background history


The city slumbers; o'er its silent walls
Night's dusky mantle, soft and silent falls;
Sleep o'er the world slow waves its wand of lead,
And ready torpors wrap each sinking head;
Still'd is the stir of labor and of life,
Hush'd is the hum, and tranquill'd is the strife;
Man is at rest, with all his hopes and fears,
The young forget their sports, the old their cares,
The grave or careless, those who joy or weep,
All rest contented on the arm of sleep.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nighttime in New York was hardly "soft and silent", for the night belonged to the gangs. The Sixth Ward was synonymous with degredation and vice. As early as 1825, the area known as Paradise Square at the confluence of several streets known as Five Points was the site of numerous cheap grocers and speakeasies which catered to the local denizens. The Irish potato famine brought a sudden influx of immigrants, many of whom settled in the district and the nearby Bowery.

Gangs were sometimes necessary as a support system for the new immigrants, who were otherwise powerless. Soon, the gangs were the undisputed rulers of their districts, and the politicians soon began to call upon them for assistance. Before long, an election day in New York City meant sinister looking men armed with clubs hovering around the polling places ensuring that people voted for the "right" candidate.

Other gangs operated independently of the political machines and served only themselves and answered to no one. They were found mostly along the waterfront of the Fourth Ward, and were likened to bloodthirsty pirates who plundered vessels in the harbor, killing anyone who got in their way.

The Daybreak Boys was one such gang. Operating out of Pete Williams' gin mill at the intersection of James and Water Sts.*, an area known as Slaughterhouse Point, the Daybreakers were the terror of the East River in the early 1850s. Between 1850 and 1852, they were credited (blamed?) for the loss of $100,000 in property and at least 20 murders. The origin of their name is uncertain, though that they were known to operate on the East River sometimes into the early morning is a theory. The phonetic spelling of "b'hoy" soon became a badge of honor for men in the area, for a man was not truly considered part of the "in" crowd if he were not "one of the b'hoys."

(* The intersection is no longer extant, now occupied by the Gov. Alfred E. Smith Houses — and a block away from the modern Police Headquarters)

Like many gangs of the era, the Daybreak Boys attracted quite a following in the local youth. An auxiliary known as the Little Daybreak Boys, manned by boys from ages 8 to 12, assisted their older comrades as lookouts and decoys, and allegedly committed heinous acts of murder and violence on their own.

The reign of the Daybreakers was curtailed, if only for a short while, by the arrest in 1853 of three of its leaders, after a botched attempt to plunder the brig William Watson. Leadership was assumed by Bill Lowrie and Slobbery Jim, the former of whom would be jailed for a dock robbery and latter of whom fled the city to avoid prosecution in the murder of fellow Daybreak Boy Patsy the Barber. Slobbery Jim eventually was commissioned as a Captain in the Confederate army during the Civil War. Cow-legged Sam McCarthy took over control of the now-fledgling organization before falling in with a gang of burglars from the Five Points.

In 1858, the Metropolitan Police began the first harbor patrol, a tradition which continues in today's NYPD Harbor Unit, in direct response to the exploits of waterfront gangs like the Daybreak Boys. That year, the police had killed 12 Daybreakers and arrested another 57. The gang could not survive this loss, and thus by 1859, most of its core had dissolved into other local groups.