History of The New York City River Thieves

This is reference material from the public domain book “The Night Side of New York” by Frank Beard. In this post we’ve retrieved information relative to this history of the River Thieves of New York City. If you enjoy the material below please download “The Night Side of New York” by Frank Beard PDF Ebook absolutely for FREE at the bottom of this post.

If crime stalks rampant through the streets of New York during the hours of dim lamplight, so also on the rivers that bound the city, and on the bay below, it works steadily among the masses of floating things that crowd the docks and channels. There are certain facilities connected with the business of thieving upon the water, that are not enjoyed by the sharks whose element is the land. The difficulties of detection are in favor of the dock pirate, who pulls audaciously about in his boat as if in pursuit of some legitimate calling, and frequently succeeds in landing his cargo of stolen property under the very nose of the police.
Certain branches of river thieving are carried on in the open day, but it is at night, of course, that the more desperate characters belonging to the craft carry on their depradations. These are the pirates who hover around vessels in thestill hours, boarding them where a strict watch is not kept, and frequently using their weapns, to test the force of the principle that “dead men tell no tales.”

For the protection of the water around the city there is a force called the Harbor Police, a glance at whose arrangements form a necessary part of this chapter. This force, at present, consists of twenty-six men, under the command of Captain Hartt, once himself a mariner, and whose name is renowned throughout the city in connection with many daring arrests of desperate criminals of the land gangs – for his command was formely in the city precinets. The headquaters of the orce are on board of a good-sized, side-wheel steamer which, when not on a cruise, is moored off the Battery, near the Staten Island ferry house. She has a couple of quarter-boats on deck, and a brass gun or two – the latter more for show than use. There are two or three barges belonging to the department, and the men are of the maritime type, accustomed to working boats, and versed in many useful things peculiar to the craft. Captain Hartt is a wiry man of muscular build, with grizzled hair and beard, and a certain quiet determination of characterabout him that must give him a great advantage when action becomes necessary. He has a strong objection to the use of fire-arms, resort to which he does not allow except in the most desperate cases. His principle is that the club, properly handled, is a sufficient weapon in the hand of the civil officer, and his own practice of the instrument is of a very peculiar and effective kind. There is a very simple handcuff used by these maritime police for securing desperate characters. It is nothing but a bit of rope about six inches long, inserted at either end into a button, somewhat like the handle of a gimlet. In cases of resistance, an officer can handle his man very readily by whipping a turn of this round his wrist. Several times in the course of the twenty-four hours, the steamer takes way and runs slowly up the rivers as far as fifteenth street, or further. Close observations are made of everything going on, and yet, in spite of all this and of the constant patrolling of the water by the force in their barges and small boats, many depredations are committed that are never brought to light; for the force is far from adequate for the protection of a harbor so thronged with life and reckless
characters as that of New York.

The river thieves belong, for the most part, to the lowest scum of that peculiar class of men, haunting the docks and piers of great seaport towns. They are just seaworthy enough to handle boats with facility, and overhaul the interior arrangements of a vessel, and just ruffian enough to take a human life where that becomes necessary to secure their object. Once, in a police court, we saw a river theif, who was a good type of his class. He was a powerful, undersized fellow, who was South America. His left hand was but a stump, all the fingers of it having been removed by a surgical operation, performed on him by the mate of a ship, who used a hatchet just as the robber had laid his hand upon the gunwale to board. The fellow’s arms were tattooed all over with obscene emblems, and his mouth had been extended to one side nearly to his ear, by a slash from some sharp weapon.

There are sundry junk-dealers throughout the city, whose dens are depots for the proceeds of river thieving. The stock, in many of these places, consists entirely of stolen property – bales of cotton, coils of rope, ships’ instruments, and such other articles as a
wily depredator can manage to “convey” in the course of a midnight cruise. Collusion is a leading principle upon which river thieves work. The experienced pirate of the harbor has frequently a “pal” among the hands belonging to some veseel. This operator secretes such articles as he can from the cargo of a ship about to sail, and manages to drop them quietly to some hovering boat when all is dark and still.

