“Goodbye, boys, I die a true American.” So went the apocryphal last words of Bill “The Butcher” Poole as he died on March 8, 1855. He’d been fatally shot in the heart, but he’d hung on for another 11 days, presumably to think of something totally metal to say.
Born in New Jersey in 1821, William Poole had by the 1850s become known in Manhattan as a butcher, a boxer, a gang leader and a political enforcer for the local nativist political party — the Know-Nothings — to which he was attracted because of his virulent hatred of Irish-Catholic immigrants. He rose to prominence through an alliance with Capt. Isaiah Rynders, a former U.S. Marshal, riverboat gambler and knife fighter who ran his political organization, the Americus Club, from a riverside bar. After announcing that he and his Americus men planned to seize the ballot boxes in an upcoming election, Poole’s rush on the polls was stymied only by a 50-man force financed by Tammany Hall. Subsequently, he became engaged in an escalating and progressively bloodier rivalry with Tammany’s chief agent, prizefighter (and future congressman) John Morrissey. It came to a head when a fracas erupted between Poole and some of Morrissey’s men, one of whom shot an unarmed Bill Poole in the leg and, after the Butcher had collapsed to his knees, unloaded the pistol into his chest. In a hero’s funeral, Poole was carried at the head of a procession of 5,000 men down a crowd-lined Broadway. His widely publicized last words inspired New York’s theater community to write new plays quickly and to revise their current productions to include wildly popular conclusions in which the hero, draped in an American flag, would cry, “Goodbye, boys, I die a true American!”
So why would I consciously adopt this sort of sentiment as my own? I’m not particularly sympathetic to Poole’s nativism; I’m half-Catholic, of which I’m sure he’d disapprove. His ideas about political organization were groundbreaking, but only in their inventive and violent approach to subverting democracy. With all due respect to Barry Goldwater, I’m not going to tell you that proto-fascist thuggery in the defense of liberty is no vice. It’s a vice. And it’s a double-vice if you’re beating up the Irish to keep them from voting. Let’s not kid ourselves: Poole was a racist, anti-democratic criminal.
Thing is, though, here at Yale, we have a political climate maybe an inch or two to the left of center — not sure if you’ve heard. Nick Shalek’s election as alderman last year was fascinating, not because I care about aldermanic politics (I don’t), but because it provided a breakdown of Yale’s political sentiment. Rebecca Livengood, who represented the far left of Yale’s political spectrum, took 46 percent of the vote; Shalek, who had the votes of everyone to the right of that, from center-left to far right, took only 54 percent.
My political views hover on the right-most end of Yale’s political discourse, and I’m not even that conservative. (F’reals, guys.) With this column, I want to sensibly articulate a center-right outlook on Yale’s and the nation’s issues. I plan on addressing a wide assortment of issues that affect us as Yalies and as Americans, from whatever I complained to my roommates about at dinner on Wednesday to whatever I complained to my roommates about at lunch on Thursday. (Just kidding, I have a plan.) (Just kidding, no plan.) And if I’m a little strident in my humor, it’s not because I don’t like the folks with whom I disagree — I just want people to be able to read columns that don’t make them feel like the two halves of their brain are fighting to the death. (My money’s on Right Half.)
And I imagine that along the way, some people’ll tag me as a racist, a xenophobe, a fascist, a Neanderthal or, I dunno, a pirate, which is why I went with my column’s title. Because if I’m going to be pinned down as a thug, I might as well enjoy it. This way, regardless of whether I win the argument, I know I’ll at least have a good closing line before I go down wrapped up in the American flag.
Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College. This is his first regular column.