by Paul Broderick
© Paul Broderick, New York University, Spring 2018
In the mid-morning of June 20, 1870, on West 40th Street in New York, James McCarroll killed Bartholomew Buckley, a boarder in his home. Both men were Irish emigrants. McCarroll had shortly before returned home from work, lay down to relax and began to drink. He and Buckley and their wives, Ann McCarroll and Mary Buckley, all lived together in a tiny shanty in a northern slum section of the City between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. McCarroll made a lewd remark directed at Mrs. Buckley. Her husband took offense at the insult and called McCarroll “a drunken rascal.” A quarrel broke out between them. Accounts differ as to who initiated, and who escalated, the scuffle, but Buckley at some point brandished a knife, and McCarroll an axe. In the end, Buckley was dead from a fractured skull. McCarroll pled guilty to manslaughter on the grounds that he was attacked first, whereupon he supposedly “gave Buckley a shove” with the axe, causing Buckley to fall and hit his head on a piece of furniture. McCarroll was sentenced to eighteen months in the state prison at Sing Sing.
“The Buckley Homicide” garnered considerable public attention. Newspaper accounts, however, guided the public’s perspective by sensationalizing the crime, at once highlighting the shocking particulars while endeavoring to normalize the murder within a paradigm of criminality. The New York Tribune captured both the specific and the broad storylines at play with its headline: “THE BUCKLEY HOMICIDE – TERRIBLE RESULT OF A FAMILY BRAWL – LIFE AMONG THE SHANTIES.” Other reports punctuated the crime with headlines like “MURDER ON THE ROCKS.” This linkage of the crime to a broader epidemic of violence in New York, rooted in a context of social depravity, was fully explicated in a longer editorial titled “THE MURDER MANIA,” which profiled the backgrounds of McCarroll and a number of other contemporary murderers.
Sensational coverage of violent crime reinforced the popular notion of an inherently criminal class, offering a frenetic response “to the marginal class and the dangers of social disruption.” As the alleged criminal class was inextricably conflated with the urban and the ethnic, none were riper for profiling than the New York Irish as migrants from Ireland flooded the city during and after the Great Famine. Poor living circumstances for most of the Irish, coupled with a cultural uniqueness and preconceived stereotypes in popular culture, engendered and inflamed the prevailing image of the New York Irish as synonymous with criminality. The public perceived McCarroll as a typical criminal, and by extension, as typically Irish. Despite the difficulty of tracing working class immigrants from Ireland in this period, it is possible to contextualize McCarroll’s life up to and including his crime, variously adjusting and corroborating aspects of the static image of Irish poverty and criminality.
The Great Famine forms the backdrop to McCarroll’s life in New York. The Sing Sing Admission ledger records that he emigrated around 1850 when he was three years old, that he was a Catholic and illiterate. Therefore, the McCarroll family almost certainly originated as peasants in rural Ireland, among those most vulnerable to hunger and eviction. 1847 marked a turning point during which the ravages of the Famine became truly catastrophic, hastening the exodus of tens of thousands of Irish. In “Black ‘47,” the full effects of the blight were realized, and starvation and hunger-related disease reached epidemic proportions island-wide. In addition, British aid was abruptly cut off when the colonial government realized the crisis had no end in sight. Relief efforts were thereafter delegated entirely to Irish landlords, and in consequence, evictions soared. Landlords sought to shed the burden of their starving dependents altogether, some even assisting their tenants’ emigration.
Sing Sing also recorded that James McCarroll’s mother, Bridget, lived on 279 East 39th Street at the time of his arrest. The city directory for the previous year lists a Bridget McCarroll who took in washing in the rear dwelling at 206 East 38th Street. But there is no paper trail for James or for his wife, Ann, also identified in the admission ledgers, indicating the circumspection that is required when trying to link various records of individuals in a city the size of New York. Nevertheless, the McCarrolls were saved from the horrors of the Famine by joining the hordes of rural Irish struggling to gain a financial foothold in the urban metropolis. His inability to read and write even by age 23 indicates his childhood was still spent in poverty; his occupation, laborer, also suggests a lack of education or an apprenticeship and therefore little opportunity for economic or social mobility.
