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Martin Scorsese’s Meanest Streets Yet:
Rediscovering the 19th Century Gangs of New York

This article originally appeared as Manhattan Mayhem in Smithsonian Magazine, December 2002.
Below, Martin Scorsese directing Leonardo DiCaprio in "Mean Streets."

gangs_scorsese_dicaprioWHEN HE WAS growing up on Elizabeth Street in the 1950s, Martin Scorsese kept noticing tantalizing vestiges of a lost New York that just didn’t fit into the Little Italy that he knew. There were the old tombstones in the graveyard at St. Patrick’s, with dates from the unimaginably distant 1810s, and the cobblestone pavements that hinted at a forgotten time of horse-drawn traffic, and the “very tiny, very ancient” basements that he discovered beneath late-nineteenth century tenements. “I gradually realized that the Italian-Americans weren’t the first ones there, that other people had been there before us,” says Scorsese. “As I began to understand this, it fascinated me. I kept wondering, how did New York look? What were the people like? How did they walk, eat, work, dress?”

In January of 1970, Scorsese was house sitting for a friend on Long Island when, poking casually through his host’s library, he stumbled across a book that changed everything that he thought he knew about his old neighborhood, suddenly bringing to life the nameless ghosts that had flitted through those mysterious basements. The book was “The Gangs of New York,” a picaresque 1927 history of the city’s nineteenth century underworld, by Herbert Asbury. “It was a revelation,” he says. “There were so many gangs!” He read about the Bowery Boys, the True Blue Americans, the Plug Uglies, the Short Tails, and the Dead Rabbits, so named, it was said, because they carried a dead rabbit on a pike as their battle standard, and about a legion of once famous gangsters like Bill “the Butcher” Poole, Red Rocks Farrell, Slobbery Jim, Sow Madden, Piggy Noles, Suds Merrick, Cowlegged Sam McCarthy, Eat-’em-Up-Jack-McManus, and Hell-Cat Maggie, who filed her front teeth to points and wore artificial brass fingernails, the better to tear apart her adversaries when she waded into battle.

IN ASBURY’S BOOK, Scorsese recognized something greater than just a portrait of the city’s bygone low life: the descendant of immigrants himself, he saw in the bloody street fighting of the mid-nineteenth century the makings of an American epic. In his view, what was at stake in the gang wars was not just turf, but democracy itself, in its rawest form. “The country was up for grabs, and New York was a powder keg,” says Scorsese, looking compact and fastidious in an Indian-style white collarless shirt and tailored slacks. A huge poster for Jean Renoir’s film “Grand Illusion” looms behind him, in his townhouse on the East Side of Manhattan, three miles and a world away from the tenements of Elizabeth Street. Books are everywhere, including, on a coffee table in front of him, a stack of recent works on China, American colonial history, and Islam. “This was the America not the West with its wide open spaces, but of claustrophobia, where everyone was crushed together,” he continues, his deep-set eyes glowing with intensity beneath bushy eyebrows. “On one hand, you had the first great wave of immigration, the Irish, who were Catholic, spoke Gaelic, and owed allegiance to the Vatican. On the other hand, there were the Nativists, who felt that they were the ones who had fought and bled, and died for the nation. They looked at the Irish coming off the boats and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ It was chaos, tribal chaos. Gradually, there was a street by street, block by block, working out of democracy as people learned somehow to live together. If democracy didn’t happen in New York, it wasn’t going to happen anywhere.”

