Feature Articles

September 2002

Books Worth Buying

Gangs Of New York

By John William Tuohy

                      BOOKS WORTH BUYING    

GANGS OF NEW YORK: An  Informal  History of the Underworld.
By Herbert Asbury
Forward by Jorge Luis Borges
367 pages, soft cover with index.
66  B&W  illustrations including the Five Points (1829)The Old Brewery and police mug shots of Kid Dropper, Little Augie, Dopey Benny Fien, a young Owney Madden and twenty others. Includes a slang  glossary.            
ISBN1-5602  5-56025-275-8
Thunder Mouth Press.
Available on Amazon.Com

     Gangs of New York, thankfully published in affordable paper back, is an essential building block to any crime library. In fact, Gangs of New York should be the foundation of any crime library, from these gangs came Big Tim Murphy who gave us Arnold Rothstein,  who gave us Lucky  Luciano (and Legs Diamond) and so on.
     The book was first published, by Knopf, seventy years ago,  and remains a chilling chronicle of the vast army of hoods that ruled over Gotham for decades and spit fourth killers like Kid Dropper, who, Asbury correctly states "came to manhood without the slightest conception of right and wrong"   
     The New York Times review of the book pointed out that there has been no volume before Asbury's devoted exclusively to a history of the New York gangs, which explains why I have seen much of the material in this book used time and again in other works, unfortunately without crediting the author. Its a shame, Asbury was a pioneer. Chicago's Richard Lidnberg (See interview with Lidnberg in AmericanMafia archives) who is himself one of the most important crime historians in the country, as called Asbury "by default, was the most important crime historian of the first half of the twentieth century"   His reward is a much deserved reissue of this work in its original form, unedited and untouched.
     Asbury presents these colorful if deadly and dull minded hoods and he presents them as they were, untamed, unrepentant and large than life.
     We meet Paolo Vaccarelli, who went by the name Paul Kelly, leader of the enormous and powerful Five Points which gave rise to Johnny Torrio's James Street gang.
   Kelly placed Torrio under the command of his deputy, Jack Sirocco, who operated his organization out of a dance hall he owned called the Pearl House, which was situated across from the present day courthouse on Foley Square.  Sirocco was a messy, ill tempered little man, who wore an oversized plaid cap, cocked at one angle, enough to block vision in one eye. He liked to brag that he shaved once a month.
    In his pre-pimp days, Torrio dressed, looked and acted about the same as Sirocco, but he had a case of hero worship in Paul Kelly. A former bantamweight boxer, Kelly dressed neatly in conservative colors and style. He never swore, he was well spoken and self educated and could speak and read some Spanish, French and Italian, of course.
    The social set from New York's upper class ventured down into Kelly's cafe and dance hall, called the New Brighton on Jones Street near Third Avenue, to see and be seen with the gangster, and more often than not, these society types couldn't believe that this small, soft spoken man was the gangster who was always in the newspapers. To some degree, Kelly was an improved version of Torrio's later boss, Chicago's own Big Jim Colosimo.   
    Torrio showed up at Kelly's headquarters, an office above the dance hall, wearing baggy checkered pants, a turtleneck sweater, an oversized cap and a bad attitude.  Still, Kelly was impressed with Torrio's quick mind and soon was a court favorite, although Johnny often found that he had nothing to say in the conversation once it got off business. Kelly noticed it too and decided to teach Torrio what he knew about culture, about the world outside of theirs, about art and music and Italian history.
    Kelly's rival in Manhattan was a lunatic named Monk Eastman (Edward Osterman) who wore his broken nose and knife scars with pride. Osterman had started out as a bouncer in the New Irving dance hall where he carried a sawed off baseball bat and kept a nitch for every skull he cracked. One night, he counted 49 notches and said, "I want to make it an even 50" and cracked up a customer's head. In recognition of his maiming abilities, doctors called the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital "The Eastman Ward."
     Eastman operated out of a pet shop on Broome Street, but, a softie, he was unable to part with any of his pets and never sold any of them.
     The Eastman gang controlled the area bounded by Monroe, 14th, the Bowery and the East River. The Five Pointers controlled the area next to Eastman's empire.  There was one area that was in dispute, a section between Pell Street and the East side of the Bowery. It was untouched by any gang and whoever controlled it, could open more bars, brothels, dance halls and gambling dens. With money from those operations, they could buy more police protection from Tammany Hall and eventually rule over that entire end of Manhattan.
      One summer's night, a group of Five Pointers invaded Rivington Street and stuck up one of Eastman's gambling dens. Shots rang out and one of the Pointers was killed, forcing them to withdraw and called for a backup. Kelly rushed there in his carriage and messengers were sent to all the gang's hangouts for more men. With Kelly and Eastman walking at the head of their gangs, the two armies met in the middle of the street. Shots were fired and the two groups rushed at each other. A detachment of police arrived and joined the fray. Street by street, the fighting continued for several hours and eventually five hundred police covered the street and the battle ended only because both sides ran out of ammunition. There were three dead, and twenty wounded, including several innocent bystanders.
    The press had a field day with the story and the Hearst newspaper, which never forgot the stolen election, went after the gang's Tammany protector, Big Tim Sullivan.