In this regard, he was not unique among his fellow Irish. Most Famine immigrants arrived in the United States as former agricultural workers with no occupational training or experience applicable to the New York workforce. As of 1860, even after many of them managed to acquire training and advance occupationally, still forty-six percent of Irish-born men were classified as unskilled workers, compared to only fifteen percent of native-born men. And, like McCarroll, the vast majority of unskilled Irish worked as day laborers, taking the lowest-paid and most physically strenuous jobs available in the City. Unemployment, seasonal work shutdowns, and injury constantly threatened day laborers, most of whom had to seek work anew every morning. McCarroll was one of a disproportionate number of Irish who was struggling so arduously to earn a living.
Although the Sing Sing Register of Admissions classified McCarroll as a “laborer,” this was a generic category that covered a range of potential occupations. In the main, a laborer’s employment would be found in the building industries, but a significant number also worked on the City’s docks. Evidence suggests McCarroll could have labored in either or both industries. Since nineteenth century workers needed to walk to their jobs, McCarroll’s residence reveals much about the occupations he did. In 1870, he lived in the 22nd Ward, then a heavily Irish district beyond the city’s northern periphery of development. Many Irish moved there to work in construction, “grading, paving, and sewering the streets, removing rocks, or excavating for building purposes.” As a day laborer, it is quite possible that McCarroll did such work at some point or another, and unquestionably many of his Irish neighbors did too.
At the time of his arrest, however, it is almost certain that McCarroll worked as a longshoreman on the Hudson River waterfront. Longshoremen typically lived very near the docks, in order to reach the shore quickly when a ship arrived; McCarroll lived between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, less than two blocks from the river, and reported that he “was at work along shore” the day he killed Buckley. The murder also transpired around eleven o’clock in the morning with McCarroll already home, indicating he had gone to the docks but been offered no work, a common circumstance for some unconnected longshoremen. While some men found stable long-term employment on the waterfront, workers like McCarroll roamed the docks seeking “shape-ups,” where stevedores hired crews of laborers to work by the day, but guaranteed nothing. Waterfront work, nonetheless, was deeply within McCarroll’s domain: Famine-era migrants veritably “built” the port, where poor Irish Catholics filled the maritime industries, especially as unskilled longshoremen. Before McCarroll even entered the workforce, local unionizing among the longshoremen was rooted in ethnicity, systematically excluding the non-Irish. Irish settlement thus followed the construction of the piers, with low-rent tenements and Catholic churches engulfing the Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Manhattan shores. Indeed, by 1870, Irish longshoremen dominated the west side, including McCarroll’s neighborhood in the 22nd Ward.
McCarroll also appears to have ingratiated himself with the longshoremen’s culture. On his forearms he had several tattoos, a practice then heavily associated with sailors, maritime industries and the laboring class. On his right arm, McCarroll had “AMC” written, accompanied by a wreath; on his left arm, the phrase “J. Carel” above a Turk holding an unknown flag; and “42” was brandished on the back of his hand. Although the personal significance of McCarroll’s tattoos cannot be known, his choice of imagery was drawn from a standard repertoire. Wreaths, flags, dates or numbers commemorating significant events, and the names or initials of loved ones all were typical in nineteenth century body art. (“J. Carel” and “AMC” clearly reference his own name and that of his wife, Ann McCarroll). The placement of McCarroll’s tattoos was also deliberate; workingmen commonly had their tattoos placed on the arm, where the images would be revealed for other workers’ admiration when their sleeves were rolled up for manual labor. McCarroll, it seems, proudly self-identified with the customs and culture of the Irish waterfront.