As a young aspiring director with no money to spend, Scorsese could only dream of one day rendering a vivid panoply of characters on screen. In 1977, with “Mean Streets,” he first grabbed audiences’ attention with his own hard-edged portrayal of his old neighborhood. Two years later, he acquired screen rights to “The Gangs of New York.” But for the next thirty years the difficulties of reproducing the monumental city scape of nineteenth century New York with the style and verisimilitude that Scorsese demanded defeated his every effort to bring it to the screen. Almost nothing in New York still looked the way it did in the mid-nineteenth century, and the cost of filming elsewhere seemed insurmountable. Three years ago, Scorsese finally succeeded in putting “Gangs of New York” in production, thanks to a contentious but durable partnership with the producer Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. Having cost a reported $103 million dollars, “Gangs of New York” will finally reach theaters this December, with a cast that includes Daniel Day-Lewis in a role based on Bill “the Butcher” Poole, Leonardo DiCaprio as a revenge-minded young Irish-American, Amsterdam Vallon, Liam Neeson as his gang-leader father killed in a street battle by  the “Butcher,” and Cameron Diaz as Jenny, a “bludget,” or female pickpocket, who dreams of saving enough stolen money to escape from the slums to a new life in the distant Northwest. Beginning with a bloody gang war in 1846, the film culminates amid the gotterdammerung of the 1863 Draft Riots, the worst mob violence in American history, when between 70,000 and 80,000 armed men and women rampaged through the streets, pillaging, burning, battling and often defeating the outnumbered police, and lynching helpless African-Americans.

Although immigrants and Nativists (as the Yankee nationalists were known) clashed in other cities, the violence was both greater and more prolonged in New York, where they were forced by geographical circumstance as much as by anything else to wrestle for living space and economic survival in a cramped area near the tip of Manhattan. Scorsese’s film, while rooted in history, does not claim to be documentary. Although historical figures both great and small appear on screen, including Boss William Marcy Tweed, Hell-Cat Maggie, Day-Lewis’s character, and others, the rest are fictional, in a story that is laced with intertwined plots of vengeance, romance, and political intrigue. Nevertheless, perhaps more vividly than any film made up to now, “Gangs of New York” renders with almost mesmerizing plausibility the look and feel of an urban past that has been all but forgotten by modern Americans. Indeed, it is almost as if Scorsese had pried loose and lifted up one of the old cobblestones that still poke through the asphalt pavement of Lower Manhattan, and the teeming world of the 1850's had come writhing up from the ground beneath it.

BRINGING ALL THIS to fruition was a daunting undertaking. More than a mile’s worth of buildings replicating large sections of mid-nineteenth century New York was constructed at the vast Cinecitta Studio in Italy, under the direction of production designer Dante Ferretti, a protégé of Federico Fellini who has brilliantly brought to life historical epochs as wide-ranging as the primitive Colchis of “Medea,” Revolutionary France in “La Nuit de Varennes,” and Gilded Age New York in “The Age of Innocence,” which was also directed by Scorsese.

Ferretti’s army of carpenters built a five-block area of Lower Manhattan, including the Five Points slum, a section of the East River waterfront including two full-sized sailing ships, a thirty- building stretch of lower Broadway, plus a patrician mansion, replicas of Tammany Hall, a church, a saloon, a Chinese theater, and a gambling casino. Ferretti is famous for his exhaustive research and attention to period detail: before he designed the interior of an old brewery that figures prominently in the film, Ferretti studied an encyclopedia of the period to make certain that he understood the machinery that it would have contained, and visited a disused pasta factory in Italy, where illegal immigrants lived in crowded squalor. “Oh, my God, it was awful! It was as if nothing had changed in one hundred years.”

Sharp-eyed filmgoers may recognize a vibrant recreation of George Catlin’s classic painting of the Five Points, as well as a fleeting glimpse of one of Jacob Riis’s most famous photographs brought startlingly to life, showing three tough-looking young men framed in a narrow alley, an image that fairly radiates emptiness and menace. “Nothing is fantasy: everything was built to look precisely as it did at the time,” says Ferretti, an amiable, round faced man, who speaks fluent English with a rich Italian accent. The ultimate visual effect is a stunning rendering of a physical world that looks not just old, but lived in, worn out by too many people struggling fit into a cruelly cramped place. “When I make a movie, my goal is not just to recreate the past, but to imagine it as if I were a person living in that world,” says Ferretti. “Fellini always told me, ‘Don’t just copy. Don’t be afraid to use your imagination.’ Most important, I tell myself, ‘Don’t be banal’”

Even the cocky stovepipe hats worn by most of the gangsters, a ubiquitous fashion of the day, take on a sinister aspect in Scorsese’s vision. Costume designer Sandy Powell faced the challenge of dressing actors who, for the most part, were portraying an impoverished and largely unwashed underclass who were often too poor to own more than a single suit of clothes. “They wore what they had, and what they had was often filthy,” says Powell, whose credits include “Shakespeare in Love,” among many other films. “The stuff they wore was often found, or stolen. Every single costume was attacked before it was put onto a person. After I bought a piece of fabric off the roll, I destroyed the texture, broke it down, had the life knocked out of it. We destroyed it with sandpaper and graters, and put bricks in the pockets to make it seem as if it had been worn for years. Then we’d paint on the clothes with brushes and spray cans to give it depth, and character, and shading. As far as I’m concerned, a costume’s not finished until it’s been painted.”

