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When Is A Thug Not a Thug? A Lesson in Evidence-Based History

I really thought I had a great piece of history to share with you today. But I don’t. I could have, but it didn’t work out how I had thought it would. Let me explain.

While reading the book After Lincoln by A.J. Langguth, I came across a line about The Southern Cross Association, a secret anti-black society in New Orleans largely responsible for the 1866 massacre at Mechanics’ Institute. Specifically:

A Know-Nothing Flag from a time when 'Native American' meant 'white people who moved here before those other white people moved here.'
A Know-Nothing Flag from a time when ‘Native American’ meant ‘white people who moved here before those other white people moved here.’

“The association harked back to a prewar New Orleans group formed by the Know-Nothing Party and known simply as ‘Thugs.’ In disguises and carrying brass knuckles, Thugs had stormed into immigrant neighborhood to scare off potential voters.” 1A.J. Langguth, After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace (Simon & Schuster, 2014) 147.

I’m a huge fan of irony. With the recent shift in our lexicon of the word “thug” from any senselessly violent person to a racially-charged substitute for the N-word, I thought I had struck something fascinating. How fitting would it be for the newly-redefined epithet to have once been the formal name of a white supremacist organization?

And so I sat down to further research just that subject. With some very preliminary poking around, I discovered testimony of Joseph L. Montieu given at the House hearings on the New Orleans massacre. Montieu, a black “chronometer maker” who had lived all his life in that city, had told the assembled committee that the same men who murdered well over 200 black people were “men that we have always known as Thugs.”

Montieu continued, explaining “that name [Thugs] is always understood here. At the time of the Know-nothing party those men used to go and kill people and commit different disorders.” 2Joseph L. Montieu, “Testimony of Joseph L. Montieu” in The Reports of the Committees of the House of Representatives, Made During the Second Session Thirty-Ninth Congress, 1866-67, (Government Printing Office, 1867) 95.

The capitalization, used also in After Lincoln, seemed to support the thesis that there was a group who named themselves Thugs. And while I wasn’t really aware of such an anti-black position from the Know-Nothing Party, I figured that since New Orleans was a pretty racially complex city, it was at least possible, especially considering what happened after the war.

A detail from Thomas Nast's 1867 painting The Massacre at New Orleans.
A detail from Thomas Nast’s 1867 painting The Massacre at New Orleans.

Both After Lincoln and Montieu’s testimony referred to the Thugs existing around 1854-55. During and following the war, especially at the time of the New Orleans Riot, the moniker seemed to have worn off. Of course, now many of them were simply called the police.

This was even more interesting. Not only did a white supremacist organization call themselves the Thugs, but they ended up being police officers responsible for the murder of black people demanding the right to vote. The story and thesis were working out just perfectly.

I then turned to James G. Hollandsworth Jr.’s An Absolute Massacre hoping to find some background information on these Thugs. I had read his Pretense of Glory, about Nathaniel Banks, and trusted him as a scholar who knew how to properly parse original sources.

It was my trust in him that made me first question myself. He too referenced these New Orleans bullies: “Called ‘thugs’ by respectable citizens who considered them to represent ‘the low, ruffian, rowdy class, which all large cities have,’ they were political mercenaries who could be counted on to intimidate, beat, or even murder a man to keep him from voting.” 3James G. Hollandsworth, An Absolutely Massacre (Louisiana State University Press, 2004) 73.

The lower case “thugs” gave me pause. Knowing Hollandsworth’s work, and being fairly unfamiliar with Langguth’s After Lincoln, I decided that I needed to dig a bit deeper. What if these violent types were merely called thugs rather than named Thugs?

The word “thug” was actually handed down to us from Sanskrit’s sthagati, which became ṭhag or thugna in Hindi, meaning “to deceive.” The term was westernized in the early 1800s as new of “a sect of assassins in India, now exterminated by the British government” came first to England and then to the United States. In all references to these earlier Indian and English Thugs, the proper noun and capitalization was used. 4George Ripley, ed. The American Cyclopaedia, Volume 15 (D. Appleton and Company, 1883. I wanted to find a definition dating back to around the time of the Civil War – this was as close as I could get. More modern sources mostly agree.

An 1800s Indian painting depicting Thugs giving the worse neck massage ever.
An 1800s Indian painting depicting Thugs giving the worse neck massage ever.

In his few sentences about the New Orleans “thugs,” Hollandsworth referenced another passage from the testimony before the House Committee. In this bit, Nathaniel Page, a cotton and sugar planter who traveled with General Banks to New Orleans in 1863, spoke to them of the city’s mayor who “impressed northern men as always having been popular with a class denominated ‘thugs’,” explaining that “his strength is in that element.” 5Nathaniel Page, “Testimony of Nathaniel Page” in The Reports of the Committees of the House of Representatives, Made During the Second Session Thirty-Ninth Congress, 1866-67, (Government Printing Office, 1867) 504-505.

This man spoke of the thugs as a “class,” and “element,” rather than some official organization. And so I had a decision to make.

While one primary source indicated that there was an organization known as Thugs, another seemed to be saying that it was merely a lowly and violent class of people. Looking through the hundreds of pages of testimony on the New Orleans Riots, I saw oodles of references to both Thugs and thugs (as well as Thug and thug).

The testimonies of Edward P. Brooks, H.C. Warmouth, Ezra Heistand, W.R. Fish, and many others used the term “Thugs”, while R. F. Daunoy, Albert Pitman, J. Madison Wells (Governor of Louisiana), and Thomas W. Conway, instead used “thugs.” In both cases, some of the testimony was personally written by those giving it, and both “Thugs” and “thugs” are pretty evenly represented.

Use Know-Nothing Soap to scrub America the right kind of white. ( From 1854, LoC)
Use Know-Nothing Soap to scrub America the right kind of white. ( From 1854, LoC)

The decision I now had to make was this: I could continue with my thesis as I had planned or I could scrap it. The evidence that there was an organization officially termed the “Thugs” was there, even in writing from officials and residents of New Orleans. I also had the backing of at least one modern historian. For a lowly blog such as this, that could be enough.

And what a fun and ironic tale it would make! A group of white supremacists who became cops calling themselves Thugs and murdering black people is wonderfully sensational copy! It’s a twisted bit of juxtaposition that would fit well within the milieu of this blog.

But this would be giving into two different kinds of bias. First, if I would have brushed aside the “thugs” references, as well as Hollandsworth’s book, I would have been overcome by confirmation bias, interpreting the sources and testimony according to my original thesis. Also, if I had stopped and been satisfied with that, I’d have been guilty of congruence bias, refusing to test my seemingly-proven thesis against whatever else I could find – in this case, the numerous references to “thugs”.

Of course, at this point, if I would have simply ignored the evidence proving that my original idea was wrong, I’d simply be lying. That’s not just bad history, that’s nasty living.

Instead, (and needing something to write about) I thought I’d turn it into a teachable moment. When you have a theory or idea that you believe to be the truth, don’t just look for sources that support you, but look for sources that prove you wrong. You must employ critical thinking and weigh the evidence fairly. Even if you are wrong and your entire idea is blown to hell, in the end you’re still right. First because you made the correct decision, and second because you now know the correct answer.

And that’s the whole point of studying history – not to simply prop up your own biases and beliefs, but to discover what actually happened.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

2 thoughts on “When Is A Thug Not a Thug? A Lesson in Evidence-Based History

  1. Bravo! While not as clickbait-y (?!) as the original post idea might have been, this post confirms the focus of the blog, illustrates the importance of always testing ideas against new evidence and, most importantly, confirms your integrity to us all (not that such confirmation was needed, but always good to see)

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