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Gangs of New York: The History That Inspired the Movie

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Written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan and directed by legendary director Martin Scorsese, 2002's Gangs of New York is a massive achievement in terms of period films based on actual historical events and people. Loosely based on Herbert Asbury's 1928 nonfiction book of the same title, the film honestly portrays the history of the gangs of New York with the Irish American immigration experience in the city and America. Scorsese went to great lengths to authentically recreate old New York City, building a massive set in Italy that replicated how the city used to look.

With the backdrop of the Civil War and the tensions and dissension among New York City's citizens concerning the war, poor gangs from the Five Points would thrive and bustle as they fought for turf, respect, and power. Scorsese brilliantly used real-life events as well as historical characters to give authenticity to this film about a time in New York history that's not really known by the general public.

The attitudes towards Irish immigrants, blacks, the Civil War, and those within and outside of politics were dead on and realistic according to the history of the time. This film portrays a brutal look at the history of America, and one of its most treasured cities. Gangs of New York is also a scary reminder of some of the attitudes some still carry in the present.

History always shows we are not that far from the past. In a sense, it's our warning. Speaking of warnings, I will be using quotes from the movie, and some of them contain very rough language. These Gangs of New York quotes will contain racial slurs used to illustrate the attitudes of Americans towards the Irish immigrants of that time.

Was "Gangs of New York" a True Story?

While Scorsese took some artistic liberties, much of the history depicted in the film is based on historical characters and attitudes of the time. However, much of the violence in the movie and particularly in Ashbury's book was exaggerated. Historian Tyler Anbinder worked with Scorsese while he was making the film and dispelled many of the inaccuracies in the book. While there was certainly lawlessness and violence in the city of New York, the Five Points area was no more violent than any other part of the city. While many of the characters in Gangs of New York are based off real people, others were combined from multiple sources or made up altogether.

Before we get more into the real historical figures who played a role in shaping the characters of the movie and the actual gangs used in the movie, it's extremely important to discuss the mother whom gave birth and nurtured the legendary gangs of New York: the Five Points!

The Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan.

The Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan.

The Five Points Neighborhood in "Gangs of New York"

The film's historical background is greatly entrenched within the history and climate of the Five Points neighborhood of the time. It was given the name of the Five Points because of the intersection of Mulberry Street, Orange Street (now Baxter), Cross Street (now Mosco), Worth Street, and Little Water Street to create the plot of land known as Paradise Square.

One of the great Gangs of New York quotes from Bill the Butcher is when he explains the intersection of the Five Points to William Tweed, "Mulberry Street... and Worth... Cross and Orange... and Little Water. Each of the Five Points is a finger. When I close my hand, it becomes a fist. And, if I wish, I can turn it against you."

The Five Points area was built on what was known as the Collect Pond. The pond was a main source of fresh drinking water for the city. As a result, many businesses were erected along the shores of the pond and contaminated it in a short period.

The pollution became a problem and a hazard. It was proposed to be cleaned and used as a centerpiece or a recreational park, but that proposal was rejected. Instead, it was decided to fill in the pond, and the land fill was done poorly.

Buried vegetation began to release methane gas, which is a natural by-product of decomposition. The area also lacked adequate storm sewers. Because of the poorly filled in land, houses and buildings shifted on their foundations. The place was infested with mosquitos due to the poor drainage.

In essence, it stunk, and the place was filled with disease. Nobody wanted to live there except the poorest of the poor. When the Irish began immigrating to the city in large droves largely due to the Great Irish famine of 1845–1852, Irish immigrants began piling into the Five Points and making the neighborhood their new home.

Generally regarded as one of the all-time greats, Daniel Day-Lewis is the only male actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor 3 times. He was nominated for his performance in "Gangs of New York" in 2002.

Generally regarded as one of the all-time greats, Daniel Day-Lewis is the only male actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor 3 times. He was nominated for his performance in "Gangs of New York" in 2002.

Was William Cutting a Real or Fictional Character?

While some of the characters in the film were fictional and not based on real historical figures, the character of Bill Cutting was.

