Irish in the American Civil War is fortunate to have Brendan Hamilton as a long-standing contributor to the site. Brendan’s painstaking research and analysis always makes for fascinating reading (see for example here and here). His latest piece is just as intriguing. It follows the remarkable life of Irishman Felix Larkin, who during the Civil War served as an officer in 15th New York Engineers. But Felix was also a man of New York’s rough and tumble underworld of gangs. His was a life led facing legends such as Bill “The Butcher” Poole and the Bowery Boys. It was a lifestyle which would ultimately brought his end. Brendan brings us the details.
After Captain Felix Larkin met his untimely demise in November of 1868, his lengthy funeral procession included multiple state and municipal politicians, 46 carriages, and over 500 New York volunteer soldiers wearing badges of mourning. It was a memorial fit for a war hero, yet to many Americans, the dead Irish native represented a great deal beside that. Though relatively unknown today, this “sporting man” stood to his some of contemporaries as a representative of the same culture of brutality and corruption that bloodied the streets of Manhattan and helped to inspire the mythologized image of the mid-19th century New York gangster. It is a myth that endures in books like Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York and lives on in our time through the Martin Scorsese film of the same title and television depictions such as “Copper.” But truth is sloppier than fiction, and researching the historical figures behind the myths and legends often reveals complex, even contradictory portraits. The story of Felix Larkin is no exception. (1)
It is unclear exactly where Felix Larkin was born, but his proximity, both in neighborhood and principle occupation, to Larkins from the parish of Desertmartin in County Derry suggests he likely hailed from the same region. By the time of the 1855 New York State Census, he was living with his wife Margaret and three children on Hammersley Street (present day West Houston) in Manhattan’s Eighth Ward, in an area known today as SoHo. While the occupation he officially provided was “laborer,” Trow’s Directory reveals that within the year Larkin was running a rum shop on 73 King Street. According to period newspapers, this establishment served as a “disorderly den,” a gathering place for local rowdies and criminals of various stripes. Larkin himself was affiliated Lew Baker’s gang of “short boys.” Baker, a Welsh immigrant and former policeman, led this crew of political thugs to perform dirty work for Tammany Hall. They infamously engaged in street battles with nativist rival gangs like the Bowery Boys, and ultimately killed the legendary Bill “The Butcher” Poole in a drunken altercation at the Stanwix Hall saloon in 1855. (2)
In January 1856, Baker Gang members James “Bully” Nelson and Martin Michaels sought shelter in Larkin’s shop after brutally beating a policeman who had caught them throwing rocks and ice through the windows of a local building. A week later, police raided the saloon, rounding up Larkin and “seven or eight suspicious characters.” It is unclear with what crime Larkin was charged, or whether he did any time for the offense, but he disappears from Trow’s Directory for two years afterwards (1857-1858). His name reemerges in 1859, accompanied with a new saloon on 320 West Street. He again ran afoul of the law, and was convicted of assaulting a man on Hudson Street during a quarrel over a foot race. Larkin survived the ensuing fight despite getting stabbed by the other man and pelted with stones by an angry mob. His penalty for the crime consisted of a $10 fine. In the same year, he commanded a militia company, the Michael Murphy Guard, a 120-man organization that gathered for periodic drill and target shooting competitions in Hoboken, New Jersey. (3)
Felix Larkin’s role leading a quasi-military organization, the social opportunities commensurate with running a mid-19th century saloon, and his burgeoning political clout as a “short boy” and “queer bluffer,”* left him well-positioned for a commission in a Manhattan-based regiment at the onset of the Civil War. He was quickly enrolled as a First Lieutenant in Company A of the 15th New York Volunteers. Larkin’s saloon was, in fact, listed as one of two headquarters for the nascent regiment; it is likely, therefore, that Larkin played an important role in the unit’s recruitment. Company A was commanded by Captain Thomas Bogan, himself an Ulster-born, Eighth Ward saloon keeper with ties to Mayor Fernando Wood’s Mozart Hall political machine. While more of Company A’s recruits hailed from the Eighth Ward than any other part of New York, its numbers included men and boys from all over Manhattan, plus seven enlistees recruited in Troy, New York. The majority were Irish natives. Together they represented a broad cross section of New York’s working class: laborers, skilled tradesmen, shop clerks, and seamen, ranging in age from 13 to 51. It is impossible to say just how many of these men were affiliated with pre-war street gangs. One soldier, James Cusick, fits the name and age of a criminal who went by the moniker of “The Eighth Ward Man-eater” for his proclivity to bite opponents in brawls. He was later a suspect alongside Felix Larkin in an assault and robbery in a West Houston Street saloon. (4)
