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Through the Past Darkly:
What You Need To Know About
Gangs of New York
Cinema Gotham - Gangs of New York

Bandit's Roost
Bandit's Roost, photographed by Jacob Riis (1890)
December 12, 2002 | Some moviegoers will probably connect the name Martin Scorsese to the title of his new film Gangs of New York and immediately think of films like Goodfellas, Mean Streets and Raging Bull, films involving the mob and the way it kept its fingers wrapped around the city through much of the 20th century.

Gangs of New York, however, is actually about an entirely different set of gangs. It takes place in the mid 19th century, from the 1840s to the 1860s. The population of the city was exploding: In 1800 it was 76 thousand but by 1900 it had grown to nearly 3.4 million. This was largely thanks to the flood of immigrants coming in from Ireland as well as Germany and Britain. Devestated by the Potato Famine, Irish families were entering New York harbor at a rate that far exceeded any immigration pattern known to that point. Before this great wave of immigration started New York was a mix of Americans of British, Dutch and other Protestant descent, as well as both free blacks and slaves. When the Roman Catholic Irish entered the picture the age-old conflict hit the city with a fury. The "natives" hated the Irish, who were willing to work for lower and lower wages, taking jobs away from everyone.

The Five Points
The Five Points

Gangs of New York is set largely in a neighborhood called the Five Points, defined then by the intersection of Anthony, Little Water, Orange and Mulberry street (what today would be Park, Worth, and Baxter Streets.) The Five Points were known as the worst slum in the city and possibly the country. Home of countless thieves, murderers, whores and gangs, the Five Points became notorious as both an extraordinarily dangerous place to set foot and as an example of the horrors of poverty.

In 1842 Charles Dickens visited the Points and subsquently wrote "This is the place: these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking every where with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?"

A focal point of both the Five Points and Gangs of New York is the Old Brewery. Legendary as one of the most vile buildings in the city, the Old Brewery wasn't actually a brewery. It had been condemned for that purpose in 1837 and was transformed into a tenement building with over a hundred rooms and about a thousand residents. The Old Brewery was home to some of the poorest Irish and black New Yorkers, many crammed together beyond reason, as well as endless violence and anarchy. Children were born in windowless rooms of the Old Brewery only to see the sun for the first time in their teens. Residents would die and their neighbors would just bury their bodies right in the room or stuff them beneath the floorboards. Police refused to enter the building in groups of less than fifty or sixty. When the Missionary Society finally succeeded in buying the building and convincing the police to vacate the premises they came out with dozens of wanted murderers. When the building was razed workers could be seen leaving the ruins lugging sacks and sacks of human remains and bones.

The Old Brewery
The Old Brewery

The indescribable chaos of the Five Points lent itself to gangsterism. With the city under no organized police control (The Metropolitan Police, under city control, and the Municipal Police, commissioned by the state, would actually fight each other instead of maintaining peace) the residents of the Five Points were on their own. Some of the gangs in the district were the Plug Uglies (named for their hats, which they stuffed with leather to protect their heads), the Chichesters and the Shirt Tails.

The two gangs most important to the film are the Dead Rabbits, which was comprised of immigrants, specifically Irish, and the Natives, made up of Protestant New Yorkers who viciously hated the immigrants. The Natives were actually more of a political party that pushed anti-immigrant policies. Like all political factions in New York at the time they employed gangs as their muscle to do everything from destroying polling locations to extorting cash from businesses to rubbing out opposing politicians. The gangs would subvert the electoral process by clobbering opposition voters and registering allies multiple times. With the major political parties teaming up with hugely territorial gangs there would often be huge brawls in the street with eyes gouged and ears and noses torn off.

William "Boss" Tweed
William "Boss" Tweed

While the characters in the film are mostly fictional, Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill "the Butcher" Cutting is largely based on Bill "the Butcher" Poole. Poole was not actually a Five Point gangster but had his territory over on the West Side, around Christopher street with Native American gangs. A legend is recalled in the book "Gangs of New York" about Bill's death, which is not used in the film. It was largely territorial, with three members of an Irish gang from the Five Points killing Bill in a bar in 1855, a decade before the bulk of the film takes place. The film does, however, incorporate his expertise with the tools of the butcher's trade, both on a cut of meat and on an unfortunate enemy. Bill the Butcher was one of the most celebrated gangsters of his era and when he died he was given on of the biggest funerals in the city's history, with over a hundred carriages and many thousands of mourners filling the streets.

Another figure that looms large over Gangs of New York is William "Boss" Tweed. Tweed ran Tammany Hall, a society set up to gain political influence by pushing a slate of candidates for as many public offices as possible and engaging in blatant patronage and opportunism. Tammany, founded in 1789 as a fraternal benevolent society, was the major political force in New York City from 1854, when it elected its first mayor until 1934, when Fiorella LaGuardia took the mayor's office with the promise of serious reform. Tweed himself ran Tammany with his notorious "Tweed Ring" of henchmen from 1857 to 1876, when he finally went to prison where he died. He is remembered as having been one of the most corrupt men to ever disgrace politics but his legacy is far more complex. He was loved by many for being generous towards the poor but little can erase the fact that he swindled as much as $200 million from the city, the equivalent of over $2.5 billion today. He's largely remembered in the city today for the extravagant Tweed Courthouse, which has cost tax-payers countless millions in construction and upkeep since 1872.

The Draft Riots
The Draft Riots

Other important figures make small appearances in the film, including P.T. Barnum, then the owner of Barnum's American Museum and later the circus legend, and Horace Greeley, founding editor of the New York Tribune and a noted reformer of worker's rights.

The major event recreated in Gangs of New York is the Draft Riot of 1863. The Union enacted the Conscription Act with the intention of, for the first time, drafting its citizens into military service for the Civil War. One of the provisions of the Conscription Act was that anyone drafted could escape service by paying a fee of $300.

This amount of money was easily afforded by the rich classes of New York society but for the poor of the Five Points and elsewhere it was a fantastically high amount. Once the draft began protests sprang up across the Union but in New York, fueled by gang violence and the chasm between the rich and the poor, the protests quickly turned into out-and-out rioting. After four days much of the city was burned to the ground.

The Draft Riots Lynching
One of the most shameful moments in
New York City history: The Draft Riots

The most shameful aspect of the Draft Riots was the blatant scapegoating of black New Yorkers. At first the riots consisted largely of looting and vandalism directed at the mansions of New York's aristocrats. As the mob grew, however, the lynchings started. Black men were hung from lamp posts and burned to death. A black orphanage was burned. Every police officer in the city was injured or killed and the army had to step in, firing on the mob with their entire arsenal. In the end thousands were dead in what probably still remains the biggest riot in American history.

Scorsese's film alters the timeline and events here and there in order to fit everything into the space of one movie. But the atmosphere is unmistakably real. Audiences can probably appreciate the film on its own merits but with a history as complex and detailed as this one a little background can be helpful. For someone who's read Asbury's book there are countless touches worth noting (Hellcat Maggie's teeth, the jar of ears, the chalk-in-the-face gag) and this is important stuff. Gangs of New York's somewhat overblown marketing slogan is "America was born in the streets." The film, however, is not about the birth of America. The fact is that, much like the Five Points neighborhood itself, the poor souls in the film are largely forgotten.


Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace
Five Points
Boss Tweed
The Old Brewery
Draft Riots



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