One of the few photos ever taken of any New York street gang was this image shot in 1887 by Jacob Riis of the Short Tails under a pier in Corlears Hook.
The Short Tails were a particularly nasty gang of criminals who terrorized the Lower East Side and the docks of Corlears Hook roughly during the period of the Gilded Age. By the 1910s, this sinister assemblage had been absorbed into other street gangs -- some say Monk Eastman's criminal organization is an off-shoot -- and largely disappeared as a physical threat to innocent New Yorkers.
Then Herbert Asbury's Gangs of New York happened, vaulting a number of once-forgotten street gangs into a realm of historic romanticism. Even here, the Short Tails play second fiddle to more organized and mythic groups of young men such as the Dead Rabbits, the Whyos and, ahem, the Bowery Boys.
Confusingly, there was once a gang called the Shirt Tails who coexisted with other Five Points gangs, but this group of ruffians was long gone by the time the Short Tails terrorized neighborhoods to the east of their turf.**
The Short Tails feature as the principal villains in Mark Helprin's New York fable Winter's Tale, the film version of which opens today in movie theaters. Their fictional leader, Pearly Soames (played by Russell Crowe), is a maniac with a penchant for gold and dangerous hideaways. He and his mob pursue the narrative's hero Peter Lake (played by Colin Farrell) through the streets of a tinted-postcard New York that seems to shift like a kaleidoscope.
The original Short Tails were less romantic in nature, and less oppressive. (Helprin's version: "Pearly and sixty of the Short Tails went marching through the street like a Florentine army.") Still, their scant appearance in newspapers of the era reveal a most malevolent group of men and boys. What were some of the traits of this menacing band?
-- They were headquartered at the corner of Rivington and Goerck Street. That's around the area of Baruch Playground today. Back then, it was a stone yard. In 1882, these 'East Side desperadoes' began terrorizing a German-owned saloon in the area, attacking the proprietor with a broken beer glass. In August, the leader of the Short Tails, Frank Nixon, was seriously injured in a shoot-out here and later arrested. [source]
-- They were an outgrowth of another gang called the Border Gang, so named because they were on the border of two police precincts.
-- They loved beer. They loved it so much they were known for their habit of "rushing the growler," filling up buckets of beer from local saloons and taking it back to headquarters. "The man who went for it would simply march out of the saloon with the filled receptacle [without paying for it], and if the barkeeper attempted to stop him, he would make a few remarks of a maledictory sort, interlarded with profanity and obscenity" and threaten to bring the wrath of the entire gang down on the saloon if he didn't "hold his yawp." [source]
-- They were unrelenting murderers and thieves. The gang's loathsome crimes seem especially brutal, even today. From a report in 1884: "The members of the gang are known to the police as hard drinkers, thieves, pickpockets and highwaymen." [source]
-- They were skilled at boat-related crimes. The Short Tails, being stationed near the piers along Corlears Hook, often committed crimes upon vessels along the water front. The unfortunate members of the Young Men's Cathedral Association learned this the hard way during an river outing in 1886. "Some members of a notorious gang of desperadoes, calling themselves the Short Tails, smuggled themselves on the boat, got drunk and began to fight." [source]
Corlears Hook in the 1870s, right before the era of the Short Tails. (NYPL)
-- Their schemes could sometimes be quite dastardly and clever. They perfected a naughty little trick in 1896 involving wagons which lined up along the water's edge. As some Short Tails pushed the wagons into the river, others would run to the owners and offer to rescue their drowning wagons for a fee of $3. This money would be used almost entirely on buying beer. (I guess saloon owners got a bit more aggressive by the 1890s!) "When the money was spent they returned and pushed two more trucks into the water."
-- Some of them loved music. In fact, the earliest record (from 1881) that I could find of Short Tail-related violence involved an accordion! "Policeman Philip F. Mahoney ... observed a crowd of forty young men last night ... standing at the corner of Delancey and Sheriff Streets. One of the gang was playing an accordion and Mahoney directed them to move on, as it was 11:30 o'clock. The accordion player refused to stop playing, whereupon Mahoney attempted to arrest him. The gang set upon him and took his club away." The accordion player and other members were later arrested. [source]
-- Delancey Street required extra police duty because of them. Officers of the NYPD wised up after the accordion incident, patrolling the area in pairs of two -- "one to protect the other." The gang was certainly no match for the most hearty of souls in the police force. One officer in the 1880s, avenging a friend killed by a Short Tail, stormed right into their headquarters "without club or firearm of any kind" and personally throttled a great number of them, "grab[bing] two of the more notorious by their coat collars" and dragging them to jail. [source]
** Neither the Short Tails nor the Shirt Tails are related to this group. (Courtesy Rob Starobin on Twitter )