In June of 1861, the new regiment went into camp at Willett’s Point in Queens, where it received its first issue of uniforms, camp and garrison equipment, Model 1842 smoothbore muskets, and was officially mustered into federal service. Though it was recruited as an engineer unit, the regiment’s original designation was initially the 15th New York Volunteer Infantry. It arrived in Washington, D.C. on June 30th, 1861, where it was attached to McCunn’s Brigade and soon upgraded to British-made Enfield rifle muskets. The 15th’s first duties involved building fortifications and performing routine picket duties outside the capital. In October 1861, the regiment’s commander, Colonel John McLeod Murphy, was finally successful in securing his unit an official designation as an engineer regiment. The 15th New York Engineers was then ordered to Camp Alexander for specialized army engineer training. (5)
The spring of 1862 found Larkin and his comrades attached to Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. They played a vital role in the Peninsula Campaign, constructing siege works around Yorktown, clearing obstructions, and repairing and building bridges and roads to allow the army to cross the Chickahominy and move through the swamplands of eastern Virginia. At Elpham’s Landing, Larkin’s Company A was part of a three company detachment that constructed a floating wharf enabling Franklin’s Division to launch an amphibious landing and unload artillery and supplies while under enemy fire. (6)
After McClellan’s withdrawal from the Peninsula, the 15th returned to D.C. area, where they resumed work on the capital’s defenses. On September 8, 1862, Felix Larkin was promoted to Captain of Company G. While the rowdy, devil-may-care attitudes of many of Larkin’s peers impeded their ability to succeed in a structured, military environment, this does not appear to have been the case for Captain Larkin. The 15th returned to the Army of the Potomac in November 1862, just in time for Major General Ambrose Burnside’s ill-fated Fredericksburg Campaign. On December 10, as one half of the army’s Engineer Brigade, they were assigned to laying pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River to enable Burnside’s forces to enter the city. Here their working parties came under small arms fire from Confederate pickets on the opposite side of the river, compelling the remainder of the regiment to pick up their rifle muskets and return fire until Union artillery came to their support and drove the Confederates back. The 50th New York Engineers, their sister regiment in the brigade, faced stiffer opposition during their bridge construction. Hunkered down behind stone walls and concealed among the buildings and docks lining the shore, Confederate marksmen poured a deadly fire upon the 50th’s exposed work details. A detachment from the 15th, led by none other than Captain Bogan, was tasked with ferrying Union infantry across the Rappahannock in pontoon boats to clear the opposite bank. The harrowing, yet ultimately successful crossing, has been described by historians as “the first large-scale, boat-borne riverine crossing under fire in American military history.” Captain Bogan was later promoted to major for his role in the operation. (7)
The 15th participated in the Union retreat after the disastrous “Mud March” of January 1863, corduroying the muddy roads with logs to enable the army’s bogged-down wagons and artillery to return safely to camp. They performed numerous bridge-building duties during the Chancellorsville Campaign. The majority of the 15th, including Larkin, having enlisted for two years’ terms of service, returned to New York in June 1863 and were mustered out of federal service. While some of these men reenlisted in the 15th or other regiments, most returned to civilian life. Captain Larkin, it seems, returned to the life of a “rowdy.” By September 1865, he was, alongside the aforementioned “Eighth War Man-eater,” suspected in assaulting a man and robbing $766 from him. Larkin does not appear to have been charged with the crime, nor does the accusation appear to have affected his status as a city-appointed Street Inspector for the Eighth Ward. (8)
Larkin also continued managing his West Street saloon and quickly rose to prominence in the bare-knuckle boxing world. Though several articles referred to him as a “pugilist” and a “giant” of “extraordinary build,” I have not been able to find any specific references to organized bouts in which Larkin partook directly. His most prominent role during the postwar years was as a manager and financial backer for a younger fighter named Ned O’Baldwin. O’Baldwin, who went by the moniker of “The Irish Giant,” was a native of Lismore, County Waterford. O’Baldwin’s exploits, particularly his defeat of Andrew Marsden and his rivalry with Joe Wormald, were covered in newspapers across the U.S. and the U.K., but he regularly faced arrest by local authorities due to the illegality of prizefighting. (9)
An 1868 New York Herald article, reprinted in a San Francisco paper, provides a fascinating look into a gathering of various “notabilities” in the sporting world, as they assembled to front the cash for an upcoming O’Baldwin-Wormald bout:
