In 1869, in lower Manhattan, amid blocks of seedy slums, pawnshops, rescue missions, and gambling dens, there lived a young woman known as Sadie the Goat. New York was the largest and wealthiest city in the country, but Sadie's was not a wealthy part of town. Tuberculosis and diarrhea were the leading causes of death. Ragpickers went door-to-door trading anything from old food to broken furniture. Horses dropped thousands of pounds of manure on the cobblestone streets every day, and nobody was responsible for cleaning it up. Lines of drying laundry hung out the windows. Garbage piled in mounds in the gutter, sometimes several feet high. Sadie's neighborhood, the Fourth Ward—the "Bloody Fourth," known for its frequent violence—was the site of the densest population crush anywhere in the world.

She spent much of her time with a street gang. Mugging people on the streets of the Fourth Ward, Sadie would headbutt her victims in the stomach [hence the nickname] and then let her gang fleece the unfortunates of cash and goods. It was small change, but it was something to do.

Sadie was a regular on Water Street, the Fourth Ward's main drag and a favorite of sailors and those looking for underworld fun. A travel guide of the day called it the most violent street on the continent; another warned readers absolutely to steer clear after dark. The Fourth Ward Hotel kept a trapdoor to dump corpses into the East River. The street had no shortage of saloons and their unlicensed cousins, called "blind tigers," which served the locals, slumming gentry, and the criminals who preyed on all alike. On the corner of Water and Dover Streets was one of the roughest taverns of all, the Hole-in the-Wall, the favorite basement hangout of Sadie the Goat.

By far the scariest bouncer at the Hole-in-the-Wall was Gallus Mag—a six-foot-plus Englishwoman with a truncheon tied to her wrist and a revolver tucked in her belt. Mag had a unique way of dealing with rowdy drunks: smacking the lout with her truncheon, dragging him to the door with his ear held firmly in her teeth and, if she was in the mood, biting off the ear before tossing its owner into the street. The ears were added to her collection, which she kept in a pickling jar behind the bar. One spring night Sadie ran afoul of Mag, and the next ear in the pickling jar was Sadie's.

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