THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, written by Herbert Asbury, was used as the basis for the movie GANGS of NEW YORK, a gangster film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio. Filmed in Rome, Gangs covers a period of New York City's history, from the 1840's through to the bloody Draft Riots of 1863, at a time when graft and corruption permeated every level of government including the police department.
The movie's main plot revolves around revenge and the feuding between the gangs controlling the Bowery and the Five Points area of lower Manhattan and culminates with the Civil War draft riots. The two major political parties, Tammany Hall (Democratic based) and the Native Americans (Know-Nothing Party), used gangs as enforcers for the plundering of public funds and to gain control of the city. The movie is a fictional drama loosely based on actual historical events and figures.
The depictions in the movie showing the discrimination against the Irish immigrants, the draft riots and the backdrop of New York City circa 1860's were fairly representative of real events. The script writers rearranged history in order to present as many interesting characters and events as is possible within a two hour and 40 minute time frame. The characters in the movie were either fictional, such as Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), Amsterdam Vallon (Leo DiCaprio) and Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), or fictionalized versions of real people. The feel and flavor of New York City during the middle 1800's was captured by the movie through the use of excellent cinematography and the creation of a movie set based on actual photographs of the real Five Points.
Four of the main characters: William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), and Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) were based on actual people but they existed in different time frames. William Cutting was based on William Poole "Bill the Butcher", a real butcher with a shop in Washington Market, who lived in New York City from 1832 until his murder in 1855 by Lew Baker. The real William did not have a glass eye with an eagle on it and did not directly kill anyone although he may have maimed a few men. He resided in a nice little brownstone on Christopher Street (outside of the Five Points) and for a brief period, owned his own saloon, on the corner of Howard and Broadway. For more information on William's background, click on William Poole's background (Bill The Butcher).
The character of Happy Jack was based on Happy Jack Mulraney, a volatile and murderous member of the Gophers, who had a permanent grin on his face due to partial paralysis of the facial muscles. Happy Jack was very sensitive about his deformity and murdered a saloon owner, Paddy the Priest, for making a casual remark about his one-sided grin. The Gophers existed around the late 1890's and early 1900's and were contemporaries of Monk Eastman and Paul Kelly (Paolo Vaccarelli). The Gopher's territory was in the part of Manhattan known as Hell's Kitchen and covered the area from 7th to 11th avenues and from 14th to 42nd streets. Owney Madden, an emigrant from Liverpool, England, was once a Gopher commander of the faction known as the Tenth Street Gang. Owney would go on to become co-owner of the Cotton Club in Harlem and one of New York City's kingpins of bootlegged liguor during Prohibition.
Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) was based on Monk Eastman (Edward Osterman), a Jewish gangster, who was born around 1873 in Brooklyn and died in New York City in 1920, murdered by a corrupt Prohibition enforcement agent (not by Bill the Butcher). Monk had his own gang, called the Eastmans, of more than twelve hundred warriors. For more information on Monk, click on Monk Eastman.
Boss Tweed, played by Jim Broadbent, is the only character in the movie who comes closest to portraying an actual historical figure within the movie's time frame. William "Boss" Tweed was born in 1823 in New York City's lower east side and was a brawler and school dropout. He became foreman of the Big Six Fire Engine Company (not the Black Joke Fire Engine Company) and used fire fighting as a means to get into politics. He was first elected to the Board of Aldermen, and then to Congress. He rose through the political ranks and over time gained control of Tammany Hall's political machine and was able to control all of the Democratic New York state and city nominations from 1860 to 1870. Although Tweed and his crooked compadres, the infamous "Tweed Ring" , were corrupt and plundered public funds, some of the projects, such as improved water supplies and sewage disposal, benefited New Yorkers. William Tweed's graft, brought to the public's attention by the cartoonist Thomas Nast, eventually caused his downfall and he died in jail in 1878.
The source for some of the slang used in the movie came from George Matsell's "The Secret Language of Crime: The Rogue's Lexicon", 1859. Here are translations for some of the terms used: Ballum rancum: A ball where all the dancers are thieves or prostitutes; Crusher: policeman; Lay: a criminal occupation; and Mort: a woman. For more 1800's "gangsta slang", click on the fictional vignette Bill the Butcher. The main source used by the movie in replicating the accent and speech patterns of the nineteenth century came from a recording made in 1892 by the now deceased poet, Walt Whitman. The result is a sort of Brooklyn "cabby" accent.
