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Chuck Connors was a scam artist of the highest caliber and the most famous white man in Chinatown history. Because of his gregarious nature, Connors was called the “Mayor of Chinatown,” even though Chinatown had its own elected Chinese Mayor, Tom Lee, the leader of the On Leong Tong.
George Washington “Chuck” O’Connor claimed he was born on Mott Street in Chinatown, but it is more likely he was born in 1852, in Providence, Rhode island.
Telling the truth was never Connors’ strong point.
When Connors was still a teenager, he changed his last name from O’Connor to Connors. Rumor had it that “Connors” had less of an Irish ring to it than “O’Connor,” and the Irish were strongly associated with the police, whom Connors had no fondness for.
Connors’ early nickname in Chinatown, for some unknown reason, was “Insect,” but soon he was called “Chuck” by everyone, because he loved to cook chuck steaks, by hoisting them on a stick, and searing them over small fires he had set in the streets of the Bowery and Chinatown. At various times in his wacky life, Connors was also called the “Sage of Doyers Street,” and the “Bowery Philosopher.”
As a young boy, Connors enjoyed tormenting the Chinese men by pulling on their pigtails, then making his getaway by sprinting through the streets, usually with an angry Chinaman chasing him with a big knife. As a teenager, Connors learned to speak Chinese, which eventually endeared him to the Chinatown population.
As he grew older, Connors became a professional pugilist, then a bouncer at Scotchy Lavelle’s joint at 6 Doyers Sreet. Connors also frequently hung out at Tom Lee’s dive at 9 Bowery, affectionately called “The Dump,” which was said to have “the dirtiest species of white humanity to be found.” (Strangely enough, even though there were dozens of bars in the Chinatown area, some even owned by Chinese men like Tom Lee, hardly any Chinese people frequented these places, preferring opium dens as their mode of relaxation and inebriation.)
During this time, Connors palled around with a Chinatown street thug named Big Mike Adams. Whereby Connors was playfully mischievous concerning his actions with the short and slim Chinese male population, Adams was downright deadly. Working as an enforcer for the local tongs, Adams bragged he killed a slew of Chinese men, by decapitating them with his huge knife. Once in full view of dozens of witnesses, Adams forced three Chinamen onto their knees in broad daylight, then he decapitated them one by one, as the crowd screamed in dismay. Adams’ big piece of work was when, working for a rival tong, he decapitated Hip Sing Tong leader Ling Tchen.
After it became clear Adams was out of control, Connors kept his distance. As Adams became more belligerent against the Chinese, Connors developed a closer relationship with them. Adams lost much face when he was attacked on Pell Street by a drunken Hip Sing gangster named Sassy Sam. Adams, supposedly a tough guy, ran through the Chinatown streets screaming like a little girl, as Sassy Sam chased Adams, while swinging a Chinese ceremonial sword. This sign of weakness was Adams’ undoing.
A few weeks later, Adams was found gassed to death in his Chinatown apartment. With the windows and doors in Adams’ room closed off, someone had inserted a small rubber tube into the room’s keyhole. The rubber tube was attached to an open gas jet in the hallway. That someone was believed to have been Chuck Connors, who did the job as a favor to his Chinese friends.
After Adams’ death, Connors decided that maybe the street of Chinatown were not too safe for him any more. Adams had friends in Chinatown, and Connors heard rumors that they were gunning for him. His incessant drinking was also a hindrance to Connors’ health, so Connors moved uptown to start a new life.
No drinking. No doping. No more heavy-handed work.
Soon, Connors met a woman he liked named Nellie and he married her. To support himself and his wife, Connors took a job as a conductor on the Third Avenue El. During this period of married bliss, Nellie taught Connors how to read and write.
But alas, the education of Chuck Connors came to an abrupt end, when Nellie died suddenly. Connors went back deep into the bottle. One day Connors got so drunk, he was shanghaied onto a ship, which set sail for London, England.
