REVIEW: 'The Gangs of New York' by Herbert Asbury

REVIEW: 'The Gangs of New York' by Herbert Asbury

By Patricia Jameson-Sammartano 
Special to The Wild Geese Today

To buy Herbert Asbury's book, click on the cover.

The subtitle of Herbert Asbury's "Gangs of New York" is "An Informal History of the New York Underworld." Informal is an understatement. In fact, if you were to read no other history of New York, you would conclude that New York was made up of none other than gangsters - some of whom were actual thugs, some of whom were police and fire officers, and some of whom were the government. All of these groups added to the commission of general mayhem in the forms of fighting, rioting, murder, arson, robbery, and corruption.

This 1928 account of city life begins, "The first of the gangs which terrorized New York at frequent intervals for almost a century were spawned in the dismal tenements that squatted in the miasmal purlieus of the Five Points area of the Bloody Ould Sixth Ward, which comprised, roughly, the territory bounded by Broadway, Canal street, the Bowery and Park Row, formerly Chatham street." As can be expected, the anti-Irish bias of the book continues throughout in lurid prose. There are many references to newspapers of the time period, and few to actual statistics. This is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book for historians.

The narrative is by no means chronological; it skips from an 1838 description of Lower Manhattan -- the Five Points area, the Tombs and the Criminal Courts, to the Slave Plot of 1741 to a description of the Collect Pond. What Asbury did was to shift the narrative because he kept the book thematic. For the reader, this presents the challenge of turning over pages and makes the book somewhat hard to follow.

Miramax Films
Part of Martin Scorcese's reconstructed 'Paradise Square' from the movie "Gangs of New York."

What Asbury succeeded in doing was to paint a very garish picture of New York's lower classes. He compared Paradise Square ("the only part in the city where the poor were welcome") to Coney Island of the early 1900s, rife with saloons, dance palaces, brothels, and other amusements.

Both the Negro mammy peddling hot yams and the Hot Corn girl made an appearance, and the description of the area and people became explicit when he depicted the change for the worse dating to the 1820s: "Many of the old tenements began to crumble or sink into the imperfectly drained swamp, and became unsafe for occupancy; and the malarial odors and vapors arising from the marsh lands made the whole area dangerous to health. The respectable families abandoned the clapboarded monstrosities for other parts of Manhattan Island, and their places were taken, for the most part, by freed Negro slaves and low-class Irish, who had swarmed into New York on the first great wave of immigration which followed the Revolution and the establishment of the Republic." This was the first white flight to take place in New York.

Gangs of New York : An Informal History of the Underworld
Author: Herbert Asbury
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication Date: February 2001
ISBN: 1560252758
List Price: $ 14.95
Buy at Powell's Books for under $10.

Asbury's description of the Old Brewery as the most famous tenement in the heart of the Five Points was particularly striking. This building was described as having a great room, 75 chambers above-ground, and some 20 cellar rooms; the population of the building, according to Asbury, at its worst was "more than 1,000" (one of the few statistics given in the book, with no date attached). The population was divided between Irish and African-Americans, and the cellar compartments housed couples of mixed race, with children who lived for years below ground, "for it was as dangerous for a resident of the Old Brewery to leave his niche as it was for an outsider to enter the building." One wonders what Asbury would have made of today's crowded urban housing projects.

Asbury traced the genesis of the gangs to the Paradise Square green-grocery speakeasies of the 1820s. The Forty Thieves was the first of these mobs, followed by the Kerryonians, the Chichesters, the Roach Guards, the Plug Uglies, the Shirt Tails, and the Dead Rabbits.

By 1835, the Bowery had become an entertainment mecca, with dance halls, playhouses, concert halls, huge beer-gardens, and other houses of entertainment; the Bowery Boys, the True Blue Americans, the American Guards, the O'Connell Guards, and the Atlantic Guards had a "membership that was principally Irish, but they do not appear to have been as criminal or as ferocious as their brethren of the Five Points, although many of them were gifted brawlers."

