Revisiting Herbert Asbury's "The Gangs of New York"
Actor Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher in Martin
Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002)
Anyone born after, say, 1985 can be excused for believing that the title The Gangs of New York refers solely to an almost-great film by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis rather than to what may be the most alarming history book ever written about New York City or any other town in the world.
The young muckraking author Herbert Asbury published his shocker in 1928 after plowing through entire libraries on the lookout for news clippings and police reports chronicling the lurid underworld that once held America’s premiere city in its grip. His book isn’t a sociological treatise, but rather an inventory of “the more spectacular exploits of the refractory citizen who was a dangerous nuisance in New York for almost a hundred years, with a sufficient indication of his background of vice, poverty, and political corruption to make him understandable.” To re-read it is to rediscover the corrupt and delirious world of Boss Tweed and P.T. Barnum and the colorful neighborhoods of the Bowery, Hell’s Kitchen, and of course the infamous Five Points. And as you might expect, the dominant colors in these neighborhoods were brown and red: brown for mud, and red for blood.
Bandit's Roost in the Five Points neighborhood, circa 1900
In Asbury’s exuberantly sensationalistic narrative, the juvenile New York gangster of the 19th century was a product of poverty, family disorganization, egregious political corruption and all the evils these entail. “[H]e grew to manhood without the slightest conception of right and wrong, with an aversion to honest labor that amounted to actual loathing, and with a keen admiration for the man who was able to get much for nothing. Moreover, his only escape from the misery of his surroundings lay in excitement, and he could imagine no outlets for his turbulent spirit save sex and fighting.” (For a more nuanced view of the city's history during this unstable period, see Luc Santé's book: Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York.)
Old New York with its squalid tenements provided the perfect host body for this contagion of crime to grow. As late as 1898, Asbury delights in relating, “the Bowery had ninety-nine houses of entertainment, of which only fourteen were classed as respectable by the police, and there were six bar-rooms to a block.” We learn that
“[I]n many of the lower class places, in the early days, drinks were three cents each and no glasses or mugs were used. Barrels of fiery spirits stood on shelves behind the bar, and poured out their contents through lines of slender rubber hose. The customer, having deposited his money on the bar, took an end of the hose in his mouth, and was entitled to all he could drink without breathing. The moment he stopped for breath the watchful bartender turned off the supply, and nothing would start it again but another payment. Some of the Bowery bums became so expert at swallowing, and were able to hold their breaths for such a long period, they could get delightfully drunk for three cents.”
Drinking from hoses may sound like an extreme form of indulgence today, but it appears more like a sensible precaution when you learn that Mickey Finns a.k.a. knockout drops made of hydrate of chloral had become the instrument of choice among robbers by the late 1860s. “They generally worked in pairs,” Asbury tells us, “and while one distracted the attention of the dupe the other dropped the poison in his beverage. For many years the police seldom arrested a streetwalker who did not have chloral or morphine in her purse or secreted in the lining of her muff.”
A trio of Plug Uglies
All the city’s glorious and gory gangs come back to life in the pages of Asbury’s book. The Bowery Boys, the Plug Uglies, the Shirt Tails, the Chichesters, and the sinister Dead Rabbits – who together nearly trashed the city during the 1863 Draft Riots – make today’s Hell’s Angels, Crips, and Bloods look like a rerun of the Muppet Show. We learn of “Dandy Johnny Dolan, famed for his brilliantined forelock, the monkey-headed walking sticks he carried, and the delicate copper pick he wore on his thumb to gouge out his enemies’ eyes; men like Kit Burns, who was known to bite the head off live rats; and men like blind Danny Lyons, a towheaded kid with huge dead eyes who pimped for three whores that proudly walked the streets for him.”
If Christopher Street is today best known for the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the subsequent Gay Pride movement, back in the 1850s the neighborhood was the realm of Bill Poole, better known as Bill the Butcher, “the champion brawler and eyed gouger of his time,” a massive man over six feet in stature and weighing over two hundred pounds. Poole’s gang was the terror of the Five Points, and Poole himself, “a professional butcher, knew all about knives, and it was common knowledge that he could throw a butcher knife through an inch of pine at twenty feet.”
The Five Points in 1859
Notorious brass-knuckled gang leader and killer Monk Eastman, born to a respectable Jewish restaurant owner in Brooklyn in 1873, began his career at an East Side dancehall, where he regularly carried “a huge bludgeon, in which he cut a notch every time he subdued an obstreperous customer. One night he walked up to an inoffensive old man who was drinking beer and laid his scalp open with a tremendous blow. When he was asked why he had attacked the man without provocation, Eastman replied, ‘Well, I had forty-nine nicks in me stick, and I wanted to make it an even fifty.’” Like many a New York gang leader, Eastman became a favorite of Tammany Hall, “and was especially useful around election times, when he voted his gangsters in droves and employed them to blackjack honest citizens who thought to cast their ballots according to their convictions.” … “I like to beat up a guy once in a while,” he used to say. “It keeps me hand in.”
