Politics & Policy

Real Gangs

The Scorsese film in historical perspective.

Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited epic, Gangs of New York, set mostly in New York’s notorious Five Points neighborhood in 1863, is designed with both poetic extravagance and verisimilitude. According to Peter Rainer in New York magazine, the film has been “scrupulously researched down to the last crevice and cobblestone.” Inspired by Herbert Asbury’s history of New York’s underworld, also entitled The Gangs of New York, this excruciatingly violent movie pits American nativists against Irish Catholic immigrants in a war over the streets of lower Manhattan. Yet, despite the sense of historical accuracy, there is a great deal in the film that misses the mark.

Philip Hone, describing New York in a diary written between 1823 and 1851, noted that lower Manhattan was overburdened with a population “where the two extremes of costly luxury in living, expensive establishments and improvident waste are presented in daily and hourly contrast with squalid misery and hopeless destitution.”

Clearly, the Irish immigrants — who had expended their last shilling paying for passage to the New World, had been deceived by unscrupulous agents, and were left to starve among strangers — swelled the ranks of the city’s almshouses. Many of these immigrants arrived sick, many were easy prey for extortionists, and most felt uneasy in a land they viewed as hostile.

Having subsisted in Ireland by cultivating potatoes, many of these immigrants lacked skills for city life. A penchant for drink and fighting relegated the Irish to their own communities, where the hostility of nativists could be mitigated through benevolent societies such as the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.

These immigrant communities were composed of old houses, with damp cellars, little ventilation, poor sanitary conditions, and insects and rodents everywhere. “Five Points,” a filled-in swamp in the old Sixth Ward, formed the center of Irish life. Here, at little or no cost, the poorest of the Irish occupied dilapidated dwellings and built shanties with whatever materials were available. As Herbert Asbury indicated, this was New York’s notorious center of crime and city poverty in the 1840′s. It’s ironic that the Five Points restaurant on West 3rd Street, only blocks away from the area with the same name, is among the most expensive in Manhattan today.

The key figure in the film is Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Bill is a composite figure who imagines himself to be the “true American,” fighting against the encroachment of a foreign religion and an alien way of life.

While violence was very much a part of the life of New York during this era, the Sixth Ward was more largely a center of contagion: Epidemics of various communicable diseases broke out among the Irish in 1837, 1842, and 1849. With family worries over illnesses and deaths, gang fighting was much less prevalent than both the film and Asbury’s history suggest. Nativist vitriol in fact reached its height in Philadelphia, with the burning of Catholic churches in 1844 — a riot arguably worse than any that occurred in New York during this period.

Moreover, while nativists could be bigoted and resentful, they certainly did not all resemble Bill Cutting. The leading nativist in New York from the 1820s through the 1840s was Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, distinguished artist, and candidate for mayor in 1836.

In 1844, the American Republican party, an avowed nativists’ organization (unrelated to the Republican party organized in 1860), nominated James Harper, a wealthy and aristocratic businessman, for mayor. He was elected that same year as a “reformer” calling for immigration restriction.

Riding on the successful publication of Maria Monk’s famous claims of unholy and criminal treatment at the hands of priests, Harper built a publication company that relied heavily on anti-Catholic sentiment. The Harper Book Company later became Harper and Row and is now HarperCollins. The revelations in Monk’s Awful Disclosures led to a Senate investigation, but the “disclosures” were eventually discredited as the fantastic ravings of an insane woman. Monk died years later in an asylum.

While bigotry was clearly on display, differences in language, dress, manners, and religious attitudes manifested themselves in clannishness on both sides of the ethnic divide. Irish women could find work as seamstresses and servants, but the men scrambled for menial positions. Newspaper ads read, “Women wanted — To do general housework… English, Scotch, Welch, German, or any country or color except Irish.” Even blacks were often preferred for employment over the Irish.

