The Gangs of New York – Herbert Asbury

My old U.S. history book from school (which unfortunately I no longer have) skipped right over the Draft Riots of New York in a sentence or two and touched only tangentially on the horrific poverty and crime endemic to certain areas of New York, and the influx of immigrants through the city. Chiefly what I recall from those days is the smell of chalk and erasers, furtive whispers, a long line of students listlessly propping their heads up on their chins as they listened to the teacher drone on about various Supreme Court decisions, Dred-Scott, Gettysburg, and other things they collectively saw as irrelevant to their lives. It was, unfortunately, akin to watching paint dry.

How sad that history is often reduced to pedantic interpretations without the verve, color, excitement, fear, emotion and lives of the people of the era.

Obviously no one ever told Herbert Asbury that he had to be boring.

The Gangs of New York vividly recreates New York life in the Five Points, Hell’s Kitchen, and Paradise Square, the kingdoms of the gangs. Peopled variously with dead-eyed, slungshot-laden gangs such as the Bowry Boys, the Plug Uglies, the Dead Rabbits, the Shirt-tails, the True-Blue Americans; piratical river gangs like the Daybreak Boys, the Hookers, and the Patsy Conroys’; Fagin-like pickpocket crews, Chinese Tongs, ward-heelers, street-sweepers, gangsters and gamblers and rife with crimping bars, brothels, rancid tenements, raucous theaters, penny gin-mills and gaming hells, the subject matter alone make The Gangs of New York a rich find.

Here’s a brief taste (and frankly as vivid a character sketch as you are ever likely to find in print):

“Gallus Meg was one of the notorious characters of the Fourth Ward, a giant Englishwoman well over six feet tall, who was so called because she kept her skirt up with suspenders, or galluses. She was bouncer and general factotum of the Hole-In-The-Wall, and stalked fiercely about the dive with a pistol stuck in her belt and a huge bludgeon strapped to her wrist. She was an expert in the use of both weapons, and like the celebrated Hell-Cat Maggie of the Five Points, was an extraordinary virtuoso in the art of mayham. It was her custom, after she had felled an obstreperous customers with her club, to clutch his ear between her teeth and so drag him to the door, amid the frenzied cheers of the onlookers. If her victim protested and struggled, she bit off his ear, and having cast the fellow into the street she carefully deposited the detached member in a jar of alcohol behind the bar, in which she kept her trophies in pickle.”

The book weaves the sordid history and practices of the gangs, mainly the enormous Five Points gangs in the first half of the book (often with members numbering in the thousands) that literally controlled whole sections of the city, followed by the more common criminal gangs and the early beginnings of what would, ultimately, evolve into the more recognizable classic “gangster” of the 1920’s. If there is a fault in Asbury’s account (which he styles an “informal history of the New York underworld”) is that while the linkages between the political corruption of Tammany Hall that encouraged, protected and promoted the gangs are outlined, it is somewhat sparse and subjective, without the clear connections that linked money, property, immigrant votes, protection rackets and other vices to the political structure of the city and the nascent NYPD.

Realistically the book culminates with the Draft Riots in 1863, which saw more than 2,000 people killed during a week-long riot that ravaged New York (That’s the same number of Union forces that died at Antietam (or Sharpsburg, if you are from the South), one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War). Unfortunately the Draft Riots occur at roughly the half-way point of the book, with the remaining, more anti-climatic chapters outlining the final heydays of the gangs and the slow erosion of their dominance and control as political corruption was rooted out. Though the book is somewhat archaic (first published in 1928) and the language is somewhat lurid at points, it offers a insiders look at the underbelly of the city that most histories ignore entirely.

The only other failing of note is that, for a non-New York reader unfamiliar with the city’s geography, a good map would have been a priceless addition.

The Gangs of New York is, at the most basic, a rich, exciting, bloody and base tapestry, populated by some of the most appalling personages you can imagine. In other words: a damn fine read.

Asbury authored a number of other books over the years including The Gangs of Chicago, The Barbary Coast (a look at the underworld of San Francisco), and The Sucker’s Progress (gambling), among others. For more about Asbury visit this site.

For another look at the Five Points, check out Tyler Anbinder’s book Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum.

For a good (if heavy and lengthy) history of New York, read Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows.

You can find some background on the Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury and the infamous Bill the Butcher here.

Take a tour of the archeological work being done on historic New York and the Five Points, or check out a good list of sites related to the history of New York, and a quick (if a little mundane) look at Hell’s Kitchen today.

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