A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from April 20, 2008
Forty Thieves

The name “forty thieves” is taken from the story “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). One of New York City’s first criminal gangs was located in the Five Points area of Manhattan in the 1820s and went by the name of “Forty Thieves.”

The Common Council (later the Board of Aldermen and, in 1938, the City Council) of 1852-1853 was called the “Forty Thieves Council” for accepting bribes and granting Jacob Sharp a franchise to run a railroad down Broadway. The 1884 Board of Aldermen would be called the “Boodle Board,” and subsequent board and council would have these “forty thieves” and “boodle board” nicknames applied whenever corruption was suspected.


Wikipedia: New York City Council
The History of the New York City Council can be traced to Dutch colonial days when New York City was called New Amsterdam.

On February 2, 1653, the town of New Amsterdam, founded on the southern tip of Manhattan Island in 1625, was incorporated as a city under a charter issued by the Dutch West India Company. A Council of Legislators sat as the local lawmaking body and as a court of inferior jurisdiction.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the local legislature was called the Common Council and then the Board of Aldermen. In 1898 the amalgamation charter of the City of Greater New York renamed and revamped the Council and added a New York City Board of Estimate with certain administrative and financial powers. After a number of changes through the ensuing years, the present Council was born in 1938 under a new charter which instituted the Council as the sole legislative body and the New York City Board of Estimate as the chief administrative body. Certain functions of the Council, however, remained subject to the approval of the Board.

Wikipedia: Ali Baba
Ali Baba (Arabic: علي بابا) is a fictional character based in Ancient Arabia. He is described in the adventure tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, part of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). Some critics believe that this story was added to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights by one of its European transcribers, Antoine Galland, an 18th-century French orientalist who may have heard it in oral form from an Arab story-teller from Aleppo. However, Richard F. Burton claimed it to be part of the original Book of One Thousand and One Nights. This story has also been used as a popular pantomime plot—perhaps most famously in the pantomime/musical Chu Chin Chow (1916).

Wikipedia: 40 Thieves
The 40 Thieves — likely named after Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves — was the first organized street gang in New York’s history. Primarily consisting of Irish immigrants, they terrorized the Five Points intersection in New York City, New York.

Originally based in New York’s Lower East Side, the Forty Thieves were formed in the early 1820s by Edward Coleman. Initially it was formed to rebel against their low social status but the members soon turned to crime to relieve their frustration. This gang emerged due to prejudice and class distinction. Such social conditions were evident in the Five Points area of New York in the 1820s. Canal Street, the Bowery, Broadway, and Mulberry Street bordered this area, which was a slum predominately infested with mosquitoes and diseases. Meeting at a Centre Street grocery store owned by Rosanna Peers, members would be given assignments and issued strict quotas on the gang’s share of illegal activities. The quota system proved a great motivator among veterans competing against younger members seeking to take older members’ positions. However, in the long term the gang was unable to maintain discipline among its members in early New York, and by 1850 the gang had dissolved with its members joining larger gangs or leaving on their own. From the violence to the high crime rates, Five Points desperately lacked the aid of government support. The Forty Thieves saw this as an economic opportunity, as they established Tammany Hall. This corrupt bureaucracy provided community services in exchange for money and support from its residents to fund their corrupt agendas. The juvenile Little Forty Thieves, an apprentice gang of the original Forty Thieves, would outlast their mentors, continuing to commit illegal activities throughout the 1850s before eventually joining the later street gangs following the American Civil War in 1865.

4 April 1829, Baltimore (MD) Patriot, pg. 2:
THE FIVE POINTS. (...) On last Sunday evening, just before dusk, two respectable young men, bakers, were assaulted by a gang called the forty thieves, or highbinders, and maltgreated in a similar manner. (...)—N. Y. Com. Adv.

2 February 1845, New York (NY) Herald, pg. 2:
QUARRELS AMONG THE FORTY THIEVES.—We have been very much amused during the past week with the quarrels between the Plebeian and the Morning News, otherwise better known under the soubriquet of Slamm, Bang & Co., and Patrick O’Sullivan & Co. These quarrels are only the commencement of a long fight between the contending factions of the New York Democracy.

