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Teaching With Scorcese’s Gangs Of New York, Part I

August 19, 2008

This past spring I wrote a post titled “Teaching Bad History—Without Badly Teaching History.” It was instigated by this list of historically inaccurate movies. At the time I was focused only on the listed movies and what I’ve done in the past to teach a few of those bad films.

I should’ve, however, also opened a discussion for adding to Yahoo’s list of ten. One of my post’s commenters, Russ R, thought along these lines. He brought up Amistad—not so much, I believe, because the movie is horribly bad as history, but because he wanted to teach the history actually presented in the film in the best way possible. I offered some tips on how I’ve taught Amistad: namely, using an article that approaches the topic from the less familiar angle of maritime law.

For my part, I would start amending the Yahoo list by adding Gangs of New York. Those possessing even a casual acquaintance with the film and the history it covers know that it contains many inaccuracies and outright fictions. Even though Scorcese’s work was based on a book of history, Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (1927), Wikipedia reported that “the film adaptation…was so loose that Gangs was nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay’ rather than as a screenplay adapted from another work.” That’s seemingly pretty damning evidence against the history in Scorcese’s endeavor.

But I still believe the film can be taught—and even that it’s potentially great fodder for a survey-level college history classroom. Why?

Gangs provides the energetic instructor with an opportunity to discuss many important, but sometimes dry, historical and historiographical issues by introducing those topics through well-directed, exciting, visually stunning, and reasonably well-acted story. The film is most certainly a novelistic-feeling period piece, but it also grabs and holds on to the viewer’s attention. Not every college-aged history student needs their mind focused in this way, but some do. Using the film in class is for those who need that bridge to more subtle, more nuanced ways of thinking about history.

The historiographical topics available for discussion through Gangs of New York include the qualifications of an historian, the legitimacy of popular versus professional histories, storytelling and media, film adaptations, and drama. The historical topics and events worthy of discussion in both Asbury and Scorcese’s Gangs narratives (let’s distinguish them) include: immigration (Irish), racism (against African Americans), Americanism, urban poverty, the underworld (prostitution, thievery, violence)m the 1863 draft riots, urban politics (graft, voting improprieties), urban infrastructure (tenements, fire prevention, police), and religion (anti-Catholicism, Protestant mission activities).

While the total accuracy of Asbury’s book has been questioned by recent historians, and these issues have been exacerbated by Scorcese’s loose screenplay, one can still profitably show Gangs of New York to undergraduates. I have done this on multiple occasions in classes dealing with pluralism in the United States, as well as at the end of the term in a few pre-Civil War U.S. surveys. My reflections here arise in part from those experiences and a recent reading of Asbury’s book. Since I plan to screen Gangs again in the future, this write-up comprises an attempt to capture my past and present thoughts on the film’s virtues and vices.

Before Gangs of New York

To my knowledge, no book or peer-reviewed history article has been written on Herbert Asbury’s work as a historian. None of the cultural and urban cultural histories I studied in graduate school that might have covered Asbury or used his works actually did—including Tim Gilfoyle’s City of Eros, Lew Erenberg’s Steppin’ Out, or even Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow. Gilfoyle cited Gangs in his bibliography, but I couldn’t find a discussion of the book or author in his footnotes. Asbury has no presence in a few of my standard historiography texts: Appleby, et al’s Telling the Truth About History, Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, or Gerald N. Grob and George Billias’s Interpretations of American History (5th edition).

History periodicals contain reviews of Asbury’s books, or notes on his publications, during the period of his life. But I found no feature article, long review essay, or historical retrospective on him or his books published during his lifetime. The closest I came, from the 1925-1965 period, was this mildly derisive summary sentence on Asbury’s The Golden Flood (1942), from the “Recent Publications” section of the American Historical Review (48, no. 1, October 1942, p. 198):

The author of this book and of other gaudy titles about the historical cesspools of various cities and periods in American history has done his scavenging this time in western Pennsylvania at the time of the rise of the oil industry and the beginnings of Standard Oil. The history is strictly “informal” and, insofar as it is historical, is familiar. Sin among the derricks is the real theme, and how the author does revel in all the details!

A few themes emerge: exaggeration, historical cesspools, cities, informality, and reveling in the nitty gritty details. And the note writer’s tone has an air of contemptibility. It seems clear that, in the 1940s, Asbury operated on the margins of the history profession.

