The Dead Rabbits were a gang in New York City in the 1850s, and originally were a part of the Roach Guards. Daniel Cassidy claimed that the name has a second meaning rooted in Irish American vernacular of NYC in 1857 and that the word "Rabbit" is the phonetic corruption of the Irish word ráibéad, meaning "man to be feared". "Dead" was a slang intensifier meaning "very". Thus, according to Cassidy, a "Dead Ráibéad" means a man to be greatly feared. Cassidy's scholarship has been widely criticised by genuine linguists. Ráibéad is a very obscure word, which is only found in one Irish dictionary (Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla by Ó Dónaill) where it is defined as "a large person or thing" and it is not found at all in Corpas na Gaeilge 1600-1882, a searchable database of Irish-language texts. The name is far more likely to be English and to derive from some unknown story or incident. It is known that they used a dead rabbit impaled on a spike as their symbol and standard but of course this may date from after the coining of the name.
The gang was sometimes also known as the Black Birds.
The gang achieved great renown for its organization and prowess as thieves and thugs. The fighting uniform of the Roach Guards was a blue stripe on their pantaloons, while the Dead Rabbits adopted a red stripe. In riots their emblem was a dead rabbit impaled on a spike. The Rabbits and the Guards swore undying enmity and constantly fought each other at the Five Points, but in the rows with the water-front and Bowery Boys they made common cause against the enemy, as did other Five Points gangs including the Shirt Tails and Chichesters. The gang was later led by Irish American Aidan Bourke, also known as "Black Dog" possibly due to a ruthless nature similar to that of the ghost dog in the folklores of the Celtic and British Isles.
New York's Democrats were divided into two camps, those who supported Mayor Fernando Wood, and those who opposed him. The Bowery gangs were one of the latter while the Dead Rabbits were proponents of Wood. Thus the Bowery Boys threw their support in league with state Republicans who proposed legislation that would strip Wood of certain powers and place them in the hands of Albany. One of these proposals was to disband the Municipal Police Department, in which Wood's supporters had a controlling interest, and replace it with a state-run Metropolitan Police Department. Wood refused to disband his Municipal Department, and so for the first half of 1857, the two rival departments battled it out on the streets of the city until the courts ordered the Municipals to disband that July. On July 4 a bloody fight, the Dead Rabbits Riot, occurred with the Metropolitan Police and the Bowery gangs against the Municipal Police, Mulberry Street Boys, Roach Guard, and Dead Rabbits in Bayard Street.
There was a similar gang in Liverpool, England in the late 19th century also known as 'The Dead Rabbits'
The story of the New York Dead Rabbits is told, in highly fictionalized form, in Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York. The film's inspiration came from an essay by Herbert Asbury titled Gangs of New York.
Lyrics detailing the Dead Rabbits' battle with the Bowery Boys on July 4, 1857, were written by Henry Sherman Backus ("The Saugerties Bard") in Hoboken, NJ. (Lyrics - Backus; Music - Daniel Decatur Emmett; originally "Jordan is a Hard Road To Travel")
Then pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
For Bayard is a hard street to travel;
So pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
The Bloody Sixth is a hard ward to travel I believe.
Like wild dogs they did fight, this Fourth of July night,
Of course they laid their plans accordin';
Some were wounded and some killed, and lots of blood spill'd,
In the fight on the other side of Jordan.
The new Police did join the Bowery boys in line,
With orders strict and right accordin;
Bullets, clubs and bricks did fly, and many groan and die,
Hard road to travel over Jordan.
When the new police did interfere, this made the Rabbits sneer,
And very much enraged them accordin';
With bricks they did go in, determined for to win,
And drive them on the other side of Jordan.
Upon the following day they had another fray,
The Black Birds and Dead Rabbits accordin;
The soldiers were call'd out, to quell the mighty riot,
And drove them on the other side of Jordan.
- Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928. ISBN 1-56025-275-8
- Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Facts on File Inc., 2001. ISBN 0-8160-4040-0
- "Rioting And Bloodshed; The Fight At Cow Bay. Metropolitans Driven from the 6th Ward. Chimneys Hurled Down Upon the Populace. 'Dead Rabbits' Against the 'Bowery hi.'" New York Daily 6 July 1857
- Macilwee, Michael. The Gangs of Liverpool: From the Cornermen to the High Rip The Mobs That Terrorised a City. Milo Books, 2006. ISBN 1903854547
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