However, the irregularity and low pay of waterfront work translated into abject poverty for McCarroll, as day labor did for similarly stratified Irish citywide. As highlighted by the press, the McCarrolls and the Buckleys lived in a shanty. The 22nd Ward was indeed a notorious shanty-town, where an estimated 20,000 of the poorest Irish, mostly Famine refugees, found themselves as of 1864. “Homeless immigrants trudged farther to the limits of the built-up region,” writes one historian. “They occupied barren areas of rocks and hills, where, as squatters on the land, they erected flimsy one-room shanties and eked out a semi-rural existence.” If not penurious day laborers, the shanty-dwellers survived as scavengers, some even raising pigs and goats on their tiny lands. McCarroll lived at the southern and more developed end of the district, where the shanties stood between industrial yards and some wooden tenements. Nonetheless, his shanty sat “on the rocks” of undeveloped land, while others were built in low-lying, muddy vacant lots. The neighborhood generally, according to the Council of Hygiene and Public Health, was among the city’s filthiest, ridden with disease and utterly lacking in infrastructure. It also appears the Buckleys and McCarrolls were exceptionally poor even relative to their Ward. That the two couples lived together means they needed to combine incomes to make ends meet, an extraordinary fact given that shanties were “the cheapest and simplest domiciles constructed in civilized communities.” No less, in McCarroll’s account of the murder, he describes lying in bed with the Buckleys in the room; thus the four-person shanty likely only had one shared room. And while it is clear that McCarroll was a laborer, his male counterpart, Buckley, was unemployed, perhaps among the many destitute “ragpickers” or “cinder-gatherers” of the shanties. The Buckley murder thus transpired in Irish New York’s poorest setting.
As McCarroll lived and worked in a heavily Irish neighborhood and occupation, his crime also reflected a disproportionately Irish phenomenon. The “Murder On The Rocks” occurred within a reputed “homicide burst among young Irish men” that corresponded with the influx of Famine migrants, beginning at mid century and continuing throughout the ensuing three decades. Even controlling for the large Irish share of the population, Irish murder rates were perceived to be exceptionally high. The Buckley murder, in particular, also corresponded not only with an outbreak of Irish killings, but with a distinctly Irish type of crime. Irish slayings in New York were most often crimes of passion, the murderers exhibiting common behavioral patterns leading up to their lethal confrontations. Murder cases among the Irish tended to display significant common elements in a recurring storyline: the victim and assailant would be personal acquaintances before the crime, usually for years, and then in a social setting, fueled by alcohol, their relationship would deteriorate into violence over a perceived insult or disgrace. McCarroll exhibited this arc precisely, killing his in-house boarder in a drunken brawl after insulting the boarder’s wife.
While only 6% of the Irish-born men in Sing Sing in 1870 had been convicted of manslaughter or murder, most showed the same pattern of lethal behavior. Thomas Sheridan shot his estranged wife in the home of her extramarital lover; Owen Hand, a gashouse laborer, stabbed a long-time co-worker over an argument; and Michael Lovett, in a bizarre circumstance, threw a knife at his wife in a dispute over money, but misfired and instead fatally struck their infant son. Sheridan and Lovett both were drunk, even though both were classified as moderate drinkers in the prison’s admission ledger. In another highly publicized case, the Irish-born Daniel McFarland was dubiously acquitted in the drunken shooting of his wife’s secret boyfriend. 
This disproportionate presence of murder in the community resulted when traditional Irish norms about violence were exacerbated by the massive lifestyle shift encountered by the New York emigrants. Rural Ireland in the nineteenth century had an “honor culture.” Common in pre-industrial societies, honor cultures have a comparatively liberal perspective on violence, justifying murder for causes like insults and disgraces. “Murder under certain circumstances,” remarked a contemporary Irish judge, “is not a crime at all.” The rural Irish also had a cultural pastime of “recreational violence,” which, coupled with alcohol, often led to murderous confrontations. These violent attitudes and customs were clearly transferred to New York, manifesting themselves in the characteristics typical of Irish killings committed by McCarroll and other Sing Sing convicts. 