Since the professional journals have failed us, at least in terms of biography, here is Wikipedia’s entry on Asbury (with some excerpting and minor re-arranging of text):


Herbert Asbury (September 1, 1889 — February 24, 1963) was an American journalist and writer who is best known for his true crime books detailing crime during the 19th and early 20th century such as Gem of the Prairie, Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld and The Gangs of New York. …In earlier decades, Asbury was known for his self-described “informal histories”, which included descriptions of various cities, focusing on violence, crime, prostitution and lurid events. …

Born in Farmington, Missouri, he was raised in a highly religious family which included several generations of devout Methodist preachers. During his early teens, Asbury became disenchanted with the local Southern Methodist church along with his siblings Mary, Emmett and Fred Asbury.

During World War I, Asbury enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army. He was later promoted to Sergeant, and then to Second Lieutenant, where he served in France until he was seriously wounded during a gas attack (his lungs were severely damaged and would result in health problems throughout his life). He eventually received an honorable discharge on January 1919.

Asbury achieved first notoriety with a story that H. L. Mencken published in his magazine, The American Mercury in 1926. The story detailed a prostitute from Asbury’s hometown of Farmington, Missouri. The prostitute took her Protestant customers to the Catholic cemetery to conduct business, and took her Catholic customers to the Protestant cemetery; some in Farmington considered the prostitute beyond redemption.

The article caused a sensation: The Boston Watch and Ward Society had the magazine banned. Mencken then journeyed to Boston, sold a copy of his magazine on Boston Commons, and was arrested. Sales of the recently-founded Mercury boomed, and Asbury was a celebrity. Asbury then focused his attention of a series of articles debunking temperance crusader Carrie Nation.

Herbert continued working as a reporter for various newspapers including the Atlanta Georgian, the New York Sun, the New York Herald and the New York Tribune until 1928 when he decided to devote his time exclusively to writing. During this time, he wrote numerous books and magazine articles forcus on true crime. He was also involved in screenwriting and wrote several plays which appeared on Broadway, but none were successful.

After his final book The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition in 1950, he retired from writing and died on February 24, 1963 at the age 73.

The 2002 film Gangs of New York revitalized interest in Asbury and many of Asbury’s works, mostly chronicling the largely hidden history of the seamier side of American popular culture, have been reissued. …[The following sentence was moved down from the top of the piece] The film adaptation of Gangs of New York was so loose that Gangs was nominated for “Best Original Screenplay” rather than as a screenplay adapted from another work.

Although his books have long been popular within the true crime genre, commentators such as Luc Sante, Tyler Anbinder and Tracy Melton have suggested that Asbury took journalistic liberties with his material. On the other hand, Asbury’s books have lengthy bibliographies, noting the newspapers, books, pamphlets, police reports and personal interviews he drew upon for his works. But his books, having been written for popular audiences, do not have in-text citations, which would make it easier to check the accuracy of his sources.

In 2005, Tracy Melton claimed in his book Hanging Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore’s Plug Uglies, 1854-1860 that the Plug Uglies were actually a Baltimore-based gang. New York newspapers compared the Dead Rabbits to the Baltimore Plug Uglies following the July 4, 1857 riots, which occurred just a month after Plug Ugly involvement in the Know-Nothing Riot in Washington. Melton further speculated that Asbury had apparently read these accounts and inaccurately incorporated the Plug Uglies into his book The Gangs of New York.


The Wikipedia’s narrative was based on a submission by “Wetman.” I know nothing about her/his background or authority to write on Asbury.

Because of this, let’s cross-check Wikipedia’s version of events with an account from a relative. Frances Carle (Asbury), related I believe as Herbert Asbury’s granddaughter, maintains a website on her grandfather’s works. Here is her biography:


Herbert Asbury was a top newspaperman and author of books chronicling sin, crime, and religious hypocrisy. Many of his books dealt with the darker, seamier side of American life over a time span from the late 18th century to the early 20th century. THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, GEM OF THE PRAIRIE and the BARBARY COAST portrayed cities controlled by gangsters during most of the 1800’s and early 1900’s.

THE GANGS OF NEW YORK book was used as the basis for the movie, GANGS OF NEW YORK, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese. GANGS was filmed in Rome and premiered on December 20, 2002.

Herbert was born in Farmington, Missouri, on September 1, 1889. He was educated in the public schools of Farmington and attended Carleton College. His ancestral background was very religious and included several generations of devout Methodist Preachers. Herbert’s childhood was dominated by religion and he was fed heavy doses of it constantly. At the age of fourteen, he left the church and devoted himself to pleasures considered sinful by the pious folk of Farmington. He learned to smoke cigarettes (with the help of his older brother Emmett), play cards, swear, openly ogle girls and drink whenever he could find a willing bartender. Herbert’s siblings, Mary, Emmett, and Fred eventually became disenchanted with the Southern Methodist Church.