8 May 1848, New York (NY) Herald, pg. 4:
This spring an association of canal lines was formed, for the express purpose of rescuing the business altogether out of the hands of the clique in Albany, familiarly known as the “forty thieves.”

11 October 1856, New York (NY) Herald, “Candidates for Mayor,” pg. 4:
The next opponent to the inexorable Fernando is Isaac O. Barker, put forward by the rump of the Know Nothings, the rank and file of the party having gone over to the Fremont camp. Who is Mr. Barker? a very amiable, weak man. He was, in 1852, a member of that Corporation which, from its outrageous expenditures and corruptions, was termed the den of “forty thieves.”

31 October 1856, Boston (MA) Daily Atlas, pg. 1:
Out would-be Mayors are said to display great munificence in this line, particularly Messrs. Libby and Barker—the former an anti-Wood spoils Democrat, the latter a Know Nothing, properly so called—one of the Ned Buntline and Joseph Hiss school—both ex-Aldermen; having each belonged to that famous or rather infamous City Government of 1852, whose members received the very well merited title of “the forty thieves.”

30 June 1860, New York (NY) Times, “Ripples from the Aldermanic Pool,” pg. 4:
We heard a fuss not very many years ago about the Common Council known as the “Forty Thieves”—those tutelary guardians under whose auspices the existing City Railroads were put into operation. But the time for talking about “Forty Thieves” would seem to have gone by, and the City subsides into apathy under a system more monstrous and extortionate than anything yet shadowed forth in the course of the world’s municipal experience.

20 May 1878, New York Times, pg. 2:
A SUBSTANTIAL PRECEDENT.
ALDERMEN NOT ABOVE LAW.

HOW THE FORTY THIEVES WERE ENJOINED,
FINED, AND IMPRISONED, INDICTED, AND
OTHERWISE PROSECUTED—THE BROAD-
WAY RAILROAD CHARTER.

The wrath of the Aldermen over the remarks of Recorder Hackett and the ridiculous speech of Mr. Roberts naturally call to mind other episodes of a similar character, one of which, at least, may be retold for the benefit of the present City Fathers. It is in reference to the Common Council of 1852-53, commonly known as “The Forty Thieves.” At that time City railroads were new; only the old Bowery, or Fourth-Avenue, and the Sixth and the Eighth Avenue, Roads were in operation. There was a fever and a rush for charters, and the big job of the lot was a proposed railroad in Broadway. There was money in that, and a great strife for the franchise. Most of the property-owners in Broadway were opposed, but Jacob Sharpe, who knew how to manage a venal Council, was getting the best of them. Then the opponents appealed to the courts, and the subsequent history of the case is thus briefly told:
(...)
We may add that at the same time three of the Aldermen, Sturtevant, Bond, and Wesley Smith, were regularly indicted by the Grand Jury for receiving bribes.

A few years afterward Mayor Wood and about 60 Aldermen and Councilmen were indicted for voting a lease of City property contrary to the charter. So it seems that the claim that a legislative body cannot be enjoined, or its members indicted and tried for their official action, is not well founded.

17 May 1885, New York (NY) Times, “Jacob Sharp Victory,” pg. 3:
Of the 30 incorporators in the original charter passed by the Common Council in 1852 (that Board of Aldermen historically known as “the forty thieves,") only a dozen remain to witness the final success, and only two or three of these are participants with Mr. Sharp in the fruits of the final victory.

Google Books
An Account of Bellevue Hospital
edited by Robert J. Carlisle
published by the Society of the Alumni of Bellevue Hospital
New-York
1893
Pg. 50:
But all this was changed in 1845. The “city stepfathers,” as Dr. Francis has wittily dubbed the gang that went popularly under the name of the “Forty Thieves,” looked with envious eyes on the almshouse property, and Bellevue received closer scrutiny than she had for thirty years before.