    Sullivan called in Eastman and Kelly and ordered them to make peace or they were both through. A week later, Tammany threw a big party at its headquarters and while the band played "Sweet Rosie O'Grady," Eastman and Kelly formally shook hands. The peace treated lasted less than a week.
     By comparison, Asbury's hoods make today's gangsters seem almost effeminate. They actually had a price list for murder and maiming.      
      Asbury was fascinated by the other world. He was one of the first to survey the red light districts in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans and wrote about it with wit and style. Over the years since his death, some writers have criticized Asbury's lack of analysis of his subject. I fairness, he was a newspaper man in the school sense; analysis was part of his training and psycho-babble didn't really enter the field until the 1970s. Asbury was a trade writer, he gave the reader what they wanted, where and how his research was done is irrelevant.
    Thankfully makes no attempts to explain his subjects, nor was he hindered by the bigotry of his day. "(The book) Asbury writes "is not a sociological treatise and makes no pretense of offering solutions" As a result, his coverage of the predominately Irish and Jewish gangsters that dominated gangs like the Five Pointer, the Dead Rabbits and so on, is fair and uncolored. (The term gangsters by the way, grew out of the newspaper circulation battles between Detroit's street gangs)
    Still, it needs to be explained that those early Irish and their Jewish counterparts, and later the Italians, didn't arrive to New York's slums looking for a fight. It was waiting for them when they got here.
     As Gangs  of New York details, for almost four decades, these young men were not a part of the crime problem in the inner cities, they were the crime problem in the inner cities. Few thing terrified the average law abiding city dweller than the thought of accidentally running in to the product of the horrible slums they had created for these hoodlums. After reading chapters of Asbury's remarkable book, its easy to understand why. These angry and dejected young men had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain in a confrontation with the law or anything else.  Needless, brutal and appalling discrimination against them was the root cause of the problem, with branches in hopelessness, lack of education, and the seemingly insurmountable task of having to create their own opportunities, sometimes without even the slightest notion of how to go about it, all worked to create two generations of an incredibly tough street thugs.
    The problem was, more or less, confined to the immigrant males. Although Irish and Jewish women, who led the migration, suffered their own plight, there a real need for their services as house maids, nannies and factory help, which brought them in to the mainstream faster then their counter parts.
     If nothing else, a life long stroll through the underworld gave these young toughs a temporary sense of power and superiority over the class of people that they (correctly) saw as bigoted and just as ruthless ruling elite.
   There was a popular and logical theory in New York that recruiting as many Irishmen as they could on to the Police force would curtail the gang problem. Who better, or who else, really, would be better equipped to face down the likes of Monk Eastman?
    The theory worked (hence the event of the Paddy Wagon named as much as for the Irishmen driving them as for the prisoner inside them).  However, if the Yankee's had hoped to corral the new arrivals by means of a steady paycheck, it back fired. Control of the Police (and Fire brigades) gave the bosses at Tammany Hall, who already controlled a  dozen gang leaders,  a new political bargaining chip.
Gangs of New York is being used as the basis for film by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and is expected for release in December of 2001.
    The film will cover the 1840's through 1863, to the Draft riots.
    The plot revolves around revenge and the feuding between the gangs controlling the Bowery and Five Points area of Manhattan in New York City. Daniel Day-Lewis is playing the part of Bill "The Butcher" Poole, (See AmericanMafia's archives for a story on Poole under "The Story of Old Smoke Morrissey)
     In the film version,  DiCaprio's character, Amsterdam Vallon, is seeking revenge on Bill "The Butcher" for murdering his father. Leo's love interest is Cameron Diaz who portrays a pickpocket.
     Apparently, the script will go Hollywood and rewrite history, making Asbury's book importent to read. In the film, Monk  Eastman, who was born well after the Dead Rabbits gang left the scene, but will mix it up with them anyway.   
      I dread to think of what Hollywood will do to the Irish and the New York City draft riots, which is covered in Asbury's book,  but shouldn't be.
     The draft riots were, as William V. Shannon wrote "A classic example of the poor in their misery venting their fury on the poor who were even worse off."
There is no excuse, at all, ever, for what New Yorkersâ�¦not all of whom were necessarily Irish, did during the draft riots. Although the blame for the New York city drafts riots has been squarely dropped on the shoulders of the American Irish they were not responsible for its cause. That lays else where and there is some evidence that the riots were sparked, or at the least, encouraged by, confederate agents.   
     The Irish saw the American civil war as a double political and social standard. Since their arrival at the start of the famine, and even before, the Irish had faced appalling religious discrimination. They saw their own kind starving and homeless yet, few Americans leaped to their cause,  much less marched off to war to correct their plight.
     The sickness and poverty that killed off 1.4 million Irish during the famine (in 18 months)  followed them across the Atlantic, making, as the saying went the rarest sight in America a gray haired Irishman.
