Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Gangs Of New York

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury. Originally published in 1928 by the Garden City Publishing Company. Thunder's Mouth Press edition read and reviewed. Approx. 348 pages.

The Gangs of New York is a book that had maintained an impressive amount of regard and notoriety long before it was developed into a near-masterpiece motion picture by Martin Scorsese. And why not? This self-proclaimed "informal history" offers the prospect of a lurid fifty year account of New York's seedy underbelly. A world where the base scum below the bottom of the totem pole callously murder each other for the slightest gains. The obvious question always seems to arise though; what herein is truth, and what is show? Word of mouth accounts are always inflated to serve a dual purpose; out of sheer braggadocio and also to serve as smoke and mirrors to deter and confuse the competition. There is also the question of what facts may have been, how shall I say, "enriched" by the author to stimulate reader interest. And that's fine. Let's just put it out there: there's a good chance that some of the words put to paper here qualify this work as more "sensationalized journalism" than straight-up historical account. This would be fine in and of itself; the problem arises in that this reads very much as a methodical history, and it is very dry in very many places. Yet, as a native New Yorker, and even more so, a native Manhattanite, I cannot help but have my interest piqued by the Manhattan posited here; right under my feet, yet so vastly different. Or, was it really so different? In the past 100-150 years, have we really changed so? Or is the real difference mainly in architecture? As skyscrapers rose haughtily over the former squalor-ridden tenements, have we eschewed a society saturated with a violent poor populace lorded over by corrupt politicians? Very rhetorical question, yes. Let's just proceed to look at the book at hand.

Just a disclaimer before we begin; while I admit that it is never good practice to subscribe to broad generalizations, I will assume that the reader of this review has some basic familiarity with the old New York gangs from either the Gangs of New York movie, or from any of the numerous Five Points documentaries.

While The Gangs of New York focuses on criminal activities spanning approximately 70 years (1850's to 1920's), it begins with a helpful chapter chronicling the formation of the infamous Five Points area of Lower Manhattan. We then go into a chapter covering the wars and activities of the myriad local gangs in the area (the primary focus of the movie), and then subsequent chapters handling river piracy, the Draft Riots, the activities of New York gangs close to the turn of the century, some lip-service to the gang wars of the Chinatown area, and finally, some coverage of the supposed "death of the gangster" (a completely ludicrous assessment, but more on that later).

I found the opening chapter quite interesting. The evolving panorama of the Manhattan landscape is a wondrous concept. Even in my own meager four decades I have seen Manhattan change so much, so to see areas which are so vogue right now remembered as mires of violence and utter squalor is nothing short of amazing.

The section regarding the battles of the Five Points is interesting for its historical relevance; of course it does not have the dramatic flair of the movie, which was cultivated to be palatable for the theater-going audience. But without this book as a reference point, we may never have known about the Plug Uglies, Chichesters, Shirt Tails, and, of course the Dead Rabbits.

The problem in this part of the book is that it is most difficult to tell here what is fact and what is exaggeration. One can never underestimate the proclivities of the destitute regarding sex, violence, and living piled on top of each other. But were there really as many murders as proposed in the book? Did hulking female bouncers truly keep jars of pickled ears which they had "chawed off"? Reading this, you would think that a night in the points would involve trying to avoid a mugger, tripping over a corpse, and landing on a prostitute. Again, though, it is an invaluable resource of gang names, territories, manners, and dress. Did you know that the Dead Rabbits and their parent group, the Roach Guards, wore battle dress of red and blue, respectively? Where have we seen this recently?

We all know that the Bloods and Crips have been going at it for near on what, 50 years now? Pretty amazing that a full century earlier, there were red and blue gangbangers as well.

And speaking of Dead Rabbits, the bane of that group, Bill the Butcher, is here as well. While the pages covering the reign and demise are important for illustrating the nativist vs. immigrant mentality that existed then, none of the coverage attains the lofty heights of the dramatized version, and Daniel Day-Lewis' bravura performance (then again, the movie version features a different last name and custom-crafted backstory).

Two further chapters explore popular criminal enterprises of the time; first and foremost being river piracy. It is no surprise that this was a plague in those times; so much of the commerce was handled via the waterways. And anytime there is poverty mixed with floating fortune, piracy is the natural solution. It really doesn't matter if it is off the coast of Somalia or the waters surrounding Manhattan. The other chapter touches on some of the bolder bankrobbers of the era. Although there were some notable heists in that time, it feels as though Asbury falls back on exaggeration in depicting the skill and techniques of the robbers. The same exaggerated touch flits across the piracy tales; while there were undoubtedly some bloody sorties, it seems unlikely that as many bodies as advertised were floating ashore daily.

Two large chapters in the middle of Gangs cover what should be some of the most interesting subject matter: the New York Draft Riots in 1863, in which the poor masses (who couldn't pony up a $300 exemption fee) rebelled against the Civil War conscription law. For close to four days, New York erupted and burned. Ships fired upon civilians; joined by cannons and howitzers. Troops, both destined for and returning from Civil War conflicts, were rerouted to quell the uprising. An exact figure of the dead and wounded will never be known; Wiki puts the tolls at around 120 dead and 2,000 wounded, while Asbury goes for shock and awe with estimates at 2,000 dead and 8,000 wounded. I would wager somewhere in the middle; as the poor did what the poor did and tended to not broadcast it. I was really looking forward to some information on these Riots; it's pretty sad that as a New Yorker, this was nowhere in our history curriculum growing up (hopefully it is now). It is a pretty sad statement that as we waged a war; part of which was abolishing the slave trade in the South, rioters gleefully lynched blacks here in New York, as well as burning down an orphan asylum for blacks. The whole event; like most of these sorts of "loot and burn" riots, was essentially senseless. As Asbury points out, most of the rioters were too young to even be drafted. It was like modern day "ghetto Christmas shopping", where the angry underclass looks to exploit a perceived affront as an excuse to turn to mass violence and theft.

