Joe Bruno on the Mob – Irish Mob Boss Isaiah Rynders

Over the years, New York City has been well represented by Irish mob bosses: from 19th Century Tammany Hall titan John “Smoke” Morrissey, to Mickey Spillane, the powerful boss of the West Side waterfront in the 1940s-50s, to Jimmy Coonan, a mad-dog killer who ruled the Westies Gang in Hells Kitchen during the 1970s-1980s. However, the first Irish mob boss in the history of New York City was Captain Isaiah Rynders, and he wasn’t even a full-blooded Irishman.

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Rynders (1804-January 3, 1885), was born to a German/American father and an Irish Protestant mother. Rynders was first known as a professional gambler and pistol/knife fighter on the Mississippi River. In the mid-1830s, Rynders surfaced in New York City and immediately hitched his wagon to Tammany Hall, which was the Democratic party political machine that ruled New York City. Rynders soon clawed his way to the top of the Tammany Hall ladder. His specialty was organizing the Five Points street gangs on Election Day, assuring the poor Irish, most of whom couldn’t read or write, would vote for the right person.

Rynders made himself a wealthy man, as the owner of half a dozen grocery stores in the Paradise Square area, in addition to being the proprietor of several dive saloons. Rynders first drinking establishment was Sweeny’s House of Refreshment, located on Ann Street, which was frequented by volunteer fireman, most of whom were gang members themselves.

In 1843, Rynders founded the Empire Club, at 25 Park Row. From the Empire Club, Rynders organized such street gangs as the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, and the Roach Guards into a wave of political operatives, that ensured the election of anyone Tammany Hall wanted elected. Some of Rynders’ best men were, Dirty Face Jack, Country McCleester, Edward Z.C. Judson, Paudeen McLaughlin, Jim Turner, Lew Baker, and John Morrissey, who eventually took over from Rynders as the mob boss of the Five Points area. Rynders’ influence was so great at the time, his men’s intense prodding of the voters, led to the presidential elections of Franklin Pierce in 1852, and James Buchanan in 1856. After Buchanan was elected President, one of his first acts was to appoint Rynders to the post of U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of New York.

What ever went on in the Five Points area, and sometimes, anywhere in Manhattan, Rynders was sure to be involved. In 1849, Rynders was almost single-handedly responsible for the 1849 Astor Place Theater Riots. The riots started as a result of a transcontinental rivalry between American actor Edwin Forrest and British actor George Macready

Macready was considered to be the finest actor on earth. However, Macready was also a snob, who considered American actors to be far inferior to himself. Philadelphia-born Edwin Forrest was a New York actor, who was adored by the Five Points gangs. Unfortunately, it it was Macready who was the favorite of the American aristocrats, who frequented the upscale New York City theaters.

In 1848, Forrest traveled to England to play Hamlet. Forrest, although he felt he was at the top of his game, was rudely treated by the London crowds, and literally booed off the stage. In addition, the London newspapers excoriated Forrest as a lightweight, compared to their homeboy Macready. Forrest blamed Macready for inciting the theater-goers who insulted him while he was on stage, and also for the negative London press.

When Forrest returned to the United States, Rynders had already gotten wind of what had transpired across the pond. Rynders directed his cohort E. Z. C. Judson, who wrote under the pen name — Ned Buntline, to write a scathing piece, fanning the flames of the incident that had occurred in England, into a conflagration of international proportions.

The tensions increased when Macready decided to make a four-week “farewell tour” in America, commencing on May 7, 1849. Macready’s first appearance was scheduled to take place at the new Astor Place Theater, on Astor Place in Manhattan. As soon as Macready strutted onto the stage, Rynders rose from his seat, and along with the Irish street gangs he had brought with him, began pelting the stage with tomatoes, eggs, shoes, and what ever else they could get their hands on. Incensed at the indignity, Macready stormed off the stage and vowed never to appear in America again.

The New York City blue-blood crowd was up in arms about Rynders’ treatment of their favorite actor Macready. Immediately, they assembled a petition with 47 signatures, which included those of Washington Irving and Herman Melville, imploring Macready to give it one more try on the American stage. Macready gave in, and on May 10, just three days after the Rynders’ gang insurrection, Macready was scheduled to appear again at the Astor Theater to play Macbeth. By coincidence, Forrest was also scheduled to be on stage that same night playing Spartacus in “The Gladiator,” in a playhouse a mile south of the Astor Place Theater.

To heighten the tensions, the English crew of a docked Cunard liner announced they would become a visible presence at Macready’s performance. The bluejackets decreed they would physically confront any Five Points gang member who would dare humiliate Macready again.

Rynders did not take this threat lightly. He rounded up all his boys, and plastered posters all over New York City saying, “Workingmen, shall Americans or English rule this city? The crew of the English steamer has threatened all Americans who shall dare to express their opinion this night at the English Aristocratic Opera House! We advocated no violence, but free expression of opinion is to all men!”

New York City Mayor Caleb C. Woodhull feared a riot, and he dispatched 350 policemen, commanded by Police Chief G.W. Matsell, to the Astor Place Theater, to quell any potential violence. Woodhull also summoned General Sanders, of the New York Militia, to march his eight companies of guardsmen and two troops of Calvary, to the area surrounding the playhouse. It was estimated that by 7pm, more than 20,000 people had assembled on streets around the Astor Place Theater, itching for a fight.

