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Is Gangs of New York Historically Accurate?

On Friday, December 20 Gotham Gazette's NYC Book Club had a live chat with Tyler Anbinder, author of Five Points, and Jay Cocks, screenwriter of Gangs of New York. They talked about the fact and the folklore behind the movie Gangs of New York and what the Five Points area was really like.


Gotham Gazette: Good afternoon everyone and thanks for coming. Welcome to Gotham Gazette's NYC Book Club. The books this month are Gangs of New York and Five Points: The 19th-century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became The World' s Most Notorious Slum. Our guests today are Tyler Anbinder and Jay Cocks. Good afternoon Professor Anbinder.

Tyler Anbinder: Hello.

GG: For those book club members who have not read your book, Five Points, what was Five Points? When did it begin, when did it end?

Anbinder: Five Points was a neighborhood in 19th century New York in what is now Chinatown. It got its name because of an odd five cornered intersection that resulted from the intersection of 3 streets. The streets are now Baxter, Worth, and Mosco. The neighborhood faded away from memory at the beginning of this century as much of it was torn down to make way for parks and courthouses.

GG: When you say the beginning of this century, you mean the beginning of the 20th century, correct?

Anbinder: Yes, sorry about that. The demolition began in 1897 with the tearing down of the infamous Mulberry Bend block of tenements.

GG: Why is there so much interest in this neighborhood a century after it ceased to exist?

Anbinder: I think a number of factors. Interest in old New York has increased after 9/11. Also, as New York again becomes home to huge numbers of new immigrants, New Yorkers are more interested than ever in finding out what immigrant life was like in the city's past. The Gangs of New York movie hasn't hurt either.

GG: In your history of Five Points, you write that the very first known press account of the neighborhood, in 1826, called it "the resort of thieves and rogues of the lowest degree." And for decades afterwards, everybody from Charles Dickens to Davy Crockett weighed in with similar judgments. Why did the neighborhood get such a notorious reputation?

Anbinder: First, it was built over what had been a lake. In the 19th century, Americans associated dampness with disease and death, so no one wanted to live there. It also became the city's main red light district early on, and that added to the notoriety. Because it was built on not-so-solid ground, the buildings began to lean and tumble down quickly, and this gave the neighborhood an old and decrepit look even soon after it was built. Finally, it was the home of more immigrants than any other part of New York, and immigrants were associated with crime and lawlessness. The Irish in particular became renowned for rioting there, and that sealed the neighborhood's reputation.

GG: The subtitle of your book is: "The 19th-century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became The World' s Most Notorious Slum." You've told us about the notorious slum. Tell us about the other two.

Anbinder: When the Irish got to Five Points, they found a neighborhood already teeming with African Americans. The two groups often found themselves in the same dance halls in the neighborhood, and the Irish dancing their jigs and reels combined with the African-Americans dancing American dances such as the "Shuffle" to make a new dance form, tap dance.

As to stealing elections, the neighborhood became renowned for electoral lawlessness. Before the Civil War, this mainly involved rioting at the polls to prevent one's opponents from voting. After the Civil War, Five Points precincts became renowned for casting more ballots than there were elegible voters, sometimes two or three times as many votes as should have been cast.

GG: Beeeej asks, "Have you seen the Scorsese film yet?"

Anbinder: I am going to see it this weekend, but I did read the screenplay for Scorsese just before he went to Italy to begin shooting.

GG: In his review of the movie, David Denby writes in the New Yorker: " Gangs is an example of the fallacy of research: they got the hats and knives right, but the main lines of the story don't make much sense." Did they get the hats and the knives right?

Anbinder: I would say they definitely got the hats right. The knives are right so far as it goes, but the neighborhood was not nearly as lawless as the movie implies. There were robberies to be sure, especially at night, but people were not afraid to walk through the neighborhood in the daylight hours.

GG: The neighborhood existed for almost the entire 19th century. Did it change from decade to decade?