EQUAL CONCERN for authenticity was expended on the speech of characters whose loyalties were often revealed by their accents. Tim Monich, the film’s voice coach, disdained the use of a generic Irish brogue, and instead trained actors in the distinctive dialects of Cork, Kerry, Dublin, and Liverpool, as well as the Gaelic that was spoken by some immigrants from the far West of Ireland. Other characters, most importantly DiCaprio’s, who was born in Ireland but raised in the United States, speaks with a blend of accents typical of the half-Americanized. Trickiest of all was deciding how working class Yankee New Yorkers might have talked in the mid-nineteenth century. Says Monich, “I was convinced that there was a distinctive New York accent back then. But what did a WASP working class accent actually sound like?” In search of lost speech patterns, he studied old poems, ballads, newspaper articles (which sometimes imitated spoken dialect as a form of humor), and the “Rogue’s Lexicon,” a book of underworld idioms compiled by New York’s police commissioner, so that his men would be able to tell what criminals were talking about.

A key piece of evidence was a rare 1892 wax recording, discovered in Texas a decade ago, of Walt Whitman reciting four lines of a poem in which he pronounced the word “world” as “woild,” and the “a” of “an” nasal and flat, like “ayan.” Monich came to the conclusion that native nineteenth century New Yorkers probably sounded something like the proverbial Brooklyn cabbie of the mid-twentieth. (Upper class New Yorkers had similar speech patterns, but of course spoke more softly; “They sounded something like Jackie Kennedy,” says Monich.) He demanded comparable precision in the use of period idiom. Actors were allowed to include documented nineteenth century slang like “chump” and “cheese it,” but told to replace “dope fiend” with “hop fiend,” and “limeys” with “lime juicers,” when they wanted to insult the English. When Liam Neeson mocked his gang’s rivals as “Nancy Boys,” or sissies, an old term still in use in Neeson’s hometown of Belfast, Monich told him that in nineteenth century New York he would have to sneer “Miss Nancies” instead.

“Gangs of New York” does incorporate a number of self-conscious anachronisms. For instance, during the Draft Riots, the film for dramatic reasons has federal troops arrive sooner than in fact they did, and naval warships firing at rioters on Wall Street, when they never did at all. It also sets a number of visually arresting scenes in a lurid Chinatown theater that doubles as a brothel and opium den run by Bill the Butcher. Trouble is, there was no Chinatown in New York in the early 1860's. In fact, there were virtually no Chinese in the city at all. The first documented Chinese in New York was a man named Ah Ken, who opened a cigar store on Mott Street in 1858. There is no evidence of opium dens or any other crime-related activity until the 1870's. Acknowledging the anachronisms, Scorsese appeals to poetic license. “We pushed the envelope,” he says. It’s like a dream.”

Most of the film’s action takes place around the Five Points—so named because five streets converged there, a few hundred feet west of New York’s present-day criminal courts, and a short walk from Ground Zero—a seething slum that was the paramount symbol of anarchy, violence, and urban hopelessness for the rest of nineteenth century America. About 1830, the New York Mirror described the area as a “loathsome den of murderers, thieves, abandoned women, ruined children, filth, drunkenness, and broils.” (TA 22)

Around the same time, George Catlin, who is best known for his paintings of Indians on the Great Plains, painted the Five Points as a riotous scene of brawling drunks, leering prostitutes, and intermingled races, which to most Americans of the time just by itself suggested unspeakable wickedness and sin. Tenements had names like “The Gates of Hell” and “Brickbat Mansion”; the most notorious of all, and a key setting for Scorsese’s film, was an abandoned brewery where as many as one thousand of the poorest Irish immigrants and African-Americans swarmed over each other like termites in a rotting log, prostitutes plied their trade unashamedly in a single vast open room called the Den of Thieves, and the dead were often interred beneath the basement’s earthen floor. Everywhere in the neighborhood, filthy unpaved lanes ran thick with a soup of rotting garbage and human waste, in which pigs and other animals foraged for food. “Saturate your handkerchief with camphor, so that you can endure the horrid stench,” visitors to the area were advised.

