The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld 
by Herbert Asbury.
Arrow, 366 pp., £6.99, January 2003, 0 09 943674 4
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Gangs of New York 
directed by Martin Scorsese.
December 2002
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Under the headline ‘The Dead Rabbits Immortalised’, the New York Evening Post reported on 10 July 1857 that a one-penny song sheet was selling feverishly ‘in the lower part of the city’. Written by ‘Saugerties Bard’ and to be sung to the popular Dan Emmett minstrel tune ‘Jordan’, it began:

They had a dreadful fight upon last Saturday night,
The papers gave the news accordin’;
Guns, pistols, clubs and sticks, hot water
and old bricks,
Which drove them on the other side of Jordan.
Then pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
For Bayard is a hard street to travel;
So pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
The Bloody Sixth is a hard ward to travel I believe.

The 4 July Dead Rabbit-Bowery Boy Riot in the infamous Five Points slum district in the heart of the equally notorious ‘bloody ould’ Sixth Ward of lower Manhattan capped a long struggle between Mayor Fernando Wood and the Republican-dominated New York State legislature. At issue were a stringent new temperance law and a state-controlled police department, both designed in part to undermine the corrupt Democratic mayor’s power base: Irish immigrants and the saloons that were their essential political institution. A state supreme court decision on 3 July in favour of the legislature had seemed to mark the end of local misrule. But the riot that occurred late in the afternoon of the following day, resulting in 12 deaths and at least 37 injuries, shed light on the violent groups that peppered working-class communities and provided the foot soldiers for New York’s Democratic Party.

Most subsequent accounts construed the Dead Rabbit-Bowery Boy Riot as the most violent in a string of battles between Irish and nativist gangs and an extension of the struggle between Mayor Wood and the politicians in Albany. In this view, the Irish Dead Rabbits stood in for the Mayor while the nativist Bowery Boys were surrogates for the new Metropolitan Police. Whatever the interpretation – the most recent, in Tyler Anbinder’s meticulous Five Points,* convincingly argues that the Bowery Boys gang was neither nativist nor anti-Wood (it may have had Irish members) and that its momentary support of the state police was due to internecine Democratic rivalries – the 1857 riot has been taken to be emblematic of a lawless and brutal era. As with other moments of civil unrest, an extraordinarily violent incident came to be seen as representative of the everyday.

Even so it’s safe to say that, until this December, few people knew about the riot or the gangs that composed the lower echelons of New York politics. Even before the events of 1857 had faded from the memory of contemporaries, overshadowed by the Civil War and the traumatic events of the 1863 Draft Riots, police reports and press coverage generated a fog of rumour and innuendo that mesmerised and confused later chroniclers. Among the distortions was the notion of the huge and vicious Dead Rabbits gang. After failing to subdue the riot, the police may have renamed the pro-Wood Roche (or Roach) Guard, giving it a more forbidding name in order to exaggerate the adversity they had faced; or, along with reporters, they may have mistaken an ominous vernacular term for an actual gang. In the street ‘flash’ of the day, a ‘dead rabbit’ meant a ‘very athletic, rowdy fellow’, and thanks to Daniel Cassidy of the New College of California we now know that this is an Anglicisation of the Irish phrase ‘dod raibead’, which has the same meaning. Along with sensational accounts of the Dead Rabbits’ exploits, the invented gang name outlasted the squalid neighbourhood that had supposedly spawned such mayhem. Five Points was built over the soupy landfill that had once been a polluted lake, and Charles Dickens observed during the 1840s that ‘all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.’ The mysterious name merely denoted the intersection of Baxter, Worth and Park Streets, now buried beneath the city courts.

