In 1912, investigative journalist Alfred Henry Lewis published The Apaches of New York, an anecdotal narrative of notorious gangs in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
What strikes here is the use of the word “apache” in the sense of urban gangster. The term was re-imported from French slang in reference to thugs that roamed the eastern districts (“faubourgs”) of Paris prior to the First World War.
In French imagination, the phrase “Ouest sauvage” conjures a panoply of representations in which literature, art, and popular culture blend. During the 1890s France was hooked on stories of America’s frontier past. Set at the time of the Franco-British battle for control in North America, James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans was widely read. The author himself had spent several years living in Paris. A bronze portrait medallion sculpted by Pierre-Jean-David D’Angers underlines the respect he enjoyed in France.
In 1897, Solon Hannibal Borglum moved to Paris to study sculpture at Rodolphe Julian’s privately run Académie Julian (which attracted many American students). Born in Utah Territory in 1868, he had worked as a rancher in Nebraska before pursuing a career in art. In Paris, he cultivated an identity of “cowboy artist.” His studio was stuffed with heritage symbols (saddle, tack, lasso, and American-Indian textiles) and he modeled several works with a western theme that were well received. His bronze Lassoing Wild Horses was exhibited at the Salon of 1898, and On the Border of White Man’s Land was shown at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. French critics referred to him as the ‘sculptor of the prairie’.
Images of “high art” were mixed with representations popularized in the spectaculars presented by William (Buffalo Bill) Cody. In 1883, the latter had founded an outdoor Wild West display with an enormous cast that featured cowboys, Indians, shoot-outs, a buffalo hunt, a stagecoach under attack, and a Pony Express ride.
In 1886, Cody received an invitation to stage a show at the American Exhibition in London’s Earls Court. His tour of England was a triumph. The troupe returned to Europe to perform at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, an event that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. To celebrate the occasion, the (then) controversial Eiffel Tower was built as a landmark. But Cody stole the show. Such was the success of the spectacle that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was back in the city by 1905.
One person keen to meet Cody was Rosa Bonheur. This extraordinary woman, a follower of Henri de Saint-Simon’s socialist teaching and a lesbian feminist, was a talented artist judged to be the most able female painter of her era. The American West for her represented freedom, independence, and equality. Rosa visited the stage grounds where she made several sketches of Indian actor-warriors with their families. Having invited Cody to visit her chateau in Fontainebleau, she painted his portrait in 1889.
Throughout the nineteenth century, social critics described the urban environment as a jungle. Writers referred to the city’s “savage” environment. The inner city was considered hostile domain populated by predatory beings that act on instinct, not on reason. During the early 1900s, French observers drew parallels between the so-called “Red Indians” of the United States and the criminal activities of Parisian gangs. The link was made explicit in 1898.
Émile Darsy was a journalist for Le Figaro and an ardent reader of Western fiction. Reporting on ferocious gangland battles in Paris, he tried to identify rival groupings by giving them the names of Native American tribes such as Sioux, Pawnee, or Comanche – but the labels did not stick. Apache did. Prior to 1898 gang members were known simply as vauriens (good-for-nothings). That year a shocking crime was committed in the Faubourg du Temple, on the edge of Belleville. A man was found gagged and severely cut; a woman’s hat pin had been pushed through his nose. Darsy covered the case with the catching headline “Crime Committed by the Apaches of Belleville.”
The tag was adopted in police communications and journalistic accounts. The word became generic for all gangs. Apache street trouble lasted until the outbreak of the First World War when all known gang members were rounded up and sent to the front. Few of them survived, but the word apache – in the designation of ruffian – lingered on. In 1924, it was formally admitted into the dictionary by the French Academy.
Apaches in France were recognized by their distinctive clothes. Each gang was dressed differently, wearing markers (a red scarf for example) as a sign of belonging and a means of territorial identification. Certain elements were shared by all gang members. Their trousers, tight at the knees and flared at the bottom, were tailored by a certain Auguste Bénard (in Parisian slang, the word Bénard is still in use to designate a pair of trousers). A pair of pointed, shiny polished boots with golden buttons was the pride of every would-be warrior.