FOR CHARLES DICKENS, who visited New York in 1842, to enter the Five Points was to descend into a real-life hell, where human beings with “coarse and bloated faces” were barely distinguishable from animals, and “debauchery” made the very houses seem prematurely old: “From every corner as you glance about you in these dark streets, some figure crawls half-awakened, as if the judgment hour were near at hand, and every obscure grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would howl to lie men and women and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings. Here, too, are lanes and alleys packed with mud knee-deep; underground chambers where they dance and game; the walls bedecked with rough designs of ships, of forts, and flags, and American Eagles out of number; ruined houses, open to the street, whence through wide gaps in the walls other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery had nothing else to show; hideous tenements which take their names from robbery and murder; all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.”

Until the early nineteenth century, New York had been a comparatively staid and conservative town, whose northern limits barely extended beyond modern Wall Street. (As late as the 1810's, cows grazed where New York’s City Hall now stands, and when a site near the present Brooklyn Bridge was designated for a new city hall in 1815, many citizens protested that the site lay too far out of town.) By the 1830's, however, the city was rapidly moving north, and as waves of immigrants poured into the city, the blocks of two and three-story, dormered homes that had only recently been home to merchants and middle-class craftsmen were converted into tenements. Until later in the century, there was no public sewage system, little police protection, and no restriction on the number of people who could be packed into a single dwelling. In just twenty years the population of the Five Points nearly doubled, with no corresponding increase in the housing stock. By 1855, immigrants, the vast majority of them Irish, accounted for seventy-two percent of the area’s population. One outcome of this new, cruelly congested kind of city was the first American slum. Another was the street gang.

In “Low Life,” a study of New York’s many overlapping nineteenth century underworlds, the social historian Luc Sante wrote, “The basic unit of social life among young males in New York in the nineteenth century was (as it perhaps is still and ever more shall be) the gang.” For the Manhattan of the immigrants, the gang served as what Sante calls “an important marker, a sort of social stake driven in,” which allowed the various ethnic groups and their subdivisions to control a few blocks of a city in which they had very little real power at all. “They engaged in violence,” writes Sante, “but violence was a normal part of life in their always-contested environment; turf war was a condition of the neighborhood. As a social unit, the gang closely resembled such organizations as the fire company, the fraternal order, and the political club, and all these formations variously overlapped; gangs might serve as the farm league or the strong-arm squad for the other entities.”

GANGS VARIOUSLY SPECIALIZED in everything from waterborne piracy, to mayhem-for-hire, to picking pockets, burglary, or election fraud, although many mixed and matched their activities without discrimination. For instance, one gang worked the North River in rowboats and was commanded by a valkyrie named Sadie the Goat, who in a famous barroom brawl had an ear chewed off by the equally ferocious Gallus Mag, of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang, and thereafter wore it in a locket around her neck. Mugging was an urban industry that dwarfs present-day statistics. Hard-drinking sailors were especially popular targets. “Crimps” operated Water Street boarding houses where seamen were regularly drugged, robbed, and shanghaied, and often murdered; in the 1860's, it was estimated that on Cherry Street alone, 15,000 sailors were robbed each year. There were parts of the Fourth Ward where the police would not even venture, except in groups of a dozen or more. It was said that no well-dressed man, and certainly no woman, was safe even in the daylight, and could expect to be robbed, beaten or murdered if he ventured far from Broadway. Wrote Asbury, “If the gangsters could not lure a prospective victim into a dive, they followed him until he passed beneath an appointed window, from which a woman dumped a bucket of ashes on his head,” Asbury wrote. “As he gasped and choked, the thugs rushed him into a cellar, where they killed him and stripped the clothing from his back, afterward casting his naked body upon the sidewalk.”

