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The Real History Behind The Gangs of New York

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Kit happily writes articles on almost any topic you could hope for. When he's not knee-deep in programming, he enjoys chilling with his cat

Gangs of New York (2002)

Gangs of New York (2002)

Gangs of New York: From Book to Film

Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York was highly successful upon its 2002 release, grossing almost $200 million worldwide. It was also nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, but came home empty handed. That said, Daniel Day-Lewis pretty much swept every Best Actor award outside of the Oscars.

The movie is loosely based on Herbert Asbury's 1927 book, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, which followed a group of Irish immigrants in New York during the 19th century. They're attempting to resist conscription at the onset of the American Civil War. Martin Scorsese read the book in 1970 and wanted to adapt it into a movie. At the time, he was still a novice filmmaker with only one film under his belt (Who's That Knocking at My Door, 1967). It took him 32 years to realize his dream.

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, 1927

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, 1927

The Real Gangs of New York

The gang wars of early 19th century New York City were the result of fierce rivalries between two groups of criminals. One group called itself the Bowery Boys, the other were the Dead Rabbits. The two groups clashed in 1857, leading to a citywide gang war. In the course of the conflict, up to 100 people were injured. This was the fight that Martin Scorsese envisioned filming when he read Gangs of New York.

Forty Thieves

The first gang in the city was the Forty Thieves, which consisted of Irish immigrants from Five Points. They met at a grocery store on Centre Street and were given illegal activity quotas to meet. The members were separated into younger and older factions, with gang members required to wear the gang's colors to show their loyalty.

Dead Rabbits

The Five Points area was also home to the Dead Rabbits, a gang of Irish immigrants. The term "dead rabbit" was used in the 19th century as a generic term for young, lower class criminals. Considering the group was infamous for robberies, pickpocketing, and brawling, and many of their members were murdered or imprisoned, the name was apt. Interestingly, while the Dead Rabbits consisted primarily of men, some women joined as well. The Bowery Boys were sworn enemies of the Dead Rabbits. Because both gangs lived near each other, they were frequently in battle.

Roach Guards

The Roach Guards were an early 19th century Irish street gang in Five Points. Although the group was initially formed to protect liquor merchants, they soon committed robberies and murders. Known for the blue stripe on their pantaloons, they eventually switched to wearing red.

Bowery Boys

The Bowery Boys were a nativist, anti-Catholic, and anti-Irish gang in the early-to-mid-19th century. The main difference between them and the Dead Rabbits was that the Bowery was actually working-class. Where the Rabbits were often petty criminals, the Bowery Boys often led regular, law-abiding lives.

Bloods Gang

The Bloods Gang used hand signals to communicate with each other. These hand signals were developed to protect themselves from law enforcement officers who would otherwise have read the messages they were transmitting. The hand signals were used as a means of communication and emphasized the brotherhood of the gang. The hand signals were updated periodically as their leaders changed.

Famous Characters

There are several historical figures in the film that were based on the real characters in the city of New York. Amsterdam Vallon, Bill the Butcher, William Poole, John Morrissey, and the infamous King Kong are just a few. But what about the other characters? They all contributed to the city's reputation of thugs.

Bill the Butcher

A film based on the true story of Bill the Butcher would not have been possible without the corrupt politicians who backed him. Boss Tweed and the Tammany Hall machine effectively ruled New York for decades. Bill the Butcher is loosely based on William Poole, a nativist who liked to gouge out opponents' eyes. He also hated Irish immigrants.

As the most violent gangster in the city, Bill the Butcher was based on William Poole, who lived during the antebellum era. Poole was a nativist political organizer and a former boxer. His violent tendencies were turned up to eleven when he became Bill the Butcher. William Poole died in a violent crime eight years before the movie's events, and Bill the Butcher was a descendant of the early gang leaders.

Like most characters in "Gangs of New York," Bill is a skilled fighter with knife skills and close-quarters strikes. His rival, Priest Vallon, has been fought twice, and Bill only managed to kill him the second time. He has also fought Priest's son Amsterdam and held the upper hand. The movie shows a close-up of Bill's glass eye, which is a symbol of his strength and endurance.

While there is no direct correlation between Hellcat Maggie and Bill the Butcher, the film focuses on these characters in the original gangs of New York. In the film, Bill the Butcher is a butcher by trade and is a member of the Psycho Knife Nut gang. The movie also highlights the life of a gangster with a history of brutal violence.

Amsterdam Vallon

One of the best parts of the film is the scene in which Priest Vallon is killed by Bill the Butcher. During the Civil War, he kills his father and his son returns to Five-Points to exact revenge. Leonardo Di Caprio's character ingratiates himself into Bill's mob but keeps his identity secret. The movie depicts the gangster's retribution, which leaves the audience unsure of his true identity of Vallon.

In this film, an Irish Catholic boy is raised in a family ruled by Bill the Butcher, a bigoted Protestant nativist who murdered Amsterdam's father. The Irish-American gang fights to control the Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan. The conflict between Bill and Amsterdam involves Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), and other gangs in the area. In the film, the gang war leads to the 1863 Draft Riots.

John Morrissey

John Morrissey was born in Ireland in 1831. He became notorious as the muscle behind Tammany Hall and organized a gang of toughs. This group of gangsters included Blacksmith Dan Edgar, Lew Baker, Jim Turner, and Paudeen McLaughlin. The group became notorious for a brawl that resulted in McLaughlin's nose being bit off. In 1853, Morrissey's gang was part of the Dead Rabbits.

In the 1850s, New York had two distinct gangs, the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits. The Bowery Boys were a gang of Irish immigrants who lived in Greenwich Village. Bill Poole was over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. His gang rented muscle to nativist candidates. Bill Poole and John Morrissey were mortal enemies. Morrissey was later elected to Congress, and Poole was later killed in a robbery. Funny how such different paths ended from similar backgrounds.

In 1866, Morrissey ran for the House of Representatives with the backing of Tammany Hall. Although he was accused of a variety of crimes, he eventually won the election and was elected to two terms in the House. In his legislative pursuits, Morrissey used strong-arm tactics to gain his desired political objectives.

John Morrissey

John Morrissey

Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Kit