Anbinder: It changed a lot. It was at its worst in the 1830s and 40s. In the 1850s, Protestant religious groups made cleaning up Five Points a priority. That, and the ebbing of the immigrant tide, eventually led the neighborhood's inhabitants to fare far better economically than they had in the past. By 1860, Five Points was said to be tame. Then it became notorious again in the 1880s as Italians and Chinese, newly off the boat and poor, replaced the Irish.

GG: Professor Anbinder, let us go through the details of the movie one by one. Was New York, as Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie puts it, " a city full of tribes and war-chiefs"? Is it true that "our great city was born in blood and tribulation"?

Anbinder: He is right in the sense that New Yorkers certainly thought about themselves very much as Protestant or Catholic, Irish, or German, etc., and so the city was divided to a large extent. The blood part is also true in that the city was a very riotous place in the 19th century. It was common to read about election days, for example, "a quiet day at the polls, only two killed." So public violence was more common, espcially in the political realm, than we imagine. On the other hand, gangs were not fighting in the streets every day, not even every month, often not even every year. The huge melees depicted in the movie were very rare events. And the kind of Super Bowl of gang warfare I've seen in the clips I have seen did not take place in the 19th century in Five Points.

GG: Peter asks, " The nativists were largely Protestant?"

Anbinder: Right, nativists in the 19th century were almost all Protestants who believed that Protestantism made America great, and that Catholics were a threat to the peace and prosperity of the nation.

GG: Mr. Cocks, how closely does the movie follow Asbury’s book, or other historical accounts?

Jay Cocks: Hi....thanks for having me around. Doesn't follow the Asbury book at all. We supplied the story. Asbury supplied inspiration and a little history.

GG: This is a question for both of you: When did you first hear about the book Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury? First, Professor Anbinder? And how did you react to it?

Anbinder: I read it in grad school. Asbury was famous for cranking books out. They all tend to have the same theme. He wrote books VERY similar to Gangs of NY about Chicago, San Francisco, etc.

Cocks: 1970. Marty [Scorsese] and I discovered it on the same day, at the same time, talking on the phone, this time of year.

GG: What was your reaction?

Cocks: Thought the book was swell and full of rich fictive possibility.

Anbinder: I would add that Asbury is very good at finding material. The problem is that he lacked judgment, so he missed obvious lies and falsehoods about the neighborhood, and New York in general.

GG: Mr. Cocks, do you agree?

Cocks: Gave us the chance to be Ned Buntline [creator of the dime novel]. Make up our own myths, based in history. Don't know. But lies and falsehoods can often be more helpful to drama than fact.

GG: Let us ask both of you about some of the characters and details in the movie. First, there really was somebody named Bill the Butcher. Was he anything like the character as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis?

Cocks: We wanted Bill to be larger than life. Daniel added to his size.

Anbinder: The real Bill Poole was something like Bill Cutting, but only a bit. He WAS famous for having been killed by an Irishman in 1855 and having said "I die a true American," which made him a hero to the nativists.

GG: Does he say that line in the movie, Mr. Cocks?

Cocks: Yes, Bill says something very similar in the movie.

Anbinder: But he was not a nativist gang leader. He was a well known Whig, a bit more of a politician than shown in the movie.

GG: Was there really a gang called the Dead Rabbits?

Cocks: Yes. And please don't forget...our Bill is not supposed to be Poole. He's Bill Cutting.

Anbinder: There was a gang identified in the press as the Dead Rabbits. But the members all wrote to the newspapers after the riot they were in in 1857 and insisted that that was not their name. They said they were the Roche Guard (named after a local saloon keeper) But the press loved the name so it stuck.

Cocks: Stuck to us too.

Anbinder: The term became one used across the nation to describe bad characters, but there was definitely no rabbit on a pike being brought to a riot. But it looks good in the clips I've seen!

GG: How about the building called the Old Brewery. Did it look like dark Roman caves?

Cocks: That's the way we dreamed it.

