Revisiting ‘Gangs of New York’
Martin Scorsese’s 2002 Film is More Relevant Than Ever
If you haven’t watched Gangs of New York recently, try to find the time to see it. I think it’s a film that puts our current U.S. political strife into much-needed historical perspective.
I’ve long felt Gangs of New York was a cinematic masterpiece due to its re-creation of 1860’s Manhattan, for its vivid characters (The Butcher foremost among them), and for the performances of the much of the cast.
Although it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it didn’t win a single one.(1) Instead, the musical, Chicago, won big that year — perhaps understandable given that the trauma of 9/11 was still fresh; people weren’t quite up for violent stories about American history yet, no matter how well wrought.
A few days ago I re-watched Gangs of New York, and it brought home to me something relevant to our present political situation: America’s divisions on immigration, race, class, religion, and ‘foreign influences’ have always been with us. In fact, those divisions have been far worse in the past. Nonetheless, we still survived as a nation, moved beyond our instinctive fears, and achieved remarkable things together.
Americans might not like to hear it, but throughout our history we have seldom lived up to our rhetoric on liberty and justice. From the outset we were an imperfect experiment in democracy (with slavery, genocide against indigenous people, civil rights violations, limited suffrage). Given our differences, America was constantly at risk of imploding or exploding.
That we are here at all is a testament to the many activists and idealists who ignored the tide of human history, ignored their personal safety, ignored our longstanding ethnic and religious hatreds, our class divisions, and more — and urged us toward our professed ideals. Every advance we have made as a nation can be attributed to the greater openness and diversity they championed in the face of intimidating odds.
This is on full display in Gangs of New York — but you have to look closely to see it.
New York City circa 1862
Scorsese’s film depicts New York at a fragile but formative moment in U.S. history. The Civil War was then in its second year and had resulted in mass casualties for the North. The survival of the American nation was then very much in doubt — with new immigrants coming ashore every day, not yet invested in the United States’ existence, wanting only a better life than the one they left behind.
The city was bursting at the seams with recent arrivals from many nations and religions. These immigrants competed against blacks (often freed slaves) and resentful Caucasian native-born citizens for jobs and for political influence. The resulting struggle was a toxic mix of racial and cultural animosities — with political corruption and rampant criminality thrown in for good measure.
The Five Points district in lower Manhattan depicted in the film was in real life a focal point of criminality in New York. Most of the street gangs depicted also had historical counterparts, each with ties to corrupt city leaders such as the infamous Democratic politician William Magear Tweed — widely known as ‘Boss Tweed’ — of Tammany Hall.
The casual violence and racism of the city, combined with the general indifference of upper class New Yorkers toward lower-class suffering, paints a portrait of America as a venal society that fell well short of its lofty rhetoric. ‘Freedom’ and ‘justice’ mostly make appearances in the form of flags, fireworks, and rousing marching bands, particularly when politicians like Tweed are trying to get out the vote. The denizens of the city make a mockery of democracy.
Newspapers and public figures of the era loudly decried official corruption. The mass slaughter of the Civil War had also gone on far longer and was much worse than anyone anticipated, fomenting a general perception that the country was ‘going to hell.’
That’s a sentiment familiar to modern American ears — and the similarities don’t end there.
The central conflict in Scorsese’s film occurs between an Irish Catholic immigrant gang known as the ‘Dead Rabbits’(2) versus a gang of American-born Protestants referred to in the film as the ‘Natives’, led by the fictional William Cutting — aka ‘The Butcher’ (played by Daniel Day-Lewis).
However, in the real history of the Five Points there was indeed an infamous gang leader named ‘The Butcher.’ He led a violent Protestant gang known as the Bowery Boys out of his butcher shop in the 1850’s. Unlike the film, this man’s name was not ‘William Cutting’ but ‘William Poole.’ Aside from being a gang leader, Poole was also head of a local chapter of the right-wing Native American political party — which consisted (with no apparent irony) not of actual native Americans, but the sons of earlier Anglo Saxon immigrants.
The Native American Party was commonly referred to as the ‘Know Nothings.’ That nickname referenced not proud stupidity but their automatic disavowal of the many violent political crimes their members committed throughout the U.S. against immigrants — especially against Catholics, who were then viewed as alien invaders and followers of a perverse religion. In just one incident in 1855, during a hotly contested governor’s race in Kentucky, twenty-two people were murdered and scores injured in fighting between Know Nothing’s and Catholics at polling places.
