Why The Bowery
Written by Michelle Myles
When putting together the pieces of New York’s tattoo history, the Bowery is what anchors the story. The Bowery is New York City’s oldest thoroughfare and the city’s first entertainment district. In the early 20th century, tattoo artists lined the street, sometimes tucked in the backs of barber shops under the shadow of the elevated train. As the Bowery morphed from country lane to theater district to gangland to skid row, eventually making its way into its present gentrified state, tattooing came ashore in New York, brought by sailors, the first to visit the cultures that practiced the art. The Bowery was the scene for tattooing’s adaptation of the electric tattoo machine, with Bowery artists scoring the first patents for the earliest machines in the United States. Tattooing grew up with the Bowery from its rough-and-tumble roots into an art form that’s now an accepted and celebrated part of pop culture.
This timeline is intended to answer the questions of why the Bowery was so important and why it became the root of tattooing’s family tree. The earliest artists that helped bring tattooing into the modern era all worked in the neighborhood now known as the Lower East Side or in what were the fourth and sixth wards of the city either on or close to the Bowery.
The Bowery originally connected different native tribes that lived on the island and developed into a path for traders. The Dutch settled Manhattan, establishing New Amsterdam on the south tip of the island, which faced one of the finest natural harbors in North America. In the 1660s, the Dutch laid out farms along the path then named the Bowery from an old Dutch word for farm, bouwerij. The path ended close to Collect Pond, the original source of water for Manhattan, about three-quarters of a mile beyond the town limits. The pond served as the main water source for the city and was fed by the Tea Water Spring. In the 17th and 18th centuries, people tended to avoid drinking fresh water for fear of disease and usually drank either beer or water that had been boiled for tea. Breweries and distilleries were established next to the Tea Water Springs water source. Stockyards and taverns were built along the Bowery to serve the needs of the drovers and their thirsty cattle. Slaughterhouses were banned from inhabited areas and the Collect area was the only place where one could kill livestock lawfully.
In 1664, the English took over the colony and New Amsterdam was renamed New York. In the 1700s, the importance of the Bowery grew, with more taverns and inns opening up. The Bulls Head Tavern opened at 50 Bowery in the mid-1700s and was a stop for George Washington after he marched his troops down the Bowery on Evacuation Day when the British were driven from Manhattan on November 25, 1783. The taverns along the Bowery drew weekend crowds and created a market for other forms of entertainment--theater, horse racing, gambling, dancing.
By the 1800s, the industries using Collect Pond had polluted the water severely. Tanneries, breweries, slaughterhouses, and ropewalks were the worst polluters of their day (ropewalks were long narrow lanes used to manufacture ropes essential for sailing ships). By 1813, Collect Pond had been filled in, laying the ground for what would become the world’s most notorious slum. Houses built on the land began to sink and tilt because the landfill and drainage were engineered poorly. Buried vegetation released methane gas, the streets were mud, and mosquitoes bred in stagnant pools caused by the poor drainage. A canal was built to carry off excess water but it wasn’t effective and it quickly became a polluted open sewer. In 1819, the canal was covered over, then filled in, and by 1820, Canal Street was in place. The Bowery had gone from well-to-do to more working class as wealthy residents moved north and property values and living conditions in the area plummeted. Trash collection was virtually nonexistent and in the 1820s, it was estimated officially that there were 20,000 wild hogs running throughout the city. The pigs provided a cheap source of protein but they also helped contribute to the foul and unhealthy conditions that plagued the island.
Five Points was named for the five-cornered intersection just to the east of what was Collect Pond and a couple of blocks west of the bottom of the Bowery in the area now known as Columbus Park. By the 1830s, Five Points had become so infamous that out-of-town visitors would go “slumming” (with a police escort) to witness the poverty and vice for themselves. One particular building, The Old Brewery, seemed to manifest all of the worst qualities of Five Points. The Old Brewery had brewed beer on the Collect Pond shore until about 1837, when it became too run down for commercial purposes and was converted into a tenement. The Police Gazette described the Old Brewery as “the wickedest house on the wickedest street that ever existed in New York... in all the country and possibly all the world”. The Old Brewery was filthy, overcrowded, and disease-ridden, with rooms known as the “den of thieves” and “murderers alley.” Legend was that the Old Brewery housed over a thousand people at once, most living without furniture or anything else, sleeping on piles of dirty rags or straw and often having to stay in place for weeks at a time, else they risked losing their space. Unverified reports estimated that there was a murder a night for almost 15 years in the Old Brewery.
This was around the time that the first Bowery B’hoys made it on to the scene. The B’hoys were a nativist group of working-class Bowery locals distinguished by their unusual attire--black silk hat (cocked just so), bright red shirt, fancy silk vest, and breeches tucked into their boots, with a distinctive walk/swagger, cigar clenched in their teeth. B’hoys were typically found hanging out in the bars or theaters in their spare time and known for their unique style, independence, and readiness to fight or jump into action. Many were members of volunteer fire companies, which often focused more on fighting each other than fighting fires.