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Played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, the character of Bill Cutting was directly based on the real historical figure William Poole. The last name may have been changed, but William Poole's real nickname "Bill the Butcher" was used in the movie.

The main difference is that in Gangs of New York, Cutting survives to see the civil war and participates in the draft riots of 1863, whereas Poole was shot to death in 1855.

In classic fashion Daniel Day-Lewis spent an extreme amount of time getting into his role, spending time working with multiple professional butchers so that he could more authentically portray Bill the Butcher. DDL's method acting style means he spends an extreme amount of time preparing for his role, literally living the life of the character as best as possible. Additionally, DDL resurrected an old New York accent for his role that would have fit in with the period. He managed to capture the seething rage and distrust of the Irish that was prominent during the period.


William Poole: The Real "Bill the Butcher"

William Poole was a Nativist enforcer of the Native American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party, which was a faction of the American Republican Party. The Know Nothing was a movement created by Nativists who believed that the overwhelming immigration of German and Irish Catholic immigrants was a threat to republican values and controlled by the Pope in Rome.

They were dubbed the Know-Nothings by outsiders of their semi-secret organization. This had nothing to do with them knowing anything. It had to do with their reply when asked about the organization's activities, often stating, "I know nothing."

The real Bill the Butcher was a leader of the Bowery Boys and known for his skills as a bare-knuckle boxer. Poole's trade was that of a butcher, and he was infuriated when many butchering licenses were being handed out to Irish immigrants.

William Poole was born in Sussex County, New Jersey to parents of English Protestant descent. His family moved to New York City in 1832 to open a butcher shop in Washington Market, Manhattan.

Unlike the movie which Bill Cutting mentions his father died fighting against the British, the real William Poole's father did not die fighting the British. In fact, Bill Poole trained in his father's trade and eventually took over the family store. In the 1840s, he worked with the Howard (Red Rover) Volunteer Fire Engine Company #34, on Hudson and Christopher Street.

Also unlike in the movie, William Poole was shot in real life. However, he was shot at Stanwix Hall, a bar on Broadway near Prince. William Poole did not die in a glorious street battle against his Irish enemies. Instead, he died from the gun wound at his home on Christopher Street. His last words were: "Goodbye, boys. I die a true American."

What was true in the movie was the conflict the real Bill the Butcher had with the Irish immigrant gang the Dead Rabbits. The Dead Rabbits were William Poole's most hated enemies, particularly the leader of the Dead Rabbits, John Morrissey.

John Morrissey's Influence on the Amsterdam Vallon Character

Although the character of Amsterdam Vallon, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, was greatly a work of fiction, it can also be argued that the character of Amsterdam in Gangs of New York was very loosely based on the historical figure of John Morrissey.

John was born in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland in 1831. Two years later, his parents immigrated to the United States and settled in Troy, New York. Like William Poole, he was well known as a highly skilled boxer, gambler, and gang leader of the Dead Rabbits.

Unlike the movie, Morrissey's father was not killed by Bill the Butcher and revenge was not his true motive in going head to head with the Butcher. In reality, he became Poole's adversary when he was hired to prevent Poole from seizing ballot boxes and rigging an election. Morrissey and the Dead Rabbit gang were rewarded by Tammany Hall as they were allowed to open a gambling house without police interference.

Poole and Morrissey would go toe-to-toe, but not in an epic gang battle. The two fought in a boxing match, in which Morrissey lost. A few weeks later, Lew Baker, a friend of Morrissey, shot and fatally wounded Bill the Butcher at a saloon on Broadway in 1855.

Morrissey was a champion boxer, but when he retired, he ran for Congress and was backed by Tammany Hall. He ended up serving two terms (1867-1871) in the House for the 40th and 41st Congress, representing the 5th Congressional District. As a Congressman, Morrissey always looked out for the interests of the Irish.

Much like William Poole was an enforcer of the Native American Party, John Morrissey and his Dead Rabbits were often used as enforcers for the Democratic Party and the muscle for the leader of Tammany Hall: William "Boss" Tweed.

John Hughes Archbishop of New York.

