Rough Justice

Series historical adviser Daniel Czitrom examines the corrupt political and criminal justice system prevalent in late 19th century New York City.

The charming new Tammany Hall fixer, William “Wild Bill” Eustace (Billy Baldwin).

The charming new Tammany Hall fixer, William “Wild Bill” Eustace (Billy Baldwin).

The shocking death of Tammany bigwig Brendan Donovan presents a stark example of how readily the police could dispense rough justice on their own terms. Along the way they also torture one of Donovan’s goons and strong arm his real estate agent. Police often found themselves frustrated by a criminal justice system that failed to imprison or punish lawbreakers. In a city full of corrupt judges, bribed juries, witnesses too frightened to testify, and, above all, political connections that allowed even the worst criminals to go free—for many cops the only sure justice was that found at the end of a nightstick. But rough justice was not a police monopoly. Bill Eustace, a Tammany “fixer,” quickly steps in to find Donovan’s murderer, setting off a series of violent encounters between the police and “shoulder hitters” employed by “the Organization.”

View of fight between two gangs, the "Dead Rabbits" and the "Bowery Boys" in the Sixth Ward, New York City. (via Library of Congress)

View of fight between two gangs, the “Dead Rabbits” and the “Bowery Boys” in the Sixth Ward, New York City. (via Library of Congress)

Street gangs had been part of city life since the eighteenth century. Most of them were organized around guarding pieces of city turf or invading those of nearby rivals. With the upsurge in immigration, some gangs identified themselves by ethnic group (e.g. the Irish Dead Rabbits) or by aggressive, anti-Catholic nativism (e.g. the Bowery Boys). Gangs offered boys and young working men a sense of camaraderie and the chance to celebrate values they held dear: physical prowess, masculine honor, athletic competition, protecting women. They often attached themselves to volunteer fire companies, where nasty confrontations sometimes took precedence over dousing fires. In the 1840s Tammany Hall and other political organizations began regularly recruiting gangs to do their dirty work. Ward leaders would hire gangs to break up meetings of rivals, intimidate voters at polling places, stuff ballot boxes, or collect tribute from neighborhood saloons and merchants. By the 1850s Mayor Fernando Wood had made the strategic use of gang muscle a regular part of the political scene. Many politicos had begun their careers as gang members, making reputations that caught the attention of higher ups. A fixer like Bill Eustace would be familiar with their world and unafraid to use them against any foe, including cops. General Donovan might be gone, but a political system that relied upon the threat—and reality—of extra-legal violence lived on.