William McCarthy was born on February 3, 1843 in New York City. Hazel-eyed, with flaming red hair and a ruddy complexion, William, a Catholic, fit the stereotypical mold of the tough Irishman exactly. William’s parents died when he was just 5 years old, leaving him orphaned and alone in the streets of New York City. He spent the rest of his young life in the orphanage on 73rd Street and Riverside Drive, with hundreds of other parentless children. There, cared for by the women who ran the orphanage, William learned lifelong skills. He was taught reading and writing, and he also learned mechanical skills which enabled him to become a laborer as a young adult. Most importantly, growing up in an orphanage taught William how to survive in tough situations and how to assert himself in a group setting. To get the best chore assignments, to gain favor with the orphanage directors, to be first on line for meals, William had to be tough, relentless, and cunning.
These skills are what he brought with him when he left the orphanage at the age of eighteen. Thrown into the real world, the back alleyways and dark corners of the New York City streets were the harsh reality that William faced, truly alone for the first time in his life. He found a place to rent, small, cramped, and dank, on Water Street, at the lower end of Manhattan. The apartment was not the ideal place to live – it had just one, tiny window, and it was perpetually dirty even when William cleaned it. Since labor work was temporary, William started each day down by the wharf at the lower end of Manhattan, looking for a job for the day, or if he was lucky, for the week. Some days, he would lay bricks for the new tenement building on South Street, other days he would help with work on the ferry docks. Because of the tenacity and the work ethic that William developed in the orphanage, he was able to get more jobs than other laborers. However, in January of 1871, William fell ill. He was unable to work for a few months, and he needed money to pay rent and buy food. He resorted to crime to get by. He pickpocketed people with the ruse of selling papers, along the streets by the wharf. He took their money or their valuables, and sometimes he stole food from the corner stands. In 1871, William was caught and arrested. On March 9, 1871, he was sentenced to one year in Sing Sing prison for petty larceny.