Bill the Butcher Shot


Nativist and fighter meets a bloody end.

William Poole, colloquially known as Bill the Butcher was a New York nativist political figure and de facto head of the “Bowery Boys” street gang.  Poole typified the Know Nothing movement of the mid-19th Century that was essentially an anti-immigrant, and in New York, an anti-Irish cause.

In 1832, Poole moved to New York as a youth to work in his father’s butcher shop (hence the nickname).  He became a volunteer fireman and known street brawler.  The volunteers in those days would compete with each other to put out fires and claim insurance money.  A volunteer would often rush to a fire and put a barrel over the hydrant to prevent other companies from getting to it. (We hear this may still happen in Brooklyn) Fistfights would often occur and Poole, a 6’, 200 lbs. giant would be a formidable asset in these fights.  His penchant for dirty fighting using techniques such as biting and eye gouging gave him a reputation as one not to be trifled with.

Poole moved into politics and the burgeoning sport of bareknuckle boxing.  His nativist leanings crossed into both endeavors.  He often fought against the heavily Irish Tammany Hall in politics and Irish pugilists in the ring.  His Bowery Boys gang would often threaten, intimidate, and assault Irish immigrants to prevent them from registering to vote. 

There was an ongoing dispute between Poole and boxer Jim Morrisey, who in 1853 had won the boxing “championship” (very loosely defined) in a disputed fight.  Morrisey was an Irish immigrant, a Tammany Hall man, and affiliated with the Dead Rabbit Gang (an Irish street gang and enemy of the Bowery Boys).  The two were natural opponents. 

A fight between Poole and Morrisey was arranged for August 8, 1854.  The fight started with sparring and haymakers, but Poole soon turned to his dirty style.  He threw Morrisey to the ground and began biting and eye gouging.  Poole walked away victorious, but most felt he cheated.  This cheap victory enraged Morrisey and his supporters.  Their feud would continue.

On February 25, 1855, the rivalry would come to a bloody end.  Morrisey and Poole ran into each other at the Stanwix Hall Saloon and almost came to blows.  Morrisey left the location but later Morrisey supporter and former cop Lew Baker confronted Poole.  He pulled a Colt revolver and shot Poole several times.  Poole was removed to his home and never recovered, dying several days later. Baker and several associates were arrested for the murder, but the well known influence of Tammany Hall appeared to have reached into the courtroom.  All not guilty.

In the 2002 movie The Gangs of New York, Daniel Day Lewis played a heavily fictionalized version of Bill the Butcher, renamed William Cutting.  Although not true to the facts, the film did portray the conflict between the nativists and immigrant factions of the day.  


Christopher Flanagan


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