When the curtain opened at 7:40 p.m., Macready faced a full house of 1800 people. The pro-Macready contingent vastly outnumbered Rynders group of motley gang members. For some unknown reason, during the first two scenes, Rynders and his crew did not budge from their seats. The authorities hoped, in spite of all the rhetoric, nothing untoward would occur that night at the theater.

That hope dissipated when Macready strode onto the stage for a third time. Deciding it was time to act, Rynders and his gang vaulted to their feet, and began hooting and hollering at Macready. The crowd outside took this as a cue to go into full attack mode. A huge mob, brandishing assorted weapons, charged at the theater, screaming, “Burn the damned den of aristocracy!”

The mob threw rocks and stones, which broke all the theater’s windows. Then, just because they could, the rioters busted every street lamp in sight. The police, which were vastly outnumbered, tired to squelch the disturbance, but to no avail.

Ned Buntline stood at the head of the angry mob, chanting, “Workingmen! Shall Americans or Englishmen rule? Shall the sons whose fathers drove the baseborn miscreants from these shores give up liberty?”

At 9 p.m., Col. Sanders and his troops arrived. Chief Matsell, finally giving up on his policeman being up to the task, and after being hit in the chest with a 20-pound rock, gave Col. Sanders the go-ahead to have is men shoot into the crowd. The firing commenced at a dazzling rate. Men, women, and children were hit by bullets, and a lady, who was sleeping in her bed 150 yards from the theater, took a bullet in her leg.

In a little over an hour, 22 people were killed and 150 injured. Five of the injured died within five days. Ned Buntline was arrested, along with 86 others. Buntline was tried and convicted of “inciting to riot,” and sentenced to a year in jail, and a $250 fine. Rynders somehow escaped arrest, and he and his gang members hightailed it back into the Five Points.

Rynders’ downfall started when he inexplicably abandoned Tammany Hall and his Irish cohorts, and joined the opposition Native American, or “Know Nothing Party.” Rynders renamed his political organization the Americus Club, and he aligned himself with Butcher Bill Poole, the head of the Native American Bowery Boys gang. Rynders’ place at Tammany Hall, and as commander of the Five Points Irish gangs, was immediately taken by John “Smoke” Morrissey.

The loss of Rynders’ power was vividly displayed during the 1857 Fourth of July holiday, when gang riots that took place in the area, in and around the Five Points. The Irish Five Point gangs began their Fourth of July celebration on July 3, when they raided a Bowery Boy’s dive at 42 Bowery. Initially, the two Irish gangs involved were the Dead Rabbits and the Plug Uglies. However, the Bowery Boys were able to beat the two Irish gangs decisively, driving them back into the Five Points.

The following day, the Irish Roach Guards joined the other two Irish gangs, and the tide turned decisively. The three Irish gangs invaded a ginmill favored by the Bowery Boys called “The Green Dragon,” on Broome Street, near the Bowery. They pummeled the Bowery Boys out of their own joint, and for good measure, they ripped up the entire dance floor and drank all the liquor in the establishment.

The following day, the Bowery Boys, who were now joined by another Native American gang called the Atlantic Guards, invaded Irish gang territory in the Five Points. The two warring factions met head-on at the corner of Bayard Street and the Bowery, and thus began one of the most spirited free-for-all gang fights in the history of New York City. The battle spread along Bayard, Baxter, the Bowery, Mulberry, and Elizabeth streets. It was estimated that 800-1000 gang members took place in the brawl. Combatants used bludgeons, paving stones, brick-bats, axes, pitchforks, guns, and knives. Not only were citizens attacked, but the gangs also looted every store in sight.

The New York Times wrote, “Brick-bats, stones, and clubs were thickly flying around in all directions, and men ran wildly about brandishing firearms. Wounded men lay on the sidewalks and were trampled upon. Now the Rabbits would make a combined rush and force their antagonists up Bayard to the Bowery. Then the fugitives, being reinforced, turned on their pursuers and compelled a retreat to Mulberry, Elizabeth, and Baxter streets.”

At the time, there were two New York City police forces fighting amongst themselves for the right to police the city. They were the Metropolitan Police Force and the Municipal Police Force. These two groups were more interested in battling themselves, than they were in quelling the riots. Therefore, they were at best – ineffective, and at worst – disinterested, in ending the gang war. Not realizing Rynders had lost the favor of the Irish gangs, on the evening of July 4, the captains of both police forces decided to call in Rynders to help end the riots. Rynders stood in the middle of the combatants and begged both sides to stop the senseless hostilities.

“I implore you to end this carnage!” Rynders yelled. “You are killing each other for what purpose? For what end?”

The rioters ignored Rynders, and instead, both sides, including the Irish gangs whom Rynders had once ruled, threw rocks and stones at Rynders. Rynders was severely wounded and forced to run for his life.

In the years that followed, Rynders faded into obscurity. He surfaced briefly in 1862, when he backed crooked New York City Mayor Fernando Wood, in Wood’s attempt to withdraw New York City from the Union, and make it a sovereign state unto itself. Then in 1863, Rynders opposed the Federal Government’s right to draft men to fight into the Civil War. This resulted in the 1863 Civil War Riots, which caused scores of Negroes to be slaughtered, as well as the deaths of over 1000 rioters, mostly gangs members once aligned with Rynders, when he was de-facto boss of the Five Points area.

To add insult to injury, Rynders Street, which had been originally named in Captain Isaiah Rynders’ honor, was changed to Centre Street, which it is still named to this day.

In 1976, Captain Isaiah Rynders was portrayed in the historical novel The Furies, by John Jakes and he also appeared in the non-fiction book Lucrecia Mott (1999), by Dorothy Sterling.

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