Who Were the Real Gangs of New York?

Gangs of New York

The film Gangs of New York with Leonardo di Caprio and Daniel Day Lewis was based largely on fiction, but had some truth to it.

Gangs of New York, the 2003 film starring Daniel Day Lewis, Leonardo Di Caprio, and Cameron Diaz was about a slum section of New York where five city streets converged, known as the “Five Points.” The time period examined began in the 1840’s and ended in the 1860’s when the American Civil War broke out. What were the Five Points really like at that time? How accurate was the film’s portrayal?

Gangs of New York Movie Based on Herbert Asbury’s Novel

The film was actually inspired by author Herbert Asbury’s 1927 novel by the same name, and consequently based on his interpretation of events. Unfortunately, an article from National Geographic News suggests his take on events is highly exaggerated for the following reason: “writing in the Al Capone era, Asbury interpreted the Five Points gangs as the precursors of 1920s organized-crime mobs.”

Gangs of New York Existed, But More as Political Rivals than Organized Criminals

As it turns out, “The Bowery Boys” and Leonardo di Caprio’s “Dead Rabbits” existed, not on the scale of the movie: “[…] gangs like the Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys were political clubs that met at nights and on weekends to promote their candidates. “They would fight at the polls and sometimes beat up their opponents, but not just for fun or plunder […]” Gregory Cristiano also concurs that Hollywood’s version highly overstates gang brutality: “Although there were rival gang melees it usually wasn’t on the scale depicted in the movie or as frequent.”

Bill the Butcher aka Bill Poole Killed Long before Draft Riots

Additionally, it appears there was some historical inaccuracy in the characters themselves: ”The characters were composites of historical figures, for instance, Bill “The Butcher” Cutter (Daniel Day- Lewis), the Protestant leader of The Natives, was actually Bill Poole who was assassinated in 1855, many years before the draft riots.” However, as William Byrk points out in his article on The Butcher, director Scorseses’ portrayal was not largely intended for historical accuracy: “As an artist, of course, Scorsese isn’t trying to present history or depict Poole as an historical person.”

As Scorsese suggests Bill Poole Was a Brutal Person

There were some things the film got right. As suggested, Poole also was not above using brutal methods to achieve his goals. Poole had a major rivalry with United States heavyweight boxing champion and congressman John Morrisey. In one encounter, Bill Poole agreed to Meet Morrissey, but Poole never arrived: “they agreed to meet at 7:00 the next morning. Morrissey arrived with a dozen men. Poole did not show. Two hundred of his men did, however, beating Morrissey and his men until, as Luc Sante notes in Low Life, “a delegation of Tammany politicians” rescued them.”

Bill Poole was Killed in a Bar Fight with Boxing Champion John Morrisey

Eventually, however Bill Poole’s lifestyle would catch up to him in a later bar encounter with Morrisey and his entourage: “Then one Turner, another Tammanyite, flung open his cloak and drew a Colt revolver. While trying to aim at Poole, he shot himself in the arm, screamed and fired again, hitting Poole’s leg. The Butcher fell, and Baker, placing his own pistol against Poole’s chest, shot him in the heart and abdomen. Poole scrambled to his feet, probably on pure adrenalin, and grabbed a carving knife from the bar. The Tammanyites fled as one. Poole screamed that he would tear Baker’s heart from his living flesh. As Poole’s legs gave out, he flung the knife at Baker, the blade quivering in the doorjamb as the Butcher collapsed to the floor.”
Irish Immigrants were Discriminated Against the Way Scorsese Portrays

Scorsese was also correct about Poole’s hatred of immigrants, particularly the Irish: “Poole and his men bitterly opposed Irish-Catholic immigration, hating the immigrants as cheap labor competing for their jobs and loathing the politicians who pandered for the immigrant vote.” That sentiment was widely shared, as Irish persecution did happen almost immediately after they set foot on American soil: “The overall theme of the movie [Director] Scorsese gets exactly right: When the Irish first came to America they were persecuted and they literally did have to fight for their fair share of what America had to offer.” Cristiano also shares that sentiment: “[…] the movie portrayed the times accurately, creating the proper atmosphere and showing the desperate plight of the free African-Americans already living there, and newly arriving immigrants hoping to find paradise only to be thrown into the harsh realities of racism, religious bigotry and rejection.”

High Prostitution in the Five Points – Although Somewhat Exaggerated

Several scenes imply there was a high volume of prostitution in the Five Points. That appears to be fairly accurate as well. But according to the article, some have incorrectly believed the situation for families was so desperate many mothers had their daughters also working prostitutes. In truth, that occurrence was a rarity: “Their claims [about much prostitution in the Five Points] aren’t so far-fetched, though children seldom worked as prostitutes. […] police records reveal that, ‘for the blocks radiating from the Five Points intersection, nearly every building did house a brothel’ in the 1840s and ’50s.”

Any Film Should be Taken with a Grain of Salt

There is usually much truth in film-making. However, every film should be taken with a grain of salt, including historical ones. There is such a thing as artists’ license, and directors often play up scenes largely for entertainment value, not accuracy. Sometimes, it is good practice to simply not take a film too literally.