John Hughes Archbishop of New York.

When I first wrote and researched this piece on the historical relevance that the film Gang of New York depicts, there was little information on Dagger John Hughes or any information that pointed me in the direction of this real life priest. The real life person was actually brought to my attention recently in a comment below.

After digging into this historical character a bit more, it could be argued that the character of Priest Vallon that Liam Neeson may have been based on John Joseph Hughes, better known as the archbishop of New York. However, it would be very loosely based on him, but then again, it may be the same with John Morrison and Amsterdam Vallon.

John immigrated to America in 1817, and he became a priest shortly after in 1826. As a great underlying theme of this era, there was a lot of tension between the Protestants and the Catholics in the U.S. at the time.

Hughes was an ardent champion of the Irish. After all, he was one himself and originated from the County Tyrone.

While there are few records of archbishop Hughes chopping down Nativists in bloody street battles, he did hold off anti-Catholic riots in 1844. Spreading from Philadelphia, Nativist rioters threatened to burn down Catholic churches, but John Dagger Hughes put armed guards in front of every Catholic church in the city and declared:

"If a single Catholic Church were burned in New York, the city would become a second Moscow." See scorched earth policy by Czar Alexander I.

Leaders of the city knew he meant business and the Nativists were not allowed to hold their rally. John definitely fought for the Irish in America and campaigned religiously on their behalf.

He strongly believed that education was the key for his countrymen in order to take advantage of the almost limitless possibilities that America held at the time. John Hughes did not look favorably upon slavery but also believed that conditions of laborers in the Northern States weren't better and often worse.

He felt Abolitionists should also take up the cause of Northern urban laborers. So, maybe Priest Vallon was based on Dagger John Hughes? Regardless, an important Irish American figure that is definitely worthy to note.

William "Boss" Tweed

William Tweed, the "Boss" of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine that played a significant political role in New York City during the 19th Century, plays an important role in the film. Within the movie, his character is perhaps the most accurate and genuine according to Tweed's historical legacy.

Much like the movie, Tweed used Irish gangs like the Dead Rabbits as muscle to rig elections and to stop other groups from rigging ballots for opposing parties. He was extremely popular with the voters, especially Irish immigrants, who he promised jobs and assistance to win their votes.

Tweed in real life was extremely corrupt and used politics as a pure means to profit. At the height of his power, William "Boss" Tweed was the third-largest landowner in New York City, one of the directors of the Erie Railroad, the Tenth National Bank, and the New-York Printing Company. He was also the proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel.

The New York Times attacked Tweed constantly of corruption. With the help of cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew unflattering pictures of Tweed and his corrupt group of cronies, known as the Tweed Ring, they were able to create a negative portrayal of Tweed.

A little while before Tweed was finally brought down for corruption in New York politics, Tweed remarked on Nast's pictures by saying:

Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!

After the Orange Riots, support against Tweed grew in large numbers, and he was eventually convicted of political corruption. An estimate by an aldermen's committee in 1877, suggested that William Tweed stole around $25 million and $45 million from New York City taxpayers. Jim Morrissey would testify against Tweed in court.

A racist cartoon depiction of an Irish immigrant.

A racist cartoon depiction of an Irish immigrant.

What Were the Attitudes Towards the Irish Immigrants During "Gangs Of New York"

It's hard to imagine anti-Irish sentiments in America today. They've assimilated deep into American culture, and it seems like I'm always meeting someone who has Irish blood and ancestry. Concerning the real history of the gangs of New York, the movie genuinely captured the hatred and distrust towards the Irish by Americans at the time.

Newspapers at the time demonized Irish immigrants and often depicted them in cartoon drawings as slovenly, drunk, and hostile creatures with no morality or decency. They were received by most of America as an unwanted threat to the country.

In a scene in Gangs of New York where both William Tweed and Bill the Butcher are at the docks watching newly Irish immigrants walk off the ship onto American soil, Tweed remarks new Americans being born.

Bill the Butcher retorts, "I don't see no Americans. I see trespassers: Irish harps who would do a job for a nickel what a n*gg*r does for a dime and what a white man use to get a quarter for."