Google Books
Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York (1816 to 1860)
by Charles H, Haswell
New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers
1896
Pg. 487:
In consequence of the corruption existing in the Municipal Departments, and especially in the Boards of Aldermen and Assistants, they from the facility, extent, and conditions with which they granted leases of city railroads, ferries, etc., despite the vetoes of the Mayor, were designated the “Forty Thieves”; the boards consisting each of twenty members. William M. Tweed was at this time a member of the Board of Aldermen, and Richard B. Conolly was appearing both upon the political and municipal stages, under the well-earned and exceptionally appropriate sobriquet of “Slippery Dick.”

Google Books
Cyclopedia of American Government
by Albert Bushnell Hart
New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company
1914
Pg. 542 (New York City):
The common council had deteriorated into a corrupt and partisan body, the council of 1852 earning for itself the unenviable title of the “Forty Thieves Council.”

9 January 1938, New York (NY) Times, pg. SM18:
FOR nearly 300 years, New York’s Board of Aldermen grappled with municipal problems, but the new Council’s predecessor is more commonly identified with such phrases as “Boodle Board” and “Forty Thieves.”

Google Books
Dictionary of American Politics
edited by Edward Conrad Smith and Arnold John Zucker
New York, NY: Barnes & Noble
1955
Pg. 163:
forty thieves. An opprobrious term for members of the Board of Aldermen of New York about 1850 who distinguished themselves by corrupt ...

Google Books
World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime
by Jay Robert Nash
New York, NY: Paragon House
1992
Pg. 512:
Forty Thieves, prom. 1820s-1850s. One of the original Five Points gangs headquarted in Rosanna Peers saloon on Center street.

Google Books
Fighting Organized Crime:
Politics, Justice, and the Legacy of Thomas E. Dewey

by Mary M. Stolberg
UPNE
1995
Pg. 201:
The aldermen had few supporters outside of Tammany. During the nineteenth century the board’s peopling by political hacks had earned it the nicknames “Boodle Board” and “Forty Thieves.”

Google Books
The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History
by Edward Robb Ellis
Carroll & Graf Publsihers
2004
Pg. 231:
It was in Rosanna Peers’ back room that the city’s first organized gang came into existence. Called the Forty Thieves, it was led by Edward Coleman. All day long and half the night he sprawled in Rosanna’s hideaway, dispatching henchmen to the nearby slum area to slug, steal, rob and kill. Rosanna’s place also bred the city’s second gang, the Kerryonians, whose members had been born in County Kerry, Ireland. Less ferocious than the Foty Thieves, the Kerryonians seldom ventured far from Rosanna’s and did little fighting, devoting themselves mainly to hating the British.

New York (NY) Times
‘Boss Tweed’: The Fellowship of the Ring
By PETE HAMILL
Published: March 27, 2005
(...)
Ackerman quotes Tweed in a jailhouse interview, about six months before his death:

‘’The fact is New York politics were always dishonest—long before my time. There never was a time you couldn’t buy the Board of Aldermen. . . . A politician coming forward takes things as they are.’’

Coming forward, young Tweed learned only too well to take things as they are. Curiously, Ackerman pays little attention to the nefarious Tweed predecessor, Fernando Wood, who as mayor (1855-57 and 1859-61) helped create the system of municipal corruption that Tweed and his ring later perfected. When the 29-year-old Tweed was first elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1852, its members were already known as the Forty Thieves.

NYCivic
Proportional Representation
Would Make City Council
More Diverse Ideologically

By Henry J. Stern
August 17, 2006

The City Council has long been an object of municipal mockery.

Until 1938, it was called as the Board of Aldermen, informally referred to as “the forty thieves,” a reference to Ali Baba.  Another jest derided the lawmakers’ occupations: A man near the door of the Chamber shouted, “Alderman, your saloon’s on fire.” The room emptied immediately. In 1965, I wrote: “The City Council is less than a rubber stamp, because a rubber stamp leaves an impression.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Sunday, April 20, 2008 • Permalink