The Points have had many chroniclers, from mid-century penny-press reporters, Protestant missionaries and ‘sunshine and shadow’ city guide authors to Gilded Age and Progressive Era reformers, turn-of-the-century dime novelists and reporters, and Herbert Asbury, a lapsed Methodist Missourian turned New York reporter. Asbury’s The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, published in 1928, vigorously narrated an unbroken chain of criminality extending from the 1830s to the 1920s – more or less concomitant, in other words, with the arrival of the Irish. Bearing the anti-immigrant odour of its decade (which recent apologists seem to forgive in the name of art), the book described the Dead Rabbits as ‘the largest and most powerful of the gangs’, whose reign extended over many city administrations and which included in its ranks brutal warriors and monstrous amazons. Prominent among the latter in the 1840s was ‘an angular vixen known as Hell-Cat Maggie’, who ‘filed her front teeth to points, while on her fingers she wore long artificial nails, constructed of brass’, making the toughest Bowery Boy’s blood run cold when she ‘screeched her battle cry and rushed biting and clawing into the midst of a mass of opposing gangsters’.

Martin Scorsese’s Little Italy childhood was spent a short distance from the no-longer Points, and though the stories in Asbury’s book started a thirty-year obsession to transform The Gangs of New York into Gangs of New York, what made it to the screen reflects less the book’s lore than its pervasive atmosphere of anarchy, corruption, brutality, criminality and violence; in short, what too many Americans’ notion of poverty is all about. Asbury, I think, would have been pleased by the result (though perhaps not with his credit: after the film’s first screening in an Upper West Side theatre, my wife was accosted in the restroom by an irate elderly woman who explained that Asbury had been a family friend and that she wanted someone to know what an ingrate Mr Scorsese was for giving the author only an ‘inspired by’ acknowledgment in very small type on the very last card in the final credits).

The film begins in 1846 with a monumental street battle to decide ‘who will hold sway over the Five Points.’ The contest ends with the death of ‘Priest’ Vallon, the leader of the Dead Rabbits, at the hands of the viciously racist leader of the Native Americans, Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). With the triumph of the nativist gang (adorned and equipped, like their adversaries, in Braveheart meets Mad Max style), the Rabbits are outlawed and Priest’s young son, Amsterdam Vallon (soon to be Leonardo DiCaprio), is bundled off to a reformatory. In 1862, during the Civil War, the grown-up Vallon returns to the unchanged frontier town of Five Points, still run with an iron cleaver by Butcher Bill. Vallon has vengeance in his heart, and there is a long Hamlet period of indecision as he insinuates himself into the Butcher’s company. When Vallon’s treachery is eventually revealed he is nearly killed by the Butcher, but after making a miraculous recovery he reorganises the Dead Rabbits into a multiracial, co-ed association, rebuilds and defends the Catholic Church from Bill’s marauders, and fields the first Irish Catholic elected official. When this man, the sheriff no less, is murdered by the irrepressible Bill, the stage is set for a final showdown in the Points between the resurrected Rabbits and their longtime foe, a battle that happens to coincide with the Draft Riots. These riots, most of the participants in which were Irish, began as a protest against conscription, and the inequity of the fact that exemption could be purchased for $300, and escalated into race riots against Lincoln’s increasingly anti-slavery policies. The film’s finale, which depicts the gang battle simultaneously with the Riots, and with a naval bombardment of the Five Points from the harbour (which never happened), is a confused mess, but is intended to show that this semi-feudal urban world ended in 1863.

The few historical figures introduced to bolster the movie’s plot – the future Tammany Hall boss William M. Tweed, Archbishop John Hughes and the showman P.T. Barnum – are either transported backwards in time or engage in alliances with gangs that defy the actual marginality of these gangs within the class and power structure of the mid-century city. As for Gangs of New York’s transliteration of the Points’ social and cultural history, the list of transgressions is vast – but let me get two off my chest. While prostitution was prevalent in the Points, the city’s red-light district, in the film there are no other forms of employment (save petty thievery) for women, not even the selling of hot corn, which was ubiquitous on the city’s streets. As for the Chinese who populate the film in standard American movie silence and inscrutability, they probably totalled 150 men in 1850s New York and lived outside the Sixth Ward.