Anbinder: No one knows what it looked like inside. It did not have the big, open spaces shown in the movie. No landlord would let all that space go to waste. Descriptions from the time say it was carved up into little cubicles to fit as many tenants in the tenement as possible.

GG: Did the New Yorkers who lived in Five Points watch while terriers attacked rats? Did they engage in bloody boxing? Did they watch knife-throwing for sport? Were these popular games?

Anbinder: I've never seen a description of knife throwing in Five Points per se. But rat pits were somewhat popular, though more by the waterfront than at Five Points.

Cocks: Spectators came from uptown too.

Anbinder: Bare knuckle prize fighting was very popular, but because it was illegal it was usually done out of town. Going to the theater was VERY popular. Five Pointers could recite Shakespeare as well as many uptowners.

Cocks: Uncle Tom's Cabin scene in "Gangs" was inspired by a real actor's riot.

Anbinder: There were also bars where sparring matches with gloves were held legally, but the unscheduled fights drew the most notice and fame.

GG: Did firefighters really fight each other rather than fires?

Cocks: Yep.

Anbinder: Yes, but that was not their only reason for existence. Most firefighters really wanted to put out fires and be heroes. Political fighting was definitely part of the job, but it was not the only part.

GG: Why were there so many riots?

Cocks: Why was there so much poverty?

Anbinder: Rioting was one of the ways for people who felt powerless to express themselves and be "heard."

Cocks: Vox pop. With fists and clubs.

Anbinder: Once guns became prevalent, rioting became more infrequent, because now instead of being bruised you might be killed.

Cocks: Marty [Scorsese] thought our gangs would be too poor, for the most part, to afford guns.

Anbinder: It is notable that after the "Dead Rabbit" riot of 1857, elections etc. were VERY quiet for the next few years. People for the first time saw what guns could do to an old-fashined bricks and clubs riot.

Cocks: Quiet elections make for bad drama.

Anbinder: At the Dead Rabbit riot of 1857, both sides had guns, but mostly the Bowery Boys (the Nativists in the movie). They had quite a few. The Bowery Boys were somewhat well paid politicos.

GG: Professor Anbinder, you write: "Northerner and Southerner, slaveholder and abolitionist could all use Five Points to justify their political views. Each of the groups that shaped its reputation had some incentive to make it look as horrible as possible." Why is that?

Anbinder: By associating one's enemy with Five Points, one could make the ultimate insult of the perid. Since no one "respectable" came from there, you could insult the Five Pointers reputation without fearing that you would hurt the sales of your newspapers or your votes on election day, unless you were from New York. Besides, sensational stories sold papers.

Cocks: Let's hope the same goes for movies.

GG: Some critics, Mr. Cocks, have said the movie has depicted the neighborhood as worse than it actually was. Is this true, and what was your incentive?

Cocks: Incentive was solid drama. Inspiration was Fellini's "Satyricon," Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" and Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" as much as fact. Probably more.

GG: A collection of artifacts from Five Points -- dishes, combs, tea pots -- was housed in the World Trade Center and was destroyed on September 11. Mr. Cocks, how helpful were these for your movie?

Cocks: They would have been wonderfully helpful, if I'd known they were there.

GG: Professor Anbinder, did you use these materials for your book?

Anbinder: I did. They give a great sense of what life would have been like. They also led me to hunt especially hard for bank records, since the archaeology showed that at least SOME Five Pointers were not dirt poor.

GG: Is there any lasting meaning or consequences for New York of Five Points?

Anbinder: Five Points' story, like that of "Gangs," shows that the making of the multi-ethnic America we know today was a lot more difficult than we remember. We tend to think that our ancestors were not like immigrants today, but in almost every way they were.

Cocks: New York is a city that seldom looks back. It should.

GG: Thanks to Professor Anbinder and Mr. Cocks for participating in the chat.

Cocks: Thanks back.

Anbinder: Thanks for having me.


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