“There is sorrow in the Bowery, sorrow in Houston and Bleecker Streets, and desolation in the dance halls of the slums,” wrote the New York Times on January 21, 1885. “Owen Geoghegan (picture below), known personally in every local department of justice, and by reputation to every reader of the criminal reports in the newspapers of the last 10 years, died yesterday in Hot Springs, Ark., whither he had gone to recuperate his health that had been shattered by dissipation and confinement.” Rumors circulated that he’d died in bed; not peaceably, but while cavorting in Patsy Hogan’s sporting house with one of the pretty Southern girls for hire. Regardless, Hot Springs’ undertaker shipped Geoghegan’s body c.o.d. via the B&O Railroad to New York City, embalmed and encased in ice. On the morning of January 25, a hearse, driven by a short, squatty man named Slevin, stood waiting to meet it at the Adams Express Office. Hired by Mrs. Catherine “Duffy” Geoghegan (pronounced “gee-ghan”), the driver waited in the cold, dressed in a buttoned up pea coat that while adorned with bright bone buttons in a double row had seen better days.
The train was late, and the squatty driver let loose a mild oath, damning railroad trains generally and the B&O specifically, removed his unlit cigar from his mouth, and let loose with a long stream of tobacco juice. A second hearse arrived, hired by Owen Geoghegan’s sisters, and driven by a Mr. Murphy. He was tall, thin, and dignified. Dressed in a black coat and high top hat, Murphy was every inch the prototypical undertaker. Slevin pointedly ignored him, until the coffin arrived, and both men moved towards it. A reporter from New York World came upon men glaring at each other over the coffin. “Neither man would put their hands upon the box. The railroad officials came to the conclusion that if the first man’s hand touched it the second would take his hand out of his overcoat pocket, and the first man would immediately afterward require the assistance of an undertaker.”
Mourners began to arrive, and devolved into two camps. Catherine Geoghegan’s partisans sought to escort the body to Jack Flynn’s saloon where they’d planned a drinking bout in honor of the deceased. Geoghegan’s sisters, Mrs. Patrick McGinley and Mrs. Philip Ryan, planned a somewhat more dignified wake at Mrs. Ryan’s home at 78 Pike Street. A brawl between the two sides was in the offing, until Catherine arrived with her eight year old daughter Mamie and restored some calm, telling over the boisterous mass of humanity that “there must be no quarreling over the body.” Murphy hauled the body to the Ryan home.
It would have been entirely fitting for a brawl to have broken out over Geoghegan’s body. Fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, Owen “Owney” Geoghegan arrived in New York at age 12, and served his apprenticeship with the Gas House Gang, a group of Irish toughs who ruled the territory where the City’s Gas Houses stood around 1st Avenue and 20th Street. Only 5’ 6” and 140 pounds, Geoghegan learned to fight dirty in frequent street turf wars with other gangs; especially the Dead Rabbits, headed by the same Fatty Walsh who’d end up serving on the Board of Aldermen.
Geoghegan took his fists to the boxing ring. An 1863 match with Con Orem, held across the river in New Jersey to avoid City’s prohibition on boxing matches, showcased Geoghegan’s typical style. Throughout the first four rounds, Geoghegan spat in Orem’s face at every opportunity, enraging Orem so much that in the fifth, he let loose with a series of blows that tore open Geoghegan’s face. Ducking out of a hold, Geoghegan shouted “He’s got a set off brass knuckles in his hands.” When Orem held up his hands to demonstrate his innocence, Geoghegan cold-cocked him. When the referee threatened to call the knockout a foul and award the fight to Orem, one of Geoghegan’s corner men pressed a pistol under the referee’s jaw and suggested he reconsider. Even in the rough world of unsanctioned bare-knuckle pugilism such tactics were frowned upon, and boxers such as Dick Crocker refused to fight him.
