Friday, January 22, 2021

One of the most desperate characters in the City

Over the years I've devoted several posts to the colorful early history of Manhattan's Water Street Mission, an institution that was founded in 1872 by reformed convict Jerry McAuley (and which still exists, though under a different name). Above is a little handout card from the mission that can be fairly precisely dated to 1882-84, after McAuley had moved on to start a second mission further uptown.

According to Samuel Hadley's Down in Water Street, McAuley's immediate successor or co-successor was the John O'Neil whose name appears on the card, but O'Neil was only in charge briefly before giving up the helm to one J. F. Shorey, who was already in place as superintendent by November 1884. Hadley himself took charge in 1886. Below is the floral design on the other side of the card.
There doesn't seem to be much other information available on the O'Neils. The only significant source I've found is the New York Times obituary from 1879 (below) for a Mrs. John O'Neil "who identified herself for years with Jerry McAuley's Water-Street Mission." Here we learn that her husband John, who apparently survived her, had been a career criminal and "one of the most desperate characters in the City" before his eventual reformation. He might not have been cut out for the task of superintending the mission, but he seems to have settled down to a productive life.
Around the same time there was another John O'Neil in New York City who was notorious for criminal activities, specifically burglary, but whose very recognizable modus operandi was a clever con involving pawn shop tickets. One of his arrests came just a few weeks after the death of the Water Street Mrs. O'Neil, but there's no reason to suspect that the two men were one and the same. The website Professional Criminals of America — REVISED, based on an 1886 volume devoted to the topic, has a photo and details of the activities of the unreformed O'Neil.

Previous Water Street Mission posts:

The Madonna of Cherry Hill
Death of a Salesman
A Manhattan Mission
Cassie Burns
The Water Street Mission, Revisited
Tracts (2): Jerry McAuley's Story

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