The Lava Beds/ Featherstone Gang of the late 1800s and Downtown Jersey City
By Maureen Wlodarczyk
Super Bowl Sunday did not disappoint this year as Big Blue did Jersey proud. For Gang Green fans, there’s always next year. Speaking of gangs, I want to tell you the story of a very different gang of men, the criminal kind, that roamed the streets of Jersey City in the 1800s.
While New York had its infamous gangs like those depicted in the memorable film, Gangs of New York, its neighbor was no different. In the 19th century, Jersey City was home to many gangs who claimed specific streets and neighborhoods as their turf. These hoodlums instilled fear in residents and business owners, committing robbery, burglary, assault, extortion and even murder. Those they victimized were afraid to testify against them, making it difficult for law enforcement to arrest and incarcerate them. One of the worst of these Jersey City gangs was the Lava Beds, also known as the Featherstone gang, which operated in what was then the Sixth Ward, a poor immigrant neighborhood.
The Featherstone boys were the sons of Michael and Catherine Ivers Featherstone, born in Ireland in the 1830s. Survivors of the Irish Famine, they arrived in New Jersey in the 1860s and were parents to six sons and a daughter. The family lived in rented rooms in Jersey City in the 400-block of First Street.
The seven Featherstone children cut their teeth in that tough Sixth Ward neighborhood and nothing good came from the lessons they learned there. The older Featherstone boys were petty thieves before the age of ten and soon graduated to robbery and larceny. In their mid-teens, the four oldest boys became the heart of the Lava Beds gang.
In 1880, when the census-taker made his way down First Street interviewing each family, most of them, including the Featherstone family of nine, were headed by Irish immigrants. Michael Featherstone Sr. was listed as a laborer and his wife as “keeping house.” Sons James, 18, and Michael Jr., 16, were listed as “in Reform School” at Jamesburg.
The Lava Beds and other gangs in Jersey City created a pervasive climate of fear in poor neighborhoods. Mothers were afraid to let their children play outside for fear of violence or their young boys being recruited by gang members. Women were accosted on the street and became victim to lewd remarks and even sexual overtures and assaults by these brazen gang members, making it unsafe to go out alone even in the daytime hours. The Lava Beds, like so many criminal gangs before and after them, operated in their own backyard . . . literally . . . preying on and brutalizing their “own kind,” ethnically and economically. Utterly without a moral compass or conscience, they passed the time and amused themselves by stealing socks one minute and beating a pregnant woman nearly to death the next.
Police raids, repetitive arrests and incarcerations notwithstanding, the Featherstone boys rode the revolving door of justice like a carousel, moving in and out of the judicial and prison systems time and time again. They no sooner were released than were back at it again – thieving, breaking and entering, assaulting, vandalizing, extorting businesses and the like. The New York Herald followed the escapades of the Lava Beds and the Featherstones, describing them as the “most persistent and notorious gang of law breakers that the Jersey City police have to deal with” and saying that although half the gang was then in State Prison for crimes including highway robbery and burglary, “they manage, however, to recruit for their ranks and fill the places made vacant by the retirement of the veterans to prison.” By the late 1880s, the Featherstones had been terrorizing the Sixth Ward for the better part of a decade and reportedly had no “home,” just drifting around the neighborhood, living as squatters in vacant apartments.
In the succeeding decade from 1889 on, the headlines kept coming, even as the four oldest Featherstones passed through their twenties, thirties and early forties. Assault, battery, burglary, larceny, robbery and all manner of mayhem were recounted in newspapers of the day. After that, the trail goes cold and I found no trace of the Featherstone “boys” in local census or other public records. Persistent, pernicious predators, they may have fled the area to avoid arrest or ended up as non-descript dead in the streets and alleys they haunted, falling victim to the excesses of their wasted lives.
Maureen Wlodarczyk is a fourth-generation-born Jersey City girl and the author of three books about life in Jersey City in the 1800s and early 1900s: Past-Forward: A Three-Decade and Three-Thousand-Mile Journey Home, Young & Wicked: The Death of a Wayward Girl and Canary in a Cage: The Smith-Bennett Murder Case. For info: www.past-forward.com.