The Dead Rabbits Irish Street gang of the mid-19th century was as vicious as any gang in New York City history. They ruled the seedy area of Lower Manhattan called the Five Points, and if a member of any other gang dared set foot in their territory, bad things happened to them very quickly.
There is some controversy over how the Dead Rabbits got their name. One version is that the word “Rabbit” sounds like the Irish word raibead, meaning “man to fear”. “Dead” was an 1800s slang word meaning “very.” So a “Dead Rabbit” is a “man to be greatly feared”.
Another version is that the Dead Rabbits were an offshoot of an older gang called the “Roach Guards”. Two factions within the Roach Guards were constantly fighting, and during a particularly violent fistfight at a gang meeting, someone threw a dead rabbit into the room. When the fighting died down, one group took on the name “Dead Rabbits”, while the other kept the name “Cockroach Guards”. Predating today’s street gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, by more than 125 years, to mark which group a man belonged to, a Dead Rabbit wore a blue stripe on his pants, while a Roach Guardsman wore a red stripe on his pants. .
In addition to the Roach Guards, the Rabbits’ archenemy was the Bowery Boys. On July 4, 1857, the Rabbits and the Bowery Boys met at the corner of Bayard and Bowery. The incident began when a beleaguered police officer, being chased out of Five Points by a group of Rabbits, stumbled upon a Bowery Boy saloon. The Rabbits followed the cop to the dive and were driven off by an angry group of Bowery Boys.
The Bowery Boys were offended by the invasion of their territory, so a large group of Bowery Boys marched into the Five Points area. They were cut down by a battalion of Rabbits and a two-day war began, with up to a thousand fighters fighting with axes, knives, stones, and even guns. Police sent reinforcements, but both gangs rebuffed them, telling them in no uncertain terms to mind their own business. The war swung back and forth in both territories, with Canal Street being the border line.
By the end of the second day, the two bands were nearly exhausted, and New York Mayor Fernando Wood called in the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard. The National Guard, along with the New York City Police, broke into what was left of the skirmish and began to crack the heads of the tired warriors. When the dust settled, eight gang members were dead and hundreds more were injured.
This did not end the animosity between the Bowery Boys and the Rabbits. In August 1858, at the corner of Worth and Center Streets, a small group of Bowery Boys were beaten by a larger group of Rabbits. As the Bowery Boys ran off licking their wounds, two unsuspecting men emerged from a home at 66 Center Street. They walked right into the path of the angry Rabbits, and thinking these two men were the Bowery Boys coming back for more, the Rabbits descended on them for revenge. One man was able to escape, but Cornelius Rady was not so lucky. He was hit in the back of the head with a stone from a slingshot and died shortly after. Rabbit Patrick Gilligan was arrested for Rady’s murder, but it’s unclear if he was ever convicted.
The Civil War began two years later and many of the gang members were recruited, against their will, into the war and sent to distant places, mainly in the South. When the war ended, the Rabbits were either dead or in no physical condition to continue to haunt the streets of Lower Manhattan. But in New York City, the creature that it was, and in some cases still is, other street gangs soon followed to take the place of the Rabbits.