The New Jersey beginnings of ‘Bill the Butcher’
Remember the movie Gangs of New York? One of the main characters was a brutal thug named “Bill the Butcher” (played by Daniel Day Lewis). Did you know he was based on a real person who was born in New Jersey? It’s true.
William Poole was born on July 24th, 1921 in Sussex County; his father was a butcher. When he was young, his father moved the family to Manhattan to open his own butcher shop and Bill followed into his father’s trade. It was in New York that Bill first started fighting and he was a brawler both in and out of the boxing ring. According to AllThatsInteresting.com, He was known to be a dirty fighter, though, being described as “particularly keen on gouging an opponent’s eyes out and was known to be very good with knives, due to his line of work.”
Bill became the leader of a street gang called the Bowery Boys, a gang, as AllThatsInteresting.com put it, was known as “a nativist, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish gang that was associated with the Know-Nothing political party that opposed the Tammany Hall political structure." Bill was known for “discouraging” opponents from voting. There were many other street gangs in New York at the time, and one of the Bowery Boys’ biggest rivals was the Dead Rabbits gang, comprised primarily of Irish immigrants.
The two gangs brawled in the streets frequently. It was this rivalry with the Irish that would ultimately lead to Bill the Butcher’s early death. A simmering feud with an Irish immigrant named John Morrissey. Poole and Morrissey had had a bloody fight that Bill won under disputed circumstances, but Morrissey took revenge. Several months later, two of Morrissey’s compatriots, Lewis Baker and Jim Turner ran into Bill in a bar; a scuffle ensued and Baker shot Bill with a pistol. Bill staggered away and didn’t die immediately. In fact he survived another 11 days before succumbing to his injuries. His final words were supposedly, “Good-bye, boys. I die a true American.”
He was 33. Baker fled the city but was eventually arrested and tried three times for the murder of William Poole. All three trials ended in a hung jury.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Bill Doyle. Any opinions expressed are Bill Doyle's own.