Bowery Boys

This page is about the NYC street gang in the 19th Century. Should we make a page about the 1940s and 50s movie actors, it would probably go under The Bowery Boys

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Basic Information

The Bowery Boys were one of many gangs active in the rough and tumble Five Points Neighborhood of New York City.

The Bowery Boys were one of the cleaner-looking Gangs Of Old New York in the 19th Century, but that didn't make them particularly moral. Most street gangs are comprised largely of disadvantaged lower class individuals who feel they have no other option than to be criminals. The Bowery Boys, by way of contrast, were Middle Class with aspirations much higher. They prided themselves in not being just common hoodlums - they were a cut above, or so they insisted. They held jobs, they dressed in fancy clothes, they even ran a fire department and became heavily involved in politics. This carefully-crafted public image, however, didn't change the fact that they were a bunch of racist petty thugs.



A Bowery Boy is not just dressed in haphazard gang colors, they took it so far as to almost be a formal uniform. A Bowery Boy would typically dressed as follows:

  • Black "stovepipe" top hat made from Beaver fur, carefully maintained.
  • Hair slicked into a forelock with pomade, and cut short in the back
  • Kerchief or cravat tied around the neck
  • Red shirt
  • Black silk vest or frock coat
  • Black flared trousers, but with the cuffs rolled up
  • High-heeled black boots

If they were not dressed in this way, expect to see them in firefighter's helmet and coat.


The Bowery Boys were rabidly patriotic, and fiercely anti-immigrant despite living in a country that had existed for less than 100 years at the time. They participated in the crimes of vote tampering and election rigging, and they "guarded" the polling stations to discourage people, especially Catholic Irish immigrants from voting against their candidates.

New York City politics at the time were very corrupt. Like anything the Bowery Boys did, there was a profit motive involved, and a veneer of respectability put over it.

The Bowery Boys supported the so-called "Native American Party", more commonly remembered as the Know Nothing party. The Know Nothings had a repugnant platform that descriminated based on both race and religion (they were against the Irish because of that country being Catholic). Despite being openly hateful, the Know Nothings they were very influential from the 1830s to the 1860s, not only in New York but in most of New England. The term "Know Nothings" came from their organization - the party was set up much like a secret society and if questioned about their activities, the stock response was "I know nothing".


The Bowery Boys owned a couple shiny firepumps, and their own fancy uniforms, because, as always, appearances were very important to them.

Firefighting was pretty perilous in those days, and done for profit. Competing private fire departments would rush to the scene of the fire, and often end up duking it out over who got to save the burning buildings. It was not unheard of for buildings to burn down while the fire crews were too busy fighting in the streets to do anything about it.

When a fire would break out, the Bowery Boys (and most other fire departments in New York City in that era) would dispatch their fastest man to run to the fire hydrant nearest the conflagration, carrying a large wooden barrel. Upon arriving, the runner would set the barrel over the fire plug, and then sit on it. The city had only a limited number of fire hydrants, so by blocking access to the plug you could guarantee that no other fire department could respond to the situation - at least not without fighting your runner first.

Famous Bowery Boys

  • Mose the Fireboy - Mose's stature grew in the telling, becoming sort of a Legendary figure not unlike Hercules. Supposedly he once carried a trolley car.
  • William Poole - Charismatic leader of the gang, supposedly 5,000 people attending his funeral in 1855. He was a bare-knuckle boxer and a known by some as "Bill the Butcher"

The 1857 Battle

The Bowery Boys were allied with the Metropolitan Police, one of the two police departments in New York City at the time. The Metropolitan Police had a long slow feud with the Municipal Police, and the Bowery Boys had a similar feud with local Irish-ethnic gang called the Dead Rabbits.

On July 4, 1857 all this tension boiled over. A two-day rolling brawl started that involved the two gangs, both police departments, and several smaller gangs that got drawn into it. Reportedly thousands of people took part in the battle from the 4th to the 6th.

Officially, the death count was only eight, but there were allegations at the time that the corrupt police had carted off many dozens of bodies and downplayed the numbers to save face.

The 1863 Draft Riots

During the American Civil War, the Federal Government instituted a draft. This didn't go over so well in New York City, and the Bowery Boys took part in the New York Draft Riots. The chaos got so bad, the military was called in and used Artillery and Bayonets on the rioters.


1. Nonfiction Book: The Big Book of Thugs - A "graphic novel"-style nonfiction anthology by DC featuring "Tough-As-Nails True Tales Of The World's Baddest Mobs, Gangs, and Ne'er-Do-Wells"
2. Website on Herbert Asbury - in 1928, Asbury wrote the nonfiction book "The Gangs of New York"
3. Nonfiction Book: "The Gangs of New York" - book by Herbert Asbury
4. Movie: Wikipedia on "The Gangs of New York" movie - A film by Martin Scorsese that catches the feel of the era and the gangs, even if plays a little loose with certain characters and historical facts.
7. Photo is public domain. Source: "TS 939.5.3, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University" Hosted via Wikimedia Commons

Game and Story Use

  • The Bowery Boys, or any other of the Gangs of Old New York can liven up a historical or time travel game.
    • NYC is always a tough town, but PCs might not be expecting just how far back that danger goes. Time Travelers or vacationers dropping into New York in 1857 or 1863 might find themselves swept up in a veritable war in the streets.
      • Or, one of the gangs may just be using the brawls and riots as a diversion to keep the authorities looking somewhere else while they commit some big crime.
  • The veneer of respectability makes the Bowery Boys very distinct. Mooks don't usually wear top-hats. Gangsters aren't typically fire fighters. Street gangs don't usually openly befriend Police Chiefs and Political Candidates. You can use the Bowery Boys to completely upend player expectations or make your game memorable.
    • Probably you'd use them as villains.
    • Part of the problem here is seeing things through a modern lense where there is "government" and "not government" - the Bowery Boys belong to an era where the state did remarkably little by modern standards and so non-state actors could have a lot more legitimacy that the modern citizen expects. Where a modern street gang has no legitimacy at all, these guys could harvest quite a bit from being a de-facto part of the local establishment - they are, in effect, something like a WASP prototype of the mafia.
  • The concepts that sum up the Bowery Boys can be easily transposed into other settings.
    • In a fantasy setting, perhaps the local thieves guild has a very reputable public face. Or maybe the some other guild behaves more like a street gang. Blacksmiths or Barbers could make for an interesting gang drawn from the professional ranks.
    • Something like the Bowery Boys could work twenty minutes into the future, or further into a Science Fiction Dystopia where the haves and have-nots are even more starkly divided. You could have high-fashion upper class elites rely on technology and muscle to go toe-to-toe with street gangs of the era.
      • If memory serves correctly, I think the minis game Necromunda had one gang that fit this bill. They were few in numbers, but equipped with tech that would make Batman jealous. Frequently flew down from the penthouses to stir up trouble in the underhive.
      • For those looking for a Deus Ex style dystopia, the Bowery Boys could easily be added to the chaos in Manhattan, either working alongside one of the factions or in the role of a loose cannon.
    • For some reason, the notion of particularly well-dressed orcs amuses me. I'd be willing to give that a try.
  • During a game set in the American Civil War you might have a PC who was a Bowery Boy and then either got drafted, or ordered into the military by a Judge as punishment for a crime. This could be run as either a redemption story, or he could be a very grey anti-hero.
  • Given the fancy clothes, it'd be very easy for someone to misjudge a Bowery Boy as being more genteel than they really are.
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