Gangs of New York – Fact or Fiction?

We decipher the facts behind some of the core features of Martin Scorsese's epic tale of mid-1800s New York.

"Here, too, are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee deep: underground chambers, where they dance and game; ... ruined houses, open to the street ... hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder; all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here."

So wrote Charles Dickens, in 1842, of the Five Points, the raucous Manhattan neighborhood that serves as the setting for Martin Scorsese's 2002 Oscar-nominated film Gangs of New York. Dickens was one of many famous outsiders who paid "slumming" visits to the Five Points in the mid-1800s, and came back with tales of sickness and depravity, inspiring the book upon which Scorsese loosely based his movie.

But were the Five Points, and the gangs who inhabited them, really as miserable and chaotic as Scorsese depicted them? There is no doubting that some of the story has been dramatised for entertainment purposes (just like any film based on a true story), but is Gangs of New York historically accurate? And if so, how accurate?

It will likely come as no surprise to hear that Scorsese exercised some creative license in telling the story of the Five Points and its gangs. But, in the main, Gangs of New York paints a reasonably faithful portrait of a particular place and moment in American history. If you haven’t yet seen the 168 minute epic, it is definitely worth watching next time you are on the couch looking for an interesting movie. This is not the New York you have become familiar with in modern cinema, as there are no glamorous settings, gigantic skyscrapers or beautiful parks.

It’s a historic spectacle told in true Scorsese fashion, filled with thought-provoking themes throughout the entire film. With so much to analyse, we decipher the facts behind three of the core features of the story:

 

The Gangs of the Five Points

To begin with, there were in fact, gangs who ruled and brawled in the Five Points, and they went by the same names as those used in the film, including The Bowery Boys and The Dead Rabbits amongst others. As the film depicts, the gangs all served their own purposes and ideologies. They were religious and ethnic clubs, political organisations, criminal enterprises, and volunteer fire companies, all rolled into one, and they regularly fought each other over the intense rivalries that those various functions fueled.

As explained in the film, the Bowery Boys and their allies consisted of "native-born," anti-immigrant, white Protestants, while the Dead Rabbits and their allies were made up of (mostly) Irish Catholic immigrants.

 

Bill "the Butcher" Poole and James Morrissey

In Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio play rival gang leaders Bill "the Butcher" Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon. Though he changed their names, Scorsese based these characters on two real historical figures, Bill "the Butcher" Poole and James Morrissey. Poole, who led the Bowery Boys, was a butcher, boxer, and notorious anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic figure in New York politics. His bitter rival, Morrissey immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1831, and rose to lead the Dead Rabbits.

Their gangs first clashed when the Dead Rabbits were hired to stop the Bowery Boys' attempts to steal ballot boxes to rig an election, contributing to the Dead Rabbits gaining the backing of famous New York political powerbroker William "Boss" Tweed, whose maneuverings are also depicted in the film.

Of course, Gangs of New York exaggerates the story of Poole/Cutting and Morrissey/Amsterdam somewhat. The real Poole and Morrissey did, in fact, fight mano-a-mano, but not to the death as the film suggests, but rather in a boxing ring (Where Poole won the fight). And it wasn't Morrissey who actually killed Poole. Instead, a few weeks after their boxing match, a friend of Morrissey's shot and killed Poole inside a tavern.

 

Gang Fights and Draft Riots

In Gangs of New York, the climactic confrontation between Bill Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon takes place during a massive gang fight that coincides with rioting over the Civil War draft. Here, too, the movie takes some license by combining two separate clashes that happened six years apart into one single event.

Over three days in July, 1857, the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits clashed in the streets of the Five Points, and by the time the New York State Militia finally put the rioting down, eight people lay dead and more than one hundred were injured. Six years later, in mid-July 1863, rioting broke out all over New York City spurred by two interconnected issues: the Emancipation Proclamation announced the freeing of enslaved African-Americans, while the Union Army's draft permitted wealthier citizens to buy their way out of compulsory service, which would end up placing the burden on poor immigrants.

Just as Gangs of New York depicts, the draft riots targeted black citizens in particular, and the three days of mayhem left more than one hundred New Yorkers dead while causing widespread property destruction.

As with any work of historical fiction, Gangs of New York does take some liberties with the facts to help the story along for the sake of the viewer. But nevertheless, its dedication to painting an accurate portrait of life, politics and violence in New York in the mid-1800s makes it an enjoyable and impressive history lesson.

The star studded trio of Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz, along with Martin Scorsese's masterful directing means Gangs of New York was always going to be a captivating film, even if it is not completely factual.

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