The Gangs of New York
Herbert Asbury
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Buy *The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld* online

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld
Herbert Asbury
Thunder's Mouth Press
420 pages
October 2001 (reprint of 1928 edition)
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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This is the book that inspired Martin Scorsese to make his motion picture, and it’s easy to see why this history appealed to him. This is a history of the mean streets and alleys of New York City. This is the history closest to the people who lived in the tenement buildings and in the homes of Manhattan preceding the Civil War and the decades immediately following that conflict. The “other” histories, the stories of presidents and generals, of industrialists and railroad barons, are histories of the ruling class, and as such seem a distance away from the average citizen. They are histories of another world. But here is a history of the kids next door, the neighbors' children who took a wrong turn and went bad. Even so, they remained in the neighborhood, and at any given time could be seen in a local restaurant or pub, or simply standing at a lamppost, an unofficial "office" of sorts where business could be conducted. When they left the neighborhood, it was usually to flee the police or because they were going to Sing Sing prison for a "vacation".

What a history is contained here. Enough characters people this factual telling of New York’s streets to fill up a hundred new Dickens’ novels. The most powerful of the gangs had hundreds of members, and for a time held sway over much of the nightlife and criminal activities that occurred in sections of the city. Before there was organized crime, there were the gangs of New York.

The names of the gangs were as colorful as their leaders and their members: The Dead Rabbits, Bowery Boys, Gophers, the Plug Uglies, the Five Pointers, and more. As today, members of these gangs usually began their lives in a juvenile gang and grew up with no clear idea of right and wrong, moving as a natural progression into adult gangs.

Hard to believe, but once river pirates roamed the Hudson and the East River, looking for booty, raiding farm homes and towns along the way. One of the worst of the pirate bands was led by a woman named Sadie the Goat:

“…with the Jolly Roger flying from the masthead and Sadie the Goat pacing the deck in proud command, they sailed up and down the Hudson from the Harlem River to Poughkeepsie and beyond, robbing farmhouses and riverside mansions, terrorizing the hamlets, and occasionally holding men, women and children for ransom. It has been said that Sadie the Goat, whose ferocity far exceeded that of her ruffianly followers, compelled several men to walk the plank…”
As rough as Sadie was, she was no match for Gallus Mag, the acknowledged “Queen of the Waterfront”. Gallus Mag was over six feet tall and got her name by keeping her skirt up with suspenders, or galluses. She was the bouncer for a waterfront dive called the Hold-in-the-Wall:
“It was her custom, after she’d felled an obstreperous customer with her club, to clutch his ear between her teeth and so drag him to the door, amid the frenzied cheers of the onlookers. If her victim protested she bit his ear off, and having cast the fellow into the street she carefully deposited the detached member in a jar of alcohol behind the bar…. She was one of the most feared denizens on the waterfront and the police of the period shudderingly described her as the most savage female they’d ever encountered.”
Gangsters, murderers, thugs and thieves abound in this history. Here is the story of Bill the Butcher, one of the main characters in Scorcese's movie. Here is Italian Dave, who trained children to steal like the fictional Fagin in Oliver Twist. Here is the story of the Civil War Draft Riots, told from the viewpoint of the street curbs, that threatened for a few days to destroy much of the city. Here is the story of the “King of the Bank Robbers” and the facts of the “Tong Wars” that occurred in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Here we learn of a true decades-long battle for control of the city’s streets between the police and the gangs, as real a war as any officially declared between nations.

The Gangs of New York is history that reads as fast as a novel, and which could supply many a novelist with enough grist for a number of novels…or a director with material for a series of motion pictures.

© 2003 by Mary B. Stuart for Curled Up With a Good Book

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