The Know Nothing party (most active between 1854 and 1856) promised to ‘purify’ American politics by curbing the influence of Irish Catholics and other new citizens and were a product of popular fears that the U.S. was being overwhelmed with undesirable German and Irish Catholic migrants, whom they saw as hostile to Republican values and as being controlled by the Pope.
Even while the fictional William Cutting in the film is both a Protestant gang and political leader, he’s also joined at the hip politically to Boss Tweed, an infamously corrupt New York politician and head of Tammany Hall, whose growing power paradoxically rests on the votes of incoming hoards of Catholic immigrants.
At this time in history nativists like The Butcher preyed upon the vulnerability of new immigrants for profit, even as they sought to divest them of their political power. They did this by controlling access to the levers of government. In fact, criminals like The Butcher often administered city ‘services.’ For example, the fire brigades depicted in the film battling each other in the streets was not just fiction.
Official city fire fighters did not exist in New York City until 1865. Instead, volunteer fire brigades were frequently formed directly from neighborhood street gangs, who were already providing services to corrupt politicians. The risk to the entire city from a burning house back then was enormous, and thus, incentivizing groups to rush to the scene with all haste to extinguish blazes was viewed as outweighing the individual needs of a household reckless enough to let their home catch fire. Thus, anything in a burning house was ‘up for grabs’, sometimes causing violent competition between gangs of looting firemen.
The police did not intervene because in neighborhoods like the Five Points police existed primarily to prevent the poor from preying upon the rich. And to make matters worse, there were two rival police organizations — the Municipal Police and the Metropolitan Police — neither of which acknowledged the legitimacy of the other.
Instead, it fell to ethnic and religious street gangs to maintain order in lower-class neighborhoods — often on behalf of corrupt city leaders like Boss Tweed. Men like Tweed retained the loyalty of street gangs by distributing city contracts in exchange for guaranteeing voters — at knife point, if necessary.
In one memorable scene from the film, Boss Tweed stands alongside the Butcher at the docks of New York, gazing on Irish migrants disembarking from ships. Tweed proclaims, “That’s the building of our country right there — Americans aborning.”
The Butcher recoils. “I don’t see no Americans. I see trespassers. Irish harps, do a job for a nickle what a n**ger does for a dime, and a white man used to get a quarter for. What have they done? Name one thing they’ve contributed.”
“Votes,” replies Tweed.
“Votes, you say? They vote how the archbishop tells’em. And who tells the archbishop? Their king in the pointy hat what sits on his throne in Rome.”
Tweed ignores The Butcher’s comment, saying, “Bill, deliver these good and fervent folk to the polls on a regular basis, and there’ll be a handsome price for each vote goes Tammany’s way.”
Disgusted, the Butcher removes his hat and spits, “My father gave his life making this country what it is. Murdered by the British with all of his men on the 25th of July, anno domini 1814(3). You think I’m going to help you befoul his legacy? By giving this country over to them what’s had no hand in the fightin’ for it? Why? Because they come off a boat crawling with lice, and begging you for soup?”
And yet, The nativist Butcher pointedly ignores — or is incapable of seeing — the Irish immigrants close by, only just arrived, kissing their wives and children goodbye as they join the Union army to take up arms in defense of their new nation — the same Republic that Poole says his own father died defending.
And this is where I think Gangs of New York shines best, in illuminating humanity’s ancient territorial instincts — with earlier immigrants resenting later ones, blind to the actual and potential contributions of new arrivals to society.
Also take note of Boss Tweed in this scene: a man who always senses which way the wind is blowing and can react before anyone else. Even though The Butcher is universally feared in the city, and even though vicious gangs prowl the streets, and much later murderous Union Troops put down rioters by shooting New Yorkers on sight — it is only the corrupt but ever-adaptable Tweed, who endures, a shape-shifter, constantly turning circumstances to his advantage.
The politicians in the film are undying and inevitable. Even a thug as murderous and canny as The Butcher cannot thwart Tweed.
Late in the film, upon seeing hundreds of dead citizens in rows on the street — victims of the draft riots — Tweed’s only comment is, “We’re burying a lot of votes here tonight.”(4)
The New York city draft riots depicted in the climax of Gangs of New York occurred in the summer of 1863 and involved 70,000 rioters, rampaging through Manhattan for four days. The riots were sparked by America’s first military conscription — avoidance of which was possible by payment of $300(5). This gave rise to cries of ‘Rich man’s war — poor man’s fight!’
Newspaper reports of the time indicate that a fire company named ‘Black Joke’ launched the riots by burning a draft office to the ground (again, recall that firemen of the time were street gangs — and had some contrarian views on fire). General looting by numerous street gangs, including the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits, soon turned into a race riot, with black citizens quickly becoming the main target (the demographic consequences of which reverberated well into the 20th century).
