Book recalls bad old days of 19th-century Baltimore

April 01, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

I walked along St. Mary's Street in Seton Hill yesterday in search of some clue to the events of Baltimore in the 1850s, when this chunk of town was one of the bloodiest districts in the nation. I could find no trace of this lurid history; in fact, a nice set of fresh rowhouses is being completed diagonally across the park from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's home.

I've recently read and thought about the message conveyed by author Tracy Matthew Melton in the recently published book, Hanging Henry Gambrill, which carries the subtitle "The Violent Career of Baltimore's Plug Uglies 1854-1860." This is a volume for students of a bitter, disturbing period in Baltimore, when the city government was stumbling over how to keep a population in line. Read it today and you'll soon be making comparisons to the city's present homicide rate, drug culture, undirected youth and troubled neighborhoods.

Henry Gambrill was a young man who went to the gallows on an April day in 1859. Newspapers said that some 15,000 Baltimoreans turned out for the quadruple hanging of Mal Cropp, Peter Corrie, John Cyphus and Gambrill at Gallows Hill, a place off Madison Street that to this day remains Baltimore's Big House. Some spectators climbed to the top of the Washington Monument to watch the executions.

Gambrill was in his early 20s and was apprenticed to be a trunk maker. He ran with a bad crowd. His brother, John Wesley Gambrill, was one of the city's worst thugs and belonged to the notorious Plug Uglies, from the Seton Hill-Biddle Street-Pennsylvania Avenue area. Henry Gambrill was convicted and put to death for the shooting of a Baltimore police constable. Thugs assassinated a second police officer in the living room of his home for testifying at the trial's final day.

The book's author concludes that while Henry Gambrill was no saint, whether he was truly guilty might be another story. The author also believes, and documents, that a relatively small group of vicious men - fewer than 200 - were responsible for the citywide lawlessness.

The author successfully blends the story around the parts of Baltimore that had thriving gangs: the Blood Tubs in Butchers Hill, the Black Snakes from lower Mount Vernon, Double Pumps from Fells Point's Bond and Thames streets, Regulators (downtown on Holliday Street), Rip Raps at Baltimore and Pearl, Federal Hill's Tigers, and Rough Skins from Eastern Avenue.

It was a time when firearms were also increasing in availability, and the city's government was weak. We were also growing fast, maybe too fast, from 170,000 in 1850 to 212,000 in 1860.

Until 1859, Baltimore had no paid, municipal fire department. We did have organizations such as the New Market Fire Company, a volunteer outfit that sat opposite Lexington Market and whose members maybe set more fires than they put out. The fire company - and the youths who "ran with it" - knew no law. They fought with other volunteer companies over who got the insurance money when a fire was successfully extinguished. Street fights were a common sight.

It grew so intolerable that "merchants claimed that their trading partners in other cities were so worried about the violence in Baltimore they were reluctant to visit."

A brawl outside Battle Monument Square (Calvert and Fayette streets) drew onlookers from Barnum's and Guy's Hotel: "The balconies of the two principal hotels in the city were filled with strangers, and the exhibition was not of a nature to impress them favorably with our manners and customs," the papers reported.

Municipal and national elections were hotly contested; the city murder rate climbed around the times of these elections, because the Plug Uglies did the dirty work for the politicians who belonged to the American Party. The city's gangs regularly got the vote out and controlled elections. They were not big on immigrants and once set a German-born man's beard afire.

The political climate was no more pure at the Maryland General Assembly. The author describes a "sort of saturnalia" amongst the bribers and lobbyists who plied legislators with "gold, parties, balls, open houses, terrapin suppers, champagne and cigars."

In the election of 1856, when Thomas Swann (a former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad president) ran against Robert C. Wright (president of the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad), a three-hour battle mixing the Plug Uglies, Rip Raps and New Market Boys broke out in and around Lexington Market. "The fighters ducked behind boxes and hid in stalls, fired shots from behind piers and then ran to the fire house for more ammunition." That fall, election rioting claimed the lives of 19 persons.

It all did quiet down, somewhat. Swann pushed through a bill for a paid fire department with proper steam engines and telegraphed reports of fire, so that their big, brass exterior bells would not have to be sounded - and set the citizenry's adrenaline pumping.

Some of the Plug Uglies took jobs as drivers and conductors when horse cars began running on iron rails in 1859. Their friends rode free; the law-abiding passengers paid their nickel.

Hanging Henry Gambrill, The Violent Career of Baltimore's Plug Uglies 1854-1860 was published in 2005 by the Maryland Historical Society.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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