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Dead Rabbits barricade on Bayard Street in an 1857 fight with the Bowery Boys
The Dead Rabbits was a gang in New York City in the 1850s originally part of the Roach Guards. The name has a second meaning rooted in Irish American vernacular of NYC in 1857. The word "Rabbit" is the phonetic corruption of the Irish word ráibéad, meaning "man to be feared". "Dead" is a slang intensifier meaning "very." Thus, a "Dead Ráibéad" means a man to be greatly feared. The gang was sometimes also known as the Black Birds.
The gang was led by Barry Sanders (and later by the notorious Irishman Aidan Bourke a.k.a Black Dog) and achieved great renown for their organization and prowess as thieves and thugs. The fighting uniform of the Roach Guards was a blue stripe on their pantaloons, while the Dead Rabbits adopted a red stripe. In riots their emblem was a dead rabbit impaled on a spike. The Rabbits and the Guards swore undying enmity and constantly fought each other at the Five Points, but in the rows with the water-front and Bowery Boys they made common cause against the enemy, as did other Five Points gangs including the Shirt Tails and Chichesters.
New York's Democrats were divided into two camps, those who supported Mayor Fernando Wood, and those who opposed him. The Bowery gangs were one of the latter while the Dead Rabbits were proponents of Wood. Thus the Bowery boys threw their support in league with state Republicans who proposed legislation that would strip Wood of certain powers and place them in the hands of Albany. One of these proposals was to disband the Municipal Police Department, in which Wood's supporters had a controlling interest, and replace it with a state-run Metropolitan Police Department. Wood refused to disband his Municipal Department, and so for the first half of 1857, the two rival departments battled it out on the streets of the city until the courts ordered the Municipals to disband that July. On July 4 a bloody fight occurred with the Metropolitan Police and the Bowery gangs against the Municipal Police, Mulberry Street Boys, Roach Guard, and Dead Rabbits in Bayard Street.
There was a similar gang in Liverpool, England in the late 1800s also known as 'The Dead Rabbits'. For the two Irish Catholic gangs to have sprung up at roughly the same time, in the two cities, leads one to believe that they originated from Ireland and were scattered first to Liverpool, then onwards to New York during the 1800s during the Irish diaspora.
The story of the New York Dead Rabbits is told, in highly fictionalized form, in the film Gangs of New York.
Lyrics detailing the Dead Rabbits' battle with the Bowery Boys on July 4, 1857, were written by Henry Sherman Backus ("The Saugerties Bard") in Hoboken. (Lyrics - Backus; Music - Daniel Decatur Emmett; originally "Jordan is a Hard Road To Travel")
They had a dreadful fight, upon last Saturday night,The papers gave the news accordin;Guns, pistols, clubs and sticks, hot water and old bricks,Which drove them on the other side of Jordan.ChorusThen pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,For Bayard is a hard street to travel;So pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,The Bloody Sixth is a hard ward to travel I believe.Like wild dogs they did fight, this Fourth of July night,Of course they laid their plans accordin';Some were wounded and some killed, and lots of blood spill'd,In the fight on the other side of Jordan.ChorusThe new Police did join the Bowery boys in line,With orders strict and right accordin;Bullets, clubs and bricks did fly, and many groan and die,Hard road to travel over Jordan.ChorusWhen the new police did interfere, this made the Rabbits sneer,And very much enraged them accordin';With bricks they did go in, determined for to win,And drive them on the other side of Jordan.ChorusAt last the battle closed, yet few that night reposed,For frightful were their dreams accordin';For the devil on two sticks was a marching on the bricks,All night on the other side of Jordan.ChorusUpon the following day they had another fray,The Black Birds and Dead Rabbits accordin;The soldiers were call'd out, to quell the mighty riot,And drove them on the other side of Jordan.
^ (still used today; cf. "dead on target")
Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928. ISBN 1-56025-275-8
Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Facts on File Inc., 2001. ISBN 0-8160-4040-0
Rioting And Bloodshed; The Fight At Cow Bay. Metropolitans Driven from the 6th Ward. Chimneys Hurled Down Upon the Populace. "Dead Rabbits" Against the "Bowery Boys." New York Daily. 6 July 1857
The Gangs of Liverpool: From the Cornermen to the High Rip - The Mobs That Terrorised a City: From the Cornermen to the High Rip the Mobs That Terrorised a City by Michael Macilwee
2 years ago