The indispensable WPA Guide to New York City — a neighborhood-by-neighborhood survey from the the 1930’s Federal Writer’s Project — is one of my favorite sources of NYC nerdistry.
The chapter on Hell’s Kitchen reveals some of the colorful characters that once inhabited the area around the West Side rail yards- “a district that bears one of the most lurid reputations in America.”
It seems the New York Central Railroad– which built and operated the High Line– was largely responsible for taming the lawlessness of Hell’s Kitchen.
“Hell’s Kitchen acquired its reputation as one of the toughest areas in the city shortly after the Civil War. According to Herbert Asbury, who recorded many exploits of Hell’s Kitchen hoodlums in his book The Gangs of New York, the section deserved its notoriety. Its name, originally applied to a dive near Corlears Hook on the East Side, came from the Hell’s Kitchen Gang, organized in 1868 by Dutch Heinrichs. Although this gang specialized in raids on the Thirtieth Street yard of the Hudson River Railroad (now part of the New York Central), its repertoire included extortion, breaking-and-entering, professional mayhem, and highway robbery. It merged with the Tenth Avenue Gang, which had held up and robbed a Hudson River Railroad express train, and for decades terrorized the neighborhood. From its ranks rose the desperadoes who organized the Hudson Dusters and the Gophers.
“After the decline of the Hell’s Kitchen Gang, the Gophers achieved hegemony in the Hell’s Kitchen underworld. They made their headquarters in saloons such as one on “Battle Row” (Thirty-ninth Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues) operated by “Mallet” Murphy, who won his pseudonym by bludgeoning disputatious customers with a mallet. Leaders of the Gophers included “Happy Jack” Mulraney, “Goo Goo” Knox, “Stumpy” Malarkey, and “One Lung” Curran. Besides the Gophers, whose membership numbered nearly five hundred men, several smaller affiliated gangs such as the Gorillas, the Rhodes Gang, and the Parlor Mob waged consistant warfare against what was left of law and order in the neighborhood.
“Gangster rule of Hell’s Kitchen continued until 1910, when a special police force organized by the New York Central Railroad launched a counter-offensive. Clubbing, shooting, and arresting indiscriminately, they soon had most of the Gopher leadership in hospitals or behind bars and a majority of the lesser lights in flight. Remnants of the mobs functioned throughout the Prohibition era, but the backbone of Hell’s Kitchen gangsterdom had been effectively broken.”