His background greatly influenced both his philosophy of life and his career of reporter and author. The creation of his first two books UP FROM METHODISM and THE METHODIST SAINT arose from his confrontations with his religious ancestry. Herbert first became famous when he sold an article called HATRACK in 1926 to the late H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury magazine. It was the story of a Farmington prostitute who took her Protestant customers to the Roman Catholic cemetery and vice versa. Hatrack (standing with her arms outstretched she resembled a hatrack) wanted to lead a better life and tried going to the local Methodist church to receive religion. However, no one tried to convert her and they ignored her because she was beyond redemption. Hatrack was a “Scarlet Woman” and since there was no forgiveness, she stayed in her profession as the town Harlot.* The Watch and Ward Society of Boston had the Mercury magazine banned from sale in Boston because of the HATRACK article. H. L. Mencken challenged this action, went to Boston, and sold a copy of the magazine on the commons. He was arrested, causing sales of the Mercury magazine to boom and creating celebrities of both Herbert and Mencken.

Herbert worked as a reporter for various newspapers until 1928, among the most memorable were the Atlanta Georgian, the New York Sun, the New York Herald, and the New York Tribune. From 1928 on he devoted himself to the writing of books, magazine articles and scenarios for motion pictures. He also wrote several Broadway plays but they were not successful. Most of his books were written in a documentary style dealing mainly with sin and crime. Herbert wrote several fiction novels such as THE DEVIL OF PEI-LING and THE TICK OF THE CLOCK.

When World War I broke out, Herbert enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army. He was rapidly promoted to Sergeant and then to Second Lieutenant of Infantry. He served in France and was wounded and gassed. The damage to his lungs caused Herbert health problems throughout his life. He was honorably discharged from the service on January, 1919.

Herbert was married twice and neither marriage produced any children. Herbert had two residences: a house in Canada Lake, New York and an apartment in New York City. On February 24, 1963, at age 73, Herbert died from his chronic lung problems.


Based on the reflections of Herbert Asbury’s relative and the Wikipedia entry, what do we minimally know about his life, philosophy, and interests?

First, let’s condense the facts: Asbury was born in 1889. Growing up in an apparently sedate, small Missouri town with a family more than casually concerned with Protestant Christianity, Asbury rebelled. As a youth he became interested, in a black-and-white sort of way, with mankind’s vices. He picked up a smoking habit. Asbury attended college, presumably obtaining some writing skill and becoming attracted to telling stories related to his interest in the non-Christian side of human life. He also served in World War I and was wounded. After the war he pursued a career as a writer. Asbury worked for many newspapers along the Atlantic Coast, but also wrote plays and novels. He was involved in a censorship incident involving H.L. Mencken and The American Mercury. After a long and successful career as a writer, dating from the 1920s until the 1950s, he retired and eventually died in 1963.

It is reasonably safe to say that Asbury was most interested, as a writer, in life’s drama. He saw that drama as most concentrated in vice and urban areas. Having grown up in the Midwest, he was probably familiar with books like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (which outlined a young Midwestern woman’s fall from grace upon moving to Chicago) and perhaps other Chicago realists (as outlined in Henry May’s End of American Innocence, 1959). Asbury grew up during the great moral and values transition from American Victorianism to American Modernity. The old order and its virtues in no way excited Asbury.

Asbury’s writing style was heavily narrative—packed with details and facts. Considering he wrote fiction, and did this well by all accounts, it is perhaps not surprising that Asbury did not let the precision associated with factual knowledge interfere with the telling of a fast-moving, seedy story. So Asbury’s work might fall somewhere between fiction and history—historical fiction perhaps.

All we know about Asbury’s education was that it occurred, in part, at Carleton College. We do not know whether he graduated, what major he worked towards, how long he was in school, or what classes he took. We only know that he had become a strong writer by the time he left the Midwest. We can assume that Carleton played some part in this. We do not know whether Asbury studied history.

A wide-ranging internet search for the archived papers or manuscripts of Asbury turned up nothing substantial. I found only an interesting tidbit within the Mitchell Dawson Papers (1810-1988) held at the Newberry Library in Chicago. It appears that Herbert Asbury was Dawson’s brother-in-law and that Asbury was, for a period of time, the editor of Collier’s magazine. Dawson’s papers contain correspondence between them from 1931 to 1944 (Boxes 1, 4, and 33).

There is no indication that Asbury studied history formally, or had any close association with a professional historian. We therefore have no way to confirm his ability to explore archives and show good judgment with regard to selection and emphasis. Asbury apparently held the journalist’s conceit that a good writer can compose something about anything. – TL

Next up: Part II on Teaching with The Gangs Of New York (both the book and Scorcese’s film)


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