As I watched Gangs of New York, my eyes kept wandering into the background. Don’t get me wrong, I was entranced by this movie. I could watch by Bill the Butcher eat rare steaks all day. Instead, it’s a comment on how much care Martin Scorsese and his team took to create an authentic feeling 1860s New York City. Their attention results in a metropolis that feels vibrant and lived in. The city, from its vast array of colorful personalities to its filthy, rickety structures, emerges as a character that I was sad to leave at the end of the film’s 168-minute runtime. So, in the spirit of Scorsese and his attention to detail, let’s explore the truth behind the more colorful characters and groups portrayed in Gangs of New York.
But first, a bit of history...
New York City, during the civil war, was a diverse place. In a population of just over 800,000, nearly half were foreign born. Furthermore, about a quarter of the population of the city was Irish-born. The population of African Americans was around 12,500, a mere 1.5% of the population. Both of these populations were largely shut out of the nicer parts of the city, leaving them to settle in lower Manhattan, where notorious slums like the Five Points, depicted in Gangs of New York, were located. In this environment, they competed for the same low-paying jobs resulting in fertile ground for the draft riots of 1863 which occur in the climax of the film.
The Five Points in 1888
By the summer of 1863, when the riots took place, the Civil War had been raging for over two years. Earlier in the year congress had passed The Enrollment Act which set up the first wartime draft of US citizens. The act required that all men between the ages of 20 and 45 register for the draft. It also stipulated that people could purchase exemptions from the draft for $300 [equivalent to about $8,000 today]. This exemption, of course, did not help most of the residents of lower Manhattan. The riots broke out in response to some of the earliest draft lotteries. At the time, the Irish immigrants in the city, already struggling to find well-paying jobs, were worried that the emancipation of slaves upon a Union victory would result in a flood of African Americans into northern states. They feared that these new migrants would increase competition for jobs. They didn’t want to fight in a war that they saw as detrimental to their economic interests. Instead of submitting to the results of the draft lottery and fighting for a war that they believed would harm them, they chose to riot.
Union Troops against Armed Protesters During the Draft Riots
The riots lasted for three days, and required military intervention to quell. During this time, rioters destroyed property, focusing on areas relating to military production, Republicans, and African Americans. By the end of the riot, over a hundred people died, many of them African American. The draft continued. It’s on this backdrop that Scorsese and his team unleashed a bewildering array of historical detail.
Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall
Of all the groups and individuals that appeared in Gangs of New York, Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall were the only ones that I remember hearing about in my high school US history class. Of course, just because I remember hearing about it, doesn’t mean that I remember anything about it.
Tammany Hall was a New York political organization founded in the late 18th century as part of a larger fraternal organization under the Tammany Society. Oddly enough, while the organization grew to hold significant political power in New York by the mid-19th century, it was initially founded as a social club focused on the enjoyment of all things Native American. That didn’t last long, in Manhattan at least. By the start of the 19th century, Aaron Burr had developed the New York Tammany Society, now known as Tammany Hall, into a notorious political machine. As early as 1802 Tammany Hall was known as a center of political corruption. By the 1850s, Tammany Hall made significant inroads with the immigrant population, particularly Irish, trading votes and allegiance for basic welfare services.
William “Boss” Tweed, played by Jim Broadbent in the film, became head of Tammany Hall in 1858. Until his downfall in the 1870s, he solidified Democratic party power in the city by dispensing jobs on city related projects to his poor, mostly immigrant supporters. He used this influence to further solidify his power and enrich himself and his inner circle. It’s estimated that Tammany Hall siphoned between 75 and 200 million dollars of New York taxpayer money between 1865 and 1871.
Interestingly, Tammany Hall, as a building, still stands today on Union Square in Manhattan. You can still identify the building by the Tammany Logo, a red hat on a light blue background, that adorns the building’s pediment.
Hell-cat Maggie and Her Jar of Pickled Ears
Despite being active two decades before the time of Gangs of New York, Hell-cat Maggie was really a fighter in the Dead Rabbits, Priest Vallon’s [Liam Neeson] gang. This Irish Gang emerged from the Five Points and remained a force to be reckoned with for over six decades. Over that time, they engaged in petty crimes like robbery along with brawling, most famously with the nativist Bowery Boys gang. The Dead Rabbits also functioned as a political club which promoted candidates. It’s been suggested that many of the brawls they were engaged in centered around beating up their political opponents, particularly at polling places. Perhaps the most infamous of these brawls was the Dead Rabbits Riot, which lasted for two days in the summer of 1857. This brawl, between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys resulted in at least eight deaths and dozens of hospitalizations.
Bill the Butcher and The Dead Rabbits
No discussion of Gangs of New York is complete without Bill the Butcher, who, as it happens, is also based on a real-life figure. William Poole, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher, was a noted troublemaker until his death in 1855, almost a decade before the main events in the film. While working as a professional butcher and saloon keeper, he was well known as a fighter and facilitator of illegal liquor sales and gambling. He was also famed for his temper, which would flair up frequently in response to perceived insults. Unsurprisingly, his anger would frequently lead to brutal beat-downs.
Later in life, he grew increasingly political, acting as a leader of the nativist, anti-Catholic, Bowery Boys gang and the Know Nothing Movement which was seeking to reduce the influence of immigrants, particularly Catholics, in politics. Interestingly, Bill the Butcher was a bit of an outlier in the Bowery Boys gang with which he’s usually associated. Unlike Bill, most gang members were volunteer firemen. In fact, despite the gang’s notoriety as a nativist gang, it mostly brawled with rival groups of firemen over who would extinguish a fire. This aspect of the Bowery Boys is expressed perfectly in a scene in Gangs of New York where they brawl with an opposing fire brigade led by Boss Tweed. Still, the gang did have an ongoing feud with the Dead Rabbits and other Irish and immigrant gangs which purportedly lasted for decades.
The Brawling Firemen of New York
Much of Bill the Butcher’s involvement in these groups appears to have centered around brawling in order to disrupt elections. Towards the end of his life, he was increasingly involved in activities against Irish immigrants and Tammany Hall. In the end, he was shot and killed by an enraged Tammany Hall supporter.