BACKGROUND ON FIVE POINTS: The most wretched of New York City's slums in the 1800's was an area called Five Points, named for the five points created by the intersection of Anthony (now Worth), Orange (now Baxter), and Cross (now Park) Streets. The area formed a "truncated triangle about one mile square" and was "bounded by Canal Street, the Bowery, Chatham" (now Park Row), "Pearl, and Centre Streets."1 Paradise Square, a small triangular park, was located between Anthony (now Worth) and Cross (now Park) Streets and converged into Orange Street (now Baxter). These slums no longer exist, having been replaced by city, state, and federal courthouses and the area known as Chinatown.The origins of Five Points began around 1802 with a landfill that covered a foul pit of chemical and animal waste. In the 1700's lower Manhattan contained a large lake filled with an abundance of fish and surrounded by wild marsh lands teaming with birds and other wildlife. The lake became known as the Collect Pond and was very popular with fishermen and local residents who would picnic along the shores in the summer and skate on the ice in winter. It was a lovely place until the tanneries, breweries, and slaughterhouses moved in and caused massive pollution and contamination of the lake's water. In 1802 the city's Street Commissioner recommended that the Collect be drained and filled in due to the stench and health problems caused by the pollution.
The Collect landfill was completed by around 1812 and by 1813, the streets were laid out and the land speculators moved in, building two and one-half story wooden structures. Many were occupied by artisans and tradesmen who combined their home and business into one dwelling. Coulter's Brewery, one of the original industries, remained after the Collect was filled and continued to brew beer until 1837 when it was converted into a tenement, called the Old Brewery. Industries such as glue factories and turpentine distilleries joined Coulter's on the newly created landfill.Five Points was considered a poor but respectable part of lower Manhattan until around 1820. The decay into a slum was helped by several events: a shift from handcrafted goods to mass production of goods, a huge influx of poor immigrants, and landowners subdividing buildings without regard for safety or sanitation. Factories mass produced goods such as clothes, shoes and other items at a cheaper cost, undercutting the individual tradesmen. The apprenticeship system which provided room, board, and steady work for children learning the trades disappeared. Children of working-class families who normally would be kept busy learning a supervised trade were left free to wander the streets. Many of the artisans and tradesmen moved out of the area and were replaced by Irish and German immigrants. As the population of Five Points swelled with new immigrants, landowners or their agents found it very profitable to subdivide and add on to their wooden structures. The buildings were carved into tiny apartments, many were the size of a small bedroom and windowless. The bottom floor of each building frequently housed a saloon, groggery (combination of groceries and cheap liquor), or brothel. The buildings were referred to as tenant houses' or tenements and were crammed with immigrants, returning a hefty profit to the landlords or sublandlords.
Unfortunately, the instability of the landfill under the tenements caused the buildings to partially sink and become prematurely old. Basements (many inhabited by immigrants) and streets frequently flooded when it rained, creating a damp, decaying, and unhealthy atmosphere. Most of the streets were not connected to sewers and people used basement or outdoor privies which were rarely cleaned and constantly overflowed, filling backyards with human excrement which in turn flowed to the streets, and joined up with the tons of horse manure and leftover industrial waste. These filthy conditions plus contaminated water contributed to the high death rate in Five Points. According to the AICP (Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor), based on data from the years 1850 to 1860, seventy percent of the children under the age of two died each year. Pulmonary diseases, poor nutrition, cholera, and typhus epidemics took a heavy toll. Many infants died from drinking foul milk which was extracted from diseased cows by unscrupulous profit seeking dairy owners. Once the diseased cows died, they were doctored up and sold for meat.
Into the morass of Five Points, the poor immigrants arrived, many without any resources or means of employment. Irish immigrants, from the worst of the potato famine, arrived in New York City dressed in rags, malnourished and in poor health and took the cheapest quarters available. Families usually settled in decrepit tenements such as the Old Brewery, Jacob's Ladder, Gates of Hell, Cow Bay, and Mulberry Bend where they were lucky to have a single room for themselves. The single men and women frequently settled into boardinghouses or lodging rooms which ranged from indescribably filthy cellar rooms, where as many as twenty people slept on straw in one room, to modest, but clean establishments with beds.