That quote in Gangs of New York was absolutely genuine to how many saw the Irish immigrants as a threat to American jobs. Many Irish were willing to work for less than the free black labor force at the time. It should be noted that there was much resentment from the Irish towards the blacks during the time as well.

Near the beginning of Gangs of New York, Bill Cutting and his natives are walking down the street while protesters hold up signs that read New York Secede From The Union and Lincoln Will Make All White Men Slaves while Union Troops parade by. In this scene, Bill the Butcher snidely remarks to the Union soldiers, "That's the spirit boys, go off and die for your blackie friends."

Bill then remarks about how they should've run a better man against Lincoln. The character of McGloin, a defected Irish Dead Rabbit and now running with the Natives, angrily shouts out, "What are they trying to say? That we're no better than n*gg*rs?"

Bill the Butcher then turns to him and says, "You ain't."

The two Gangs of New York quotes illustrate the economic threat that Americans perceived with the Irish, but also they depict how the Irish were seen by Americans as lower or equal to blacks. This is a huge part of the historical background of the movie.

The Irish were roundly regarded as a disease for the country rather than a benefit. This attitude was also contributed to the fact that Irish immigration also brought a huge number of Catholics to a country that was largely Protestant.

Even though much of the nation had this racist attitude toward the Irish, it was largely felt in the Five Points, where Native-born Americans and Irish immigrants would clash in bloody street fights for supremacy over turf, resources, and political favors.

What Were the Gangs of New York

Did you know that firefighters back in the day were a gang? Because the threat of fire burning New York to ashes was a major concern, and since there were no city or state-funded fire departments, many citizens volunteered as firemen and gangs formed around various firehouses and companies.

The Plug Uglies

The Plug Uglies got their name by putting a wooden barrel over a fireplug and guarded it so rival fire departments could not use it to put out the fire. Cash rewards were given out by insurance companies to the first fire company on the scene, and the second company on the scene got less. It was not uncommon for rival fire companies to duke it out for the privilege of putting out a fire while a home or building burned down.

Gangs such as the Bowery Boys, the Broadway Boys, and the 40 Thieves were all real gangs mentioned in Gangs of New York. The movie also featured one of the most powerful and prominent Irish gangs in the Five Points during the 1850s: the Dead Rabbits!

How Did the Dead Rabbits Get Their Name?

There are many tales of how the Dead Rabbits received their name. One tale is of an American journalist at the time misunderstanding of the Irish word ráibéad, meaning "man to be feared." "Dead" was a slang intensifier meaning "very." Since the phonetic sounds were similar, the press dubbed the gang the Dead Rabbits.

The Dead Rabbits were originally part of the Roach Guards, an Irish street gang in the Five Points formed during the early 19th century to protect the liquor merchants of the area. The gang would soon begin committing robbery and murder. The Roach Guards were known for their fighting uniforms which had a blue stripe on their pantaloons.

When members of the Roach Guards defected to form the Dead Rabbits, they replaced the blue stripe with a red stripe. The two gangs constantly fought each other, but also aligned against gangs like the Bowery Boys and the Natives.

The Dead Rabbits Riots of 1857

The famous Dead Rabbits Riots started on July 4, 1857, when the gang raided and destroyed the headquarters of the Bowery Boys at 26 Bowery Street. The Bowery Boys retaliated, and this led to a large-scale riot that waged back and forth on Bayard Street between Bowery and Mulberry street.

The very next day, the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits rumbled again in front of 40 and 42 Bowery Street. They erected barricades in the street. On July 6, the fighting spread as the Bowery Boys fought the Kerryonians, another gang of Irishmen from County Kerry, at Anthony and Centre Street.

Because the police force at the time was disorganized and was ravaged by conflicts between the municipal and metropolitan police, the gangs took advantage. Widespread looting and property damage was committed by the gangs from the Five Points as well other parts of the city.

Order was restored by the New York State Militia, who were supported by detachments of city police at the behest of Major-General Charles W. Sandford. The aftermath of the Dead Rabbit Riots concluded eight people killed and at least 100 seriously injured.