While the Riots are arguably the most historically significant portion of the book, the telling is the driest in the tome. Where colorful embellishments were in no short order before, this section reads like a police log: "Sgt. Smith took a detachment of 15 patrolmen and a company from the Invalid Corps up Chambers, made a left and encountered some ten thousand riled Pointers". The attention to detail is appreciated, but the numbers of the mobs seem somewhat inflated (but none of us were there, so just a guess). Also, throughout the book, you need to take with a grain of salt any instance where Asbury uses the modifier "many", for in many cases, many people fall with fatal wounds, and many just fall dead, but many could be four, forty, or four hundred.

The portions of Gangs that deal with "later" gangs read a bit better; perhaps because more information was available to Asbury at hand. In these chapters, we get some real details on all the facets of the criminals' lives; the full range of their rules (as in these chapters we read about gangs throughout the city, not just the Points), as well as their real estate and business holdings (speakeasies, brothels). There is also what seems at first glance a bit of narrative meandering going on as Asbury also ties in these same facts to police and politicians, but the point is that these groups were just as devious as gangs as the low-born miscreants. Still, a chapter detailing the full extent of the police and political corruption would have been a great asset.

There are some instances where Asbury does wander from the point; for example, in the chapter detailing the Chinatown wars, no less than four pages are dedicated to neighborhood celebrity Chuck Connors (not The Rifleman), chronicling the latter part of his life up to and including his funeral. Connors was no gangster, so what was the point of his inclusion in this book? There is none, but in the end we can appreciate it for the cultural footnote that it provides. But this is only one of many instances, and combined with some very dry writing, hobble Gangs from being as good as it should be.

The reason that gangsters are so popular is that, to a certain extent, we revere them as much as we claim to despise them. Asbury is not exempt from this philosophy. You can see which gangsters he roots for or thinks are of considerable mettle, in the later chapters a lot of this is given to notables like Monk Eastman and Paul Kelly. The pages covering them are some of the best in the book, and feature the crispest writing.

Where Gangs of New York ultimately falls apart is towards the end, where he covers the "passing of the gangster". He postulates that at this point the gangster is a sad remnant of his former glory, since even the best bosses cannot field close to the numbers they once did. Why was this? It could be because the rife nature of police and political corruption was somewhat curtailed (but still very present) from its bloated Tammany days. The theory in the book seems more in line with it just going out of vogue. And while there are some interesting tales of gangsters used in labor wars, Asbury makes it seem that by the late 20's, the gangster is as good as extinct. This simply is not the case.

Why not? What about Prohibition? There is nothing regarding the gang activities stemming from the Volstead Act other than the most nominal lip service. There is no way to claim that there weren't extensive bootlegging operations in Manhattan, and to omit them in a comprehensive history is kind of a disservice to the subject matter. To put it short, Gangs starts with a bang, and ends with a whimper.

The subject matter. Gang history is fun to read, and New York history is enjoyable as well. Should have been a chocolate and peanut butter moment.

A nice amount of photographs and classic illustrations bring the rogue's gallery to life.

It serves to show us that many of the vices today were prevalent a century ago; union strong arming, cocaine addiction, prostitution, robberies, assaults, polarizing social orders, xenophobia, etc.

Dry writing in many places.

Meandering tangents that stray from the material.

No adherence to a semblance of a timeline making chapters do historical pendulum swings.

Ultimate accuracy always in question; liberal use of vague modifiers. Seeing the words "It was also said" a good indicator that legend or myth is about to follow.

Virtually no coverage of the bootlegging activities of the 20's.

Virtually no service paid to the outer boroughs, where many Manhattan criminals did good amounts of business.

Final thoughts and recommendations:
Despite my many criticisms, The Gangs of New York must be respected for preserving and presenting the accounts of these organizations. For the modern reader, who might find the presentation somewhat dry, there are other options that provide as good an account of the information in Gangs. The movie adaptation, as mentioned, gets kudos for optimizing Asbury's book as source material. There are also some informative and interesting Five Points documentaries that are easily accessible.

For more gang-related/New York history enjoyment, there is always the classic movie showing colorful Gangs of New York:

For your reading enjoyment, another historical gang account that I enjoyed was T.J. English's The Westies, an account of the Hell's Kitchen mob (the Gophers of Hell's Kitchen get a fair treatment in Gangs):

And finally, a book that is not gang-related, but shows the ever-evolving panorama of New York City. A book that was highly recommended to me by one of my best friends, Forever by Pete Hamill (it is actually an inventive and unique fiction piece that combines history with some elements of magic and fantasy):

Here's what it is:
It's the iconic book of the gangs that prowled Manhattan over 150 years ago. This pedigree does not mean that it is a well-written work.

I will say this, there is a closing though made by Asbury at the end of the introduction that perfectly summarizes the soul of the gangster, past present and future:

"But in the main the gangster was a stupid roughneck born in filth and squalor and reared amid vice and corruption. He fulfilled his natural destiny."

That's it in a nutshell, folks.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Nice enough cover here. We have a dingy alleyway, with some ruffians looking our way, nothing but malice in their eyes. the font on this cover works better than recent additions, which feature ribbons of banner text.

Cover Final Score:


No comments:

Post a Comment