Irish men and women from diverse parts of Ireland found themselves cheek-by-jowl in crowded New York City, clustered together by occupations, neighborhoods, and, in myriad cases like McCarroll’s, even in homes rather than by the ties of blood or geography that had dictated proximity for generations in Ireland. Social contact increased, along with the real incomes of many Irish, affecting more drunken acquaintanceship and the binge-drinking phenomenon of “skylarking.” Indeed, eighty-seven percent of Irish murders took place within the community, Irish assailants killing Irish victims in familiar social settings. In addition, although the fact was largely overlooked by non-Irish, the Irish population in New York was substantially heterogeneous, and a marked clannishness developed based on regional origin within Ireland. In fact, the surnames McCarroll and Buckley originate in Antrim and Cork, respectively. It is very likely the two men had different accents, and perhaps other disparate cultural norms that estranged them from each other. Poverty of McCarroll’s degree also seems to have had less of an effect on violence in the City than the virtue of Irish mores. Thomas Sheridan, for instance, the aforementioned wife-murderer sentenced to Sing Sing, was of a highly dignified background; yet despite being “very intelligent” and a “well-to-do pickle manufacturer” according to the press, his remorseless shooting of his unfaithful wife exhibited the exact passions that McCarroll had in the Buckley murder. Sheridan’s social ascent did not exempt him from the roots of Irish murder in New York: the emigrants’ traditional culture was escalated by concentration in an urban center, where social contact, incomes, and opportunities for alcohol abuse and revelry were highest.
Thus, McCarroll’s crime and background were distinct to the New York Irish, and relatively common in the era of the great migration. Yet, while he experienced an amalgam of typical modes of living for the Irish, up to and including his incident with Buckley, his experience of New York was far from universal. McCarroll represented a popular image of the New York Irish tied to conceptions of the criminal class, seized upon and reinforced by the media and popular culture. But generalizing his experience to represent the Irish as a whole overlooks crucial factors influencing Irish life beyond poverty and crime. Firstly, the degree of McCarroll’s poverty was exceptional among the Irish, especially so long after the initial Famine migration. As early as 1860, over half of the New York Irish were skilled artisans, white collar workers, or entrepreneurs. Most had climbed the occupational ladder after emigrating, acquiring better work or learning a new trade from friends or acquaintances. Such opportunities could have been available to McCarroll. In addition, as their population swelled, Irish men were increasingly able to leverage the city’s political apparatus into employment. Within three decades of the Famine, the Irish had utilized the political machine to dominate municipal industries like teaching, firefighting, and police work. Laborers like McCarroll, if connected to a politician, could secure a job in exchange for a vote; such jobs were often on large-scale public construction projects, not unlike those in levelling the undeveloped land around McCarroll’s shanty-town. And although McCarroll’s circumstances made him close to homelessness, most Irish in fact moved neighborhoods frequently, some every year, in search of lower rents or more tolerable housing conditions. Beside the shocking extremes of poverty and desperation, pointedly highlighted in reports of Irish violence, were the seeds of social and economic improvement even for the lowest classes, some of whom reached gradual fruition after emigration.
Secondly, social institutions developed in response to the migration aided the poor and fostered a dignified New York Irish culture for even the lowest strata like the McCarrolls. Benevolent associations aided the passage and transition of penniless Irish even before the Famine. In the main, however, the emergence of the Catholic Church provided a focal point for the Irish to communalize, bond over ethnic identity and share resources. Catholic churches were constructed in neighborhoods that developed along the waterfront as the Irish streamed in to work on the docks. This reflected the ambition of Archbishop John Hughes, who resolved to make the Church more accessible to the Irish, striving to establish new local parishes for poor emigrants as the City expanded. In addition to a renewed devoutness, parochial and industrial schools, parish devotionals, and assorted church societies were founded in conjunction with the new parishes. McCarroll’s neighborhood was included in Hughes’ plan. Foreseeing a growing Catholic population in the area, the parish of the Holy Cross on 42nd Street became “one of the fruits of his determination,” and in 1852 “the dedicatory services were attended by an immense concourse of people.” In the 1870s, a girls’ school opened, later accompanied by an industrial school and a parish academy. The church of the Holy Cross oversaw thousands of communions and hundreds of baptisms, conversions, confirmations and marriages – the latter possibly including that of James and Ann McCarroll. To an increasing degree from the middle of the nineteenth century, social life revolved around the church for the Irish living on New York’s west side.