Geoghegan opened The Bastille, a sporting house at 1st Avenue and 21st Street in the Gas House District, offering cheap liquor, noxious beer, and access to women of easy virtue. He issued a standing invitation to fight any and all comers willing to put on gloves, and for years an undefeated Geoghegan knocked out his challengers in the first round, a remarkable record of success attributable to the fact that Geoghegan had sewn horseshoes inside his gloves. The police ignored the prostitution and unsanctioned boxing, but when Geoghegan ruthlessly beat a man over a minor disagreement he found himself sentenced to a long stretch on Blackwell’s Island. Friends broke him out of the police van carrying him to the ferry, and Geoghegan spent a year on the lam.
He never did serve his prison term, and by 1880 he re-emerged as the owner of a new sporting house. The Old House at Home, located at 103 Bowery, took its name from an old Irish ballad, and featured long bar behind which Geoghegan presided, two 20×40 concert halls, discreet rooms where the faux blind and the fake deformed could once more become fully functional human beings after a day of begging, ample supplies of prostitutes, and a boxing ring on the second floor. The fighting wasn’t reserved to men either, one of Geoghegan’s most popular attractions were the glove fights between demi-monde females.
Geoghegan also put on variety shows, the chief feature of which was Catherine “Duffy” Ross, an angelic blonde with a round face, piercing blue eyes, and a back-story that she’d arrived from a wealthy family in upstate New York. Duffy Ross became so popular that customers from the Armory Hall – a rival bar owned by Billy McGlory and located next door began flocking to see her perform. McGlory didn’t appreciate the decline in business. A window on the third floor of Armory Hall overlooked the skylight about Geoghegan’s stage; whenever a performer started to sing or recite, one of McGlory’s men leaned out the window and blew discordant notes on the bugle. Geoghegan gave up the performances, but he kept Duffy Ross around. The two soon became proud parents of a little girl, Mamie.
The feud with McGlory continued. Geoghegan bribed one of McGlory’s bartenders to steer men to his bar, and when McGlory found out he beat the disloyal bartender senseless with an iron pipe and left him in a coma for three weeks. McGlory warned patrons walking in next door, “Gentlemen, do you want to be robbed? Do you want to be killed? Do you want to be knocked down with a slung shot and skull dragged? If you do, just go into that den of thieves and robbers.”
Geoghegan denigrated his rival in turn. He met anyone coming into Geoghegan’s who expressed a desire to go visit McGlory with a string of invective, “Do you dare come into a dacint man’s shop an’ ask after that roofyon…Don’t ye dare to shtay in here if ye know that villin. But let me give ye the tip. Don’t go into his place with foive cints in yer pocket or you’ll be drugged and murdered.”
McGlory wasn’t Geoghegan’s only problem, he’d earned the enmity of Captain Foley, a zealous New York police officer with the unfortunate belief that he should enforce the City’s laws requiring taverns to close on Sunday. Foley swore out 102 indictments against Geoghegan; not only was Geoghegan able to secure the dismissal of every single one of them through friendly policemen and judges paid for just such an eventuality, but he even made sure that the Police Department relieved Foley from duty. To honor his victory, Geoghegan held a well attended wake with an effigy of the offending Foley.
It took the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to bring Geoghegan down. Society Officer Young swore out a complaint that Geoghegan had sold alcohol to a 10 year old. Sentenced to Blackwell’s Island for a six month term, and secured against escape this time, Geoghegan emerged from his short sentence a shattered man, most likely a victim one or more of the diseases that ran rife through the prison. He sold The Old House at Home, and took Duffy and his daughter on an extended three year trip to Cuba, Florida, New Orleans, and Hot Springs with the goal of rebuilding his shattered health in warmer climates. Duffy and Mamie left him at Hot Springs and returned to New York City to take care of her sister, who was in the last throes of consumption. Owney Geoghegan’s death a few weeks later came as a surprise, and Catherine protested to the papers that she wouldn’t have left him in Hot Springs had she known the extent of his illness.