President Abraham Lincoln finally put down the riots with several regiments of infantry brought up from Gettysburg. These hardened troops opened fire on the crowds. Estimates of the casualties vary widely — from the hundreds up to thousands, although most historians believe a bit over a hundred were killed and a thousand or so injured.
Central Theme of the ‘Gangs of New York’
Scorsese’s film takes some liberties with the order of historical events. The Know Nothing party’s heyday was nearly a decade gone by the time of the New York City draft riots. Also William “The Butcher” Poole was murdered in 1855, well before the main story takes place. But these events were compressed in the film to get at the heart of the boiling resentments present at this stretch of American history, and in doing so, I think reveal a greater truth: that the old enmities of racism, parochialism, and class-ism were not left behind in the journey to the New World. They are the perennial struggle that humanity has yet to overcome. We see embers of them glowing again even now.
And yet, as you watch Scorsese’s extremely violent historical drama, sprinkled here and there on the periphery you will notice the actions of ‘social reformers’ and ‘do-gooders’ in the Five Points. These folks are viewed almost comically by the main characters — or at the very least viewed as hopelessly naïve. From abolitionists putting on morality plays about slavery (and in doing so, making themselves targets for verbal abuse and rotten vegetables), to wealthy society folk touring the Five Points in an effort to understand the roots of enduring poverty, as well as missionaries holding social dances to foster civility between the sexes, these ‘do-gooders’ try to ameliorate misery and conflict. They try to bring the diverse branches of humanity together.
In contrast to all the political violence and crime of this story, it’s actually the actions of these peaceful, determined reformers in the background that were the key to America’s future. Yet their actions are either barely noticed by the main characters in the film or openly mocked by them.
This juxtaposition of hyper-violence and glimmers of compassion reveals, to my mind, the major theme of Gangs of New York. The utter uselessness of perennial sectarian conflict is brought home time and time again. The enduring value of working together despite our differences is repeatedly made apparent.
The very first scenes of the movie involve a massive battle between Catholic and Protestant gangs in the Five Points of New York, and this plants the seed for the hero (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) to later seek vengeance against The Butcher upon becoming a man.
Foreshadowing this, DiCaprio’s character receives a straight razor from his father as a boy. It’s both a weapon and a symbol of male adulthood. He hides it away until he can return to claim it as a man. It’s both his burden and his only link to his past.
And yet, as he gets pulled into The Butcher’s circle and learns what high regard The Butcher has for the man he murdered (the ‘Priest’ Vallon) — going so far as to honor his Catholic opponent with an annual toast — the hero begins to waver in his pursuit of vengeance.
His life improves as he finds love and hope with a young Irish Catholic woman (played by Cameron Diaz) who survived childhood only with an act of compassion from The Butcher.
But as the hero succumbs to his desire to avenge his father and attempts to assassinate The Butcher — the hero’s life and the lives of those around him again spiral out of control. Gang conflict once more erupts in the Five Points as the Dead Rabbits return to fight the Nativists.
By the end, we are essentially returned to the beginning of the film, seemingly on an endless loop, with nothing solved.
It’s only after the hero strikes down The Butcher that we see him finally break the cycle of violence — not taking The Butcher’s place, but instead burying the straight razor atop his father’s grave, symbolically burying the recurring enmities and sectarian conflict his father brought with him from the Old World. The hero leaves New York City with his new love — the only legacy of The Butcher that survives — to find a future somewhere out in America.
It’s in the following time lapse of the city skyline at the end of the film that Scorsese makes clear that only by building up society do we make lasting changes. The damage from the riots is quickly erased. The film shows decades passing in seconds as the skyline evolves and rises — the Brooklyn Bridge and skyscrapers appearing, individual people arriving and passing too fast for us to see. Their conflicts invisible to us — only their works visible. The graves in the foreground erode and are finally erased by the relentless march of time and growth of the city around them.
The last shot of the film holds on the Twin Towers — not an accident for a film released in 2002. The implication is that even these towers will soon fall — but the city will not die. Cities always rise again. Violence does not stop them.
The city — in fact, society itself — lives through all of us. No matter who we are, or where we come from, our common humanity unites us in the building of it. And if we choose, we can enrich each other’s brief lives in the process.
What does it mean to be American?
