Bill The Butcher: The Ruthless Gangster Of 1850s New York

Bill “The Cleaver” Poole stands out as a notorious figure who vehemently opposed immigrants in the annals of American history.

His aggressive demeanor and intimidating presence served as the blueprint for the main villain in Martin Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York, but it also paved the way for his untimely death at 33.

In the mid-19th century, New York City presented a stark contrast to its current self, providing an environment where a self-centered, blade-brandishing fighter could capture the city’s collective imagination and headlines.

However, perhaps some things remain unchanged. It’s crucial to highlight that a mix of fact and legend surrounds Bill the Butcher’s past. Discrepancies exist in the accounts of his significant life episodes, including his altercations and ultimate demise.

We’re certain that on July 24, 1821, William Poole came into the world in northern New Jersey, as the child of a butcher. Around ten years later, they shifted to New York City.

Here, young Poole learned and eventually assumed control of the family business at Washington Market in Lower Manhattan. By the start of the 1850s, Poole had a wife and a young boy, Charles, and they resided in a cozy brick residence at 164 Christopher Street, adjacent to the Hudson River.

Standing at six feet and weighing over 200 pounds, William Poole combined his muscular build with agility. His striking visage was complemented by a dense mustache. His temperament was volatile.

The New York Times records that Poole was often argumentative, was perceived as a tough character, and relished confrontations. His underhanded combat techniques earned him a reputation as one of the premier “rough and tumble” fighters nationwide.

He demonstrated a peculiar knack for aiming at an opponent’s eyes and was exceptionally skilled with blades, a skill he honed in his profession. William Poole rose to be the figurehead of the Bowery Boys, a gang that was anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, and fundamentally nativist in pre-Civil War Manhattan.

This street crew had ties to the isolationist, pro-Protestant Know-Nothing political wave, predominant in New York during the 1840s and 50s. The American Party, the political wing of this wave, advocated that the surge of Irish refugees escaping hunger and seeking shelter in the U.S. would erode its Protestant-based democracy.

Poole evolved into a prominent “muscle” for the nativists, ensuring their dominance at polling stations. Skirmishes and large-scale disturbances between him, other Bowery Boys, and their Irish adversaries, known as the “Dead Rabbits,” were commonplace.

John “Old Smoke” Morrissey, a native of Ireland and a champion bare-knuckle pugilist of 1853, was Poole’s primary rival. Morrissey, ten years Poole’s junior, was a key enforcer for the Tammany Hall political establishment that steered New York City’s Democratic Party.

Tammany Hall championed immigrants; by the mid-1800s, a majority of its leaders bore Irish roots. While both Morrissey and Poole were assertive, combative, and audacious, their political stances were polar opposites.

Ego clashes and inherent prejudices made a lethal clash between them almost preordained. The height of the conflict between Poole and Morrissey transpired in July 1854, with a showdown at the City Hotel.

The location and timing, set by Poole, was the following day’s dawn at the Amos Street docks (previously named West 10th Street). As the sun rose, Poole, in his boat, was greeted by throngs eager for the showdown.

Doubts about Morrissey’s arrival were quelled when he materialized around 6:30 a.m., sizing up his foe. A brief 30-second standoff ensued before Morrissey lunged with a punch. Poole evaded, grabbed Morrissey, and floored him.

With no holds barred, Poole unleashed a savage assault, employing biting, kicking, and scratching. He targeted Morrissey’s eye, leaving it bleeding profusely. As per the New York Times, Morrissey’s injuries were so severe that even close associates struggled to identify him. Morrissey capitulated, murmuring, “Enough.”

He was escorted away as Poole celebrated with supporters and left the scene in his boat. There are divergent views about the fight. Some suggest Poole’s backers interfered, ensuring his tainted win. Others claim only Poole engaged Morrissey. The true narrative remains elusive.

Regardless, Morrissey was severely injured. He retreated to a nearby Leonard Street hotel for recuperation and revenge plotting. Meanwhile, Poole, in high spirits, set off for Coney Island with his comrades.

As per historical records, on Feb. 25, 1855, John Morrissey and William Poole crossed paths once more. Around 10 p.m., Morrissey was in the private section of Stanwix Hall, a tavern frequented by political supporters of various leanings located in present-day SoHo.

When Poole stepped into the establishment, Morrissey, alerted of his adversary’s presence, confronted and verbally attacked him. The sequence of events that followed is a matter of debate, but firearms became a pivotal factor.

One version suggests that Morrissey aimed a handgun at Poole’s head, attempting to fire thrice, but it malfunctioned. Conversely, some assert that both adversaries brandished their weapons, each challenging the other to make the first move.

The tavern’s proprietors summoned law enforcement. The rivals were escorted to different police precincts, though neither faced charges. After a brief detention, both were freed. Poole made his way back to Stanwix Hall, but Morrissey’s whereabouts remain uncertain.

Later that night, between midnight and 1 a.m., a group of Morrissey’s associates, including Lewis Baker, James Turner, and Patrick “Paudeen” McLaughlin, entered the bar. Each of these toughs had, at some point, been overpowered or embarrassed by Poole and his allies.

Drawing from Herbert Asbury’s 1928 seminal work, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, Paudeen aimed to provoke Poole into conflict.

Despite being outnumbered, Poole resisted, even when Paudeen spat in his direction multiple times and hurled insults. At this point, James Turner exclaimed, “We should take him down!” Revealing a concealed Colt revolver, Turner pointed it at Poole, using his left arm for support.

In a twist of fate, Turner’s aim was interrupted, causing him to unintentionally shoot through his left arm, fracturing it. As he collapsed, he managed another shot, striking Poole in the upper leg and then the shoulder.

As Poole staggered towards the exit, Lewis Baker halted him, proclaiming, “Seems I have you now.” Baker then fired, hitting Poole in the torso. William Poole endured for 11 days before succumbing to his injuries.

The fatal bullet didn’t pierce his heart but became trapped in its surrounding sac. On March 8, 1855, Bill the Butcher met his end. His alleged final words resonated with his beliefs: “Farewell lads, I depart as a true American.”

On March 11, 1855, Poole was interred at Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. A massive crowd of his admirers gathered to pay their respects and join the funeral march. His death caused significant uproar, elevating him to a revered status among nativists.

Following a search, the culprits behind Poole’s assassination were apprehended. Yet, their trials concluded inconclusively, with a split jury, three of whom were in favor of exoneration.

Modern audiences primarily recognize Bill the Butcher through Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal in Gangs of New York. The character, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, draws inspiration from the genuine William Poole.

While the film captures the essence of the real Butcher—his assertiveness, allure, and prejudices—it takes creative liberties in certain areas. Notably, whereas the cinematic Butcher is portrayed as being 47, William Poole’s life was cut short at 33. In his brief lifespan, Poole carved a legacy that would be etched in history for ages.