help inflict deep scratches in hand to hand combat. Literally armed to the teeth, she was by all accounts as ferocious a fighter as any man.
So when you next walk the streets of Manhattan give a thought to these legends of a thankfully bygone age.