Dead Rabbits

"Dead Rabbits'" barricade on New York City's Bayard Street, in the notorious 1857 fight with the Nativist Bowery Boys
Dead Rabbits
Founding location Five Points, Manhattan, New York City, New York, present-day Worth Street, Baxter Street, and Columbus Park, in Manhattan, New York City, New York
Years active 1850s
Territory Five Points, Manhattan, New York City
Ethnicity Irish and Irish-American
Membership (est.) ?
Criminal activities street fighting, assault, murder, robbery, arson, rioting
Rivals Bowery Boys, Roach Guards, Plug Uglies

The Dead Rabbits was the media-bestowed name of an Irish American gang in New York City in the 1850s. They called themselves the Roach Guards and were also known as the Black Birds. Historian Tyler Anbinder says, "The name so captured the imagination of New Yorkers that the press continued to use it despite the abundant evidence that no such club or gang existed." Anbinder notes that, "for more than a decade, 'Dead Rabbit' became the standard phrase by which city residents described any scandalously riotous individual or group."[1]

George Henry Hall, A Dead Rabbit, 1858. Also entitled Study of the Nude, or Study of an Irishman, it depicts a man meant to represent one of the Dead Rabbits gang members from the Dead Rabbits Riot of July 4, 1857 in New York City's Lower East Side slums.

The Dead Rabbits were named so because they supposedly carried a dead rabbit on a pike or were said to throw a dead rabbit in the middle of a fight before it commences.[2] They often clashed with Nativist political groups seeking to eliminate Irish immigrant communities from New York City, and were instrumental in protecting their ethnic communities and identities from these radical groups.[3][4] Their chief rival gang were the Bowery Boys; Native-born New Yorkers who supported the Know Nothing political party in favor of kicking out the immigrant groups.[2] These two rival gangs fought over 200 gang battles in a span of 10 years beginning in 1834, and they often outmanned the police force and even the state militias. They were also in the forefront of the Dead Rabbits Riot and the New York Draft Riots.

Besides street-fighting, the Dead Rabbits also supported politicians such as Fernando Wood and the Tammany Hall whose platforms included the welfare and benefit of immigrant groups and minorities, and under the leadership of Isaiah Rynders the gang also acted as enforcers to violently persuade voters during elections to vote for their candidates.[4][5] According to legend, one of the most feared Dead Rabbits was "Hell-Cat Maggie," a woman who reportedly filed her teeth to points and wore brass fingernails into battle.[6] One of the Dead Rabbit leaders, John Morrissey, would later become a Democratic State Senator and U.S. Congressman who ameliorated the conditions of the Irish-American communities for years to come.

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 supporters 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, the Dead Rabbits Riot, occurred with the Metropolitan Police and the Bowery gangs against the Municipal Police, Mulberry Street Boys, Roach Guard, and Dead Rabbits in Bayard Street.[7]

There was a similar gang in Liverpool in the late 19th century also known as 'The Dead Rabbits'.[8]


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, New Jersey. (Lyrics - Backus; Music - Daniel Decatur Emmett; originally "Jordan is a Hard Road To Travel")

Then 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.

The 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.

When 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.

Upon 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.

In popular culture

The Dead Rabbits along with the Short Tails feature prominently in Mark Helprin's novel Winter's Tale.

The story of the New York Dead Rabbits is told, in highly fictionalized form, in Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York. The film's inspiration came from Herbert Asbury's book Gangs of New York.

The fourth season of Hell on Wheels has a few Dead Rabbit characters.

Patricia Beatty's historical children's fiction novel Charlie Skedaddle mentions Dead Rabbits (the main character is a Bowery Boy).

The New York City Football Club's popular fanbase is called The Dead Rabbits and can frequently be seen sporting top hats with rabbit ears.

An Urban Soccer intramural squad holds 4 titles to the Dead Rabbits name. On June 13, 2016 at James Walker Field in NYC the Dead Rabbits secured the Men's Premier League title with a 5-0 slaughter of Brian's Angels.

See also


  1. Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: the 19th-century New York City neighborhood that invented tap dance, stole elections, and became the world's most notorious slum (2001) pp 285-86.
  2. 1 2 Buddy, James. Gangs in America's Communities. SAGE Publications, Inc; Buddy edition (November 9, 2011). p. 5. ISBN 978-1412979535
  3. Maffi, Mario.Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnicity and Culture in New York's Lower East Side (Revealing Antiquity; 8). NYU Press; 1st edition (April 1, 1995). p. 129. ISBN 978-0814755082
  4. 1 2 O'Kane, James. The Crooked Ladder: Gangsters, Ethnicity, and the American Dream. Transaction Publishers; New edition edition (January 31, 2002). pp. 55-57. ISBN 978-0765809940
  5. 10 Deadly Street Gangs Of The Victorian Era
  6. 7 Infamous Gangs of New York
  7. "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 hi.'" New York Daily 6 July 1857
  8. Macilwee, Michael. The Gangs of Liverpool: From the Cornermen to the High Rip The Mobs That Terrorised a City. Milo Books, 2006. ISBN 1-903854-54-7
  • 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
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