New York in the 19th century was a tough place to be, especially if you were poor. Make that double if you were a woman. This was the world Sadie Farrell was born into. She was a petty thief who rose to prominence in the 1860s in New York’s Fourth Ward near the East River. Sadie was petite, but mean and tough as nails. She prowled the docks with a male partner in case she needed extra muscle. She got her nickname of “the Goat” because she would head butt her victims in the stomach before taking their valuables. This was a bold move as a head butt done incorrectly will cause more damage to the attacker than the victim, but Sadie was a pro and made sure only the top of her head made contact. Once the victim’s attention was on Sadie, her male accomplice slingshot a rock into his head. If that didn’t, there was always a sap. The two then took everything of value, including clothes and shoes.
Spitfire little Sadie got into a spat with a bouncer Water Street dive called the Hole-in-the-Wall. Gallus Mag was a giant of a woman at 6 feet tall, and had a signature move of ear biting if a couple of whacks on the head with a bat didn’t bring the malefactor into line. Herbert Asbury describes Mag in his book The Gangs of New York, “It was her custom, after she’d felled an obstreperous customer with her club, to clutch his ear between her teeth and so drag him to the door, amid the frenzied cheers of the onlookers. If her victim protested she bit his ear off, and having cast the fellow into the street she carefully deposited the detached member in a jar of alcohol behind the bar…. She was one of the most feared denizens on the waterfront and the police of the period shudderingly described her as the most savage female they’d ever encountered.” Mag was English and Sadie was Irish so it was a disaster waiting to happen. The two crossed paths at the Hole-in-the-Wall after Sadie was in her cups. No one is sure how the fight started, but it finished with Mag biting of Sadie’s ear and tossing her onto Dover Street. The giant bouncer put the ear in a pickle jar full of alcohol and gave it a place of honor in her ear collection. Even labeling it in fine script “The ear of Sadie the Goat”.
So Sadie was back on the street, this time minus an ear and banned from the Fourth Ward. This time she made her way to the West Side Docks. She saw a faction of the Charlton Street Gang trying to capture a small sloop, or boat, and fail miserably. She offered to lead the gang, and within days they had captured a larger sloop. Sadie raised the “Jolly Roger” flag, and started her career as a river pirate. Using her newly captured sloop, Sadie and her gang raiding farm houses and mansions alike. They also preyed on small up-river merchant ships on the Hudson River. Totally getting into the pirate role, Sadie read upon famous pirates and tried to adopt their customs. One of the things she was rumored to do was force gang members that didn’t follow orders to walk the plank. Sadly for her, Sadie’s pirate days only lasted a few months before Hudson River Valley denizens began to arm themselves and drove the pirates away. However, Sadie remained the “Queen of the Waterfront” for the rest of her days.
Driven from the river, Sadie returned to the Fourth Ward. There she made up with Gallus Mag, who graciously returned Sadie’s ear. She put it in a locket and wore it around her neck for the rest of her days.
There is some doubts as to the veracity of this legend. Asbury’s famous book The Gangs of New York makes no mention of Sadie and there are no contemporary newspaper clippings. However, it is a good story and within the realm of possibility. I shall leave it to you, dear reader, whether you believe or not.
Sources available on request