Sadie Farrell was a petty thief that rose to the title of Queen of the Waterfront in late 1860s New York. She was said to be petite but tough as nails, prowling the docks of the Fourth Ward near the East River but there is some doubt on her story as there are no contemporary newspaper clippings that talk of this infamous woman.
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Sadie began her career as a thief in New York’s Bloody Fourth Ward in the late 1860s. She earned her nickname, Sadie the Goat, for head butting her victims in the stomach. She usually worked the streets around the docks accompanied by a male companion, who gave her the muscle backup she needed. When a potential victim emerged drunk from one of the local dives, Sadie would take a running start, then ram the top of her head into the victim’s stomach. This was a dangerous manoeuvre as the person delivering the headbutt can often do more damage to themselves than to the intended victim. But Sadie was a pro, making sure only the top of her head made contact with the victim’s gut and not sensitive areas like her nose and forehead. The headbutt would stop the victim in his tracks, and as soon as their attention turned to Sadie, her male companion used a slingshot to propel a rock to the side of the victim’s head. If that didn’t work, a bat or a sap would be used instead. Then Sadie and her partner would take everything of value from the unconscious mark, even shirts, trousers and shoes.
One day, Sadie made the mistake of having one too many in the Hole-in-the-Wall bar on Dover Street, just two blocks from the East River. The bouncer at the Hole-in-the-Wall was a six-foot woman from England named Gallus Mag. Her real name was unknown but she figures prominently in New York City’s folklore, with the “Gallus” said to have originated from the men’s suspenders she was fond of wearing and “Mag” perhaps being a form of “Meg” which may have been her forename.
Mag patrolled the bar with a small bat strapped to her wrist, which she would use on unruly customers. If, after a few whacks on the head the drunk was still feisty, Mag would then wrap them in a headlock, biting off one of their ears, before flinging them out the front door. The ear would then go into a jug of alcohol, which Mag proudly displayed behind the bar. The jars were known to the patrons as “Gallus Mag’s Trophy Case.”
The evening that Sadie got into a fight with Mag, rumoured to have started owing to Mag’s English heritage and Sadie’s Irish one, she lost her own ear which would be pickled and added to the trophy case. Missing an ear and driven from the Fourth Ward, Sadie shifted to the West side docks. One day while wandering around trying to figure out how to make a score, Sadie witnessed members of the Charlton Street Gang unsuccessfully attempting to board a small sloop anchored in the middle of the North River (now called the Hudson River). The Charlton Street Gang was so inept and disorganised, the ship’s crew had no trouble beating them back. Sadie thought that with her expert direction, the gang would do much better than before. So she helped the gang members lick their wounds, and then convinced them with her brains and their brawn, they could make a very successful team.
After the gang had recovered for a few days they set off to the docks with Sadie leading the gang, they were able to hijack a much larger sloop, and with the “Jolly Roger” flying from the masthead, Captain Sadie led the gang up and down the North and Harlem Rivers. They raided small villages; robbing farmhouses and riverside mansions. Because ocean liners and major shipping vessels were so well-protected, Sadie and her crew concentrated on raiding smaller up-river merchant ships instead, and occasionally kidnapping men, women and children for ransom after she had discovered that pirates had once kidnapped Julius Caesar. And after more of her research into the history of pirates, Sadie even forced several members of her own gang to walk the plank if they did not do exactly as she demanded.
For several months, Sadie and her crew were extremely successful in their endeavours. They stashed their booty in several hiding places, until they could dispose of it for cold, hard cash, though the various fencers (an individual who knowingly buys stolen goods in order to later resell them for profit) along the North and East Rivers. One of these individuals was Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, who through her store on Clinton Street, was said to be the largest fence on the entire east coast of America.
But Sadie’s run as a pirate captain was coming to an end, after several homeowners were murdered by Sadie and Charlton Street Gang, the upstate Hudson Valley residents banded together and formed a force of resistance. The farm folk ambushed the Charlton Street Gang as it came ashore, and police patrolling New York’s harbour stopped them from pillaging the small merchant ships on the North River. Soon, so many of the gang members had been killed, that Sadie was forced to abandon her pirating ways. What was left of the Charlton Street Gang went back to the West Side docks, and soon they completely disbanded.
Sadie decided to return to her old haunts in the Fourth Ward, where she was now hailed as the “Queen of the Waterfront.” With the cash she had earned from her pirating days, Sadie opened up her own gin mill.
Soon after Sadie’s return to the East Side docks, the Hole-in-the-Wall bar was the site of seven murders in just two months, and a result, the New York City police shut down the Hole-in-the-Wall for good. But before their last call, Sadie visited Gallus Mag. The two made amends, and Mag went behind the bar, retrieved Sadie’s pickled ear, and returned it to its rightful owner, Sadie was said to have worn the ear on a chain around her neck for the rest of her life.
The question we are left with is whether Sadie “The Goat” existed at all. She was described in Herbert Asbury’s famous book , The Gangs of New York published in 1928. She does not however appear in any other records from that period. If she was a famous pirate, causing as much trouble as we heard in the stories, there surely would have been reports of her in the newspapers of the day as well as police records. Her legend, whether true or fabricated lives on in at least four novels, J.T. Edson’s Law of the Gun, Tom Murphy’s Lily Cigar, Bart Sheldon’s Ruby Sweetwater and the Ringo Kid and Thomas J. Fleming’s A Passionate Girl. In her book Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas. Laura Sook Duncombe looks into the history of female pirates but makes it clear that we can’t verify all the stories as so many of them have become folklore. In an interview for Smithsonian Magazine she said-
“I really wanted to be as transparent as possible. I come from a legal background, so telling the truth is important to me. Pretty early on in the research, I realised there was no way I could in good conscience say “All of this happened exactly as I reported.” When the best research you have is something that everybody knows is as much fiction as fact, I thought it was important to say so.
Whether or not these women lived as these stories were told, these stories have endured over the centuries. Why these stories are being told the way they are and why people care about these stories says a lot about our culture and the culture these stories come from. But anybody who tells you they have a completely factual account of pirates is trying to sell you something.”
I think it is important to remember that women’s history has often been hidden in that of men and perhaps one day we may well find evidence of the Queen of the Waterfront but until then I am hopeful that the story of the woman that headbutted men, made her gang walk the plank and wore her own pickled ear as a necklace might just be real.