Columbus Park in downtown Manhattan is a peaceful place. Bounded by the federal buildings of the US District Court and Civil Centre on one side, and by the outskirts of Chinatown on the other, it is home to pick-up basketball games in the summer, and winter games of cards played long into the night under arc lamps by the elderly residents of Chinatown. Designed by the venerable Calvert Vaux of Central Park fame, it is one of the cities oldest & quietest public parks.
But for most of the 19th century, it was one of the deadliest places on Earth. It was known by a different name then. This was the epicenter of the infamous Five Points neighborhood, which had the highest murder rate in the world. Violent Mulberry Bend was a part of the that street angled sharply from the southeast to the northwest to avoid the festering Collect Pond; described by police beat reporter Jacob Riis as “the foul core of New York’s slum.”
The Five Points was part of the Sixth Ward of Manhattan, the so-called “Bloody Sixth.” It was a disease-ridden, volatile slum, where inhabitants lived in appalling squalor, ravaged by epidemics of cholera, yellow fever, and typhus. The worst of the tenements were found on the Mulberry Bend; a maze of squalid shacks, where those unfortunates who called it home lived in overcrowded rooms and cellars, which were shared between six to twenty people at a time. A maze of back alleyways blackened by grime led off the Bend, each with such evocative names as Bandit’s Roost, Bottle Alley, and Ragpickers Row. The New York Daily Tribune wrote in June 13th, 1850, of “the underground holes and corners … the narrow, dark, filthy cellar, where drunkenness, vice and misery fester in their fullest manifestation.”
The slums were deadly enough, but the violent gangs that patrolled the Five Points, even more so. These vicious bands of murderers, extortionists and thieves like the Chichesters, the Forty Thieves, and the Dead Rabbits made Mulberry Bend lethal. Fighting pitched battles with their arch enemies the Bowery Boys, they were eventually clamped down on by the New York Police Department after the Civil War, only to resurface as the even deadlier Whyos. An insight into the daily lives of the Whyos comes from gang member Piker Ryan; arrested in 1884. He was found carrying a list of services offered by the gang; starting with “punching” ($1), and carrying through to “both eyes blacked” ($3), “nose and jaw broke” ($7), “(black)jacked out” ($15), “ear chewed off” ($15), “leg or arm broke” ($19), “shot in the leg” ($20), “stab” ($21.50) and ending with “Doing the Big Job” (murder for $100 and up).
By the end of the 19th century, due in a large part to the campaigning efforts of journalist Jacob Riis, public outcry called for the slums of the Five Points to be cleared. The gambling dens, saloons, and slaughterhouses were razed and replaced with Calvert Vaux’s park. Almost all of the rows of tenement buildings were demolished, all except one, the most infamous of all. Visitors today can walk up the southern part of Mulberry Street, with no fear of attack from roving Whyos or Dead Rabbits, and will notice about halfway along Columbus Park, that the street angles sharply away to their right. Here is a row of old brick houses, all that remains of what was once the old Five Points; the still standing Mulberry Bend.