Boarding house runners, friendly men speaking with the same accent as the new arrivals, would board the boats after they docked, and welcome the more affluent looking immigrant with offers to lodge at at a particular establishment. Once the new lodger settled in, he was charged exorbitant rates and if he could not pay, his luggage was confiscated. In many instances, it was a case of the older immigrant cheating the newer arrival.
Life was very difficult for many families and just surviving from day to day often required that all members of the family bring in money, by whatever means. Resorting to crime or prostitution was at times the only way to exist. Children earned money by working on the streets as bootblacks, as street sweepers clearing the intersections of muck in exchange for tips from pedestrians, and as "little merchants" hawking goods such as matches, newspapers, produce, and sometimes themselves. Alcoholism was rampant and frequently the children's earnings paid for filling the "growler", a pail used to fetch beer from the local groggery or saloon. Left to fend for themselves, many children roamed the streets, joined up with gangs, and were destined to become prostitutes or felons.
The miserable conditions of Five Points became known to the outside world and reformers such as Lewis N. Pease, Rev. Samuel Halliday, the Methodist missionary ladies, and Jacob Riis, with his empathetic style of journalistic photography, worked diligently to improve life for the slum's inhabitants. Five Points' notorious reputation became so well known that notables such as Davey Crockett, Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Dickens paid the slums a visit. Lincoln was quite moved by the plight of Five Point's children and applauded Lewis Pease and his House of Industry's efforts to house, clothe, feed, and educate them.
The celebrated Davey Crockett and literary figures such Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman toured the saloons, groggeries, brothels, dance halls, and gambling halls in order to witness first hand the depravity of Five Points. The raucous theater and wild dance halls of the Bowery became the popular place to go "slumming" and to see how the other half lives. Dickens ventured deep into the depths of Five Points with two police escorts and wrote about his experience in American Notes.
"This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere 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 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."...."Where dogs would howl to lie men and women and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the disloged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings. Here, too, are lanes and alleys paved with mud knee-deep; underground chambers where they dance and game." Dicken sums up Five Points with the remark: "all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here." Although Dickens was very critical of Five Points, he did enjoy a visit to Almacks, later referred to as Pete Williams' place, a black American dance hall. Dickens was intrigued by the dance skills of William Henry Lane who combined the shuffle with an Irish jig. This style was called a break-down and became the forerunner of modern tap dancing.
Walt Whitman, the poet, identified with the "rowdies" of Manhattan and was particularly entranced with the Bowery Boy culture and their style of dress and slang. The Bowery was the center of entertainment for the single men of the working-class and they came from all parts of New York City, not just the Five Points. Bill the Butcher was a former Bowery Boy. After work, the butchers, firemen, and other working-class men would don their fancy duds consisting of stovepipe hat topping well-oiled locks, red shirt, black flared trousers, silk vest and cravat, and high-heeled calfskin boots, and head for the Bowery's theaters, dance halls and brothels. Without family responsibilities, the "B'hoys" had enough money to spend on entertainment. Most of the Bowery boys were native born and were very patriotic and loved adventure. Many of them belonged to gangs such as the American Guards or the Bowery Boys' gang. However, A working-class male might adopt the Bowery style but not belong to a particular gang.
Many factors contributed to an increase in the number of gangs in New York City during the 1800's, especially the Five Points area. The major factors were: the huge number of immigrants with different nationalities; the resentment of native born Americans towards the newcomers; poor living conditions; young single immigrants seeking identity and protection in a sometimes hostile environment; and the patronage system of rewarding favors with jobs. The setting was ripe for the proliferation of gangs and corrupt politicians. The grocery speak-easies or groggeries provided meeting places for the gangs. Many of the saloons, gambling houses, places of prostitution, and dance houses were owned by political leaders who utilized the "special" talents of the gangs. The lines between gangs and political parties were very blurred. Both the Whigs and the Democrats used gangs to bring in the votes and to cause disruption within the opposing parties.
