One fine May Manhattan day in 1858 Richard Barry—school commissioner, board of education member and city councilman—decided to while away some time carousing with prostitutes at a Bordello on Howard Street in what is now known as SoHo.
At that time the neighborhood was transforming itself into the City’s first Red Light District, with new houses of assignation popping up on almost a daily basis.
Barry, who apparently thought nothing of spending a Monday in a whorehouse, had his fun and left, but soon came storming back, screaming about being robbed of $20 by one of the working girls. He threatened and cajoled Philip Wolfe, the owner of the establishment, but Wolfe just ignored him. Barry vowed vengeance, which he got about a half-hour later.
Barry—who represented the Sixth Ward on matters of education—returned with three representatives of the Dead Rabbits, a Sixth Ward gang, and soon educated Wolfe on how denizens of that ward settled disputes. He hit Wolfe on the head with a decanter and proceeded to pummel him into a bloody mess, with the help of the gang members. Adding insult to injury, they stole $100 from Wolfe before leaving.
Wolfe, after recovering enough to speak with police, said he believed Barry would have killed him if not for the aid of other pleasure seekers in his establishment coming to his aid.
The 14th Ward police arrived as they were leaving and arrested Barry and a volunteer fireman (and Dead Rabbit) Patrick Burk. The two other gang members, John Thompson and John Chase were arrested later after trying to pass a counterfeit two-dollar bill at a nearby bar. One of them pulled a knife on the arresting officer and would have gotten away if not for some concerned citizens who collared the pair.
Barry, Chase and Burk bailed out of jail, leaving Thompson—apparently moneyless and friendless—to stew in the Tombs, the City’s underground jail.
The BOE member was indicted for first-degree assault, to which he pleaded guilty before Judge George G, Barnard.
Barnard, a flamboyant man from a wealthy New York family, had spent his younger days prospecting for gold in California and performing in minstrel shows, among other pursuits, before settling down to practice law back home.
When Barry came before him he told him that he had received between 100 and 150 letters from “prominent and influential men” asking for leniency, but, said the judge, he had hundreds of poor men without money, friends or influence who he sentenced to prison for similar crimes. So he sentenced him to four months in prison.
“A fine would be inadequate and imprisonment seems to be the only remedy to the recurrence of scenes like this,” he told Barry, who was shocked that he was going to have to do time for simply beating a whorehouse proprietor within an inch of his life.
It’s hard to reconcile this image of Barnard as an impartial jurist and later descriptions of him as a scoundrel in the pocket of both the Tweed Ring and the Robber Barons, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt. Barnard would allegedly whittle twigs and swig brandy in his courtroom. He was indeed later impeached, but like many public figures who fall from grace in the public eye, it’s possible that the judge’s defects are all that remain to history.