That gift had them fighting over whose privilege it was to fight the fires of the time, as many of the gangs were the city's original volunteer firemen; William Marcy Tweed was counted in their number. Later gangs were the Whyos of Mulberry Bend, the Hartley Mob, who employed a hearse to keep Five Pointers off-guard, the Dutch Mob, the Rag Gang, and the Hell's Kitchen Gang, which absorbed the Tenth Avenue Gang, and were quite possibly the forerunners of the Westies.

Illustration from 'Gangs of New York'
Bill 'The Butcher' Poole prepares to eliminate another rival.

Some of the more colorful characters who inhabit this book include "Hell-Cat Maggie," who fought with the Dead Rabbits; Mose; the Bowery B'hoy; Bill the Butcher Poole (a/k/a Bill "the Butcher" Cutting of Martin Scorsese fame, so admirably played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the movie "Gangs of New York"); and "Monk" Eastman. Maggie allegedly filed her teeth and wore brass nails, the better to claw an enemy with. Mose was a Paul Bunyan figure about whom heroic tales of firefighting valor were told. Bill the Butcher was a Greenwich Village gangster and ward heeler who cracked skulls and gouged out eyes; he died in a bar fight, shot by Lew Baker, a fellow member of the Bowery Boys, in 1855, long before the Draft Riots of 1863. Shot in the heart, he lingered for two weeks, and his last words were, according to Asbury, "Good-bye, boys: I die a true American!"

Asbury depicts city government as "quick to see the practical value of the gangsters, and to realize the advisability of providing them with meeting and hiding places, that their favor might be curried and their peculiar talents employed on election day to assure government of, by and for Tammany." In other words, Tammany Hall not only embezzled money from the citizenry of New York, but enabled the gangs to flourish.

The city's Draft Riots takes up two chapters and excoriates the Irish, who became the target of the daily newspapers, with the exception of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, which advocated more jobs to suppress the mobs. The riots lasted four days and left an estimated 2,000 killed, with 8,000 wounded. Archbishop Hughes came in for criticism; even though he was so ill with rheumatism that he had to sit on a balcony, he addressed the rioters, urging them to cease the riot. Critics said the speech was too little and too late.

'GANGS OF NEW YORK' - The movie

Miramax Films

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring:
Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon
Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting
Cameron Diaz as Jenny Everdeane
Jim Broadbent as William "Boss" Tweed
and Liam Neeson as Priest Vallon

Official 'Gangs of New York' website

A later chapter is devoted to the Tong Wars in Chinatown in the early 1900s, and to the Jewish and Italian gangsters who dominated during Prohibition, but the majority of the mayhem is ascribed to the Irish.

Many of the works cited in the book are newspapers of the times; however, Asbury does include a bibliography citing books published before 1927, including "Valentine's Manual of Old New York, 1866 to 1927." This was a primary source of statistics published every year. Interestingly, he also includes a glossary entitled "Slang of the Early Gangsters," which lists the term "City College" as "The Tombs."

The author states in an introduction that the text is not to be read as a sociological text, but as "an attempt to chronicle the more spectacular exploits of the refractory citizen who was a dangerous nuisance in New York for almost a hundred years." He then, inaccurately of course, proclaims gang activity in the city as extinct.

Colorful? Yes. Sensational? Absolutely. Detailed? Too much so. Please do not read "Gangs of New York" as history. It is, however, entertaining, with lithographs and pictures throughout. If nothing else, the book is a good starting point for research.

Patricia Jameson-Sammartano (pjs@TheWildGeese.com) is a longtime member of the Irish History Roundtable, the W.B. Yeats Society of New York, and the New York City Department of Education's Irish Heritage and Culture Week Council. A former chairperson of the UFT's Irish American Heritage Committee, she has taught Irish Studies at St. John's University, teaches high school in Manhattan, and lives in Staten Island. She has also written for The Irish Voice and The New York Irish.

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