The Peter Funks And Their Functions
Not many years ago, a dignified and reverend man, whose name is well
known to me, was walking sedately down Broadway. He was dressed in
clerical garb of black garments and white neckcloth. He was a man of
great learning, profound thought, long experience, unaffected piety, and
pure and high reputation.
All at once, a kind of chattering shout smote him fair in the left ear:
e shall I have? Narfnarfnarfnarfnarf! Going at two
and a half! Gone!!"
And the grave divine, pausing, beheld a doorway, over which waved a
little red flag. Within, a company of eager bidders thronged around an
auctioneer's stand; and the auctioneer himself, a well-dressed man with
a highly respectable look, was just handing over to the delighted
purchaser a gold watch.
"It would be cheap at one hundred dollars," said he, in a despondent
tone. "It's mere robbery to sell it for that price. I'd buy it myself if
And while the others, with exclamations of surprise and congratulation,
crowded to see this famous purchase, and the buyer exhibited it with a
joyful countenance close by the door, the divine, just out of curiosity,
stepped in. He owned no watch; he was a country clergyman, and poor in
this world's goods; so poor that, to use a familiar phrase, "if
steamboats were selling at a dime a piece, he would hardly be able to
buy a gang-plank." But what if he could, by good luck, buy a good gold
watch for two dollars and a half in this wonderful city!
Somehow, that watch was snapped open and closed again right under his
ministerial nose about six times. The auctioneer held up another of
exactly the same kind, and began to chatter again.
"Now gentlemen, what 'moffered f'this first-class M. I. Tobias gold
English lever watch--full jeweled, compensation-balance,
anchor-escapement, hunting case? One, did I hear? Say two cents, wont
yer? Two and a half! narfnarfnarfnarfnarf and a half! Two and a half,
and three quarters. Thank you, Sir," to a sailor-like man in the corner.
"Three," said a tall and well-dressed young gentleman with short hair,
near the clergyman, adding, in an undertone, "I can sell it for fifty
"Three I am offered," says Mr. Auctioneer, and chattered on as before:
"And a half, did you say, Sir? Thank you, Sir. And a halfnarfnarf!"
The reverend divine had said, "And a half." The Peter Funks had got him!
But he didn't find it out quite yet. The bidding was run up to four
dollars; the clergyman took the watch, opened and examined it; was
convinced, handed it back, ventured another half, and the watch was
knocked down to him. The auctioneer fumbled in some papers, and, in a
moment, handed him his bargain neatly done up.
"This way to the clerk's office if you please, Sir," he added, with a
civil bow. The clergyman passed a little further in; and while the sales
proceeded behind him, the clerk made out a bill and proffered it.
"Fifty-four dollars and a half!" read the country divine, astounded.
"Four and a half is what I bid!"
"Four and a half!" exclaimed the clerk, with sarcastic indignation;
"Four dollars and a half! A pretty story! A minister to have the face to
say he could buy an M. I. Tobias gold watch, full jeweled, for four
dollars and a half! Ill thank you for the money, Sir. Fifty-four, fifty,
if you please."
The auctioneer, as if interrupted by the loud tones of the indignant
clerk, stopped the sale to see what was the matter. On hearing the
statement of the two parties, he cast a glance of angry contempt upon
the poor clergyman, who, by this time, was uneasy enough at their
scowling faces. Then, as if relenting, he said half-sneeringly:
"I don't think you look very well in this business, Sir. But you are
evidently a clergyman, and we wish everybody to have fair treatment in
this office. We won't be imposed upon, Sir, by any man!" (Here his face
darkened, and his fists could be seen to clench with much meaning.) "Pay
that money, Sir! This establishment is not to be humbugged. But you
needn't be afraid of losing anything. You may let me take the watch and
sell it for you again on the spot. Very likely you can get more for it.
You can't lose. The clergyman hesitated. The tall and well-dressed young
man with short hair pushed up and said:
"Don't want it? Put her up again. G--! I'd like another chance myself!"
A heavily-built fellow with one eye, observed over the auctioneer's
shoulder, with an evil look at the divine, "D--d if I don't believe that
cuss is a gambler, come in here to fool us country-folks. They allus
wears white neckcloths. I say, search him and boot him out of the shop!"
"Hold your tongue!" answered the auctioneer, with dignity. "I will see
you safe, Sir," to the clergyman. "But you bid that money, and you must
pay it. We can't do this business on any other principles."
"You will sell it for me again at once?" asked the poor minister.
"Certainly," said the mollified auctioneer. And the humbugged divine,
with an indistinct sense of something wrong, but not able to tell what,
took out forty dollars from his lean wallet and handed it to the clerk.
"It's all I have to get home with," he said, simply.
"Never fear, old gentleman," said the clerk, affably; "You'll be all
right in two minutes."
The watch was put up again. The clergyman, scarce able to believe his
ears, heard it rapidly run up to sixty dollars and knocked down at that
price. The cash was handed to the clerk, and another bill made out; ten
per cent., deducted, commission on sales. "Usual terms, Sir," observed
the clerk, handing over the notes just received for the watch. And the
divine, very thankful to get off for half a dollar, hurried off as fast
as he could.
I need not say that his fifty-four dollars was all counterfeit money.
