The True History of New York’s Gangs

A look at some of the real people and events behind Martin Scorsese’s 2002 epic.

By Will DiGravio Published August 22, 2022

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s so simple. This episode focuses on the real story behind Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York.


by Martin Scorsese 2002 epic New York Gangs will always occupy a special place in the work of the director: it is the first of his many collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio, after all. But the film is also deeply personal for Scorsese, himself one of New York’s most famous sons. It took him more than twenty years to do so. Like Roger Ebert Noted during an interview with the director in 2002, Scorsese first released a commercial announcing the project after completing Taxi driver in 1977.

For Scorsese (via NPR):

This film is in a way the basis on which all my other films are based. It kind of creates a world in which the worlds that I represent in average streets and GoodFellas and angry bullin a certain way, Taxi driver, it is the base from which these worlds emerged And, yes, there is no doubt. This is based on the story.

Here’s a look at some of the true stories and people behind Scorsese’s monumental achievement, New York Gangs, which is based on a book of almost the same name by Herbert Asbury, New York Gangs.

The real “Bill the Butcher”

The film begins with a fight between two gangs in the Five Points, a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. On one side are the Irish Catholic immigrants, called the Dead Rabbits, led by “Priest” Vallon, played by Liam Neeson. Vallon is the father of young Amsterdam, who grows up to be the man played by DiCaprio. They take on the Confederacy of Native Americans, a Protestant group led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The opening scene ends with Bill killing the “priest”, thus gaining territory for the Protestant faction. The film then fast forwards nearly two decades later, where Bill, still the leader of his gang, works as a political operative, allied with the powerful Tammany Hall, run by William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent).

I know nothing

The character played by Day-Lewis is based on a man named William Poole, also known as “Bill the Butcher”. A boxer, butcher and firefighter, Poole wielded considerable influence in the community. He was affiliated with the Know Nothing party, a secret group whose members, if asked by anyone outside the group about society, were instructed to reply, “I don’t know anything.” Their platform included: “the deportation of beggars and foreign criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; compulsory reading of the Bible in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office. The influence of the Know Nothing party grew, and by the 1850s it had hundreds of elected officials nationwide, including more than 100 members of Congress and eight governors. Like Lorraine Boissonneault, write in Smithsonian, Remarks“Know-Nothings was the first great third of the American political system.”

Poole was a major figure in the rise of the Know Nothings and the nativist cause. Beverageault writes:

No one has exemplified this reverence for the working class better than Poole. Despite extravagant gambling and regular bar brawls, Poole was a revered party insider, leading a gang that terrorized voters at the polls in such a violent manner that one victim was later allegedly bitten on the arm and seriously injured his eye. Poole was also the first Know Nothings martyr.

Old Smoke

Poole’s martyrdom came in 1855. He argued with Irish boxer John Morrissey, who went by the nickname Old Smoke. The two, according to Boissoneault, exchanged insults and drew weapons before the police arrived. Later, Poole returned to the saloon and was shot in the chest by one of Morrissey’s men. His last words, at age 33: “Goodbye boys, I’m dying a real American.” The circumstances and timing of Poole’s death mark a clear difference between him and Scorsese’s Cutting, who in the film dies of a gunshot wound decades later.

Murder charges were brought and eventually dropped for Morrissey and his men. Poole became a hero in death. And decades later, Morrissey was elected to Congress with the help of Tammany Hall. He then served in the New York Senate until his death in 1878.

City life

Historians and critics have praised Scorsese’s film for its realistic portrayal of immigrant life. In Ebert’s mind:

No film has ever portrayed American poverty and misery this way: immigrants huddle on the shelves of a rooming house, starving children die in the streets, there is no law but rule. of the powerful, and each immigrant or racial tribe fights the others.

The set design and abundance of background characters bring that texture and level of authenticity to the film. There are Roger Ashton-Griffiths like PT Barnum, the famous showman and politician. And Cara Seymour as Hell-Cat Maggie, one of the best-known female gang members of the era. Then, of course, there’s one of the film’s main, albeit fictional, characters, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diazlisten)), who works as a pickpocket, often donning a disguise to enter and steal from the homes of the wealthy. Each of these characters plays on Scorsese’s larger portrayal of the period, themes like class and crime, and how each can sometimes be both violent and terrifyingly serious spectacle.

Speaking with NPR after the film’s release, historian Tyler Anbinder said:

True, in terms of visual images of the period, he understood everything. The five points as depicted in the film, 19th century New York as visually depicted in the film, it couldn’t have done much better than this. He also does a fabulous job of recreating the feeling that Irish people and immigrants in general when they arrived in the United States in the 19th century felt persecuted and were very discriminated against, and he understands that theme very well too. .

Civil war

Much of the film takes place against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Scorsese depicts horrific racism and violence directed against black Americans. Images of Abraham Lincoln abound. And the poor and working people of New York live in fear of conscription, of going to die for a country that cares so little for them. Some enlist and choose to look on the bright side, saying that at least now that they’re in the military they might get a chance to eat. Scorsese shows how immigrants were cornered by political and military agents immediately after arriving on American shores. They wanted two things from immigrants: to vote and to fight for them.

The film ends with one of the most famous incidents of the war: the New York Draft Riots of 1863. Earlier that year, Lincoln signed a conscription law that subjected all men aged 20 to 35 years old and all single men between the ages of 35 and 45 in military service, according Story. These men would then all be entered into a lottery. The catch was that one could opt out of the draft for $300, an amount most would be lucky to earn in a year. The fees ensured that only the wealthy could buy their way out of the service.

New York City held its first lottery on July 11. This Monday, July 13, things escalated into the deadliest riot in the country’s history. Thousands of workers began attacking government and military buildings. They then began attacking the homes and businesses of black Americans, who were ineligible for the draft because they were not considered citizens. According Story:

In one notorious example, a crowd of several thousand, some armed with clubs and bats, stormed the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue near 42nd Street, a four-story building housing more than 200 children .

The riots lasted until July 16. By then, riots had broken out in other boroughs. And thousands of federal soldiers, who had fought at Gettysburg, arrived on the scene. In the end, the official death toll reached 119. However, Story notes that some speculate the actual total could have been closer to 1,200. Property damage totaled millions of dollars. About 3,000 of the city’s black residents were left homeless.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based video critic, researcher and essayist who has contributed to Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.

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