When pirate gangs trolled New York’s rivers

That’s one type of criminal New Yorkers don’t worry about these days: river pirates. But from the city’s beginning through the 19th century, ships loaded with valuables were constantly coming in and out of New York Harbor—easy prey for river pirates. 

RiverpiratesPolice were unable, or unwilling, to stop the piracy, reports an 1876 New York Times article.

A detective added: “River thieves are the men who have not the brains to be burglars, but who do not hesitate to murder in order to steal a coil of rope.”

Most notorious of the river pirates in the 1860s and 1870s was the Patsy Conroy gang. Conroy helmed a band of lowlifes who trolled the dockyards of the East River.

Another murderous group known for hijacking and robbing ships was the Hook Gang, named for Corlears’ Hook on the East River waterfront. 

Finally law enforcement got serious about ridding the rivers of pirates. The NYPD formed the “Steamboat Squad” in the 1870s, which drove out most of the gangs by the 20th century.

A short account of an 1870s act of piracy, from The New York Times:


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4 Responses to “When pirate gangs trolled New York’s rivers”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    A very intriguing novel based on that period, NY in the 1800s, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. Read it some years ago will have to look it up again, wasn’t bad


  2. Mal Says:

    Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” is an absolute cracker!
    In fact, it might have been the novel that made me an amateur “NewYorkphile” by vividly introducing me to 19th century New York settings like the Five Points, and the Battery. A wonderful read.
    “In fact, one might make the case that New York would not have shone without its legions of contrary devils polishing the lights of goodness with their inexplicable opposition and resistance.”
    — Mark Helprin (Winter’s Tale)

  3. Nabe News: August 7 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle Says:

    […] River piracy was a problem in Manhattan from its inception through the end of the Nineteenth Century.  Two of the most notorious pirate gangs focused on the east side – the Patsy Conroy Gang and the Hook Gang.  The NYPD eventually eradicated the problem by the Twentieth Century [Ephemeral New York] […]

  4. Of Campaigns and Fund-Raising - City Room Blog - NYTimes.com Says:

    […] listing concerns in the city, we can at least be thankful that the problem of pirates in the rivers was taken care of long ago. [Ephemeral New […]

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