I find Gangs of New York so meaningful because some of my forebears actually lived in New York City during this moment in history. Like almost all Americans, I am descended from immigrants — in my case German, Italian, Puerto Rican, and Scottish grandparents and great-grandparents, some of whom arrived in New York in the middle of the 19th century — others much earlier — and who settled throughout New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Many years ago, while on summer break from college, I happened to be looking for work when my maternal grandparents wanted their New Jersey lake house painted. What followed was a week spent working hard by day and then lingering over the dinner table in the evenings while my grandfather and grandmother told me a family history I’d never bothered to listen to as a boy.
My maternal great-grandfather, Annibale Bellofatto, was born in the village of Prata, in the province of Avalino, near Naples, Italy in 1852. At the age of seventeen he emigrated to America, arriving through the Castle Garden Immigration Center(6)in 1869. Annibale entered the U.S. just four-thousand feet away from the Five Points neighborhood and six years after the New York City draft riots. And it was here that Annibale began to make a life for himself — a life from which I can trace a direct path to myself, sitting here at this computer.
Among his children, one of Annibale’s sons, my grandfather, Alfonso, was born in 1902 and grew up in Orange, New Jersey. He later attended Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he graduated as a civil engineer in 1924. Afterward he worked on the Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel project — later renamed the Holland Tunnel — completed in 1927 and the world’s first mechanically ventilated underwater automobile tunnel. Alfonso went on to become an engineer for the City of New York.
My maternal grandmother was born Mae Manherz, the daughter of German-Americans. Her family lived among the Pennsylvania Dutch(7) in Shippensburg and her mother’s side of the family (Hornberger) could trace their lineage in America to before the Revolutionary War.
My Catholic Italian grandfather met my Protestant German grandmother in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the early 1920’s. Despite their families’ different backgrounds and their different religions — which their forebears in Europe had fought over for centuries — they fell in love and were married. Their union brought my mother into this world.
My paternal grandfather, Angelo Suarez, was born in New York in 1893. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War I, stationed in Glasgow, Scotland. There he met Hannah Martin, and they were married in 1916. After the war, Angelo and Hannah settled in Staten Island, New York (one of the city’s five boroughs) and brought my father into the world.
During World War II, my father joined the U.S. Navy at the age of seventeen and fought in the South Pacific. After the war both he and my mother — who was also raised in Staten Island — earned college degrees and settled down in suburban New Jersey. There, they raised me and my five brothers and sisters.
Despite this typically American background, and despite growing up in pleasant suburbs, there were several times during my childhood and young adulthood when my last name — Suarez — brought on suggestions by modern-day ‘Natives’ that I was somehow an outsider or that I didn’t belong in America. These incidents were mercifully few. But they always stuck with me.
To me being American doesn’t involve ethnicity or religion at all. Being American is a state of mind. It’s a belief that no matter who your father and mother were, and no matter where your ancestors came from, you are free to make your own future.
Watch Scorsese’s film again. Remember that, for all their violence, the Know Nothings did not win. Like the Five Points neighborhood itself, their prejudices were finally torn down to make room for a bigger, and much more interesting America.
~ Daniel Suarez is a Los Angeles based author. Visit: daniel-suarez.com ~
Revisiting ‘Gangs of New York’
Published by Daniel Suarez, Friday Feb 10th, 2017 (12:30 PM, PST)
(1) The Screen Actors Guild chose Daniel Day-Lewis as Best Actor for his role as The Butcher.
(2) ‘dead’ being a slang word for ‘very’, and ‘rabbits’ being a bastardization of the Irish word ‘ráibéad or ‘big hulking fellow’
(3) He’s referring to the Battle of Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada. This was one of the bloodiest battles of the War of 1812.
(4) The real Boss Tweed lasted in politics until 1873, when he was brought down not by violence, but by the law. Convicted on 204 counts of embezzling public funds, he died at the age of 55 in the Ludlow Street Jail on April 12, 1878.
(5) Roughly equivalent to $5,800 in 2017.
(6) Ellis Island did not open until 1892. Castle Garden is now known as Castle Clinton in honor of New York City Mayor DeWitt Clinton. It can be toured online via Google Maps. As a side note: By a remarkable coincidence, the Five Points recreated for Gangs of New York was filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome —roughly 150 miles from where my great-grandfather, Annibale, was born.
(7) Americans misheard the word ‘Deutsch’ as ‘Dutch’, and the name ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ has stuck to this day. Note: Shippensburg, PA is one of very few towns north of the Mason-Dixon line raided by the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.
The film, Gangs of New York — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gangs_of_New_York
The Five Points of Manhattan — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Points,_Manhattan
Native American Party — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_Nothing
William ‘The Butcher’ Poole — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Poole
Castle Garden Immigration Center — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Clinton
The Holland Tunnel — http://www.panynj.gov/bridges-tunnels/holland-tunnel-history.html