The New York City Draft Riots

The Union cause of preserving the United States and the abolition of slavery was not a harmonious one. A great many in the northern states opposed the war and had no wish for the freedom of blacks.

The gangs of New York felt this discord, and the New York City Draft Riots actually did happen as depicted in the movie. This riot was a response to the Emancipation Proclamation, and it started on July 13, 1863.

The movie was true about the fact that there was a clause written that allowed persons able to produce 300 dollars to be exempt from serving in the war. This clause actually meant that those who could afford $300 would, in essence, hire a substitute to take their place in military duty.

Many were outraged and saw this as a rich man's war and a poor man's fight. It has also been theorized that this riot was led by the Irish in fear of an overwhelming amount of freed black slaves migrating to New York City after the war to compete with Irish jobs.

It would be the Black Joke Fire Company who would kick off the riot by leading a crowd of around 500 to attack and ransack the assistant Ninth District Provost Marshal's Office, where the drawing of the draft was taking place.

Rioters would continue throughout the city looting, burning, fighting, and killing. Blacks were highly targeted and used as scapegoats for the rioters to vent their rage on. Brutality among the blacks during this riot was the worst the city has ever seen.

Any blacks who fell into the grasps of the angry mob were beaten, tortured and killed. One black man was attacked by a crowd of 400 with clubs and paving stones. He was then hanged from a tree and set alight. As the movie depicts and acknowledges, the attack on the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue was historically accurate. A black child died as a result.

The police were able to secure enough time for the remaining orphans to escape, but the police were greatly outmatched by the rioters. The state militia was sent to help Union troops in Pennsylvania, and the police were the only force left to subdue the rioters.

The rioting was finally quelled on July 16th. New York's State Militia returned as well as several thousand Federal troops who had entered the city. The Draft's Riots final confrontation took place on that Thursday evening near Gramercy Park.

Final Words About the Real History of "Gangs of New York"

Although not completely 100% accurate, the real history of the gangs of New York is depicted very well in this movie. The attitudes that reflected anti-Irish sentiments, dissension about the Civil War among New York citizens and the attitudes towards the blacks by Nativists and Irish immigrants was thick with historical realism.

Gangs of New York is a massive achievement and a movie masterpiece that captures one of the worst times in American history: a time that shows us a part of our past. However, as they say, the past is never far behind.

Even though we may not have known about these events before the movie, these turmoils and attitudes are nothing new and have followed America throughout its history. Perhaps, even to the present day. The real history of Gangs of New York isn't really that far behind us at all, and this was something that Scorsese wanted to show us in this movie.

Watch "Gangs of New York"


Vic (author) on January 03, 2019:

@ Irish Louise, thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed. I love this movie and history like this so it was a labor of love.

Irish Louise on November 21, 2018:

Thanks for this very interesting piece.

Vic (author) on August 08, 2018:

I am not sure. Could very well be.

Suzanne on July 27, 2018:

Was the priest not loosely based on dagger kohn Hughes?

Charlie on July 03, 2018:

Great read. Thank you for this piece !

RT on January 30, 2018:

My great grandfather came over form Ireland in 1851.....made his way to the midwest, enlisted in the Civil War also in 1852, and mustered out in Atlanta, GA. I am proud of my Irish heritage and wish I had been able to speak to him. I have watched Gangs of New York about 20 times....Hollyweird always puts their slat on everything that they produce. IMO, this is a really good film, not 100% accurate, but pretty close.

Donna on August 26, 2017:

Has anything really changed from then to now in 2017. When I first watched this film when it came out I never really gave it much thought. But now that I am much older I wish my Irish grandmother was still alive to give me real insight to the struggle's of living in America. But this film should be re-released due to the makeup of our America today issues.

Alan on July 30, 2017:

Just watching gangs of New York and this information is really interesting thank you

Hanna on May 06, 2017:

Great article. I'm working on a research paper and would like to cite some of the information contained in your article. Can I have your name please.

