No. 424
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 22, 2019

“The Wickedest Man in New York.”

October 8, 2012
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English Franciscan John Forest was burned at Smithfield on this date in 1538 … the undercard to the simultaneous “execution” of a downthrown idol of Saint Derfel Gadarn. The latter had been ripped from its shrine at Llandderfel in Gwynedd, Wales: the place gets its name from Derfel himself and its devotion to its Celtic […]
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Executed Today - 5/22/2019

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Coming in May! Warps and Wefts is excited to announce the publication of “Dressing Miss Lizzie”, a collection of paper …

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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 4/23/2019

via Newspapers.com Phantom cats and a mysterious death. Who can ask for more in an old newspaper story? The "Brooklyn Daily Eagle," March 13, 1886: Ghost stories from the credulous and nervous gentlemen who draw salaries as guardians of the peace in the precinct covered from the Graham avenue station are becoming frequent. Last week they saw the ghost of an Italian. On Thursday night a
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Strange Company - 5/22/2019
Jeff and Joe Soapy Smith buries Joe Simmons The Illustrated Police News April 9, 1892 (Click image to enlarge) oe Simmons was a tall, slender gambler known to many as “Gambler Joe” Simmons, a member of the Soap Gang who managed Soapy Smith's Tivoli Club in Denver, 1890, and Soapy's Orleans Club in Creede, 1892. According to William Devere’s poem "Two Little Busted Shoes," Simmons
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 3/25/2019
In July 1890, a man came into the 126th Street Police Station in Harlem, New York City, to report a conversation he had overheard in an elevated train. A young man and woman sitting near him were talking about the mysterious disappearance of Miss Goodwin from the Storm King flats on East 126th Street. They believed that she had been foully dealt with by “professional malpractioners.” The woman
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/18/2019

I’m not the first old sign enthusiast who came across this beauty of a beer sign on the tenement at 317 East Fifth Street. Grieve wrote it up back in January, and I’m sure other fans walking along this quiet East Village block noticed the ancient signage, too. “S. Cort Wines & Lager Beer” the […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/19/2019
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
A Fiendish Husband’s Desperate Deed. | Serpent and Dove.

“The Wickedest Man in New York.”

John Allen Dance Hall

John Allen’s Water Street dancehall, with its bevy of gaudily dressed prostitutes, was the most notorious dive in New York’s Fourth Ward in the 1850s and 1860s. Allen’s career as a saloonist, procurer, thief, drunkard and possibly murderer earned him the title of “Wickedest Man in New York.” But Allen never lost his faith, and when not employed by the devil he worked to bring religion to the Waterfront.

Extra John Allen and his son.

Allen was from a pious family from upstate New York. Two of his brothers became Presbyterian ministers and a third became a Baptist minister. John Allen was also preparing for the ministry at the Union Theological Seminary when he decided that, in the long run, sin might pay better. He moved to the Fourth Ward in New York City and opened a dancehall and house of prostitution staffed with “twenty girls who wore low black bodices of satin, scarlet skirts and stockings, and red-tipped boots with bells affixed to the ankles.” The dive soon became a popular recreation center for Fourth Ward gangsters.

There are several versions of how religion found its way into John Allen’s dancehall. One version says that three days a week, an hour before opening, he would gather the harlots, barmen and musicians and read them scriptures, and that he made sure there was a Bible and religious tracts at each of the cribs where the women took their customers.

In another version, there was no religion in the dance hall until an article in Packard’s Monthly called Allen the “Wickedest Man in New York” and gave the address of his dive. Allen was happy for the attention and when clergymen began flocking to him bent on reform, he saw an opportunity to continue it.

Extra Prayer meeting at the dancehall.

In any case, on May 26, 1868, a detachment of six clergymen led by the Reverend A. C. Arnold of the Howard Mission persuaded Allen to open his dancehall to regular prayer meetings. For several months the meetings attracted the faithful and a fair number of curiosity-seekers, but they drove away all of Allen’s regular customers. At midnight on August 29, 1868, the dancehall closed its doors for the first time in seventeen years. The next morning this notice was found hanging on the door:

THIS DANCEHOUSE IS CLOSED
No gentlemen admitted unless accompanied by their wives,
who wish to employ Magdalenes as servants.

 

 


Sources:

  • Asbury, Herbert. The gangs of New York: an informal history of the underworld. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Pub. Co., 1928.
  • Browne, Junius Henri. The great metropolis a mirror of New York ; a complete history of metropolitan life and society ; with sketches of prominent places, persons, and things in the city, as they actually exist.. Hartford: American Pub. Co., 1869..
  • "Wickedest Man." Harper's Weekly 8 Aug. 1868: 1. .
  • "The "Wickedest Man's" Reformation." Harper's Weekly 19 Sept. 1868: 1.