Nonetheless, the justice system that McCarroll encountered conformed to conceptions of the Irish as a criminal class. After his arrest, McCarroll spent the four months until his sentencing in the Tombs, a corrupt and dilapidated institution which “represented the labyrinthian dangers of the urban underworld.” During his stay, McCarroll would not have had access to favorable treatment or conditions: a system of bribery enabled wealthier inmates to buy longer visiting hours, better food, a more comfortable cell, or more time for exercise, but McCarroll almost certainly could afford none of it. As for his case, the public notoriety of the Buckley slaying earned McCarroll the lawyership of Charles S. Spencer, a controversial defense attorney who only a month earlier had secured the questionable acquittal of the aforementioned Daniel McFarland in a sensational murder trial. McCarroll pled guilty and obtained a relatively short eighteen month sentence. McCarroll’s plea and Spencer’s skillful lawyering may have secured the laxity of his sentence, but another possible scenario is that Judge Hackett, the sole decider of McCarroll’s prison term, simply had a subjective view of the case. Sentencing for criminals in the Tombs was inconsistent, depending largely on the particular judge’s sympathy; Michael Lovett, for example, was also convicted of manslaughter in the accidental killing of his son, but was sentenced to three years by Judge Tappan, twice that of McCarroll’s term.
While the Tombs were generally disorganized, Sing Sing operated a highly systemized method of incarceration. Sing Sing had a clear mission, a motivated command structure, and an impossibly strict regimen for the daily lives of its inmates. McCarroll’s stint in prison would have been demoralizing. Following the vanguard Auburn system of corrections, Sing Sing’s purpose was punishment rather than reform. It became aptly known as the “American Bastille” or “The House of Fear.” Inmates were kept on a rigid schedule consisting exclusively of labor and confinement in individual cells, were forced to walk everywhere in lockstep with each other and to remain constantly silent and endured torturous corporal punishment for the slightest defiance of prison rules. The distinctively cruel punishment regime at Sing Sing was not coincidental: it was a direct function of “the urban character of the inmate population,” who were drawn almost exclusively from New York City. And as of 1870, nearly as many foreigners were incarcerated there as native-born, with the Irish a significant plurality of the foreign-born inmates. Thus in the public’s view, Sing Sing housed the worst of the urban and ethnic criminal class; and the prison’s brutal penal ideology represented the most cohesive public response to the generalized notion of the violent New York Irish. As McCarroll’s life and crime show, this response, while sensationalized and hyperbolic, was founded in some realities about the typical Irish mode of life, even if McCarroll lived it to an extreme. But the public’s static response did not consider, or even seek, the complex factors affecting, attending, and alleviating Irish poverty and criminality in the post-Famine era, which too are brought to light through the life of James McCarroll.
 “The Buckley Murder,” Commercial Advertiser (New York), July 20, 1870, p. 3; “The Buckley Homicide – McCarroll Committed,” New York Times, July 21, 1870, p. 3. While all the newspaper accounts place the McCarroll shanty on West 40th Street, specifically between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, the Sing Sing admission ledger records the address as “551 E. 40th.” There is no “551 E. 40th” in Trow’s New York City Directory for 1868-1869 but there is a Frederick Miller, tailor, living at “551 W. 40th.”
 “Murder On ‘The Rocks,’” New York Herald, July 21, 1870, p. 7; “The Murder Mania,” New York Herald, August 8, 1870, p. 7; R. Panetta, Up the River: A History of Sing Sing Prison in the Nineteenth Century (PhD, The City University of New York, 1999), p. 9; Marmaduke B. Sampson, The Rationale of Crime, and Its Appropriate Treatment: Being a Treatise on Criminal Jurisprudence Considered in Relation to Cerebral Organization (D. Appleton, 1846), p. 157.
