Billy McGlory was one of the most infamous men in Manhattan in the 1880s, at the center of organized crime and well connected.
Adapted from Wikipedia (footnotes intact; clicking will take you to Wikipedia):
William “Billy” McGlory (1853 – ?) was an American saloon keeper and underworld figure in New York City during the mid-to late 19th century. He was well known in The Bowery and Five Points districts, owning a number of popular establishments throughout the city, most notably McGlory’s Armory Hall, up until the turn of the 20th century. A gang member in his youth, his Armory Hall remained a popular Bowery hangout for members of the underworld in the old Fourth and Sixth Wards during the late 1870s and 1880s.
McGlory opened McGlory’s Armory Hall, located at 158 Hester Street, in the late 1870s. It was described by a journalist for the Cincinnati Inquirer as having “a beastliness and depravity… compared with which no chapter in the world’s history is equal.” It very quickly became a popular underworld resort, frequented by thieves, pickpockets, and procurers throughout the old Fourth and Sixth Wards for nearly two decades. Armory Hall was often the scene of barroom brawls and gang violence. Drunken customers were robbed, many times by the female regulars who flirted with the victim beforehand, and then dragged from a table by a bouncer and thrown out into the street. Once outside, the victim would be searched by for anything of value and was usually stripped of his clothes.
In January 1879, McGlory was indicted for running a disorderly house. [See Prostitution] When he failed to show up in court the following month, his $500 bail was forfeited but no further action was taken. … McGlory spent time in The Tombs.
Many of the much feared bouncers of McGlory’s Armory Hall were well-known criminals and hired thugs of the Five Points and the New York waterfront. These men were described as “some of the most expert rough-and-tumble fighters of the period” and could be seen walking the club freely wearing pistols, knives, brass knuckles, and bludgeons which they often used against unruly or otherwise uncooperative customers.
In 1883, McGlory’s Grand Scarlet Ball included a cakewalk, mixed boxing matches, a beauty contest and a masquerade ball.
Armory Hall was entered from the street through a double doorway, which led into a long, narrow passageway with its walls pained “dead black”. Fifty feet down the unlighted passage was the barroom and from there the main dance hall, furnished with chairs and tables, which accommodated up to 700 people. The music played in the dance hall included a piano, a cornet and a violin. A balcony ran around two sides of the hall with small box seats, some containing secret compartments,separated by heavy curtains reserved for wealthy patrons. These were usually out-of-towners who were known as big spenders in the city’s many resorts and clubs. Private exhibitions were held in these boxes “even more degraded then the Haymarket” and McGlory, as an added attraction, employed half a dozen half young males as waitresses “dressed in feminine clothing and circulated through the crowd, singing and dancing.” (see Gay Culture) They were “painted like women” and spoke in high, falsetto voices. As well as the many prostitutes and “serving girls” working in the dance hall, the concert saloon was widely known for encouraging homosexual activity among its patrons. McGlory also held athletic events at Armory Hall and charged 15 cents to attend these promotions.
It’s hard to underestimate — it’s hard even to fully imagine — the extremes of poverty and wealth in Manhattan in the late 19th century.
The homeless — children and adults — were legion. The city was so crowded with people who could not afford a bed that in the last quarter of the century an unusual practice was put in place. Police stations began to open their doors at nightfall and make basement accommodations available to the poor. In the light of day they were turned out onto the street again.
In the winter months especially the police station basements were very popular. In the photo below, the poor have lined up to wait for the doors to open at the Mulberry Street police station.
Those who worked full time — and that might mean seven days a week, twelve or more hours a day — often resided well below the poverty line as well.
Cash-girls receiving $1.75 a week for work that at certain seasons lengthened their day to sixteen hours were sometimes required to pay for their aprons. A common cause for discharge from stores in which, on account of the oppressive heat and lack of ventilation, “girls fainted day after day and came out looking like corpses,” was too long service. No other fault was found with the discharged saleswomen than that they had been long enough in the employ of the firm to justly expect an increase of salary. The reason was even given with brutal frankness, in some instances. (Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives)
This section of an 1883 map correlates to multiple crimes reported in contemporaneous newspapers. This is not unexpected, as it was one of the poorest neighborhoods and encompassed Mulberry Bend, made famous by Jacob Riis‘s photography documenting the squalid living conditions available to new immigrants.
Opium dens mentioned in the papers in 1883 (the ones I found, at any rate) are marked here in blue ovals; red stars indicate brothels or tenements occupied by prostitutes. Just a block and a half west of the infamous Chatham Square you’ll see the Grand Duke’s Theater at 21 Baxter.
The Grand Duke’s Theater was attached to a stale beer joint, one of the lowest of the low taverns that sold the dregs from beer barrels, and were frequented primarily by the children who lived on the street and cobbled together a living by selling papers or flowers, shining shoes, running errands and petty larceny.
It used to be a familiar sight to see the saloons of Baxter, Mott and Mulberry streets filled with these [homeless] boys. It was only a few years ago that they had their own theatre, “The Grand Duke’s Theatre,” at 21 Baxter street, in the cellar under a stale beer dive, where really clever performances were given of an imitative character, by a company of boys; and which, by the way, was the only theatre which for years defied the efforts of the authorities to collect the license. The admission fee was ten cents, and curiosity seekers came from all parts of the city to witness the really laughable and, in many cases, meritorious character-sketches given within its damp walls. It was subsequently broken up by the police.
Note the casual disdain for the children, and worse, the way their survival is trivialized. No mention of disease or child prostitution, maybe because they thought too much truth would be bad for sales. In 1887 The Grand Duke’s Theater came down, according to the New York Times, to make room for a tenement. They provide a more sober short history:
Once excellent source of information can be found at the historypoverty.org website maintained by the Institute for for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness:
PovertyHistory.org provides an intimate look at the experience of poverty over New York City’s history. The site investigates public policies that have shaped the lives of the poor and homeless and shows how the past continues to influence the present. With comprehensive timelines, analytical maps, striking images, primary sources, and informative essays, this site is geared toward students, teachers, service providers, and policymakers with an interest in the history of these intractable issues.