In spite of their ferocity, the gangs were also characterized by a curious sense of honor, and concern for public opinion. After a prolonged and bloody outbreak of fighting in 1857—it began when the city’s two rival police forces at the time were engaged in their own form of gang warfare, but that’s yet another story—that wrecked a wide swath of Lower Manhattan, The New York Times was constrained to print a notice which suggests that at least some gang members possessed rather delicate sensibilities: “We are requested by the Dead Rabbits to state that the Dead Rabbit club members are not thieves, that they did not participate in the riot with the Bowery Boys, and that the fight in Mulberry street was between the Roach Guards of Mulberry street and the Atlantic Guards of the Bowery. The Dead Rabbits are sensitive on points of honor, we are assured, and wouldn’t allow a thief to live on their beat, much less be a member of their club.”

Bill “the Butcher” Cutting, Scorsese’s riff on the Nativist gang leader Bill “the Butcher” Poole, was a quintessential product of this world. In Day-Lewis’s interpretation, Cutting, though as violent as he needs to be to survive (and maybe then some), is still fundamentally an ethical man, with a recognizable sense of dignity, and even a sense of history. Cutting’s father was killed in battle with the English during the War of 1812, and the son fancies his hatred of foreigners to be a kind of patriotism, and his street combat with immigrants a full-blooded way of defending the values that he supposes his father died for. “Judged by today’s standards, he would be a psychotic. But I don’t think that he was a rare species,” says Day-Lewis, to whom the ways of gangs are not entirely alien, having grown up in south London, where he remembers mobs of football supporters forever scheming to murder each other without interference from the police. “Cutting had learned how to live in the streets of his place and time. He represents a very common experience, of a native-born man whose parents somehow managed to claw their way up to a position of self-respect. He has got a code of ethics, and he sees himself as continuing the good work that his father began. But people like him are under siege. Their backs are to the wall, like the Protestants in Northern Ireland. Every time a boat unloads another load of savages, if you are Bill Cutting, you feel that you’re going to lose another rung in the pecking order.”

TO PREPARE for the part, Day-Lewis immersed himself in period literature ranging from the Police Gazette, which took an endless delight in reporting murders and maimings, to the poetry of Walt Whitman who, born in 1819, was an exact contemporary of the characters in the film, and who celebrated the energy of mid-century New York with an unequaled sensitivity to its churning rhythms, surging crowds, and the nuances of human interaction. Letters that gang members wrote to each other gave Day-Lewis a sense of the intensely strong emotional bond that existed between men like Cutting, based on their gangland allegiances. To master Cutting’s accent, the Anglo-Irish actor would recite Whitman’s evocative “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” with its intense evocation of the city’s harbor: “Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers! Stand up, tall masts of Manhattan!” And to experience something of the “medieval relish” with which Cutting sliced and diced his gangland enemies, Day-Lewis took butchery lessons from a pair of Argentine brothers who run a meat shop in Queens, New York, and later arranged for a master butcher to be flown to New York from London to give him finishing touches. “You grasp at anything that might be useful,” says Day-Lewis. “You decide that you’re in the lap of the gods, and hope that this thing you’ve created makes sense.”

The historical Bill Poole led a gang of thugs based around Christopher Street, in the heart of present-day Greenwich Village. Over six feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds, Poole was a “champion brawler and eye-gouger,” in Asbury’s words, who rented muscle to Nativist candidates in local elections. Poole developed an intense rivalry with an Irish prize fighter and gambler named John Morrissey, who would eventually go on through the kind patronage of Tammany Hall to become a state legislator and a member of the U.S. Congress. Morrissey was savagely beaten by Poole when the Irishman and his henchmen attacked the Nativists’ clubhouse, and vowed revenge. When Tammany politicians heard that Poole’s men were planning to attack their voters on election day, Morrissey offered to defend the polls with the toughest bruisers at his command, promising that “ears and noses would be highly regarded as souvenirs of an interesting occasion,” as Asbury put it.