The House of Commons–not the English legislative assembly, but Bob Smith’s house in Houston Street–was last night filled with the representative men of the sporting ilk. Early in the evening the drama of “Punch and Judy,” for bachelors only, was performed to an admiring crowd, who laughed over their ale as they listened to the ridiculous performance. Toward ten o’clock, the disciples of muscular humanity began to congregate at the outer bar, behind which the diamond-studded, rubicund and jolly Bob stood and dispensed liquors and cigars. Among the notabilities present was seen the towering, massive form of the “Benicia Boy,” [John C. Heenan] whose name will go down to posterity, if not further, linked with that of Tom Sayers. Then came Jem Ward–”Gentleman Jem”–who won eighteen out of twenty hard-fought battles in the old and glorious days when the P.R. flourished….Lew Baker–black-whiskered Lew–Mr. Solomons and Capt. Schultz are next in order. Felix Larkin–the unmistakable Felix–was there too. Felix is a great boy. He is engineer-in-chief when a fight is on hand and, like an old war horse, smells the battle from afar. His latest protege and prodigy is the Irish giant, Ned O’Baldwin, who is soon to try his fists with Joe Wormald. In fact it was this that assembled these delegates at the House of Commons last evening. The third installment of $100 was to be put up, and this is how it was done: At dusk the delegates skirmished around the room, shaking hands with each other and everybody else. Then the body marched in close order to the bar, and everybody treated almost everybody else, until about a hogshead of brandy, wine and whiskey was deposited in eager stomachs. Cigars were lighted, and Felix placed the “spondulix” on behalf of Ned O’Baldwin, and Mr. Solomons promptly covered it with a like amount for Wormald. “Smiling” was again in order, and the order was obeyed to a man. They drank heartily, every mother’s son of them. They know how to drink without making rye faces. (10)
The fight occurred in Lynn, Massachusetts, in October 1868. Larkin’s appearance left an enduring impression upon the spectators and journalists present. “Larkin is a heavy-built, broad-shouldered looking fellow,” wrote one correspondent, “with a brutal, good natured face; and one fellow in the crowd who offered to pay my hack fare if I would give him ‘a puff,’ said that Larkin weighed at ‘least twelve hundred pun s’help ‘im God.’” The bout that followed was brisk and ferocious. Just as O’Baldwin knocked Wormald down, twenty policemen charged into the ring, arresting both combatants as “the pimps, bruisers, and burglars fled like sheep.” (11)
Larkin escaped arrest in Massachusetts, only to be killed during a brawl in an Eighth Ward oyster saloon the following month. Though the newspaper stories and eyewitness accounts vary as to the particulars, the following narrative emerges: Larkin and his pals were out on a spree in the well into the wee hours of the night. They got hungry, and, upon finding no dining establishments remaining open, they proceeded to pound upon the door of Hugh Campbell’s oyster saloon, waking him and several employees who all resided in the same building. Campbell reluctantly agreed to serve them raw oysters and ham sandwiches, but Larkin demanded oyster stews and Campbell was unwilling to light the stove. Words were exchanged and a row ensued between Larkin and Campbell’s respective crews, Larkin drawing a pistol either immediately before or during the melee. Campbell, in turn, stabbed Larkin repeatedly, while the cook, Ann Hines, walloped Larkin on the head with some sort of club. By the time the police arrived, Larkin’s case was hopeless. His injuries included numerous stab wounds to the chest, head, and abdomen and multiple fractures to his skull. After an elaborate funeral procession, Larkin’s body was interred at Calvary Roman Catholic Cemetery in Queens. (12)
The killing was covered in newspapers throughout the nation. The New York press’s reactions to the incident were myriad. While one Herald reporter characterized it as “one of the most horrible murders which has been perpetrated in this city for years,” others were less sympathetic. “Larkins [sp],” wrote an Evening Telegram correspondent, “was a low, brutal rough [who] had muscle and availed himself of it to knock men down and stamp them into jelly.” Knowing Larkin and his associates’ brutal propensities, he argued, Campbell and his staff had every reason to fear for their lives and therefore acted in self defense. While the Herald reporter offered that Larkin’s friends described him as “good natured and kind of heart,” he also related sources who claimed Larkin ”when in liquor, [was] more fiend than man, and would hesitate no more over the doing of a deed of blood than he would over the eating of a good dinner.” Whether the killing was justified or not, it was undoubtedly tragic–a man was dead, leaving in his wake a widow and seven children, and Campbell and Hines were in jail facing murder charges. (13)
While well-known in his time, Felix Larkin has since been largely forgotten. His story, or what endures in the pages of old newspapers and public records, provides a glimpse into the bizarre, surprisingly public underbelly of mid-nineteenth century New York City and the characters who left that world to serve their country in the midst of its Civil War. In Larkin’s case, it seems ironic that a man whose life was so saturated with violence spent the bulk of his war service building bridges and bullet-stopping fortifications. One thing is clear–for two years in Virginia, Larkin and his New York Irish “roughs” performed a vital service to both the nation’s capital and the Army of the Potomac, the oft-overlooked but live-saving work of military engineers. “The rest,” to quote the poet Campbell McGrath, “I must pass over in silence.”
