Over time, there have been numerous taverns and pubs in England that carried the name of Hole-in-the-Wall. It has been suggested that the name is a biblical reference to Ezekiel 8:7: “And he brought me to the door of the court; and when I looked, behold a hole in the wall.”
There is, in other words, an access to every secret which no man can seal off – there is “a crack in everything.”
The pub name is believed to have originated from the hole made in the wall of English Debtors Prisons through which unfortunate inmates received food or clothing from those who felt pity for them. The original Hole-in-the-Wall sign showed an opening in a square piece of brickwork.
In an America context, the name evokes powerful images. Lovers of the Wild West link it to a remote pass in the Big Horn Mountains, Wyoming. The site was used by the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, a coalition of cattle rustlers and outlaws that included the Logan Brothers, Bad Jack Ketchum and Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch who made use of a log cabin built there in 1883 as a hideout.
To students of New York City’s history, the name is a reminder of a saloon in the Fourth Ward, located at the corner of Water and Dover Streets, which rose to notoriety during the 1850s. The East River port area had a dismal reputation.
Water Street consisted of a chain of brothels, tattoo shops, dance halls and drinking dens. The saloon itself was labelled the “most vicious resort in the city.”
During the later nineteenth century America took an interest in the concept of a “Hole-in-the-Wall,” but where did the appeal originate from?
The criminal biography became a popular genre after the London publication in two volumes of The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen by Captain Alexander Smith in 1714. His work stirred the public appetite for tales of rascality.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries numerous anthologies told the “thrilling” lives of highwaymen, but editors were eager to convince the reader of their disapproval of criminality. Their books were to be consumed for moral nourishment. Alexander Smith justified publishing his Lives by expressing the hope that the book “may be of use in correcting the errors of juvenile tempers.”
Smith and others may have aimed at illustrating that crime does not pay, but the wealth of titillating details made their books popular. Publishers frequently visited London’s Newgate Prison looking for criminals willing to sell their stories.
Although heavily edited, the “authenticity” of the tale was an important selling point. It was crucial that the voice of the criminal could be heard in these accounts (even if factual information had to be sacrificed). Every publisher was chasing a “good” story.
A central place in the pantheon of glamorized highwaymen is taken by the colorful figure of Claude Duval. A first account of his life and adventures is attributed to the poet and astronomer Walter Pope. The Memoires of Du Vall: Containing the History of his Life and Death was published immediately after Duval’s execution in 1670. The text was almost literally copied by Alexander Smith.
Duval was born in Domfront, Normandy, in 1643 into a poor family. By the age of fourteen, he was working in Rouen as a domestic servant. There he met a group of English Lords who were heading for Paris. They hired the youngster as a guide and helping hand. Claude had found his niche.
In 1660, just as England saw Charles II’s restoration of the monarchy, Duval secured employment as a footman of Charles Stewart, 3rd Duke of Richmond. All went well for a while as he settled in the household and assumed the graces of a gentleman. But then rumors began to circulate that Claude had become over-friendly with the Duke’s fiancée.
Sacked and penniless, Duval joined the ranks of highwaymen. His main prey were stagecoaches on the roads into London, especially around the Holloway, Highgate and Islington areas. He became notorious character in and around the capital, with his fame resting as much on chivalry shown towards his victims as on the nature of his robberies.
On one occasion, he stopped a coach on Hounslow Heath in which a gentleman and his wife were found to be traveling with a large amount of money in cash.
During the robbery, the lady began to play the flageolet (small flute) she had brought along on her journey. Duval asked her to dance at the roadside and they executed a “coranto” (a sixteenth-century court dance) in front of her husband.
The story goes that the woman requested Duval to pay for his entertainment. He agreed, taking a mere £100 out of the bounty before allowing the coach to leave. The event was immortalized in 1860 in a painting by William Powell Frith. By then, Duval had become a legend.
Crime & Gallantry
His charm notwithstanding, Duval terrorized travelers and large rewards were offered for his capture, compelling him to flee to France. Having returned to London a few months later, he was arrested when drinking with fellow rogues at the Hole-in-the-Wall in Chandos Street, Covent Garden.
On January 17, 1670, he was arraigned at the Old Bailey, found guilty and condemned to death. Some ladies of note requested mercy, but the King refused a pardon. He was hanged at Tyburn. His body was cut down and laid in state at the Tangier tavern, St Giles’, where it was visited by a crowd of people. Such was the commutation that the exhibition was stopped by a judge’s order.
Duval was buried in the center aisle of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, under a stone inscribed with an epitaph beginning:
Here lies Duval. Reader, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female to thy heart.
Much havoc has he made of both: for all
Men he made stand; all women he made fall.
Duval generated the romanticized notion of the chivalrous highwayman. His reputation as a charismatic womanizer was upheld in paintings, poems and plays.
On the London stage, his character was played by the flamboyant Newton Treen Hicks who was wildly popular. In the course of the nineteenth century, Duval became a literary hero and the Hole-in-the-Wall a popular name for pubs and taverns around the country.
Very little of the story is verifiable. There is no trace of Duval in St Paul’s Church (as a hanged criminal he would have been buried in an unmarked grave away from consecrated ground). His splendid epitaph was made up by Walter Pope. The poet was a myth-maker.