The telescoping of events and other forms of dramatic licence are inevitable in any fact-based’ film, and historians should make an effort to tolerate them – or, at the very least, to evaluate with an eye to both the medium and the message. As A.O. Scott observed in his paean to the film in the New York Times, Gangs of New York is unusual in shunning ‘the usual triumphalist story of moral progress and enlightenment’, offering instead a vision of the modern world arriving ‘in the form of a line of soldiers firing into a crowd’. Scorsese does portray a class-ridden society, its elites cruelly indifferent to want, its exploited subaltern classes feeding on one another, a mass of predators and victims. But historians have already rejected or substantially revised this way of seeing things. Despite its class consciousness – its cartoon of pompous, dim-witted aristocrats slumming through Paradise Square with a police escort – the movie’s depiction of a degraded, criminal underclass with a brogue bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the sunshine-and-shadow social paradigm espoused by the very pre-Civil War missionaries the film shows bumbling ineffectually about the Points. It’s the equivalent, in cinematic terms, of the anti-urban dystopias of the 1970s and 1980s (Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, The Warriors) in which lumpen hordes overrun the city.

We know a lot more than we used to about mid 19th-century city life. And we have a good idea of what we don’t know, and what can’t be relied on in the myths, lore, popular accounts and historiography. We know that, rather than being an expression of ‘the ancient laws of combat’ cited in the film’s opening carnage, both the gangs and the raucous plebeian culture of the antebellum city emerged out of the exigencies of capitalism and, to some extent, stood in opposition to it. Gangs evolved from loose associations of young journeymen and apprentices who were no longer under their masters’ sway outside the workshop as the customary relations of urban trades crumbled at the close of the 18th century. Identified by neighbourhood, street and especially trade, the number of gangs had proliferated by the Jacksonian era, and their membership often merged with other manly and volatile voluntary associations such as fire, target and militia companies. For many young men the gangs symbolised resistance to a world of permanent wage labour and their ranks often included the mechanics least affected by industrialisation, such as butchers.

Gangs weren’t just a New York phenomenon – those in Philadelphia and Baltimore were equally notorious – and, contrary to Asbury, were usually short-lived and only nominally criminal. But nowhere else did they gain such a strong institutional foothold in grassroots politics. With ward politics dominated by struggles for supremacy among factional leaders, the outcomes of primaries and elections were determined by which faction had the most and toughest fighters, and the Irish – who in the film’s taxonomy are political naifs in 1863, seemingly bringing from their homeland only vague resentments and bad accents – in fact made inroads into the nativist-controlled ranks of the Democratic Party in the decades before the Civil War. This involvement proved an effective way to redress inequalities, and provided access to power, as well as a chance to get ahead. In time, the ‘reign’ of the political gang ended, but not as the film suggests because of the Draft Riots. Around the time of the Civil War, Tammany Hall consolidated its control of the Democratic Party and began to modernise its ‘machine’, establishing a hierarchical power structure that took control of the wards. The factional struggles that had made gangs critical to local politics subsided.

During the heyday of the political gangs, however, the level of violence – particularly when matters of honour and allegiance were at stake – could be shocking. The real Bill ‘The Butcher’ Poole, who was murdered in 1855, did not actually hack off ears (he apparently left the tools of his trade at home), but he was known for sudden brutal attacks. Great damage could be done with brickbats, clubs and fists, the standard weaponry in a gang fight, but fatalities were not frequent until the mid-century, and the manufacture and distribution of cheap handguns (the reason for the high mortality rate in the 1857 riot). The cleavers, axes, maces and other imaginative cutlery displayed in Gangs of New York’s street fights, and the resulting mutilations and body counts (not to mention Bill’s bellowed instructions that ‘ears and noses are the tributes of the day’), trump even Asbury’s lurid descriptions.

