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Teaching With Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, Part II

September 1, 2008

This continues my August 19, 2008 post.

In the last entry I covered Herbert Asbury’s biography. The idea was to think about how his life influenced his work. To briefly recap, we learned that Asbury (1889-1963) was not educated as an historian; we also do not know, in fact, whether he graduated from college. We know that he seemed fascinated by urban life, and that he was affected by an alienation from his formative years. Some call this one of the “acids of modernity.” In particular, Asbury rebelled from small-town parochialism and traditional values. In many ways, he actively lived out the turn-of-the-century transition from American Victorianism to American Modernity. This change and Asbury’s reaction to it influenced his choice of topics about which to write.

Some have classified his writings as “true crime,” but—if my memory serves me correctly—that’s more of a fiction than non-fiction category. For those with no confidence in the historical aspects of Asbury’s work, perhaps that fits. To them he is a writer of historical fiction. I think there’s more to Asbury than that, but he most certainly worked on the margins of the history profession. In any case, the debate about his influences and how he worked cannot be solved at this time, for our biographical information is thin. All confidence we maintain about his biography derives from what can be pieced together from the biographical writings of his granddaughter (Frances Carle) and a few archival tidbits.

We do know that Asbury wrote numerous books. Although a few were relayed in the last post, below is a mildly annotated, chronologically assembled bibliography. The list began with Frances Carle’s site and Wikipedia, but has been painstakingly double-checked and amended through Worldcat by me. There are a few mistakes in both Worldcat and in both sites: my list attempts to reconcile conflicting information. All works are non-fiction unless otherwise notated.


Up From Methodism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926).
A Methodist Saint: The Life of Bishop Asbury (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927).
The Devil of Pei-ling (New York: Macy-Masius, 1927). Fiction
The Tick of the Clock (New York: Macy-Masius, 1928). Fiction.
The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928). Reissued in 1990 by New York’s Paragon Press. Reissued most recently in 2001 by Thunder’s Mouth Press with a foreword by Jorge Luis Borges.
– Edited collection with Christine Campbell Thomson, Not at Night!: A Collection of Weird Tales (New York: Macy-Masius, 1928). Fiction.
– Introduction for Jerry Thomas, ed., The Bon Vivant’s Companion: Or, How to Mix Drinks (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928). First published in 1862 as How to mix drinks; or, The bon vivant’s companion.
Carry Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929).
Ye Olde Fire Laddies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930).
The Barbary Coast : An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933). Reissued in 2004 by London’s Arrow Books as The Gangs of San Francisco with the same subtitle.
All Around the Town : Murder, Scandal, Riot and Mayhem in Old New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934). Reissued in 2003 by New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.
– Edited with Philip van Doren Stern, Intro and Text by Asbury The Breathless Moment: The World’s Most Sensational News Photos (New York: 1935).
The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1938). Reissued in 2004 by London’s Arrow Books as The Gangs of New Orleans: An Informal History of the French Quarter Underworld.
Sucker’s Progress : An Informal History of Gambling in America (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1938). Reissued by Montclair, NJ’s Patterson Smith in 1969. Reissued in 1956 by Fort Wayne, IN: Public Library as Gambling on the Western Rivers.
Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940). Reissued by Northern Illinois University Press in 1986, with preface by Perry R. Duis. Also reissued as The Gangs of Chicago (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002).
The Golden Flood: An Informal History of America’s First Oil Field (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942).
The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950).
– “An amazing pair of Prohibition agents” in The 1920s, John F. Wukovits, ed. (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000). I do not know the original publication date of this and the next short story.
– “A merciful end to a failed experiment” in The 1920s, John F. Wukovits, ed. (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000)


What does a close look at Asbury’s bibliography reveal? First, there is no questioning his popularity. No author obtains this extensive of a publishing record without a solid readership. Second, Asbury and Knopf clearly made money from his writing. Third, it is likely that archival information about him exists with Alfred A. Knopf. I have not contacted Knopf to clarify. Next, the popularity of Scorcese’s film enabled Thunder’s Mouth Press to reissue and republish a number of Asbury’s books. This and Asbury’s prior sales record make it imperative that the history profession understand his background, motivations, and methods. We have to know when to either affirm or deny what he has asserted.

Gangs of New York: The Film And The Book

I won’t completely rehash the content of Asbury’s Gangs of New York here. The specifics come clear as we look at reviews, retrospectives, and the movie itself. I will say that the time period covered is roughly from 1800 to the mid-1920s—just over a century.

When Alfred A. Knopf published Asbury’s book in 1928, it received a review from Douglas L. Hunt in The Annals of the American Academy (Vol. 139, Sept. 1928, pp. 215-6). Although I know nothing about Hunt, here are some excerpts from the review (bolds mine):


Mr. Asbury, descendant of Methodist bishops, protests that he is writing no sociological treatise. If his book be compared to such as Dr. Frederick Thrasher’s The Gang, it will be seen that he is, strictly speaking, correct. But he has written an immensely more readable book than Thrasher’s; one devours its pages eagerly as though it were thrill-laden fiction rather than fact.