William Poole, Bill The Butcher, was a Whig and later became a member of the Native American or Know-Nothing party (anti-catholic and anti-immigrant). Bill was cheftain of his own Washington Street gang and on election day, Bill and his thugs would be stationed at the polling place in order to commandeer votes for the Whigs. Their methods were violent and they frequently used "repeaters", people who voted more than once. While Bill was "soliciting" votes for his party, Morrissey and his thugs were convincing voters, especially the Irish immigrants, to vote for the Democratic party (Tammany Hall) candidate. Both sides were violent at the polling place and frequently battled with each other. The gangs were repaid by the political parties or governmental authorities with offers of choice jobs, money or by allowing the gangsters to run their vices without harassment from the police.The gangs were mainly territorial, ethnic based and centered around two areas of the Five Points: the heart of the Five Points and the Bowery. The gangs with headquarters in the heart of Five Points were the Forty Thieves, Kerryonians, Shirt Tails, Plug Uglies, Roach Guards and Dead Rabbits and were Irish. Some of the gangs identified themselves with special clothes or colors. The Roach Guards wore blue striped pantaloons, the Plug Uglies sported enormous plug hats, and the Dead Rabbits wore red stripes. The gangs sometimes fought each other and sometimes banded together to fight with the Bowery Boys or the American Guards (native born).
The Irish gangs centered in the Bowery were the True Blue Americans (wearing black frock coats and stovepipe hats), O'Connell Guards, and Atlantic Guards. The Bowery Boys and American Guards had headquarters in the Bowery and in general were allied with the Whigs or Native American party. The Irish gangs tended to support the Democratic party (Tammany Hall)
Succeeding gangs became more organized and committed crimes outside their territories. The Whyos, named because of a bird-like call utilized by the gangsters, were one of the most vicious gangs of the 1880's and were the first to advertise a price list for services involving blackjacking, mayhem and murder. The prices ranged from two dollars for a simple punching to murder for one hundred dollars and up.
After the Whyos, the two major gangs that rose to power were the Five Pointers and the Eastmans whose combined membership totaled almost three thousand gangsters. The Irish gangs were no longer in control by the 1890's. The Five Pointers gang was ruled by Paul Kelly (aka: Paolo Vaccarelli) , an Italian immigrant, and their members came from all over New York City. The Eastmans gang was ruled by Monk Eastman (aka: Edward Osterman), a Jewish gangster born in Brooklyn. Their sources of income were derived from stuss games (a form of card game), political engagements, houses of prostitution, blackjacking services, and the operations of pickpockets, footpads, and loft burglars. Tammany Hall frequently engaged the services of both gangs to bring in the votes at election time. Click on Monk Eastman and Paul Kelly for more information. In return, Tammany Hall bailed out both Monk and Kelly whenever they got arrested. The symbiotic relationship continued until around 1905 when public outcry over the constant feuding and gunfights between the two gangs led to their downfall. Monk was thrown in Sing Sing and Kelly moved his operations to Harlem and Brooklyn where he became involved in labor unions and fighting for control of the shipping docks.
Paul Kelly's Five Pointers was a training camp for some of America's most notorious mobsters such Frankie Yale, Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. With the arrival of Prohibition, a new era of organized crime was created. Click on Five Pointers, antecedents of organized crime.
Five Point's reign as one of the world's worst slums came to an end by around 1900, thanks to reformers such as Jacob Riis and his publication How the Other Half Lives which focused attention on conditions in the tenements. During its reign as the King of slums, tens of thousands of immigrants settled into crowded, filthy, and decayed tenements, struggling daily to build a new life. Ultimately, many moved on to better housing and jobs and were replaced by the next wave of immigrants. The Irish dominated the Five Points until the massive immigration of Italians from mostly southern Italy and Sicily in the 1880's. Each new wave of immigrants was subject to discrimination by the previous immigrants. The Chinese and Asians were the last to settle into Five Points.
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This article was written by Frances Carle (Asbury) and may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, copied or redistributed in any form without permission. The background for this article came from the following sources:1Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper., 1873; Asbury, Herbert.The Gangs Of New York. New York, 1928. -Ye Old Fire Laddies. New York, 1930. -Sucker's Progress. New York, 1938. -The Great Illusion. New York, 1950.; Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York, 1999.; Dickens, Charles. American Notes.London, 1842.; Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. New York, 1890. -The Battle with the Slum. New York, 1902. ; Foster, George G. New York by Gaslight. New York, 1850.; Matsell, George. The Secret Language of Crime: The Rogue's Lexicon. New York, 1859. -Embryos Courtezans and Felons, semi-annual report of Police Chief Matsell. New York, 1849.; various New York City newspapers, and family archives. The drawings are original (owned by Frances Carle).