In Scorsese’s violent world – he shows a public hanging (the last one was actually in 1835), at least three corpses in Paradise Square (one an Irish policeman trussed and mock-crucified on a lamppost), and the murder of a newly elected public official witnessed by a host of extras – life is cheap: it usually is in characterisations of the condition of the poor. Not one of the deaths depicted in the film is seen to have a consequence; there is not even a token arrest. There was police corruption, but the annual murder rate hovered around thirty for the whole city, and while the Sixth Ward had more per capita arrests than any other, they mainly involved drunkenness, disorderly conduct, vagrancy and prostitution. On the other hand, as Carol Groneman revealed in her important (though unpublished) 1973 study, the death rate among children in the ward was horrific, claiming one out of every three children under the age of five. And Irishmen, who typically took on hazardous manual and construction work, also ran a high risk of premature death: the longer an Irish family lived in New York the greater was the likelihood that it would be headed by a woman.

Whatever Gangs of New York’s blithe approach to the historical record, the film’s production design, supervised by Dante Ferretti, has received almost universal acclaim: the sets anchor a flawed story in a convincingly detailed physical world. The now legendary Five Points set constructed in the grounds of the Cinecittà studios in Rome is stunning. For those familiar with the engravings, lithographs and such photographs as there are of the 19th-century Five Points, there are entertaining visual quotes throughout the film: for example, in a tracking point-of-view shot, the camera glides through a narrow, clapboard-walled alley filled with slouching toughs, which has a striking similarity to the Mulberry Street cul-de-sac shown in Jacob Riis’s famous (albeit 1888) photograph ‘Bandit’s Roost’.

But Scorsese chooses to populate his landscape with an almost constant charivari of leering prostitutes, preening bullyboys, stiff corpses and scampering children – taking the moral narratives of reform tract engravings and their British inspirations (notably Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane prints) as the source for his vision of urban poverty. But for all the exterior bustle, pigs and strewn trash, we never see where anyone lives; there isn’t even a suggestion of the congested back tenements with their tiny, airless two-room compartments which housed family, kin and lodgers. The interiors we do see are reminiscent of a Doré print: the infamous warren-like Old Brewery (torn down by the Methodist Five Points Mission in 1852) is imagined as a multi-tiered cavern, with underground tunnels replete with piles of skulls. In this respect, Gangs of New York is to Fernando Wood’s Manhattan what Fellini’s Satyricon is to Nero’s Rome, with a touch of Monty Python filth on the faces and clothes. This representational strategy can be compelling, but Fellini’s expressionistic excesses (Ken Russell also comes to mind) were never offered in a reportorial mode.

Gangs of New York does capture, even if in very broad strokes, the bitter struggle the Irish poor faced in Jacksonian and Civil War America. The discrimination they suffered had distinct racial overtones, enunciated by Bill the Butcher in his vituperations against ‘Irish niggers’. This may in turn have intensified Irish-Americans’ hatred of the blacks with whom they competed for jobs and whose exclusion from the white race they shared, a resentment evident in the Draft Riots. That sense of racial difference – in dress, public behaviour, custom and physical appearance – runs through the print record of the era, in the grotesque, prognathous caricatures and seething hordes of the pictorial press. But the very strangeness of the rural Irish in the city’s streets, which prompted elite New Yorkers such as George Templeton Strong to observe in a July 1857 diary entry that ‘our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese,’ is missing from the film.

The mysterious attraction of the alien is the flipside to such distaste. The historical record has much to say about the black body; it provides us with only brief glimpses of the transgressive Irish body, but an acknowledgment of this attraction would have added a fascinating dimension to the straightforward class hatred portrayed in the film. There are homoerotic hints of it in portraits of tough, bruised and partially-clad Irish street adolescents by the Ashcan painters, in George Bellows’s 1908 Paddy Flannigan, for example. But George Henry Hall’s A Dead Rabbit (also called Study of an Irishman), painted shortly after the 1837 riot, is more to the point. It depicts a mutton-chopped young man naked to the waist, cradling a brick in one hand, a distant come-hither expression on his upturned face. The painting conveys the fear and fascination that fuelled the class and ethnic conflicts of the era in a way that Scorsese’s film never quite manages.

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