Gangs of New York: The Book and the Movie

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Submitted by Grant Jones on Wed, 2018-05-23 00:12

Herbert Asbury published his popular history The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld in 1928. It is one of four books that Asbury wrote on the criminal elements in different American cities. The other three deal with gangs in Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco.The book is inaccurate in places. However, it is based on a substantial amount of primary documents from both periodicals and memoirs.

Asbury doesn't quite define his meaning of the term "gang." He is clear that for the purposes of his book, "gangs" refer to the large, but loosely organized, street gangs that originated in such notorious neighborhoods as Five Points, the Bowery, the Lower East Side waterfront and Hell's Kitchen. These gangs were ruled by charismatic leaders such as Bill "the Butcher" Poole, John Morrissey, Johnny Dolan, Paul Kelly and many others. Although these were ethnic gangs, they were held together by loyalty for and fear of their leaders. Asbury makes a distinction between this type of gang and the organized crime that would come later and flourish with Prohibition.

The author documents that the reason the gangs were able to terrorize the streets of New York for so long was their political usefulness to Tammany Hall - New York City's corrupt Democratic machine. Asbury shows that even in the aftermath of the infamous Draft Riot of July 1863, gangsters were protected by the political machine. They were too useful for padding the ballet box and intimidating rivals. He is clear about the causes and consequences of the Riots:

"The disturbances were the natural end of the ruinous road along which the city had travelled during the preceding fifteen years, and the logical result of the governmental corruption which had permitted Manhattan Island to become the Mecca of criminals from all parts of the United States and the slums of Europe ... Many gang leaders of the Five Points, the water front and other criminal infested areas were caught leading their thugs on looting expeditions, but politicians rushed to their aid and saved them from punishment." (pp. 108, 155)

The author doesn't dwell on the politics of the era. His main focus is on the gangs, their leaders and activities. He does note that most of the gangs were dominated by immigrants and their progeny. The exception was the "nativist" Bowery Boys who resented the political pull of the immigrant gangs.

The book can be divided into two sections: before and after the Civil War. The first section is the best. The book tends to lose focus when dealing with the proliferating gangs in the post war era. That said, it's an entertaining read from which I learned a great deal. One interesting aspect of the book is the number of riots that occurred in New York City during this period. In the slums of New York there were always large numbers of people all to happy to engage in such criminal mischief. The author argues that around the time of the First World War crime in New York was changing. The heyday of this type of gang had passed and organized crime was taking over the "rackets." Of course, Asbury was sadly wrong on this score. Vicious street gangs are still a part of American urban life. And, as usual, there are politicians who have use for their "spark of divinity."

One of the earliest gangster films was D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley that was made in 1912. It is a "short" of around sixteen minutes in length. It stars Lillian Gish and the scenario was written by Anita Loos. It was filmed on location and the New York street scenes alone make it worth watching.

The story goes that sometime in the 1970s director Martin Scorsese read the book. He was so impressed that he made a mental note to someday make a film based upon it. Scorsese played so fast and loose with the source material that the film was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Of course, film makers have always taken "artistic license" with their source material. But, in this case, Scorsese also had a political ax of his own to grind. The didactic message of the movie is made clear in the forward to the 2008 edition of Asbury's book. The forward's author is Russell Shorto who, of course, possesses impeccable liberal establishment credentials. But, at least he's honest about the damage wrought on America by the mass importation of collectivists who view the purpose of the state as a partisan in ceaseless tribal warfare:

"In between the polyglot Dutch port city over which Peter Stuyvesant reigned and the birthplace of New Deal policies lay two centuries of unparalleled immigration, in which waves of mostly poor newcomers from a variety of backgrounds poured into Manhattan's mean streets ... The era that Asbury chronicles is one not of out-and-out lawlessness but of poor immigrant communities taking some of the law into their own hands [!], and working both within and outside the existing system. The gangs, and the machine politics, gave way, finally, to new ideas about the role of government in protecting citizens. The gangs of New York can thus be seen not only as precursors to the gangsters and gangstas of later eras, but as a node in the development of American political reform."

There is it from the horse's mouth. Bloody riots, organized crime and massive political corruption brought to these shores are not a problem if they help lead to a bankrupt welfare state that the Founding Fathers would have considered an abomination. This is not an exaggeration on Shorto's part. The theme of the movie that "America was born in the streets" is now "liberal" dogma. According to the "liberal" nomenklatura there was no such thing as American culture prior to the mass immigration that began in the 1840s. In fact, prior to this era, the American people were incapable of self-government. The failure of American "democracy" is best illustrated by the peaceful transition of power from the Federalists to Thomas Jefferson's Republicans in 1801.

Scorsese makes this point repeatedly in his film. Without immigrants, the four foundational groups of Anglo settlers could not have created the United States and formed a more perfect union. But, of course, they did. It's an aspect of American history that the Current Truth is designed to stuff down the Memory Hole.

Scorsese makes some mistakes in this film. He was self-indulgent and made it way too long. It should have been cut by at least forty minutes. The entire ending section should have been deleted. The faux climax about two hours in should have been the film's actual ending. Scorsese does deserve credit for the lush cinematography and careful set production that gives the film its look of authenticity.

What's interesting about this film is that Scorsese's is too good a story teller to let his political agenda completely destroy the entire drama. The putative hero of the film is the ethnic Irish character played by Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio's Amsterdam Vallon is two-dimensional and boring. His motive is revenge. His target is Bill the Butcher played by Danial Day-Lewis. Bill the Butcher is the villain of the film. But a combination of great writing and Day-Lewis's bravado performance makes him the film's central figure. The Bill Cutting is obviously based on Bill Poole. Cutting is a "restrictionist" on immigration, and therefore, a very bad guy. Whether by design or accident, he gets his opportunity to have his say and steal the show. His character has the most depth of any in the film and is the most interesting by far.

As is usual, in this case the book is better than the film. But, the movie is worth watching, even if the last hour becomes tedious and predictable.

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