POPPACAPPS on December 31, 2016:

What most people don't know is that throughout the history of the United States there are many incidents of this nature that has taken place to mold and shape this great country into what it is and stands as a symbol for today. As with anything growth and development causes pain and at times turmoil from those who wish to resist the changes and these changes can be very violent and brutal to those being affected the most. What we learn from this brutality of our very nature also allows us to understand, grow and learn to change for the better of our civilization and society as a whole. Without the learning of the brutality of our very nature our society would not be where it is today and as that is said, our learning and understanding continues today and is constantly changing for the betterment of societies around the world everyday..!!

Gary on December 29, 2016:

I just found out my family was from Ireland so watching this movie along with this article gives me more to go one what life could have been like when they first migrated. Great article

Ams on September 01, 2016:

Nice Article.

alejoswp on May 22, 2016:

loved your article! although id like to know where did you researched these characters ... me myself would like to read further into it. Any suggestins for us ?

Vic (author) on November 14, 2014:

Hey thanks for pointing out. I fixed the sentence. It was supposed to be "unlike" the movie.

Paloma on November 13, 2014:

Great article, but I would like to mention an error. You said "Like in the movie, William "The Butcher" Poole was shot." I'm assuming you were talking about his death. In the movie, DiCaprio stabbed the Butcher, he didn't shoot him. So that would be unlike real history.

Vic (author) on December 07, 2012:

Heya Music and rt 45, great to have you join the conversation and thanks for the comment. I didn't know Bill The Butcher was inspired by a real life person as well, until I saw a documentary on how accurate the Gangs of New York film was compared to history.

As for the draft riots, I was pretty clueless about that too until I saw the film. I think these kind of films are great. They spark the interest for people to go back and do a bit of research on the subject.

Great movie, great director and great actors in this film! Thanks for the vote up and sharing.

Music-and-Art-45 from USA, Illinois on December 04, 2012:

I love this film, and glad to see an article detailing the history it was trying to portray. I was aware of the draft riots, but I did not know that Bill the Butcher was based on a real person, so I learned a lot there. Great article voting up and sharing.

Vic (author) on April 23, 2012:

In American history, almost every immigrant that came to basically "compete" for jobs was mistreated. Italians were also looked down upon, as well as the Chinese (especially by the Irish during them days).

There are varying degree of groups whom were mistreated more and for doubt about that...and I do not presume to take the struggles away from any group of people.

The thing that upsets me is that the masses play up this "white" and "minority" division. Even in school, they fail to teach that even "white" races had to go through their struggles of discrimination by those other "white" groups who assimilated into American mainstream or considered themselves "True Americans" like the character of Bill Cutting.

All in all, I think this movie really puts a different perspective on my view about how things are today - the differences as well as the things that really haven't changed since then.

Barnsey from Happy Hunting Grounds on April 23, 2012:

I agree. A shame they didn't teach this in school. In a mixed race school I would have appreciated the Brotha's knowing that they weren't the only one's mistreated in this country.

Vic (author) on April 23, 2012:

Thanks of the very few movies I actually enjoyed doing a hub for...and a pretty interesting time in American History that they don't teach you in school. Shame they don't.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Barnsey from Happy Hunting Grounds on April 21, 2012:

This was truly cool! I loved the movie and knew it was based on fact but you have properly informed me here, thank you very much!

Vic (author) on February 02, 2012:

Heya Steve, thanks...I really enjoyed writing this one. I'm extremely interested in history and this film is amazing. It's quite interesting how Irish and Italian gangs, mobs, have moved their people up here in the U.S. I don't think too many realize just how much of an influence they had.

Vic (author) on February 02, 2012:

Thank you Nat Amaral, I'm glad you enjoyed my work!

Steve Lensman from Manchester, England on February 02, 2012:

An excellent article on the history behind the film rabbit75. Very well researched. Irish gangs in the 19th century and Italian gangs in the 20th century. It's been a few years since I last saw Gangs of New York, reading this makes me want to watch it again. Cheers.

Voted Up, Useful and Interesting.

Nat Amaral from BC Canada on February 01, 2012:

Very well-detailed and well researched. Good work!

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