A comic opera called Claude Duval, written in 1881 by Edward Solomon (music) and Henry Pottinger Stephens (libretto), was popular both in London and New York City. Performed in March and April 1882 at the Standard Theatre (later renamed Manhattan Theatre), the title role was played by the baritone William T. Carleton.
Colorful posters advertising his exuberant performance were displayed in many public places. Claude Duval made his presence felt in New York City. The name Hole-in-the-Wall gained prestige and became associated with criminality.
The Colonial Tavern
Colonial Americans were a boozy lot. They drank a variety of spirits in addition to beer and cider. Rum was the most consumed distilled beverage in British America. “Been in Barbadoes” is one of the 228 slang terms for drunkenness which Benjamin Franklin listed in a “Drinker’s Dictionary” (printed in his Pennsylvania Gazette on January 13, 1737).
Taverns were central locations in the shaping of colonial life. The “ordinary” offered hospitality to travelers; functioned as “post office”; was used as a meeting place for courts and assemblies; and became the hub for the exchange of (Revolutionary) ideas.
Such was the relevance of the public house in the fledgling society that colonial law required every town to have one (in 1656 the General Court of Massachusetts held towns accountable with fines if they did not sustain an “ordinary”).
In 1393 King Richard III had compelled landlords to erect signs outside their premises: “Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.”
Following the British example, colonial law imposed the same measure. As literacy grew in the colonies signs became obsolete, but – like in Britain – inn keepers elected to keep their traditional boards and derived the name of the house from the illustration on the sign.
Both in Britain and colonial America members of all classes and professions mixed in taverns. Lawyers, doctors, politicians, artists, writers, clergymen and merchants frequented public houses on a daily basis. They went there for social reasons or to do business and attend meetings. The diaries of Samuel Pepys underline the role and function of the tavern at the time.
The Victorian middle classes abandoned the tavern. The Temperance Movement gave the public house a bad name and the increase in the number of hotels, cafés and restaurants offered them alternative meeting places. The urge for respectability proved fatal to the inclusive atmosphere of the old tavern. In New York City in particular, the saloon became associated with gangs and crime.
In 1927 Herbert Asbury published The Gangs of New York in which he detailed the rise and fall of vicious groupings prior to Prohibition. His book follows the pattern of the earlier British criminal biographies. The journalistic intention was to evoke a “real” atmosphere of violence and brutality, even if the info itself tended to be flawed or blown out of proportion.
One extraordinary character goes by the nickname of Gallus Mag, a female bouncer at the Hole-in-the-Wall which was a dive on Water Street. Was the saloon named after Claude Duval’s drinking den? A specific reference to Mag’s Cockney accent seem to hint at a London connection (although it is also suggested that she was Irish-born).
Mag’s real name was Margaret Perry and she ran the saloon in the early 1870s with her husband Jack Perry, a thief and robber himself. Over six feet tall, a pistol at her waist, a bludgeon by her side, she towered over most men. Her delight in knocking out ruffians made her presence synonymous with the notorious reputation of the saloon itself.
Locals named her Gallus Mag because she wore “galluses” (suspenders) to keep up her skirt. Mag – it is claimed by some authors and denied by others – had her teeth sharpened as she was in the habit of biting off the ear of thugs who troubled the peace in her establishment (she allegedly kept a trophy jar of pickled ears behind the bar).
She was, according to Asbury, “one of the most feared denizens of the water front.” It is not surprising that Martin Scorsese was intrigued by her professional dedication.
During the Victorian era of the mid-to-late 1800s, the city of New York was rocked by an epidemic of gang violence. It is a familiar image: the Fourth Ward was one of a number of neighborhoods where back alleys and tenements became infested with thieves, hustlers and villains. These groups trafficked in everything from robbery and prostitution to murder.
At the same time, however, these tenements were inhabited by thousands of immigrant families, struggling to pay the (high) rent for their miserable “homes” and working hard in the hope of improving their fate.
Jacob Riis, himself an immigrant who had experienced the hardship of the urban environment, dedicated a balanced passage to the Fourth Ward in How the Other Half Lives (1890): “The poorest immigrant comes here with the purpose and ambition to better himself and, given half a chance might be reasonably expected to make the most of it.”
Gallus Mag is an early modern urban successor to the eighteenth century highwayman. Both are the product of myth-making. By turning these figures into fictional heroes, authors of criminal biographies not only obscured the pain or damage inflicted upon their victims, but also ignored the voice of the majority of local citizens who were not involved in crime.
To the historian it is an intriguing question why myth-makers, the early producers of fake news, have exercised such a pervasive influence on our perception of urban social developments.
Illustrations, from above: William Powell Frith, Claude Duval, 1860 (Manchester Art Gallery); Memoires of Monsieur Duvall, 1670, attributed to Walter Pope; Newton Treen Hicks as Claude Duval, London 1850 (theatrical lithograph); Poster of William T. Carleton in the New York production of Claude Duval, 1882 (Library of Congress); First edition of Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, 1927; and Gallus Mag by an unknown portraitist.