* “Queer Bluffer. The keeper of a rum-shop that is the resort of the worst kinds of rogues, and who assists them in various ways.” Matsell: 71.
(1) “Funeral…;” (2) 1855 NY State Census, Trow’s, “Attempt…,” “Haul…,” Anbinder: 275, Walling: 49-51; (3) “Attempt…,” “Haul…,” Trow’s, “Court…,” “Military;” (4) Muster Roll Abstracts, 15th NY Newspaper Clippings, “Major…,” Bogan, 15th NY Roster, 1860 Census, “Assault…,” Sing Sing Prison Registers; (5) 15th NY Newspaper Clippings, 15th NY Historical Sketch; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid., Muster Roll Abstracts, 15th NY Newspaper Clippings, “Major…,” Mackowski; (8) 15th NY Historical Sketch, 15th NY Roster, “Assault…,” Valentine: 64, Annual Report of the Comptroller; (9) Trow’s, “Bloody…,” “Frightful…,” Harding: 24-25, Redmond: 32, 263; (10) “The O’Baldwin and Wormald Mill…;” (11) “Battle of Giants;” (12) “Bloody…,” “Frightful…,” “The Two Murders,” “Funeral”;
“15th Regiment Engineers, New York Volunteers, Civil War Newspaper Clippings.” New York State Military Museum.
“15th Regiment, New York Volunteer Engineer Historical Sketch from The 3rd Annual Report Of The Bureau Of Military Statistics.” New York State Military Museum.
1855 New York State Census, New York, NY.
1860 US Census, New York, NY.
Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points: The 19th-century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
Annual Report of the Comptroller. New York: E. Jones & Co., 1867.
Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the New York Underworld. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928.
“Assault and Robbery.” The Sun [New York, NY] 26 Sept. 1865: 4. Old Fulton NY Postcards Web. Jan. 2018.
“Attempt by a Gang of Political Ruffians to Kill a Policeman–Arrest of Two of the Gang.” New York Daily Tribune 14 Jan 1856. Old Fulton NY Postcards Web. Dec. 2017.
“Battle of Giants.” New Orleans Republican 5 Nov. 1868: 4. Library of Congress: Chronicling America Web. Jan. 2018.
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Bogan, Thomas. “Fraud Exposed!” New York Tribune 3 Dec. 1860: 1. Old Fulton NY Postcards Web. Dec. 2017.
“Court of General Sessions.” The Sun [New York, NY] 23 Sept. 1859. Old Fulton NY Postcards Web. Dec. 2017.
“Frightful Murder.” Evening Telegram [New York, NY] 25 Nov. 1868: 1. Old Fulton NY Postcards Web. Dec. 2017.
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Harding, William Edgar. The Champions of the American Prize Ring: A Complete History of the Heavy-weight Champions of America, with their Battles and Portraits. New York: Richard K. Fox, Proprietor Police Gazette, 1881.
“Haul of Disorderlies.” New York Daily Tribune 24 Jan. 1856. Old Fulton NY Postcards Web. Dec. 2017.
Mackowski, Chris and Kristopher D. White, “Before the Slaughter: How the Confederate Delaying Action in the Streets of Fredericksburg Set the Stage for the Bloodbath to Follow.” Hallowed Ground. Civil War Trust Web Jan. 2018.
“Major Thomas Bogan Dead.” The Sun [New York, NY] 28 Jul. 1906: 10. Old Fulton NY Postcards Web. Jan. 2018.
Matsell, George W. Vocabulum, Or, The Rogue’s Lexicon: Compiled from the Most Authentic Sources. New York: George W. Matsell & Co., 1859.
“Military Excursions.” New York Herald 9 Oct. 1859: 6. Old Fulton NY Postcards Web. Jan. 2018.
New York, Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, 1861-1900 [database on-line]. Ancestry.com. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
New York, Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865-1939 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
“The O’Baldwin and Wormald Mill–Putting Up the Stakes.” Daily Alta California [San Francisco, CA] 8 Oct. 1868. California Digital Newspaper Collection Web Jan. 2018.
Redmond, Patrick R. The Irish and the Making of American Sport, 1835-1920. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2014.
“Rosters of the New York Volunteers during the Civil War.” New York State Military Museum.
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“The Two Murders.” Evening Telegram [New York, NY] 27 Nov. 1868: 2. 10. Old Fulton NY Postcards Web. Dec. 2017.
Valentine, D.T. Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York. New York: Edmund Jones & Co., 1865.
Walling, George W. Recollections of a New York Chief of Police: An Official Record of Thirty-eight Years as Patrolman, Detective, Captain, Inspector and Chief of the New York Police. New York: Caxton Book Concern, 1887.