The rivalry continued until 1855, when Poole finally met his end in a Broadway barroom, when one of Morrissey’s hoodlums named Lew Baker shot him dead with a long-barreled Colt. Though fatally wounded, Poole managed to seize a carving knife and lurch for his assailant, bellowing that he would “cut his heart out” before he died. Baker fled on a ship bound for the Canary Islands, but was intercepted just before his arrival there by a private yacht sent by one of Poole’s wealthy Nativist cronies, and carried back to New York. Tried for murder along with Morrissey, he ultimately went free even though there were several eyewitnesses to Poole’s assassination, proof of how firmly the city was now in the grip of Tammany’s minions. Melodramas soon appeared on the Bowery stage ending celebrating Poole as a local folk hero. They always ended with an actor draped in an American flag, gasping out Poole’s alleged final words: “Goodbye, boys, I die a true American!” Whether they true or not, they were a fitting epitaph for New York’s fast disappearing Yankee underclass.

Although Scorsese’s film ends with the Draft Riots, gangs of course continued to flourish. But the street warfare of mid-century ended with the Civil War, gradually yielding to a less anarchic and more efficient approach to crime. The gangsters of the later part of the century reflected America’s changed society. George Leonidas Leslie, who was believed to have masterminded 80 percent of the bank robberies committed in New York from 1874 to 1885, was a Dartmouth dropout, while 250-pound Marm Mandelbaum lived as opulently as the Astors in her slum apartment, from which she ran a school for pickpockets along scientific principles. By comparison to the tribal mayhem of the mid-nineteenth century, the Italian-American mafia, when it developed later on, was positively corporate, with its complex hierarchies of dons, godfathers, and capos, and its entrepreneurial sophistication. By the end of the century, even the toughest thugs had become businesslike. When a bruiser named Piker Ryan, a member of the fearsome Whyos, was arrested by the police, he was found to be carrying a presumably market-tested price list of crimes-for-hire, including:


Both eyes blacked...$4

Ear chawed off...$15


Doing the big job...$100 and up

BY THE 1890s, the mean streets had become so tame that middle class tourists were taking midnight tours of Bowery dives. The old underworld had become, at least in part, mere entertainment, a parody of itself. Some of the most famous old Bowery haunts eventually remade themselves into tourist traps, like a sort of lowlife Disneyland, designed to titillate the curious with staged scenes of opium smoking and staged tableaus of “white slavery” in the “depths” of Chinatown. Steve Brodie, for example, a celebrated bar owner of the Nineties, would pay his regulars to impersonate the gangsters that the “slummers” came to see. For a time, Brodie actually played himself on stage as the quintessential Bowery denizen, one more act in the entertainment industry’s unending love affair with the old New York underworld that would continue through the hard-boiled films of Jimmy Cagney, the airbrushed street punks of  “Dead End Kids,” and a veritable library of romanticized renderings of the mafia, to the blood-soaked realism of “Gangs of New York.”

Nearly every trace of the world that the old gangs knew has now been obliterated by many cycles of modern development and redevelopment. There are a few exceptions. The former clubhouse of the Bowery Boys still stands at 42 Bowery, where it is now occupied by a Chinese restaurant. And Gallus Mag’s Hole-in-the Wall at the corner of Water and Dover streets is now a gentrified eatery called the Bridge Cafe, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating bar in New York City. The Five Points has been sanitized and made respectable in an impatient, workaday New York sort of way, its past utterly forgotten by all but historians. The surrounding blocks are now almost completely occupied by federal and state court buildings and offices, and by a part of modern Chinatown, whose late nineteenth century brick tenements would probably have seemed luxurious to the denizens of the old brewery. Where the Bowery Boys and the Short Tails once clashed, small children clamber over jungle gyms in a public park. If the ghosts of the thugs and mayhem artists, the murderers and pickpockets, the embattled Nativists and desperate immigrants still linger somewhere in the air, their murmurings are lost among the multifarious living voices of today’s New Yorkers, chattering to each other in half a dozen dialects of Chinese, in Haitian French, Spanish, and even the slurry tones of the durable old New Yorkese that Bill the Butcher would have recognized.