The Historical River Thieves of New York City

The Harbor Thieves constitute one of the most dangerous and active portions of the criminal class that was in New York City. There are only about fifty professional thieves of this class, but they give the police a vast amount of trouble, and inflict great loss in the aggregate upon the mercantile community. The harbor was infested with a gang of pirates, who not only committed the most daring robberies, but also added nightly murders to their misdeeds. Their victims were thrown into the deep waters of the river or bay, and all trace of the foul work was removed. At length, however, the leaders of the gang, Saul and Howlett by name, mere lads both, were arrested, convicted, and executed, and for a while a stop was put to the robberies in the harbor; but in course of time the infamous trade was resumed, but without its old accompaniment of murder. It was carried on with great activity in spite of the efforts of the police to put a stop to it. The North River front of the city is troubled with but one gang of these ruffian’s, which has its headquarters at the foot of Charlton street. This front is lined with piers which are well built, well lighted, and well guarded, being occupied chiefly by steamboats plying on the river, and by the foreign and coasting steamships. The East River is not so well guarded, the piers are dark, and the vessels, mostly sailing ships, are left to the protection of their crews. It is in this river, therefore, and in the harbor, that the principal depredations of the river thieves are carried on. “Slaughter House Point,” the intersection of James and South streets, and so called by the police because of the many murders which have occurred there, is the principal rendezvous of the East River thieves. Hook Dock, at the foot of Cherry street, is also one of their favorite gathering places.

The life of a river thief is a very hard one, and his gains, as a rule, are small. He is subjected to a great deal of manual labor in the effort to secure his plunder, and is exposed to all sorts of weather. Night work in an open boat in New York harbor is not favorable to longevity, and in eight or ten years the most robust constitution will give way before the constant attacks of rheumatism and neuralgia. There would be some compensation to society in this but for the fact that the police, whose duty it is to watch the river thieves, suffer in a similar way.

The river thieves generally work in gangs of three and four. Each gang has its rowboat, which is constructed with reference to carrying off as much plunder as possible, and making the best attainable time when chased by the harbor police. The thieves will not go out on a moonlight or even a bright starlight night. Nights when the darkness is so thick that it hides everything, or when the harbor is covered with a dense fog, are most favorable to them. Then, emerging from their starting point, they pull to the middle of the stream, where they lie-to long enough to ascertain if they are observed or followed. Then they pull swiftly to the point where the vessel they mean to rob is lying. Their oars are muffled, and their boat glides along noiselessly through the darkness. Frequently they pause for a moment, and listen to catch the sound of the oars of the police-boats, if any are on their track. Upon reaching the vessel, they generally manage to board her by means of her chains, or some rope which is hanging down her side. The crew are asleep, and the watch is similarly overcome. The thieves are cautions and silent in their movements, and succeed in securing their spoil without awakening any one. They will steal anything they can get their hands on, but deal principally in articles which cannot be identified, such as sugar, coffee, tea, rice, cotton, etc. They go provided with their own bags, and fill these from the original bags, barrels, or cases in which these articles are found on the ship. They are very careful to take away with them nothing which has a distinctive mark by which it may be identified. Having filled their boat, they slip over the side of the ship into it, and pull back to a point on shore designated beforehand, and, landing, convey their plunder to the shop of a junkman with whom they have already arranged matters, where they dispose of it for ready money. They do not confine their operations to vessels lying at the East River piers of New York, but rob those discharging cargo at the Brooklyn stores, or lying at anchor in the East or North rivers, even going as far as to assail those lying at quarantine.



In order to check their operations as far as possible, a force of about thirty policemen, under Captain James Todd, is assigned to duty in the harbor. The headquarters of this force are on a steamer, which boat was expected to accomplish wonders, but which is too large and clumsy to be of any real service. In consequence of this, Captain Todd is obliged to patrol the harbor with row-boats, of which there are several. These boats visit all the piers on the two rivers, and search for thieves or their boats. Sometimes the thieves are encountered just as they are approaching a pier with their boat filled with stolen property, and again the chase will be kept up clear across the harbor. If they once get sight of them, the police rarely fail to overhaul the thieves. Generally the latter submit without a struggle, but sometimes a fight ensues.

The thieves, however, prefer to submit where they have such goods as rice, sugar, coffee, or tea in their possession. They know that it will be impossible to convict them, and they prefer a slight detention to the consequences of a struggle with their captors. The merchant or master of the ship, from whom the goods are stolen, may feel sure in his own mind that the articles found in the possession of the thieves are his property, but he cannot swear that they are his, it being simply impossible to identify such goods. And so the magistrate, though satisfied of the theft, must discharge the prisoner and return him the stolen goods. The only charge against him is that he was found under suspicious circumstances with these articles in his possession. From three to four river thieves are arrested every week, but, for the reason given, few are punished. Sometimes, in order to secure their conviction, the police turn over the thieves to the United States authorities, by whom they are charged with smuggling, this charge being based upon their being found in possession of goods on which they can show no payment of duties. Sometimes they are prosecuted, not for larceny, but for violating the quarantine laws in boarding vessels detained at quarantine.

Several times the most daring of the river thieves have robbed the piers of the European steamship lines. In one instance, they passed under the pier of the Cunard steamers at Jersey City, cut out a portion of the flooring, and removed several valuable packages through the opening thus made. They then replaced the flooring, and secured it in its place by means of lifting-jacks, and decamped with their plunder. The next night they returned and removed other packages, and for several nights the performance was repeated. The company’s agent, upon the discovery of the loss, exerted himself actively to discover the thieves, but without success. The watchmen on shore were positive that the warehouse, which is built on the pier, had not been entered from the land, and there were no signs to be discovered of its having been forced from the water side. Matters began to look bad for the watchmen, when, one night, the harbor police unexpectedly made a dash under the pier and caught the thieves at their work.

The North River gang are said to own a fine schooner, in which they cruise along the Hudson almost to Albany, and carry on a system of piracy at the river towns. Farmers and country merchants suffer greatly from their depredations. A year or so ago, it was rumored that they were commanded by a beautiful and dashing woman, but this story is now believed to be a mere fiction.

“Another gang is called the ‘Daybreak Boys,’ from the fact that none of them are a dozen years of age, and that they always select the hour of dawn for their depredations, which are exclusively confined to the small craft moored in the East River just below Hell Gate. They find the men on these vessels locked in the deep sleep of exhaustion, the result of their severe labors of the day; and as there are no watchmen, they meet little difficulty in rifling not only the vessels, but the persons of those on board. If there is any such thing as a watch or money, it is sure to disappear; and it has often happened that one of these vessels has been robbed of every portable article on board, including every article of clothing.”


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