No. 518
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
April 18, 2021

“The Wickedest Man in New York.”

John Allen’s career as a saloonist, procurer, thief, drunkard and possibly murderer earned him the title of “Wickedest Man in New York.”
October 8, 2012
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Chapter 2
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Around 2:00 AM, the morning of September 6, 1889 Mrs. Margaret Dilliard roused her husband, Arron, saying she heard a noise near the chicken coop of their Beersville, Pennsylvania farm. Aaron was reluctant to go outside, but Margaret insisted, handing him a lantern and a single-barreled shotgun. As Aaron went to investigate, Margaret waited on the porch with their 13-year-old son, Jacob. The
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SOAPY SMITH ARRESTEDSpokesman ReviewJuly 29, 1897(Click image to enlarge)  e objected to the word vagrancy."  When the Excelsior docked in San Francisco on July 14, 1897, excitement spread quickly when each passenger disembarked with a reported average of from $30,000 to $90,000 in gold. The same occurred on July 17 when the Portland docked in Seattle. I have always felt that Soapy Smith was
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[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
A Fiendish Husband’s Desperate Deed. | Serpent and Dove.

“The Wickedest Man in New York.”

John Allen Dance Hall

John Allen’s Water Street dancehall, with its bevy of gaudily dressed prostitutes, was the most notorious dive in New York’s Fourth Ward in the 1850s and 1860s. Allen’s career as a saloonist, procurer, thief, drunkard and possibly murderer earned him the title of “Wickedest Man in New York.” But Allen never lost his faith, and when not employed by the devil he worked to bring religion to the Waterfront.

Extra John Allen and his son.

Allen was from a pious family from upstate New York. Two of his brothers became Presbyterian ministers and a third became a Baptist minister. John Allen was also preparing for the ministry at the Union Theological Seminary when he decided that, in the long run, sin might pay better. He moved to the Fourth Ward in New York City and opened a dancehall and house of prostitution staffed with “twenty girls who wore low black bodices of satin, scarlet skirts and stockings, and red-tipped boots with bells affixed to the ankles.” The dive soon became a popular recreation center for Fourth Ward gangsters.

There are several versions of how religion found its way into John Allen’s dancehall. One version says that three days a week, an hour before opening, he would gather the harlots, barmen, and musicians and read them scriptures, and that he made sure a Bible and religious tracts were at each of the cribs where the women took their customers.

In another version, there was no religion in the dance hall until an article in Packard’s Monthly called Allen the “Wickedest Man in New York” and gave the address of his dive. Allen was happy for the attention and when clergymen began flocking to him bent on reform, he saw an opportunity to continue it.

Extra Prayer meeting at the dancehall.

In any case, on May 26, 1868, a detachment of six clergymen led by the Reverend A. C. Arnold of the Howard Mission persuaded Allen to open his dancehall to regular prayer meetings. For several months the meetings attracted the faithful and a fair number of curiosity-seekers, but they drove away all of Allen’s regular customers. At midnight on August 29, 1868, the dancehall closed its doors for the first time in seventeen years. The next morning this notice was found hanging on the door:

THIS DANCEHOUSE IS CLOSED
No gentlemen admitted unless accompanied by their wives,
who wish to employ Magdalenes as servants.

 

 


Sources:

  • Asbury, Herbert. The gangs of New York: an informal history of the underworld. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Pub. Co., 1928.
  • Browne, Junius Henri. The great metropolis a mirror of New York ; a complete history of metropolitan life and society ; with sketches of prominent places, persons, and things in the city, as they actually exist.. Hartford: American Pub. Co., 1869..
  • "Wickedest Man." Harper's Weekly 8 Aug. 1868: 1. .
  • "The "Wickedest Man's" Reformation." Harper's Weekly 19 Sept. 1868: 1.