In London, Connors escaped his captors and hid in the inner city of Whitechapel. Connors made friends with the local costermongers, who were people who sold fish and produce from street stands and carts. Connors absorbed and copied the local culture, and when he returned to his old New York haunts, he was dressed smartly in the costermonger attire of bell-bottom trousers, blue stripped shirt, yellow silk scarf and a blue pea coat, resplendent with big pearl buttons, which even traveled down the seams of his trousers. Connors’ transformation included a little song he had learned on the other side of the pond:
Pearlies on my front shirt,
Pearlies on my coat,
Little bit of dicer, stuck up on my nut,
If you don’t think I’m de real thing,
Why, tut, tut, tut.
The “little bit of dicer” Connors wore on his head was a derby, two sizes too small, instead of the costermonger traditional cap, which was frowned upon by the Bowery residents.
It was around this time that Connors became a bit of an eccentric (if he wasn’t one already). With no visible means of support, Connors became best pals with Police Gazette publisher Richard K. Fox. Fox owned a row of buildings on Doyers Street, and he let Connors live at 6 Doyers Street rent free, as long as Fox could regale his readers with the real and imagined exploits of “The Great Chuck Connors.” Fox even co-wrote Connors autobiography called “Bowery Life,” in which he called Connors the “Mayor of Chinatown,” which solidified Connor’s reputation for life.
According to Luc Sante’s wonderful book about the underbelly of New York City entitled “Low Life,” Fox’s writings about Connors “was included in a series that otherwise ran mostly to boxing, wrestling, club-swinging, and poker manuals, was illustrated with photographs of Chuck in typical costume striking posses (cigar in corner of mouth; one hand pointing forward with index, or back with thumb; the other hand in coat pocket with thumb sticking out; legs set apart, one forward, one back; pail of beer at the ready).”
The text of Fox’s writings is dotted with many of Connors’ unique colloquialisms, such as:
Here’s to me new graft. I’m one of dose guys now wot gits
ink all over his flippers and looks wise. Say, it’s a cinch,
and I’ve got some of dem blokes wot writes books skinned
Or, Connors’ musing on what he would do if he became a millionaire:
Me headquarters would be de Waldorf, but I would hev a
telephone station in Chinatown, so I could get a hot chop
suey w’en I wanted it quick. Ev’ry mornin’ at 10 o’clock – or
near dere – I’d call up me Chat’am Square agent an’ tell
him ter give cologne ter der gals an’ segars an’ free lunch ter
der gorillas. Ev’ry bloke dat wuz hungry would have a feed
bag an w’enever he wanted it. How does dat grab yer?
With no visible means of legal support, Connors had to find himself a quick way to make a buck. And he did so by becoming, what was called in those days, a “lobbyglow,” Chinese slang for “tour guide.” Connors worked the Bowery area, where there was some competition for his services. However, Chinatown, because of Connor’s closeness to the Chinese leaders, was Connor’s exclusive territory. No other lobbyglow would dare enter Chinatown with his customers.
Connors specialized in what was called “the vice tour,” where Connors would take his customers to seedy venues to witness the depravity of the Bowery and Chinatown. While other lobbyglows took any curiosity seeker who would pay the freight, Connors, because of his fame as the Mayor of Chinatown, specialized in bringing celebrities from all walks of life on his tours. Some of Connors’ customers included Sir Thomas Lipton, novelists Israel Zangwell and Hall Caine, actors Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Anna Held, and Swedish and Danish royal families. Of course, because of Connors’ cache in the Chinatown and Bowery areas, he was able to charge higher prices than his competition, especially to the swells just noted, who could certainly afford it.
During Connors’ “vice tour,” he would regale his customers with stories of hatchet murders and white slavery. But the highlight of Connor’s tour was when he showed his customers the inside of a real-life opium den. These dens, of which Connor’s had several, were, in fact, total fakes. Connors employed several Chinese accomplices to stage his fabrications.
