The allure of romanticizing the past is a sentiment that resonates with many individuals. In the 1970s, a young Martin Scorsese stumbled upon a book titled “The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld,” penned by Herbert Asbury. This book delves into the gritty underworld and political movements of 19th-century New York City, predating the dominance of the mafia. While some now view Asbury’s account as embellished, it profoundly influenced Scorsese. As an Italian-American hailing from Little Italy, Scorsese held a deep affection for his city and its storied gang history. The descriptions of the old Five Points of New York depicted in the book fascinated him, even though today that area is home to Chinatown, Columbus Park, and the Manhattan Civic Center. In an old NPR episode, Scorsese himself articulated, “This film sort of represents the foundation upon which all my other movies are based, in a way. It sort of creates a world in which the worlds I depict in Mean Streets and GoodFellas and Raging Bull.” It took Scorsese nearly three decades to bring this film to life, but it finally graced the big screen twenty years ago today.
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Gangs of New York marked the inception of a legendary partnership between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. While much of the film’s narrative is fictional or not verifiable as fact, such as the existence of the menacing Hellcat Maggie (Cara Seymour), it has earned acclaim for its portrayal of the historic Five Points and for shedding light on the events of that era.
The story of Gangs of New York revolves around Amsterdam Vallon, portrayed by DiCaprio, the son of Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). The tale commences sixteen years before the events of the film, amidst a clash between rival gangs of the Five Points, where the Catholic Priest Vallon meets his demise at the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel-Day Lewis). Amsterdam embarks on a mission for vengeance against his father’s killer, and the narrative transports us to the year 1862. Gangs of New York delves into the real-life gangs that thrived in mid-19th century New York, including The Plug Uglies, The Forty Thieves, The O’Connell Guards, The Shirt Tails, The Chichesters, The Daybreak Boys, The Swamp Angels, and several others, yet at its core, the storyline remains steeped in fiction.
What Parts of ‘Gangs of New York’ Are True?
Watching Gangs of New York in 2022 serves as a stark reminder that history often echoes through time, and certain aspects of history persist without ever truly vanishing. One of the prevailing themes in the film revolves around the simmering tensions between Catholics, immigrants, and Protestant “natives” in 19th-century New York City, particularly in Scorsese’s own neighborhood of Little Italy during that era. According to Khan Academy, a significant number of immigrants were Catholics, while many native-born Americans adhered to Protestantism. The film vividly portrays the undercurrent of xenophobia directed at the waves of immigrants, a phenomenon that eventually contributed to a substantial portion of the United States’ population being naturalized citizens.
Native-born Americans, who regarded themselves as “natives,” harbored concerns that the burgeoning immigrant and naturalized American population might exert negative political and economic influences on their lives. Consequently, numerous political organizations emerged with the objective of promoting native-born politicians or championing native-born leaders for political office, often at the expense of disenfranchising immigrants and naturalized citizens. These groups aligned with the Native American Party, colloquially known as the “Know Nothings,” because when members were questioned about their affiliations, they would reply, “I know nothing.” This historical backdrop provides context to the film’s portrayal of societal tensions and rivalries.
William “The Butcher” Poole
One prominent figure within the Know Nothings was William “The Butcher” Poole, who served as the inspiration for the character William Cutting. As recounted by History Daily, Poole’s day job was that of a butcher, but he earned the moniker “The Butcher” due to his brutal reputation as a bare-knuckle boxer who would mercilessly defeat his opponents in physical brawls. Poole belonged to the Bowery Boys gang, a group depicted in the film as sharing Nativist ideologies with Daniel Day-Lewis’ character. Poole met a fate similar to Cutting’s, as he was fatally wounded by an individual who had previously clashed with an Irish immigrant, a conflict in which Poole was somehow involved. It’s been reported that Poole’s parting words were, “Goodbye boys, I die a true American,” a sentiment eerily akin to Cutting’s final words: “Thank God. I die a true American.”
The Know-Nothings exerted considerable influence for a time but saw their influence wane during the Civil War, as the nation’s focus shifted toward the politics of slavery.
The New York Draft Riots
According to History.com, the clash between Cutting and Amsterdam unfolded during the New York Draft Riots, a tumultuous event that occurred in July 1863. The merchants of New York City didn’t exactly welcome the onset of the Civil War, primarily due to their fear of losing the South as a lucrative trading partner. Politicians and publications opposed to the war and the emancipation of enslaved people in the South stoked apprehension among many white working-class citizens. They were warned that they might have to replace the labor once provided by enslaved individuals. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, it further agitated the working class and those more concerned with preserving the Union than with the liberation of Black men and women in the South. This racially biased sentiment is discernible throughout Gangs of New York.
Consequently, when the Civil War Military Draft Act of 1863 came into effect, it triggered widespread civil unrest among New York residents. Gangs of New York also highlights a provision that allowed men to be exempt from the draft if they could pay a $300 fee. For most men, this fee was out of reach, intensifying their frustration.
During the riots, Black men, women, and even children became targets of violence, along with abolitionists, government buildings, and military installations. Although the riots only lasted for a few days, they resulted in the deaths of thousands and are remembered as one of the deadliest riots in American history.
The Dead Rabbits and The Five Points Gang
The Dead Rabbits, led by Priest Vallon in the film, were indeed a real gang comprised of Irish immigrants. As described by History.com, it is widely believed that Hellcat Maggie was a member of the Dead Rabbits gang, just as depicted in Gangs of New York. Members of the Dead Rabbits, along with several other gangs of that era, eventually came together to form the notorious Five Points Gang. This gang persisted until the 1910s and boasted two of the most infamous gangsters of the 20th century: Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, marking the transition to a new generation of gangs in New York.
As U2’s “The Hands That Built America” resonates through the speakers, the past seamlessly blends into the present, revealing New York City as many once knew it. The skyline, including the iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, is prominently featured. It’s worth noting that Gangs of New York completed production before the tragic events of 9/11, which is why the World Trade Center remains in the final shot. In a way, this feels deeply patriotic when considering a film rooted in the formative yet tumultuous years of the United States, particularly in New York City.
Watching Gangs of New York today serves as a poignant reminder of bygone days, moments once shrouded in uncertainty but ultimately remembered for a city’s resilience and growth. It stands as a symbol of strength and hope, suggesting that at times, revisiting the past isn’t merely romanticization; it’s an honest recollection of history, survival, and the indomitable human spirit.