Mr. Asbury’s method is that of straightforward narration; he does not encumber his pages with footnotes, but he appends a fairly long bibliography, with a notation to the effect that “most of the material in this book was obtained from the newspapers and magazines, from police and court records, and from personal interviews with criminals and police officials.” It is difficult, indeed, to imagine where else much material might be derived, but, on the other hand, one wonders exactly how accurate such sources may be. The general reader, however, need not worry, for he has before him a work of immense interest whether the multifarious details of skull-cracking, blood-letting and general devilishness be minutely exact or not. …

[Asbury] has worked with tremendous zest and relish, drawing a picture that is inconceivably harsh and realistic. It seems a wonder that any decent person managed to live in post-Civil War New York; I am sure that enough murders and clubbings are chronicled to have reduced considerably the population of that metropolis. …Such notorious characters as Monk Eastman, Louie the Lump, Gyp the Blood, Paul Kelly, Humpty Jackson, Baboon Connolly, Billy McGlory, Eat ‘Em Up Jack McManus, and many more with equally descriptive cognomens, strut through the book loaded down with revolvers, [sling]shots, and brass knuckles. …Either scholar or layman may spend a happy, horror-filled evening with this volume in his hands.

The book contains a glossary of gangster terminology. It is well indexed.


I agree with Mr. Hunt that the book is narrative driven, as well as vigorous and detailed in presentation. I felt that Gangs read like pulp fiction in some parts, and like an advanced comic book (err, graphic novel) in others. It fits somewhat in that category Truman Capote famously termed “non-fiction fiction.” With that, I find it interesting that Mr. Hunt underscored the scholarly apparatus that attends the story: the bibliography, the glossary, the index, and Asbury’s note about his periodical and court resources, as well as his interviews.

It is tempting to dismiss Hunt’s notes on Asbury’s scholarly pretensions because of the lack of end or footnotes. This is one of the seven deadly sins of professional historical scholarship today (I can’t think of the other six off the top of my head—one might be overuse of the term “paradigm”). And skepticism about Asbury’s scholarship is reinforced in the Wikipedia entry about him (accessed 9/1/2008):


Although [Asbury’s] 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.


On a more persnickety note, here’s a New York Observer article by Daniel Cassidy questioning the origins of the gang moniker “Dead Rabbits.” Cassidy’s piece explores the trans-Atlantic roots of the phrase. It’s not that Asbury’s book was wrong, but rather that more could be said about that gang’s immigrant connections. It’s more trivia, or perhaps sniping, related to Asbury’s 1920s-era scholarship.

Asbury’s bibliography in Gangs consists of one long list containing 32 books, including the 1927 Thrasher dissertation noted by Hunt above, titled “The Gang.” Assuming that Tracy Melton is correct, that’s only one gang of the many, at least 20-25, mentioned in the book. How do we know that this wasn’t a research mix up as opposed to systematic error? And while yellow journalism was certainly a problem all through the nineteenth century, did Asbury read those accounts against what he saw in his 32 books and in his interviews and court records research? What if Asbury’s sources correlate in two (say with books and newspapers) but not three (i.e. not the interviews)? Unfortunately we do not know how he handled conflicting information or imperfect correlations in material.

To make matters even less certain, we have some documented inaccuracies—or at least incomplete narration—by Asbury’s granddaughter, Frances Carle. In comparing Gangs the book to Scorcese’s film, she utilized resources beyond just her grandfather’s work. Here are some excerpts from her long write-up at (mildly edited, pictures added, bolds mine):


Gangs of New York
A Reflection by Frances Carle (Asbury)

THE GANGS OF NEW YORK…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. …

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. …

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.” 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. …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. …

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. …

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. …

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. …

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…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. …Dickens ventured deep into the depths of Five Points with two police escorts and wrote about his experience in American Notes. …[He] remark[ed]: “all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.” …

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. …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. …

Many factors contributed to an increase in the number of gangs in New York City during the 1800’s, especially the Five Points area. …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). …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. …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. …

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. …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.

There is much more in Frances Carle’s write-up. Check it out here. Here are the sources she listed for her piece:

– Frank 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.


Without composing my own before-and-after comparison of Asbury’s book and Scorcese’s movie, I accept Ms. Carle’s write up as the best, point-by-point description of the film’s inaccuracies and exaggerations. Many of the things Ms. Carle points out help in understanding the realities and real possibilities of events given in her grandfather’s popular book. When I’ve taught Gangs the film, I’ve used her piece in my classes. The essay correlates reasonably well with my other readings on immigration, nativism, ethnicity, and the American experience—namely Dinnerstein et al’s Natives and Strangers, 4th edition.

In conclusion, the same rule applies with Scorcese’s Gangs of New York as with any other movie: handle with care. Even though there are mistakes and inaccuracies in Gangs the movie and the book, you can still find a historian of immigration, politics, and the Civil War era that will more than minimally stand behind Asbury’s work. In the NY Observer article mentioned above, for instance, Cassidy wrote that George Washington University historian Tyler Anbinder called Asbury “a usually careful if somewhat dramatic chronicler of old New York.”

So if the appropriate caveats are given, and Asbury’s background is covered, the film presents many opportunities to talk about the complexities of history as a field of inquiry and as a profession. Exploring Asbury and the film’s strengths and weaknesses, in the context of a survey course (my goal), will prepare students to think critically about other popular histories and historical films. – TL


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