French apaches operated in specific districts of the capital, Belleville, La Bastille, La Vilette, and Montmartre. They were young (between fifteen and twenty-two), nimble and violent, carrying garrotes and stilettos. The notorious “Apache revolver” incorporated a set of brass knuckles to form a grip and had a double-edged blade that folded out from the frame. Designed in the 1860s, and manufactured by Louis Dolne in Liège (Belgium), the weapon was banned in New York and many other places.
Gangsters evolved a semi-codified collection of tricks used in muggings. The most savage robbery was the Coup du Père François, known in English as the “Trick of Father Francis.” Two thieves would approach the mark. One attacker garrotted the victim from behind while tackling him piggyback to prevent struggling; another emptied the victim’s pockets. The whole operation took a few seconds and in most cases the victim survived his ordeal. To be assaulted by Apaches was a nightmare for most members of the public.
Crime and Dance
Apaches were not only fancy dressers, they were also fearsome movers. American dancer Maurice Mouvet and his French colleague Max Dearly (real name: Lucien-Max Rolland) may not have invented the Apache dance, but they certainly were responsible for the craze.
On a slum trip into the Parisian underworld, the two entered an Apache den. In spite of the grotty surroundings and foul smell, they were taken aback by the dancing skill of these young ruffians. The dramatic tango of Parisian street culture was billed as the “Dance of the Underworld.”
In essence, it depicts a domestic fight between a pimp and his whore. Knives would be drawn and the woman was slapped and dragged around by her violent partner. She would crawl back, beg forgiveness, and profess her love. An act of brutal energy, it was too rough and risky for the social dance floor and remained an exhibition only performance.
In the summer of 1908, Mouvet and his partner Leona Hughes performed the new Apache dance at Maxim’s. Max Dearly made an even bigger impression when, partnered by the legendary Mistinguett, he performed the same dance at the Moulin Rouge. The impact was immediate and it took little time for its steps to be replicated in America.
In September 1908, the Apache was performed for the first time in the Broadway show The Mimic World and pushed further in late 1909 with the touring vaudeville The Queen of the Moulin Rouge. New York got the Apache taste. When in 1910 Maurice Mauvet and his new partner Madeleine d’Harville arrived from Paris in New York, their rendition of the Apache at Louis Martin’s lavish Broadway Café de l’Opéra eclipsed all others and became a huge popular success.
In 1902, three Basque-born Bustanoby brothers opened the Café des Beaux Arts on 40th Street and 6th Avenue in New York. With its French menu, young waiters, and trademark “Forbidden Fruit” cocktail, the restaurant attracted a wide clientele. The main attraction for diners was the opportunity to dance between courses to all the latest tunes, from turkey trot to tango.
They then opened Bustanoby’s on 39th Street and 6th Avenue, a restaurant that contained a women only bar. The proprietors hired young professionals to dance with their female clients. One of the instructors was a dark-haired immigrant from southern Italy named Rudolph Valentino who, idolised as the “Latin Lover,” would later become a hero of silent film. He was an expert Apache dancer. Soon women were flocking to the establishment for their daily dose of tea and tango. In January 1913, Bustanoby’s staged an elaborate Apache night. The establishment was decorated to look like a Parisian den. Fancy dress was compulsory.
Gang culture had been gentrified. This apparent relaxation allowed Alfred Henry Lewis to name his book The Apaches of New York without having to overcome potential objections and, at the same time, take advantage of a modish urban phenomenon to attract popular attention to his book.
Illustrations, from above: Lassoing Wild Horses by Solon Hannibal Borglum exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1898; William (Buffalo Bill) Cody, 1889 by Rosa Bonheur (courtesy Whitney Gallery of Western Art); Title page of Le Petit Journal, October 20 1907; Apache revolver; The trick of Father François; The Apache dance; and Bal d’Apaches, 1912 by Richard Bloos.