Two of his cohorts were George Yee and his wife Blond Lulu. As soon as Connors gave them the secret knock, signaling his impending entrance with his crew, George and Lula would fake a drug-induced stupor, while smoking something purported to be opium, complete with exotic aromas. Then, as the tourist watched in amazement, Connors assistant would proceed with a solemn monologue, spoken through a megaphone, saying, “These poor people are slaves to the opium habit. And whether you came here or not to see them, they would have spent the night smoking opium as you see them doing it now!”
Then on cue, Yee would stop smoking and rise shakily to his feet. Yee would then start dancing slowly, gyrating his body in a suggestive way, while singing a little ditty entitled “Alle Samee Jimmy Doyle.” Connors would tell his enthralled customers that this was unimpeachable evidence that Yee had become crazed, due to the effects of his non-stop opium smoking. Then without another word, Connors would lead his crew out of the apartment to a Chinese restaurant, which would complete that particular tour. Meanwhile, George and Blond Lulu would tidy up a bit and get ready for the next go-around, which took place in just a few hours.
Another duo of opium smoking fakes whom Connors employed was a prostitute named “Chinatown Gertie” and her partner (pimp?) Charlie Lee. Gertie’s brothel was located at 12 Pell Street, right above “Black Mike’s” Pelham Saloon. When Gertie’s was informed her apartment would be on Connors’ tour that day, she immediately canceled any appointments with “customers,” and turned her brothel into an phony opium-smoking den. The only problem was that instead of smoking opium, which would have been safer, they smoked molasses, which caused Charlie Lee’s premature demise.
When Connors was at the height of his fame, he started the Chuck Connors Association, which was for the benefit (you guessed it) of Chuck Connors himself. The sole purse of the Chuck Connors Association was to throw a yearly gala that was attended by all the local politicians, millionaires, members of most of the city’s illustrious clubs, including the Princeton Club and New York Athletic Club, and by anybody in New York City who was somebody.
In December 1903, Connor’s held his yearly gala in Tammany Hall on East 14th Street. The joint was jumping with such celebrities as pugilists John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett and Jim Jeffries (who was accompanied by actress Anna Held), French actress Maxine Elliot, as well as millionaire industrialist George F. Train. The music was provided by two bands: Professor Wolf’s Orchestra, and to throw a bone to Connors’ Chinatown connections, Professor Yee Wah Lung’s Chinese Orchestra.
At the time, Connors’ main squeeze a charming gal named “Pickles,” who was known as the “Belle of Chinatown.” Connors being busy with the festivities, Pickles, a tall and buxom broad, arrived at the party at 11pm, accompanied by Ling Quong, the owner of a Chinatown opium den, who barely topped out at five feet. Both were a little drunk on something, liquid or otherwise.
Immediately, Pickles caused a stir at the ball, when she asked a passing older lady, who had her nose up in the air and was in the company of several gentlemen, “Hey sis, have you got any cigarettes?”
The lady stiffened and tried to walk past Pickles, but Pickles would have none of that. She grabbed the lady by the arm and pulled her back. “Go on and give me a pipe. Don’t mind dem guys you wid. Give me the pipe!”
The lady finally spoke to Pickles, saying, “My poor girl, I don’t smoke cigarettes.”
Pickles considered giving the lady the back of her hand, but then she reconsidered and said, “Back to der woods for yours!” The lady and her male crew then scurried away.
Looking around, Pickles realized she was greatly under-dressed for the upcoming march, in which she was supposed to be accompanying Connors. So she conned a young girl, with some loose change no doubt, to lend her the skirt the girl was wearing. While Pickles was in the dressing room changing and sprucing up a bit, Connors began asking around as to Pickles’ whereabouts. A young girl in a pink dress told Connors, “My sister Mamie is lending her a blue skirt. Mamie will stay in the dressing room until the march is over.”
Minutes later, Pickles made her grand entrance, resplendent in the borrowed skirt which was about six inches too short. She sauntered over to Connors who was waiting, not too patiently, flipped her cigarette to the floor, then said to Connors, “Come on Chuck, yer needn’t be ashamed of me. I’d best de looking rag in the hall.”
