Lately, I’ve been doing a ton of research getting ready for our big Crime Tour, which I’m very excited about! Recently, I finished Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York. While it was a fun read, it wasn’t necessarily accurate. Russell Shorto, one of my personal favorite writers and historians, wrote the forward for the 2008 edition, and sums up the book by saying that it’s entertaining, but take everything Herbert says with a grain of salt.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, Gangs of New York is all about the criminal world of NYC in the 19th century. Ashbury wrote the book in the 1920’s, and LOVED hyperbole. For a long time, it was the definitive book on the world of crime, but over the years, scholars have started to dispute some of his claims. For instance, Herbert makes the claim that over 2,000 people were killed in the Draft Riots of 1863. While those Riots were the most brutal in our country’s history, the actual number is closer to 119. Another telling aspect of his research is that Herbert doesn’t really like to site his sources, which is a big problem.
So I read the thing, and I enjoyed it, but I probably won’t use any of it in the tour because some of the material can’t be verified.
But there were a couple of parts that were so juicy and interesting I couldn’t help but look them up. My favorite one was about A. T. Stewart, and as it turns out, Herbert wasn’t lying! This is all true! Here it goes:
A.T. Stewart was one of the early robber barons of NYC. He is credited for inventing the modern department store, and using a clever form of vertical integration that made him a very, very rich man. He owned his own sweatshops where immigrants would work for pennies, making all the clothes for his department stores. He owned several around the city. When he died in 1876, it was estimated that he was worth about $50 million, making him one of the richest men in the Country. He was laid to rest in St. Mark’s on-the-Bowerie (the same place Peter Stuyvesant is buried).
About a year later, the assistant sexton arrived at the church to find that the grave robbers had stolen Stewarts body in the night. His coffin was unceremoniously dumped into the graveyard, left wide open, with no body in site. According to the police report, there was odd brown stuff all over the place, which the police determined to be pieces of the rotting corpse. Awesome.
They searched the area, but found no sign of the remains. The cops even dug up other graves around the city, thinking the ghouls could have hidden him there, but to no avail. It seems they got away. One clue was that they cut off a small section of the velvet inside the coffin, and took the silver knobs and handles on the outside.
Some time later, Stewart’s widow received a ransom note from the grave robbers. The note said they wanted $250,000 to return the corpse to the family, and to prove that they had Stewart, they included the silver knobs from his coffin. But the family was not about to shell out that kind of cash for some gooey corpse. So, they started to haggle, which took months. It seems that cops were particularly taken with the widow Stewarts abilities, because they said she “picked up a trick or two herself in fifty-three years of marriage to the master of cut-rate merchandising.” Finally, I am assuming out of sheer frustration, the robbers agreed to return Stewart’s remains for $20,000. Still, a crazy amount of money in the 1870’s.
So, one dark night on a back woods road in Westchester, Stewart’s grand-nephew met the robbers with the cash. He exchanged the $20,000 for a bag of his grand-uncle, and returned home to NYC. But it had been so long since they took his body that they essentially bought a $20,000 A.T. Stewart soup poured into a duffel bag. The robbers were never caught, and got away with one of the grossest, smelliest robberies in New York history.
While I may not be able to use this story on the tour itself, I promise that there are many more where this came from. Stay tuned for updates, as we will be putting the Crime Tour online soon! It’s taking a while because I underestimated the sheer volume of crime that happened in NYC. Believe or not, a lot happened.