Category: Archive

Bill the Butcher gets his mark

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

On a morning when the wind blew cold and bitter off New York Harbor and up the rising slope to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, a huddled group of press, history buffs and cemetery officials stood on a small hill and paid homage to the man portrayed so vividly by Daniel Day Lewis in the 10-times Oscar-nominated film “The Gangs of New York.”
Once again Hollywood had worked its magic and the past had been brought to life. Bill the Butcher, of course, stayed well and truly dead. But his fortunes were changing nevertheless. Infamy had given way to big-screen fame while the obscurity of an unmarked grave had flowered into a headstone that will be a prime stopping point on walking tours in a graveyard housing some of the most famous names in American history.
Not to mention Irish. Theobald Wolfe Tone’s widow Matilda is buried here. She died in March 1849 and was interred in Green-Wood only a few years before Bill the Butcher arrived courtesy of the Irish New Yorkers he so despised during his short life.
The Daniel Day Lewis character is named William Cutting. But in the movie he also carries the now familiar street-sharpened sobriquet.
The character of Cutting is based on William Poole, a butcher by trade who was as handy with his fists as he was with a butcher’s knife, but one who eventually fell to a bullet courtesy of the unwelcome Irish.
The true life Bill the Butcher was born in Sussex County, N.J., in 1821 and was just 34 when he died. That’s a fair bit younger than the 47-year-old Day-Lewis version who’s depicted as perishing in a street brawl during the Civil War draft riots in Manhattan.
Poole did live in Manhattan, though on Christopher Street, a little removed from Paradise Square at the heart of the notorious Five Points neighborhood.
He died in his home after lingering for two weeks following a shooting affray on the night of Feb. 24, 1855 in Stanwix Hall, an imbibing emporium on Broadway in Lower Manhattan.
The man primarily responsible for sending Bill the Butcher to his maker was Irish-born John Morrisey. By all accounts, Poole was successful as a butcher but his reputation as a street fighter was what attracted patrons when he decided to go into the bar business.
Poole wasn’t a prizefighter per se. He would fight when insulted and he was easily insulted. In the words of the time, Poole was known as a “sporting man” and a “hard customer.”
Morrisey, a leading Tammany Hall Democrat, was also a tough customer and a noted prizefighter. At one point in his brawling career Morrisey fought the legendary Cork-born Jim “Yankee” Sullivan in Boston. Sullivan won the fight but was declared the loser when he didn’t continue pulverizing Morrisey after a riot broke out at ringside.
Morrisey also ended up at the wrong end of Poole’s pugilistic skills in their encounter. Morrisey took the defeat badly.
Poole’e reputation as a nativist and a man who, by his own admission, refused entry to his salon to people who didn’t eat meat on Friday, only added salt to Morrisey’s wounds. By the time of the great Poole-Morrisey fight, there were a lot of people in New York City who didn’t eat meat on Friday.
Poole was referring to Catholics, of course, but he had the Irish in particular on his mind. This was hardly surprising, given that the Irish were the most obvious Catholics about the streets.
By 1855, the Irish made up an astonishing 87 percent of New York’s unskilled labor force. Poole must have felt he was drowning in a sea of “Micks.”
On the fateful night in Stanwix Hall, Morrisey and Poole traded insults over their drinks but, as detailed in Tyler Anbinder’s recently published book, “Five Points,” it was an associate of Morrisey, Lew Baker, who fired the soon-to-be-fatal shot.
By various accounts of the time, Poole managed to let fly with a knife at the fleeing Baker, but the bullet had unsteadied his hand and the shooter escaped into the night.
A couple of weeks later, on March 8, and about 30 minutes before he passed into history, Bill the Butcher delivered his final riposte to the native Irish, the cause of so much angst in his life and the agents of his demise.
A New York Times account of his final moments bore testimony. According to the Times report, as he drew his last breaths, Poole, with “great distinctness of voice” said: “I think I am a goner. If I die, I die a true American; and what grieves me most is, thinking that I’ve been murdered by a set of Irish — by Morrisey in particular.”
The version of these parting words that were to pass into legend, and now into Hollywood lore, was “Good-bye boys, I die a true American.”
According to Green-Wood historian Jeff Richman, Poole’s last words became a standard closing line on the New York stage for a considerable time after his death.
No matter what the plot, the final scene would show a coffin draped in the Stars and Stripes and the central character would sound off “Good-bye boys . . . “
Poole’s funeral was quite a show. More than 5,000 mourners turned out to pay tribute, but in a series of real-life scenes that could have been plucked straight from the “Gangs” plot line, the funeral cortege was attacked by numerous other gangs as it made its slow way to Green-Wood.
In “The Gangs of New York,” Poole’s grave is shown as being in Brooklyn alongside his on-screen foe, Priest Vallon, played by Liam Neeson.
The film uses a little poetic license in that it places the cemetery just across the East River from Manhattan.
Green-wood is a few miles farther away. But Manhattan was in clear view from the cemetery in 1855. The 500-acre burial ground includes the highest point in the borough and also covers much of the site of the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn.
Poole was laid to rest in an unnamed vault dug into a small hill that now contains the remains of about two dozen souls.
And there he lay in obscurity until made famous again by Day-Lewis, an actor with family ties to Mayo, a county that delivered more Irish than most to the streets of New York in the post-Famine, Bill the Butcher years.
According to Green-Wood’s Richard Moylan, the cemetery authorities knew Bill the Butcher was on the grounds, or at least under them, but not much attention was paid to his presence until the movie came out.
“It has inspired us and has generated a lot of interest,” Moylan said.
Last Thursday’s ceremonial unveiling the headstone took a good deal less time than an 1850s prizefight. A bugler from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy played taps as an American flag flapped in the arctic wind. The salute, as Moylan explained, was not just for Poole but for all who lost their lives in the draft riots.
Moylan said that acknowledgement of Poole’s place in history was anything but approval for the man’s views, or what he stood for. But he was part of New York’s history nevertheless. Now a well-marked part.
As the reporters and buffs went their separate ways, all eventually through the great main gates of the cemetery, a funeral waited to enter the grounds.
The deceased could easily have been Irish, as are many souls resting in Green-Wood. As much as he resented the Irish, it was Poole’s fate never to be far from them.
At the gates there is a view across Brooklyn’s version of Fifth Avenue, down 25th Street into the harbor and beyond that to the Statue of Liberty, a lady prizefighter in the fight for freedom and against the forces of ignorance and nativism.
Bill the Butcher might not have been so sure about that. But his, too, were hands that built America. Nothing is perfect. Even when it’s great.

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