The infamous Marm Mandelbaum
One of the city’s most successful gangsters was my own illustrious ancestor, Fredericka (“Marm” or “Mother”) Mandelbaum, a Prussian immigrant who soon rose to become the greatest fence of her era. “She was a huge woman,” Asbury tells us, weighing in at more than two hundred and fifty pounds, and had a sharply curved mouth and extraordinarily fat cheeks.” (Okay, maybe she wasn’t my ancestor after all!) The police estimated that Marm Mandelbaum handled between five and ten million dollars worth of stolen property in the two decades after 1862. She is alleged “to have maintained a school in Grand street, not far from Police headquarters, where small boys and girls were taught by expert pickpockets and sneak thieves. She also offered advanced courses in burglary and safe-blowing, and to a few of the most intimate of her associates gave post graduate work in blackmailing and confidence schemes.” She was finally forced to flee the city in 1884 and supposedly ended her days in Canada, making occasional visits to the city to check on her business interests.
Marm Mandelbaum mentored a small army of female gangsters like Old Mother Hubbard and Black Lena Kleinschmidt. After all, the allegedly fairer sex not only had front-row seats in this decades-long drama, they were up there treading the boards themselves. When the male gangs did battle against each other, their womenfolk were close at hand, “their arms filled with reserve ammunition, their keen eyes watching for a break in the enemy’s defenses, and always ready to lend a hand or a two in the fray.” During the 1863 Draft Riots, we learn, “it was the women who inflicted the most fiendish tortures upon Negroes, soldiers, and policemen captured by the mob, slicing their flesh with butcher knives, ripping out eyes and tongues, and applying the torch after the victims had been sprayed with oil and hanged in trees.” A particularly vicious Dead Rabbit was “known as Hell-Cat Maggie, who fought alongside the gang chieftains in many of the great battles with the Bowery gangs. She is said to have filed her front teeth to points, while on her fingers she wore long artificial nails, constructed of brass.” When she bit and clawed her way into a mob of gangsters, “even the most stout-hearted blanched and fled.”
The 1863 Draft Riots quickly devolved into a racist rampage
As always throughout history, women did whatever they had to in order to survive in a world dominated by men – or by the devil, depending on your theological outlook. In a speech at Cooper’s Union in 1866, Bishop Simpson shocked his parishioners by claiming that there were more prostitutes in the city than Methodists. The superintendent of police had set the number of public prostitutes at a conservative 3,300, divided among 621 brothels and ninety-nine assignation hotels. Asbury suspected that the good Bishop’s figures were much closer to the truth.
Middle class reformers regarded prostitution, together with alcohol, as the downfall of American civilization. As historian Christine Stansell wrote in her landmark study “City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860,” we learn that “[T]he reformer’s image of prostitution as an irreversible descent into degradation obfuscated more of this complex reality than it revealed.” Her book reveals that prostitution was “a reasonable choice in a society in which economic support from a man was a prerequisite for any kind of decent life.” The daily tragedy of abandonment and impending starvation “were the painful actualities from which popular culture would fashion its own morality tales of sexual victimization and depravity.” This is not to say that all prostitutes were mere “victims of patriarchy.” Citing contemporary reports, Stansell notes that many women entered the trade out of “inclination” in an effort to avoid the drudgery of female employment and to gain the independence and wealth that was otherwise beyond their reach.
A somewhat ambiguous "moral reform directory" from 1839,
dedicated to "The Ladies Reform Association for
the Suppression of Onanism"
But that’s New York for you. As Stansell points out, old Gotham “was a place where the dialectic of female vice and female virtue was volatile; where, in the ebb and flow of large oppressions and small freedoms, poor women traced out unforeseen possibilities for their sex.”This was not only true of New York’s women, but of all its inhabitants, and perhaps also for America as a whole. In Scorsese’s film (which vividly brings all the elements I have described here to life), a line in the script says that New York wasn’t really a city at all, but rather a huge furnace from which a city might some day be forged. There is no such optimistic sentiment in Asbury’s book, but his tale does evoke a raw and uniquely New York kind of energy that has wrenched our city and country to where they are today. Will it continue to sustain us or finally destroy us? Sometimes I wonder, but after revisiting Asbury’s morbid metropolis I can’t help believe that if we could survive the gangs, we can swallow anything else the city serves up to us.
Originally published in Gotham By Night in 2002