Notwithstanding this discrimination, the Irish in New York made rapid strides. By 1855, approximately 66 percent of maritime workers were Irish. The 1855 census revealed at least one Irish cotton manufacturer and one hat manufacturer in the city. One of the leading clothiers in the city was P. L. Rogers, an Irish immigrant and owner of a six-storey establishment at Fulton and Nassau Streets that employed 1,000 people, most of them Irish.

By the end of the 1840s — arguably the most difficult period for Irish immigrants in the city — there were about 80,000 Catholics in New York, about two-thirds of whom were Irish. Friendless and insecure in a new environment, these immigrants found consolation in the Catholic Church. Archbishop John Hughes was himself an Irishman.

For Hughes, the most objectionable feature of New York City life was the common school system, which required the reading of the King James Bible. He regarded this requirement as “proselytizing” and in time was to create a separate Catholic school system. Most notably, this school system made it possible for uneducated Irish immigrants to provide an education for their children, free from the influence of the Protestant establishment.

Inspired by Tammany Hall, Irishmen became minor ward bosses in the 1850s and ’60s, a point well made in the Scorsese film. Through this notorious system, gangs of ward heelers used violent and corrupt methods to woo the foreign vote, with almost all Irishmen ending up in and voting for the Democratic party. To ensure that the police ignored political corruption, foreign wards were covered by strong forces of immigrant policemen. By 1860, almost all the cops in Five Points were Irish. Politics, the saloon, the police, and later the fire companies were the immigrant avenues to success.

In nearly all mayoral elections and in every presidential election of the 1840s and ’50s, the Fourth and Sixth Wards produced a plurality or majority Democratic vote. The Irish were rewarded for this political loyalty with the creation of separate Catholic schools and the allocation of a share of school funds for the archdiocese.

But the relative success the Irish were able to achieve in politics and education aggravated nativist grievances. Mordecai Noah, editor of the Evening Star, spoke for many in an article entitled “America in American Hands.” With Adrastus Doolittle and Uriah Watson, two successful businessmen, Noah organized the Native American Democratic Association as a means of keeping foreigners (read: Irish) from depriving Americans of their liberties, and to protect the country from foreign intrigue. The Association inveighed against the appointment of any naturalized citizen to public office.

Though the group fanned the flames of bigotry and led to street fights between nativists and the Irish in 1835, Morse, the nativist mayoral candidate in 1836, was not elected. By 1860, native-born Americans practically relinquished the foreign vote to the Democratic party in the city, virtually assuring the election of Democratic candidates.

Scorsese conflates the events of the 1830s and ’40s with those of the 1860s, creating the illusion that the Draft Riots of 1863 (during the Civil War) were contemporaneous with the major gang wars between the Irish and the nativists. In fact, since the Irish were unable to pay the $300 required to be relieved of military duty, they were disproportionately engaged in the riots and vented their anger against black residents of the city with beatings and public hangings — a point virtually overlooked by Scorsese.

Directors are obviously permitted literary license, but in this case a distortion of major proportions has been propagated that overlooks the strides made by the Irish in three critical decades of the 19th century, the competition among ethnic groups, and the relative openness of the United States in general and New York City in particular — despite the obvious examples of bigotry and insularity.

Group antagonism is inevitable when two peoples regularly in contact with one another can be distinguished by different physical characteristics and are real or potential competitors. The New York Irish fulfilled such conditions. Immediate assimilation could have prevented the conflict, but that was impossible. A vicious cycle was established in which Irish efforts at economic, political, social, and religious adjustment to relieve discrimination and hostility served only to increase native American anger. That part of the story Scorsese got right.

For generations of New Yorkers who know nothing at all about the nativist movement in the city, this film might prompt a careful examination of New York’s history. The foundation of the city rests on blood, recrimination, bigotry, and opportunity — all existing in equal measure and all stored in the archives of New York’s collective memory. Unfortunately, Martin Scorsese didn’t try to recapture the real, more nuanced, history of New York in the mid 19th century; he simply wanted to construct an entertainment vehicle. To that end, he is at least partially successful.

Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute, John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University, publisher of American Outlook, and author of the recently published Decade of Denial.


The Latest