In New York City, there is a story told about Gallus Mag, the bouncer at the ‘Hole in the Wall‘, a bar and brothel on Water Street on the East River waterfront in the mid-1800s. Standing well over 6’ tall, she was said to be known for biting off obstreperous sailor’s ears, which she kept in a pickle jar behind the bar.
In Wilmington, North Carolina, there is a story told about Gallus Meg, the owner or bartender at the ‘Blue Post‘, a bar and brothel on Water Street on the Wilmington waterfront near Paradise Alley in the mid-1800s. Standing well over 6’ tall, she was said to be known for biting off obstreperous sailor’s ears, which she kept in a pickle jar behind the bar.
It appears that we have an echo in here. Will the real Gallus Mag or Meg, stand up? And please no biting. Was the real ear-biting bouncer from New York or North Carolina? Did she exist at all or was she just part of the folklore of the period?
Part of my upcoming novel, The Shantyman, is set on the New York City waterfront of 1870. In doing research for the book, I have come across a fascinating cast of thugs, scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells. There was John Allen, said be the “wickedest man in New York” who ran a brothel and bar on Water Street. Tommy Hadden, an ex-boxer and notorious shanghaier of sailors, operated a dance hall on nearby Cherry Street. Also on Water Street, was Kit Burn’s Rat Pit, the largest in the city, where sailors could bet on which terrier could kill the most rats tossed into the pit. Kit Burns and Tommy Hadden had both been leaders of the “Dead Rabbits” gang.
Some sources say that The Hole in the Wall was at the corner of Water and Dover Streets, just up the block from the Rat Pit. The bar was said to be owned by “One Armed Charlie” Monnel who employed the over 6′ tall Gallus Mag as a bouncer. Mag got her nickname from the unladylike suspenders, galluses, that she was fond of wearing. And yes, she had reputation for biting off ears.
But was Gallus Mag a real person? Sometimes it is hard to separate fact from folklore. Herbert Asbury in his book, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, describes a fight between Gallus Mag and a river pirate nick-named Sadie the Goat, where Sadie lost an ear. Asbury goes on to detail Sadie’s career as a Hudson River pirate. The only problem is that there are no records from the period to suggest that Sadie ever existed.
Fortunately, the same is not true of Gallus Mag. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of January 20th, 1874, there was an article titled — The Pirates Who Preyed Upon Our Waterfront Sketched. It describes a period in the 1850s where river thieves were at their peak on the New York waterfront.
It notes: “About this time, Charley Monnell, alias “One Armed Charlie” became a recognized power among the thieves and murderers in the Fourth Ward. He opened a place on Dover Street which he called the “Hole in the Wall,” and with Kate Flannery and “Gallus Mag” as Lieutenants, soon made his den attractive to his kindred spirits. It was there that Slobbery Jim stabbed and killed Patsy the Barber; it was there that thieves and junkmen would meet to “put up” jobs; it was there that men were drugged and robbed and women beaten under One Armed Charlie’s direction; it was there that young thieves became graduates in crime.”
So, we have documentation of Gallus Mag in New York to within about 20 years of her activities. I have emailed several sources in Wilmington, North Carolina asking for documentation for their Gallus Megs. Thus far, I have had no reply. Lacking anything further proof, I think that we can assume that the North Carolina Gallus is copycat folklore and not a ear-biting doppelganger.
There is some disagreement over the location of the Hole in the Wall. Many claim that the current Bridge Cafe is the right site. Another source places the Hole in the Wall on the opposite corner of the intersection of Water and Dover streets. Another researcher places the bar on Roosevelt Street rather than Water.
It so happens that some claim that the Bridge Cafe is haunted by Gallus Mags. What if the Bridge Cafe is not the right location? Well, perhaps it is another Gallus Mags. She does seem to get around.