 “The Flight of a Quarter of a Million Inhabitants,” Times (London), December 26, 1848, p. 4; Timothy Meagher, “The Famine Years,” The Columbia Guide to Irish American History (Columbia University Press, 2005), pp. 70-72.
 “Bridget McCarroll,” Trow’s New York City Directory, 1868-1869. HathiTrust Digital Library.https://babel.hathitrust.org/ibrary.com. This may or may not be James McCarroll’s mother; neither she nor her son can be determined in any of the census or immigration records.
 “James McCarroll, October 14, 1870,” New York, Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, AncestryLibrary.com; Tyler Anbinder, City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), p. 158; Tyler Anbinder, Five Points (The Free Press, 2004), p. 119-120.
 “The Buckley Murder,” New York Times, p. 3; Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City, 1825-1863 (New York: Octagon Books, 1949), pp. 40-42.
 “Murder On ‘The Rocks,’” New York Herald, p. 7; James T. Fisher, “The Port’s Irish Places,” On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York (Columbia University Press, 2011), pp. 2-5; Edwin G. Burrows,and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 744.
 “James McCarroll, October 14, 1870,” New York, Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers; Jane Caplan, “‘Speaking Scars’: The Tattoo in Popular Practice and Medico-Legal Debate in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” History Workshop Journal, No. 44 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 111-124.
 . If Ann McCarroll and Mary Buckley were sisters, it might provide another explanation for their shared housing. “Murder On ‘The Rocks,’” New York Herald, p. 7; Hasia R. Diner, “The Era of the Great Migration,” The New York Irish, eds. Ronald Bayor and Timothy Meagher (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 40; Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York (D. Appleton and Company, 1865), p. 300.
 Eric Monkkonen, Murder in New York City (University of California Press, 2001), pp. 105-150; “Another Tragedy – Jealous Husband Shoots His Wife – Arrested for Murder,” Chicago Tribune, February 19, 1870, p. 4; “Homicide at the South Brooklyn Gas House,” New York Times, August 12, 1969, p. 2; “Shocking Infanticide,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 11, 1870.
 .Carolyn A. Conley, Melancholy Accidents: The Meaning of Violence in Post-Famine Ireland (Lexington Books, 1999), pp. 1-7; Hugh E. O’Rourke, “Irish Immigrant Involvement in Collective Violence in New York from 1845 to 1875” (PhD, The City University of New York, 2001), pp. 47-56.
 Anbinder, Five Points, p. 225; Monkkonen, Murder in New York City, p. 142; O’Rourke, “Irish Immigrant Involvement in Collective Violence,” p. 54; “Another Tragedy,” Chicago Tribune, p. 3.
 Anbinder, City of Dreams, 158; Diner, “The Era of the Great Migration,” p. 98; Steven Erie, Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985 (University of California Press, 1990) p. 39.
 The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Company, 1914), pp. 329-339; “Dedication of the Catholic Church of the Holy Cross,” New York Times, May 9, 1870; Diner, “The Era of the Great Migration,” p. 103; Jay P. Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), p. 45.
 Timothy J. Gilfoyle, “America’s Greatest Criminal Barracks: The Tombs and the Experience of Criminal Justice in New York City, 1838-1897,” Journal of Urban History, July 2003, pp. 525-545; “Charles S. Spencer’s Letter to The Independent,” Sacramento Daily Union, May 8, 1870; “One of the McFarland Lawyers: Confession of Charles S. Spencer,” New York Tribune, April 28, 1870, p. 1; “Trial, Conviction and Sentence of Michael Lovett for Child Murder,” New York Times, October 27, 1870, p. 2; “Colonel Charles S. Spencer,” New York Tribune, 12 August 1887, p. 5.
 Twenty-third Annual Report of the Inspectors of State Prisons of the State of New York (Albany: The Argus Company, 1871), p. 68; Panetta, “Up the River,” p. 3.