Into Darkness – Christmas Day, 1853
(View of Brooklyn Heights, 1849 – from digital New York Public Library)
You had to be there before nightfall. These ships always came in the middle of the night, and they wanted you there earlier to wait. They wanted to watch you and the others…
Miller’s Landing was a rickety old wharf on the Brooklyn side of the East River, part of which had been scorched by a recent fire. Inside on a burned-over slip were a half-dozen ruined looking men armed with staves and huge bludgeons. The men grew silent as I approached. They sat on barrels and boxes branded with the name of one of the waterfront warehouses, which populated Furman Street behind me.
It was a misty, overcast day, though felt cold enough to snow. I flipped the collar up on my thick woolen coat. None of the men looked at me, and I thought I was in for a row, until a pimply faced giant who said his name was Jack Jefferies, said I had come to the right place. Since I was unarmed, except for a shiv in my coat pocket that I was remiss to mention, Jack gave me a brickbat and welcomed me to sup with the men. They had a pot of pork and bean soup, and bottles of gin and rye whiskey.
I had a few mouthfuls of the soup, and took a tin cup of gin, but was very suspicious about the goings-on. I noticed a few professional gorillas over at the gloomy entrance to the landing. Jack told me they were there to make sure no one left, and to see that it was a private affair. After that, I kept to the drink, but my intrigue was not forgotten.
It was Christmas Day, 1853. Little did I know that my descent into darkness had just begun.
A short while before in a saloon up on Dock Street, where I’d been boozing all day, a big man in a fine black suit had waltzed in and started pumping hands and buying drinks. Someone said he was the local Sixth Ward boss. He also kept smiling and bending back on his toes with his thumbs in his britches, seeming like he was the richest man in town. When a drink came my way, I lifted the cup, grinned, and cursed him under my breath.
On my way out back to piss, the ward boss followed me into the cold and rain. He grabbed my shoulder. “I have an opportunity I would like to offer to you,” he said and seemed to force a smile. He was nearly a head taller than me. “There is nothing illegal to it, and you will earn twenty dollars for just a few hours work.”
Red-faced and wincing, I looked at his hand on my shoulder. He took it away.
“Right this moment, over at Miller’s Landing, we need another big man like yourself,” he said. “You’ll be back at the bar in a wink of time.”
Big or not, it made little sense to ask a person in my condition. Yet drunk and looking to stay that way, I acquiesced. All I had left was a few cents. It was barely enough for an all nations, which was a mixture of drinks from unfinished bottles.
When two more sullen Johnny Newcombes joined our motley group, one of the gorillas came over and spoke in a high-pitched tone. It sounded like someone was squeezing his nuts. “A ship is coming to dock here this very evening. You men will see to it that the crew is waylaid, as we would like to have a word with the Captain, who is a wanted man. He scarpered on bail, after being arrested for fitting his ship for the slave trade.” That speech got the blood going in our hideous bunch. We hated the Negroes and didn’t want any more of them in our midst. They took our jobs and our women. We drank to busting up the captain proper.
Jack Jefferies and another man named Tom Bickers, did not drink alcohol, and they both had staves fitted with what looked like razor-sharp branding irons. “This is my last night,” Tom told Jack a few times. ”I’ve had enough,” he said, and I could tell Jack wasn’t happy with decision. ”It’s a terrible thing and all the money in the world can’t make me stay.”
At some point, I blacked out and slept like a babe, until a pock-faced scamp with a mouth full of cracked teeth kicked me awake. He was pointing to the river and shaking his rear end. “Sh-t, sh-t, sh-t,” he said, and I thought he was crapping in his pants.
Everything was a blur. I wiped my face with a damp coat sleeve. Clouds hung just above the river. I heard the ringing of bells from passing ships, and the clop of hooves on a cobbled Furman Street. Not a single shape or light was visible across the water in Manhattan. I slowly discerned the broad sheets of a three-masted barque, headed straight at us. The rest of the ship was cloaked until it was nearly upon the quay.
Our gang climbed over the side of the vessel just as it knocked into the slip. Some sailors were high up on the rigging, going about the business of tying up the sails. Sight was so dismal, Tom Bickers had to whistle to get their attention. Even then, they were slow to take us in, so we started hooting and waving our weapons.
“The captain is all we want, and no trouble,” Tom cried, shoving the sharp end of his stave up at a sailor. “He is a wanted man!”
A man in a soldier’s uniform came down from the quarter deck. He reached out with a Colt revolver in hand, and aimed at Tom, who lowered his stave.
“We have no trouble with you!” Tom said. “We’re here for the captain. He is a wanted–”
The soldier shot Tom the chest, and then fired at the scamp who had the broken teeth, hitting him in the back of the head. The soldier came at us, firing four more shots. We hid as best we could, while the sailors ran off the ship. Luckily, only one shot caught our chap in the arm. When the soldier began to reload, two of our men pounced on him, running the points of their staves through his belly. When he fell, the man who had been shot in the arm, clubbed the soldier’s head with a bludgeon, which he held in his bloodied arm. He also took turns kicking him with his boot that was studded with hobnails.
There came a cry to search the lower deck for the captain. I happened to be standing by an open door, where out bolted a fair-haired man. He pushed me aside with a powerful forearm blow and sprinted for the dockside of the ship. His long black coat billowed in his wake. I slung my brickbat, which cracked him square in the head. His feet stomped as he tried to regain his balance.
Jack Jefferies, who I hadn’t seen on deck since we boarded, sprung up from between a row of sacks and barrels, and poked the fair-haired man in the forehead with his stave. Blood sputtered down the man’s face. He recoiled and swung wildly, though Jack pulled back his stave and moved away as if his work was done. Through the blood, I could see the outline of a mark left on the fair-haired man’s forehead. He wiped the blood from his eyes, then jumped over the side of the boat, onto to the slip. It was the last we saw of the fair-haired man that night.
Jack immediately went about paying us twenty dollars apiece. One of the men said we should split up the money meant for the two dead men, and Jack said that was fine, but told us to throw them in the water.
I went straight to Tom, wanting to search his pockets for money. But Jack beat me to it, yet was good enough to give me the few bills and coins he found. Then I reached for Tom’s stave, but Jack snatched it from me.
So close, I took my first good look at Jack’s face. To my stunned disbelief, I realized he was the ward boss. But there was something more, there was a blood-colored nimbus about Jack’s head. It was the mark of evil.
His eyes lit up and he touched his chin, seeming to read my thoughts. “I know that look,” Jack said and laughed, staring into my eyes.
I clenched the dull end of the shiv in my pocket.
“I thought you were just a drunk, a useless sot for the soldier to shoot down, if so be it, but you’ve got ‘the sight.’ You can see things few others can.”
No one had ever said anything like that to me before. One of the reasons I drank so much, was to dull my senses. I was terrified of the things I saw at night, though most of it seemed just shadows of shadows.
“I could use a man like you,” Jack said. “Sober up and if things go right, you could take Tom’s place. Though if you do, you too would suffer the same fate if you tried to run off on me.”
Here are all the posts in this series: Episode Thirty-Seven
Brooklyn Bridge Park (Photos only)
DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge) in Brooklyn (Photos only)
(View of Brooklyn Heights, 1849 – Original lithograph)