|Lithograph by J. Childs depicts two of Philadelphia's notorious
Moyamensing gang killers of the mid-1800s
Take the typical misbehaviors for women at this time, where the punishment seems out of whack with the crime: a thief getting five years imprisonment for stealing a dress from a tailor, or a large plate of oysters from a tavern.
There were children in prison as well. One of the youngest girls in the records, 11-year-old Ann McQuillan, was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for 'theft by housebreaking'.
Con men advertised in newspapers to sell “oxygenizing machines” that actually contained laughing gas to supposedly cure folks with lung disease! They hawked counterfeit currency to gullible businessmen, who received a package of green cut paper (thus, the “green goods swindle”). Big Bertha Heyman was so good at conning money from men, she could even pull it off in prison.
|Big Bertha, an ingenious swindler of the 1800s
conned a man out of $900 (now about $20,000) while behind bars!
Even in the supposedly civil city of Philadelphia, Irish gangs like the Schuylkill Rangers, began by resisting anti-Catholic attackers, then evolved into organized delinquency. They became river pirates, demanding a tax from barges heading to the city, and robbing the trade carried across the river at nearby Gray’s Ferry.
One of my characters is a “retired” prostitute, and I hit the mother lode yesterday, when I discovered there were Gentlemen’s Guides to Dens of Iniquity, a kind of wink-wink description of the “worst” establishments in the city. These guides were printed for most big cities. One of the funniest revelations was that a religious seminary on the west side of NYC was once an infamous brothel.
|Built in 1819 for a seamstress, this brick house in what is now the New York University area, became a brothel in the mid–1800s—about the time the city’s wealthier citizens relocated uptown.
When I have enough interesting factoids the challenge will be to cull the best of my research and piece together the criminals and cons to form the core band of my players. Each will have their own backstories, flaws and quests.
Do you write historical fiction? If so, do you like doing research? What is the strangest tidbit you’ve unearthed so far along the way?