When he went next morning, after endeavoring in vain to part with his
new funds, to find the place where he had been humbugged, it was close
shut, and he could hardly identify even the doorway. He went to the
police, and the shrewd captain told him that it was a difficult
business; but sent an officer with him to look up the rascals. Officer
found one; demanded redress; clergyman did the same. Rascal asked
clergyman's name; got it; told him he could prosecute if he liked.
Clergyman looked at officer; officer, with indifference, observed:
"Means to stick your name in the papers."
Clergyman said he would take further advice; did take it; thought he
wouldn't be shown up as a "greeny" in the police reports; borrowed money
enough to get home with, and if he has a gold watch now--which I really
hope he has--got it either for its real value, or as a "testimonial."
There, that (with many variations) is the whole story of Peter Funk.
These "mock auctioneers," sometimes, as in the case I have mentioned,
take advantage of the respectability of their victims, sometimes of
their haste to leave the city on business. When they could not possibly
avoid it, they disgorged their prey. No instance is known to me of any
legal penalty being inflicted on them by a magistrate; but they were
always, until 1862, treated by police, by magistrate, and by mayor, just
as thieves would be who should always be let off on returning their
stealings; so that they could not lose by thieving, and might gain.
These rascally mock-auctioneers, thus protected by the authorities, used
to fleece the public out of not less than sixty thousand dollars a year.
One of them cleared twelve thousand dollars during the year 1861 alone.
And this totally shameless and brazen-faced humbug flourished in New
York for twenty-five years!
About the first day of June, 1862, the Peter Funks had eleven dens, or
traps, in operation in New York; five in Broadway below Fulton street,
and the others in Park row, and Courtlandt, Greenwich, and Chatham
The name, Peter Funk, is said to have been that of the founder of their
system; but I know nothing more of his career. At this date, in 1862,
the system was in a high state of organization and success, and included
the following constituents:
1. Eight chief Funks, or capitalists, and managers, whose names are well
enough known. I have them on record.
2. About as many more salesmen, who took turns with the chiefs in
selling and clerking.
3. Seventy or eighty, rank and file, or ropers-in. These acted the part
of buyers, like the purchaser whose delight over his watch helped to
deceive the minister and the other bidders on that occasion. These
fellows dressed up as countrymen, sailors, and persons of miscellaneous
respectability. They bid and talked when that was sufficient, or helped
the managers thrash any troublesome person, if necessary. Once in a long
time they met their match; as, for instance, when the mate of a ship
brought up a squad of his crew, burst into one of their dens, and beat
and battered up the whole gang within an inch of their lives. But, in
most cases, the reckless infamy of these dregs of city vice gave them an
immense advantage over a decent citizen; for they could not be defiled
nor made ridiculous, and he could.
4. Two or three traders in cheap jewelry and fancy-goods supplied the
Funks with their wares. One of these fellows used to sell them fifty or
a hundred dollars' worth of this trash a day; and he lamented as much
over their untimely end as the Ephesian silversmiths did over the loss
of their trade in shrines.
5. A lawyer received a regular salary of $1,200 a year to defend all the
6. The city politicians, in office and out of it, who were wont to
receive the aid of the Funks (a very energetic cohort) at elections, and
who in return unscrupulously used both power and influence to keep them
All this cunning machinery was brought to naught and New York relieved
of a shame and a pest by the courage, energy, perseverance, and good
sense of one Yankee officer--Russell Wells, a policeman. Mr. Wells took
about six months to finish up his work. He began it of his own accord,
finding that the spirit of the police regulations required it;
prosecuted the undertaking without fear or favor, finding not very much
support from the judicial authorities, and sometimes actual and direct
discouragement. His method was to mount guard over one auction shop at a
time, and warn all whom he saw going in, and to follow up all complaints
to the utmost until that shop was closed, when he laid siege to another.
Various offers of money, direct and indirect, were made him. One fellow
offered him $500 to walk on the other side of the street. Another
offered him $1,000 to drop the undertaking. Another hinted at a regular
salary of hush-money, saying "he had now got these fellows where he
could make as much out of them as he wanted to, right along."
Sometimes they threatened him with "murder and sudden death." Several
times they got out an injunction upon him, and several times sued him
for slander. One of their complaints charged, with ludicrous hypocrisy,
that the defendant, "with malicious intent, stood round the door
uttering slanderous charges against the good name, fame, and credit of
the defendant," just as foolish old lawyers used to argue that "the
greater the truth the greater the libel." Sometimes they argued and
indignantly denounced. One of them told him, "he was a thief and a
murderer, driving men out of employment whose wives and children
depended on their business for support."
Another contended that their business was just as fair as that of the
stock-operators in Wall street. I fear that wasn't making out much of a
But their threats were idle; their suits, and prosecutions, and
injunctions, never came to a head; their bribes did not operate. The
officer, imperturbably good-natured, but horribly diligent, watched, and
warned, and hunted, and complained, and squeezed back their money at the
rate of $500 or $1,000 every month, until they were perfectly sickened.
One by one they shut up shop. One went to his farm, another to his
merchandise, another to emigrant running, another (known by the elegant
surname of Blur-eye Thompson) to raising recruits, several into the
bounty jumping business.
Such was the life and death of an outrageous humbug and nuisance, whose
like was not to be found in any other city on earth; and would not have
been endured in any except this careless, money-getting, misgoverned one
of New York.