ineteenth century politics could be a full-contact sport, and some
politicians employed gangs of urban street-toughs to intimidate the rival party’s voters and candidates, to steal or stuff ballot boxes, and to otherwise sway or interrupt the political process to the advantage of their political bosses. The political gangs were rewarded with patronage jobs, at which they would earn a salary for little or no work, or other privileges and compensation.
The Plug Uglies were an urban gang affiliated with the nativist American (or Know-Nothing) party. They were based originally in Baltimore but spread to Washington, D.C., and other cities. In 1857 the Plug Uglies instigated a bloody riot while trying to prevent Irish-Americans from voting in Washington’s municipal elections. Six people were killed and many wounded before the Marines were able to suppress the fighting. (According to one historian, the Plug Uglies took their name from the large plug hats they wore.)
This Vanity Fair cartoon pokes fun at the dispute between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic party in 1860. Their Charleston Convention in April had ended when delegates from the Deep South walked out. Northerners reconvened in Baltimore in June, while Southerners met first in Richmond, then in Baltimore in June, also. The sectional animosity within the party was so fierce that, according to this cartoon, the delegates act as their own Plug Uglies.
Sources consulted: Encyclopedia of the City of New York; Arthur Cole, Irrepressible Conflict; Herbert Asbury, Gangs of New York; Kenneth Stampp, America in 1857; Harper’s Weekly via HarpWeek: The Civil War Era.