Connors apparently agreed, so he took Pickles by the arm and marched her around the hall, followed by 300, or so well-lit celebrants.
The joint was really jumping, when Carrie Nation made her unexpected and unwelcome appearance. Nation was a highly viable and quite loquacious member of the Ladies Temperance Movement, which opposed alcohol in pre-Prohibition America, as well as the notion of women smoking cigarettes. Nation was quite an imposing figure, standing over six-feel tall and weighing in the neighborhood of 175 pounds. If she were a boxer, male or female, Carrie Nation would certainly be a heavyweight.
At first, Nation was stopped at the door by the bouncers, but Connors, obviously slightly in the bag, went to the door and said, “Sure she can come in. Der are udder automobiles upstairs with loose wheels. Jist step in and help yourself to a twist.”
Nation immediately stampeded past Connors and hustled to the bar area, where she saw several girls smoking cigarettes. She smacked the cigarettes from the girls hands, and did the same thing to their male counterparts.
“I came here to stop this ball,” Nation bellowed to the crowd. “I received a letter from a heart-broken mother about it, and she said her son lost his job by attending it last year. I’m going to break it up!”
Her face beet read, Nation approached a table where ladies were sitting with alcoholic drinks in front of them. Nation brushed the drinks off the table and told the frightened ladies, “You ought to be arrested for drinking!”
Then Nation hurried to the main stage, climbed the steps, and proceeded to read a letter she had received, begging her to stop the Chuck Connors Association Ball.
Connors ordered one of the bands to drown her out by playing a popular song named “Bedilia.” The crowd started singing, “Bedelia, I’d like ter steal yer.”
Nation stood on the main stage, dumbfounded, as another segment of the crowed chanted, “Put her out! Rats! Rats! Shut her up! Hey! Hey! Hey!”
By this time, Connors knew he had to do something, so he went to the main stage, and induced Nation to leave the stage. Connors walked Nation toward the back door, and told her, “I’d like to introduce you to a little girl who ought to be home in bed.”
Outside waiting under the steps leading to the back exit, was none other than Pickles, who screamed up at Nation, “If yer don’t git down the stairs in a minute, I’ll push your nose through the back of yer neck!”
Pickles hurried up the steps and grabbed Nation by the throat. Connor grabbed both women in a bear hug, and with the help of three bouncers, Carrie Nation was evicted from the premises. After Nation was safely outside, Connors snapped at her, “The street is all yours!”
On May 10, 1913, Chuck Connors returned to his room at 6 Doyers Street, not feeling very chipper. He told Mrs. Chin, who had cared for him the past few years, “I’m not good for several more days.”
Mrs Chin immediately summoned Connors’ pals from the Chatham Club. When they arrived at Connors’ room, Connors told them, “If I am going to cash it, let it be here in Chinatown.”
Cooler heads prevailed, and Dr. Shields from the Hudson Street Hospital was immediately summoned. When he arrived at Connors bedside, Dr. Shields discovered that Connors had a severe cash of pneumonia. Connors was rushed to the nearby “House of Relief,” but he died just a few hours later at the age of sixty one
Connors funeral procession was one of the finest in Chinatown history. It started in front of Connors’ room at 6 Doyers Street, and consisted of sixty three coaches filled with Connors’ mourning friends, and an additional six coaches stuffed with floral arrangements. The mourners were a veritable who’s who of the political world, the sporting world, and even the underworld. The only relatives in attendance was Connors’ brother Philip O’Connor and his sister Mrs. Elizabeth (O’Connor) Miller.
The procession snaked around the streets of Chinatown, then stopped at Transfiguration Church, at 29 Mott Street, for Connors’ funeral mass, which was said by Father McCann. After the mass, the procession again winded around the streets of Chinatown, and the Bowery. As Connors’ coffins past each establishment, Chinese merchants set off their tradition funeral firework displays, in honor of a white man they considered one of their own.
The funeral procession continued over the newly-built Manhattan Bridge, and ended in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, where Connors was finally interred.
write by Balbino Carranza