    The Irish were known as the perishing class, with a death rate, twice that of the general American population, a sad legacy that would follow for two more generations.  In the decades that covered the 1850's, 60's and 70's. a full 80% of all Irish children died at birth. Death of the Irish male was twice that of the American born male and for Irish women, the statistics were about the same.
      Bigotry, on an epic scale, also played a role in the riots.  On their arrival to the States, the Irish were met by an ugly mode of religious intolerance which led to the development of the Know Nothing Party, a formation that would, as John Kennedy pointed out "Give the American Irish the odd distinction of being the only immigrant group in the history of this country, to have a political party set up against them"
     How Strong were the Know Nothings?  Extremely strong. One month after taking over the Know Nothing party in July of 1854,  James Barker opened 152 new Know Nothings councils nation wide. Two months later there were 201 and by the end of the year, 1,000.
     In 1852, the Know Nothings carried the New York city elections by 66,000 votes. By 1854 the Know Nothings had 5,000,000 dues paying members and were attracting new one in at the rate of 5,000 a week.
     The controlled the political scenes in Augusta, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Greenville, Columbia, Charleston, Raleigh Galveston, Austin, Little Rock, St. Louis Baltimore, Annapolis and San Francisco. Eight members of the party were elected to Congress and ran their own candidate for the White House, Milliard Fillmore.
     In Philadelphia, Boston and dozens of other places, bigots burned down Irish-Catholic parishes, murdered clerics and in the case of a sad soul named Maria Monk, earned a fortune on their bigotry.    
     Again, economics played a role. Weeks before the riot, the cost of living had doubled in two years, eggs, as an example, had gone from 12 cents to twenty five cents in four months. Work was difficult to get most of the time, but with war raging it seemed impossible and the Irish complained bitterly, loudly and often to Tammany that African Americas were underbidding them for what little work they qualified for. A rumor spread among them that if Lincoln Republicans won war, the Irish would be working for the African Americans. Relations between the two groups had never been good, but just days before the riots, it worsened. There were more and more fights along the docks between the Blacks and the Irish, followed by a series of unexplained house fires in the Negro section in five points.
   On March 3, 1863,  President Lincoln signed the national conscription act which called for the registration of all males, between their ages of 18 and 45, for military service. Each city and state were given a quota, in New York the quota was 12,500 men. Those rich citizens who wanted to avoid the draft bought replacements to take their place for $300 and military exemptions were given out for frivolous reasons to all and any who had social pull. The Irish, who made up 30% of the Union forces and 18% of the confederate forces, had neither the money or the contacts  to avoid the draft.
     When the riots ended, an estimated 2,200, were dead (about the same number of Americans killed in the war of 1812). 10,000 were wounded including virtually every member of the police force who  captured 11,000 rifles, and pistols  with 7000 bats, clubs and sticks. The damage to the city was in the millions. Only 19 persons were tried and convicted for their parts in the riot, with each receiving an average prison term of five years.
    It scarred the otherwise noble history of the Irish in  America, for decades and it is, as Shannon pointed out, "one of the ironies of American history that the draft riots in New York occupied only one week after the Irish in the Union Army had played a heroic role in the decisive battles of the war-Gettys-burg on July 3-4"
    Again, there is no excuse for the draft riot, but there are explanations on  both sides.
    The books author, Asbury, was an interesting man and a prolific writer, (seventeen books, film treatments, several dozen articles in twenty four years), including the much overlooked All Around Town. He came from a deeply religious background that included several generations of devout Methodist Preachers. As a result, Asbury's southern childhood was dominated by old time religion in constant, heavy doses. At the age of fourteen, he left the church and took a stroll on the wild side, learning to smoke play poker, swear, drink and appreciate the finer sex. Two books resulted from that rebellion, Up From Methodism (which caused  frenzy in the Methodist community) and The Methodist Saint.
     He leaped to fame and controversy in 1926 with an article he penned called Hatrack, which ran in the marvelous H. L. Mencken's  wonderful publication, American Mercury magazine. The story revolved around a Farmington, Missouri (Where Asbury was born)  prostitute named Hatrack (standing with her arms out, she resembles a hat rack)  who serviced her Protestant customers in a Roman Catholic cemetery (and vice versa, she was liberal if nothing else) Hatrack decides to change her life and attends a Methodist service where she's not ignored. Unable to find redemption with the Church, she returns to her life on the streets
      The story was banned in Boston (a ploy later turned around by Howard Hughes to push a film her had produced which bombed¦until he arranged for it to be banned in Boston)
     Mencken, a fascinating man by the way, challenged the ban by selling copies of the article on the commons, which led to his arrest  which led to record sale of the issue. The incident made Asbury a celebrity in a Lenny Bruce/Larry Flint sort of way.
      He enlisted in the infantry in World War One, promoted through the ranks to Second Lieutenant and was gassed in France, which damaged his lungs for the remainder of his life and was the direct result of his death, at age 73, in 1963.  "I want no funeral" he said "no preacher, no services, just a box and cremation. Just be sure that I'm dead."

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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