In 1835, P.T. Barnum got his start on the Bowery when he sold his grocery store, borrowed money, and spent $1,000 for the rights to exhibit “George Washington’s wet nurse”--Joyce Heth, who claimed to be 161 years old. Barnum showed Heth at a coffee house on the corner of the Bowery and Division before he moved her to Niblo’s Garden on Broadway and Prince, eventually clearing $1,500 a week and launching Barnum’s career as a showman. In 1842, James F. O’Connell, “The Tattooed Irishman,” worked for Barnum as the U.S.’s first tattooed showman. O’Connell told his story of being shipwrecked on the Carolina Islands and being saved from death by performing Irish jigs for the amusement of the natives. He claimed to have been tattooed for eight days by several of the native women and then married to the daughter of the chief, who was the last to tattoo him. It was said that if a pregnant woman so much as glanced at him, her future child could be born as hideously marked as he was. His performance involved recounting his story, stripping down to show his tattoos, and dancing the Irish jig that saved his life. O’Connell passed away on January 29, 1854, at the age of 46.
In the 1840s, New York City’s population expanded by 60%. Five Points had hit bottom and counted as one of the most densely populated neighborhood in the world. Waves of immigrants were making their way to New York City, with scores ending up in the already crowded Lower East Side. The Irish Potato Famine lasted from 1845-1850, sending over 1.5 million adults and children to America to seek refuge. Most were desperately poor and many were suffering from starvation and disease, adding to the many Irish that had already come over as part of the labor force for the building of the Erie Canal from 1817-1825. The German Revolutions in 1848 forced many Germans (known as the Forty-Eighters) into exile to escape political persecution, ending up in the Lower East Side neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or little Germany. Some Germans had come over earlier to fight as mercenaries for the British, settling in New York after the Revolutionary War.
Religious and humanitarian organizations were making efforts to transform Five Points. In 1852, the Methodist Ladies Home Missionary Society bought the Old Brewery, which was then demolished to build a missionary and use it as the society’s headquarters. The demolition of the Old Brewery marked the start of changes in the neighborhood.
Ethnicity, neighborhood affiliation, and livelihoods were some of the social markers that differentiated the gangs of New York in the 1800s. Gangs at the time were not always criminal--they were social units similar to some of the fire companies, fraternal organizations, and political clubs of the day. It wasn’t until later in the century that gangs evolved into hardened organized crime enterprises. By 1857, the Bowery Boys were more of a nativist political unit than the earlier, more colorful subculture of the B’hoys. The Dead Rabbits were believed to have splintered from the Roach Guards, although some denied that the Dead Rabbits even existed. On July 4, 1857, a riot erupted when the Dead Rabbits and the Plug Uglies raided the Bowery Boys’ headquarters at 40 Bowery. At the time, there were two competing police forces in the city that, like the fire brigades, were more interested in fighting each other than in fighting crime--the Municipal force and the Metropolitan force. The gang war raged on for two days and was one of the deadliest episodes of civil unrest in New York’s history, with an estimated 800-1,000 gang members fighting. This event was the inspiration for the Martin Scorsese film “Gangs of New York,” and the original row house at 40 Bowery still stands.
In 1857, “The Captivity of the Oatman Girls” by Royal B. Stratton was published, documenting the story of Olive Oatman and containing: “An interesting account of the massacre of the Oatman family, by the Apache Indians in 1851; the narrow escape of Lorenzo D. Oatman; the capture of Olive A. And Mary A. Oatman; the death, by starvation, of the latter; the five years’ suffering and captivity of Olive A. Oatman; also her singular recapture in 1856; as given by Lorenzo D. And Olive A. Oatman, the only surviving members of the family, to the author.” Olive became a celebrity in her day, recognizable by her chin tattoo, but some parts of her story were embellished or inaccurate. Her captors were probably not Apache, she seems to have been treated as a part of the family, and her tattoo was similar to those that Mohave women traditionally wore. Olive’s story might have inspired future tattooed women, who would later claim captivity stories as part of their acts.
By the 1860s, New York City was the economic hub of the nation and the Bowery’s notorious reputation reached far and wide. Nearly anyone visiting New York not of the wealthy class would have found their way to the Bowery eventually. The mansions and shops had long given way to low-brow concert saloons, taverns, brothels, dime museums, pawn shops, and flop houses. On the eve of the Civil War, tattooing was taking its first steps into public consciousness. Tattoos were seen as exotic, uncivilized, or barbaric. The most notable tattooed figures of the day had all received (or claimed to have received) their tattoos from indigenous cultures--James O’Connell with his markings from the South Pacific, and Olive Oatman with her Native American chin tattoo. After O’Connell’s death, the New York Times said that Barnum was featuring “[a] live specimen of a New-Zealander, most elaborately tattooed, who goes about the Museum with his garments rent, by way of exhibiting his tattoo, [and who] is among the latest curiosities introduced for the gaze of the public” (September 8, 1860). American tattooing did not yet exist in any recognizable form on its own. Although tattooing was being practiced on ships by sailors who had been exposed to it through journeys to the Polynesian islands and other places, it wasn’t until 1858 that New York City had a documented professional tattooer working in the first permanent place of business for tattooing in the United States. His name was Martin Hildebrandt.
Thanks to Rob Gallagher for taking time read and edit this article for me. I will be adding links to the original historic articles cited in this piece and I will also add some illustrations (check back soon, working out some kinks on the site). For more information about the Bowery and Five points I recommend reading “The Gangs of New York” by Herbert Asbury, “Low Life” by Luc Sante, and “Five Points” by Tyler Anbinder. If you are interested in exploring the Bowery’s history in real life I do tattoo history walking tours through Airbnb experiences. (usually Fridays from 11AM - 1PM meeting at Daredevil)