The Real Gangs of New York

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You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That's what preserves the order of things. Fear.

Those are the gruesome words of Bill "the Butcher" Cutting, played by Daniel Day Lewis in the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York.

The Dead Rabbits Riot in 1857 on Bayard Street in the Five Points.
The Dead Rabbits Riot in 1857 on Bayard Street in the Five Points.

150 years ago, an area in lower Manhattan called the Five Points played host to gladiatorial clashes between US-born native and immigrant Irish gangs. The Five Points gained international notoriety as a disease-ridden, crime-infested slum that existed well into the 20th century.

Once the domain of middle-class homes built on reclaimed land, it became a sprawling slum within a relatively short period. Stories of violent confrontations were legion, giving the press a never-ending supply of gory material to write about.

Brick-bats, stones and clubs were flying thickly around, and from the windows in all directions, and the men ran wildly about brandishing firearms. Wounded men lay on the sidewalks and were trampled upon. Now the Rabbits would make a combined rush and force their antagonists up Bayard street to the Bowery. Then the fugitives, being reinforced, would turn on their pursuers and compel a retreat to Mulberry, Elizabeth and Baxter streets.
—The New York Times, July 6, 1857.

It is no unusual thing for a mother and her two or three daughters—all of course prostitutes—to receive their 'men' at the same time in the same room.
—New York Tribune, 1850.

Every house was a brothel, and every brothel a hell.
—Five Points missionary Lewis Pease.

Five Points intersection painted by George Catlin in 1827
Five Points intersection painted by George Catlin in 1827

The George Catlin depiction of 1827 shows the Five Points intersection as a bustling, densely populated area. The triangular building in the center is located on what would be known as "Paradise Square". Anthony Street veers off to the right, Cross Street on the left and Orange Street runs left to right in the foreground.

This modified aerial view of the Five Points shows the area around modern day Columbus Park. As you can see, Paradise Square would have filled the space currently occupied by the New York City Supreme Court.

Modified aerial view of the Five Points shows the area around modern day Columbus Park

It's hard to believe that in the 18th century, the area that was to become the infamous Five Points was a beautiful meadow covering 48 acres, bordered by a hill know as Bayard's Mount, and with the spring-fed Collect Pond at its center supplying the city's fresh water. People would picnic there during the summer, and skate on the frozen pond in winter.

This 1798 watercolor of the Collect Pond shows Bayard's Mount—a 110-foot hillock—in the left foreground.

1798 watercolor of Collect Pond showing Bayard's Mount
1798 watercolor of Collect Pond showing Bayard's Mount

The Old Brewery in the Five Points typified the rapidly growing industries. Tanneries, breweries, ropewalks, and slaughterhouses all began to use the water and dump waste in the neighborhood.

The pollution caused a major environmental health risk and the pond was eventually drained and filled with earth from the leveling of Bayard's Mount. A new middle-class residential community was built upon the landfill but was poorly conceived and engineered.

The Old Brewery at Five Points
The Old Brewery at Five Points

Buried vegetation released methane gas and the area lacked adequate storm drainage. The ground gradually subsided, house foundations shifted, and unpaved streets buried in mud. Mosquito-infested pools of human and animal excrement became intolerable for middle-class residents, who moved out, leaving the doors wide open for waves of immigrant poor.

At its height, only certain areas of London's East End vied with Five Points for sheer population density, disease, infant and child mortality, unemployment, prostitution, and violent crime.

Charles Dickens at his writing desk
Charles Dickens at his writing desk

Charles Dickens described Five Points in 1842 in his book American Notes for General Circulation:

 What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies behind this tottering flight of steps? Let us go on again, and plunge into the Five Points.

This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over.

Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken forays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright instead of going on all fours, and why they talk instead of grunting?

The Scorsese-DiCaprio alliance was based on Herbert Asbury's 1927 book The Gangs of New York.  The movie received a host of awards and was generally praised for its historical accuracy, including the names of the legendary Five Points gangs—the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, the Short Tails, the Slaughter Houses, the Swamp Angels.

Related suggestions for your reading and entertainment pleasure:

  • The book that inspired the movie. First published in 1928, Herbert Asbury's whirlwind tour through the low-life of nineteenth-century New York has become an indispensable classic of urban history. Focusing on the saloon halls, gambling dens, and winding alleys of the Bowery and the notorious Five Points district, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (disclosure) dramatically evokes the destitution and shocking violence of a turbulent era, when colorfully named criminals like Dandy John Dolan, Bill the Butcher, and Hell-Cat Maggie lurked in the shadows, and infamous gangs like the Plug Uglies, the Dead Rabbits, and the Bowery Boys ruled the streets. A rogues gallery of prostitutes, pimps, poisoners, pickpockets, murderers, and thieves, The Gangs of New York is a dramatic and entertaining glimpse at a city's dark past.
  • Fancy watching the movie now? Get instant access to Gangs Of New York in HD glory. Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day- Lewis star in this tale of vengeance and survival! As waves of immigrants swell the population of New York, corruption thrives in lower Manhattan's Five Points section.
  • Prefer to keep the movie? We've got you covered in spectacular Blu-ray fashion: Gangs of New York (Miramax Award-Winning Collection) [Blu-ray]
  • If you prefer a deeper historical analysis of the Five Points, then Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood is the choice for you! Chock full of heart-wrenching stories reminding us of the once humble beginnings of this great nation. Five Points is, in short, a microcosm of America.
  • To top it off, why not become a New York history buff? Treat yourself to Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City and impress friends and business associates with your incredible insights!

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