Among the smaller craft in the rivers, such as schooners, the river thieves find a wide range for their operations. On such vessels as these, strange though it may appear, but very slack watch is kept at night. If cargo has lately been disposed of, the river thieves are
aware of it. The chances are that the captain of the schooner has the money in his cabin – for these coasting mariners sometimes are very careless. The chances are that he has had his spree ashore, and that he comes on board drunk, at a late hour of the night. Once the captain is asleep, there is but little chance of the watch keeping awake. Ultimately it is the perfect opportunity of the river thief. Silently, in the dark, he pulls, with a couple of his “pals,” to the schooner, which is anchored, probably, in some quiet creek of the river. Having divested himself of his boots, he creeps, cat-like, to the deck where he lies awhile behind some convenieant pile of ropes or sails, until he ascertains that all is quiet. Then he proceeds to lay hands on such “marine stores” as may happen to be lying around loose, which he drops over the side to his accomplices. His mission though is to get at the captain’s moeny, and to do this requires the skill of a practiced burglar. If there happens to be obstacles, such as locked doors, he removes them softly with a “jimmy,” or short iron bar. He hears the snoring of the captain, whose cabin has a dim light burning. He then enters into the narrow chamber and proceeds to search the trunk or locker in which he thinks the money likely lies. Should any untoward noise, such as a the falling of the lid of a trunk, awaken the sleeper, that unfortunate person’s doom is sealed, for the river thief hits him powerful blog on the temple with the “jimmy,” or with a sand-club, and there is a vacancy in the number of the mess of that schooner. Then a quick retreat must be made, but the thief usually manages first to find the money, which, as often as otherwise, is in the captain’s trousers pocket, stowed away under the now blood-stained pillow. Sometimes the mate or one of the hands awakes in the nick of time, but arms are seldom at hand and the pistol of the robber is always ready to aid his retreat. In a late case of murder on board a vessel lying in the East River, the captain of a schooner testified that, as he lay awake in his stateroom one night, about the time of that murder, his door was opened by a strange man, who ran away upon seeing him awake, and succeeded in making his escape by sliding down a chain into a boat manned by a couple of his “pals,” who pullwed away with him into the dark. This schooner-master deposed to having had $1,900 in his trunk at the time, and $200 in his tousers pocket. There were two muskets on board, he said, but they were not loaded. Sometimes the river thief does not come off so well, intstances having occurred in which he has been shot dead, or badly maimed, while boarding some vessel. There are many tragedies enacted on the river that never come under the notice of the police. The mate of a vessel that traded to a South American port relates how, as his ship lay at anchor on night, ready to sail at the morning’s dawn, he alone on the deck and unarmed, found himself confronted by a powerful ruffian, who had just slid over the bulwarks on to the deck. The intruder aimed a blow at him with a heavy iron hammer, but missed him, and they were instantly in gripe and rolling upon the deck. The noise awoke some of the vrew, one of whom struck the robber a powerful blow on the head with a belaying-pin. The fight was over then, for the robber was dead; but there was a musket loaded with buckshot at hand, and this the mate discharged at a boat that just then pulled away from the stern of the ship, with what effect was never known by him. It was about time for the ship to sail, and too late, therefore to notify the police of the circumstance, so they made short work of it by heaving the body of the dead river thief overboard. Many bodies were disposed of in the east river and drifted up to the wherebouts of Bay Ridge and or Coney Island, and all that a corner’s jury can do is to leave the mystery and mystery.

We do not know that highway robberies on the river are of common occurence, but we are aware of one, at least, which did not come under the notice of the police. Certain inmates of a fashionable boarding house in the upper quarter of the city had made an afternoon of it by hiring a row-boat, in which they pulled over to the great lagerbier brewery at Guttenburg, on the Jersey side of the North River. There were festitivies going on in the saloon in the upper story of the building, and the party most of whom were ladies, remained till a later hour, enjoying themselves in the “giddy waltz.” It was a still summer night as the boat, freighted with it’s cargo, and pulled by a couple of elegant young gentlemen in fancy shirts, put off from the wharf at Guttenburg. All went well for awhile. The ladies were very
merry, and sang chorusses, and the gentlemen made the night fragrant with their cigars. As they neared the middle of the river a boat, very silently pulled up, as if with muffled oars, shot so close to the bow of the pleasure boat as to elicit epithets from some of the gentlemen on board the latter. In the pause that ensued for a moment, the strange boat suddently veered around and came alongside the other. It was manned by three fearful-looking roughs, one of whom remained at the oars, while the other two, presenting revolvers at the heads of the oarsmen in the pleasure boat, ordered them to lay to, at the same time demanding an immediate surrender of all valuables on the persons of the party. What could an unarmed party do against three river pirates armed to the teeth, and evidently ready to take life upon the first to show resistance? Three gold watches were handed over by the ladies, together with a number of rings and other small articles of jewelry. One of the gentlemen, who had a watch and chain valued at $250 , dropped it quietly overboard, under some vague impression that it might subsequently be recovered by dragging the river for it! The plunder taken from the party amounted, in all, to atleast the value of $600, and the river thieves pulled swiftly and silently away, until they were lost in the gloom of the night. There were private reasons why this affiar was never reported to the police. Scandal whispered that one of the ladies of the party was someewhat “bemused” with champagne, and that the party in general preffered putting up with their losses to risking the revelations that would certainly have been made in a police court.

The grounds near Hoboken, known as the “Elysian Fields,” are not unfrequently selected as a landing-place by river thieves who have “made a haul.” It is a lonely place at night, and the cover afforded by the trees is favorable to the removal of small plunder. The writer of this chapter remembers the circumstance of a telescope and ship’s compass being found upon the beach, not far from Castle Point, both of which articles had marks of blood upon
them. A wounded man had evidently been carried through the wood there, from the traces left, but, on arriving at the road, the clue was lost, and the syetery had never been solved. It was a river theif affiar, no doubt – a robbery and a row, and a ruffian shot by some captain or mate, and then a night scene in those “Elysian Fields” that must have been awful in its contrast with the sentiment belonging to that mythological name.

A Foggy night on the water is a favorable time for the operations of the river thieves. These fellows are so well acquainted with all the nooks and docks and landing-places along the rivers, that they can find them, so to speak, by groping for them in the dark. Many of them have labored, at one time or another, at the occupation of towing, and this they find of great service to them in their nocturnal forays. There are points along the Hudson River
Railroad where booty had often been stowed away until an opportunity arrived for its safe removal. The neighborhood of Stryker’s Bay, for instance, with its broken, bush-covered ravines and sedgy ponds, offers many facilities to the river thief for the concealment of his booty. In the sea-wall of the railroad, property of various kinds has frequently been found by the early fisherman, as he paddled his boat along. In a fog, it is easy for the thieves to escape the notice of the river police, whose limited number renders the force a very inadequate one for the thorough protection of floating property. Three or four of these river thieves can pull, unobserved, in their boat, along the sea-wall on a thick foggy night, until they arrive at some lonely point, where a landing is easily effective. In these cases they generally have confederates waiting for them at a spot previously agreed upon. The surveillance of the land police in this district is very inefficient, and goods thus landed by the thieves can be readily transferred to a market cart, and driven quietly into town by the Bloomingdale Road, and so to the den of the omnivorous junk-dealer.

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