Who Were the Real Gangs of New York?

Martin Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York' revealed the violent past of the greatest city in the world.

Who Were the Real Gangs of New York?

"Ever since I was a child growing up in Lower Manhattan, I was drawn to the stories of old New York. Each day, as I explored the neighborhood streets, I slowly uncovered clues to an extraordinary but relatively unknown period in the City's and our country's history. The early 1860s seemed to overflow with unbelievable stories of the working classes, of the waves of immigrants of all nationalities who crowded the streets and alleyways; stories of the corrupt politicians; and of the legends of the underworld who fought to control it all. Over the years, these stories stayed with me and I dreamt about bringing them to the screen. They were the stories of the testing of America and what the young country stood for. They were the stories of our roots.”

- Martin Scorsese

Where There is Freedom

Early 1860s. It was a time of great unrest for America and its people. In the midst of the Civil War, the young country was torn apart and on the brink of chaos. But for the lower-class inhabitants of New York City, a different war was raging. Their home was the Five Points, one of the poorest and toughest street corners in the world. Stuffed between New York harbor, the flourishing Wall Street business district, and lower Broadway (home to P.T. Barnum's famous American Museum), it was an area of poverty and criminality that was a magnet for underworld activity.

There Has Always Been a Fight

Every day, thousands of Irish immigrants flooded the nearby docks hoping to carve out their piece of the American dream. What greeted them, however, was more of a boiling cauldron than the advertised melting pot. Devout Catholics, the arriving Irish were largely despised by the existing inhabitants of the Five Points—particularly by the anti-immigrant ‘Native Americans.' Coming from English, Dutch, Welsh and German stock, the Nativists, as they were also called, believed in sovereign allegiance to the American Flag and not to the Roman Church. They saw the Irish as interlopers – a threat to their land, work, and the democracy their ancestors fought so hard to win.

It Was a Time When Immigrants Were Forced to Live Outside the Law

Not everyone frowned upon the influx of these new citizens. William 'Boss' Tweed, chief of Tammany Hall, New York's formidable Democratic Party, saw citizens whose votes were equivalent to that of any other American. By seducing the Irish support, the scales of power would tip in Tweed's favor.

“We will rival Rome for their loyalty and affection: soup for the hungry, alms for the poor, medicine for the sick, muscle for the recalcitrant-mother and father, crusher and church to them all. Deliver these good and fervent folks to the polls on a regular basis and there will be a handsome price for each vote that goes Tammany's way."

-Jim Broadbent as William Boss Tweed

Living among dark, cramped housing and streets with names like “Murderer's Alley" and “Ragpickers' Row,” many of the Five Points' new inhabitants ended up leading lawless lives.

The Leaders of Society Lived Above It

Quite in contrast, uptown New York was the model of civility. It played host to some of America's greatest names: Astor, Van Rensselaer, and Tribune publisher Horace Greeley.

“They leave their doors unlocked and walk around unarmed. They live like they're not in New York."

-Cameron Diaz as Jenny Everdeane

The uptown crowd was an almost entirely different species. As they strolled the tree-lined streets sporting gold-tipped walking sticks and silk parasols, their prominence protected them, leaving them mostly ignorant to the turmoil downtown. That is, until it all exploded in the summer of 1863.

On March 3rd, President Lincoln signed the Union's first Conscription Act, enacting a draft of “all able-bodied men” Once drafted, however, service could be avoided if a man could afford to pay $300. This highly unfair piece of legislation caused nationwide disturbances, the most serious occurring in New York City in July of that same year. Forced to join someone else's fight, the impoverished residents of the Five Points revolted.

Society Was Broken into Tribes

"The Daybreak Boys and Swamp Angels work the river, looting ships. The Shirt Tails was rough for a while but they've become a bunch of jack-rolling dandies, lolling around looking like Chinamen. The Plug Uglies got their own language no one can understand and love fighting the cops. The Night Walkers work on their backs and kill with their hands. The True Blues say they're a gang, but all they really do is stand around on corners damning England."

- Henry Thomas as Johnny

Wise beyond his years, Amsterdam soon realizes the Irish are strong enough to challenge Bill's Nativist army for the right to co-exist in the Five Points. The first step toward finding a place for his people, and toward having his vengeance, is to infiltrate Bill's inner circle.

As Amsterdam's destiny becomes clear, his plans unexpectedly deviate when he meets Jenny Everdeane, an enigmatic pickpocket whose exploits extend well beyond the Five Points. Her beauty and fierce independence immediately fascinate Amsterdam, but as details of her closely linked past with Bill the Butcher emerge, the relationship between the three intensifies.

America Was Born in the Streets

What follows is an odyssey of survival that plumbs the depths of a vast and dangerous underworld. As he fights to defend the honor of his family and people and to protect the woman he now loves, Amsterdam's quest reaches a fevered crescendo. Amidst the chaos of the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots, the most explosive episode of urban unrest the nation had ever seen, a battle for the freedom of future generations of Americans will be waged. From the heart of the new world, its repercussions will echo through the corrupt halls of city government, to the opulent townhouses of uptown New York and beyond.

Bill the Butcher

Against this backdrop of lawlessness, corruption and volatility, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York unfolds, following the story of a young Irish American, Amsterdam Vallon. The son of the slain and revered Irish immigrant leader Priest Vallon – Chief of the Dead Rabbits gang that was once the rallying point for the Irish in the Five Points–Amsterdam returns to his old neighborhood fixated on revenge. After fifteen years in a house of reform, his target is William Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher, the man who killed his father and ordered his imprisonment.

The powerful de facto leader of the Five Points, Bill has long forgotten Amsterdam and now commands both the Irish gangs, who pay him with a slice of their spoils, and the Nativist gangs, who under Bill's hand are determined to fend off these so-called foreign invaders at every turn.

“Mulberry Street and Worth. Cross and Orange and Little Water. Each of the Five Points is a finger, and when I close my hand it becomes a fist.”

-Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher

Bill is a formidable urban trailblazer who rules the Five Points through ruthlessness, fear, and intimidation, but is nonetheless guided by honor. His steadfast belief in the prosperous future of America excludes all non-Nativists invading his territory. First to exploit the weaknesses of others, his God-given mission is to keep America in the hands of the people who fought for its independence. In the Five Points, Bill is the ultimate authority.

Amsterdam Vallon

"There's ships full of immigrants coming to this city every day. They say there's more Irish alone in New York than there is in Ireland. And we're afraid of the Natives?"

-Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon

Amsterdam played by Leonardo Dicaprio is an instinctual survivor, a brilliant fighter, and a fearless leader. He's seen it all on his path to adulthood. First consumed by vengeance, Amsterdam grows to realize his true legacy is to fight for a place for his people in this New World.

Jenny Everdeane

Beautiful and dangerous, Jenny played by Cameron Diaz, is a master at stealing men's hearts and prized possessions. Taking from those more fortunate than herself, Jenny is saving the money from her thieving in hopes of traveling West – as far away as possible from the misery and painful memories of the Five Points. A survivor, Jenny has done just about all that is necessary to endure.

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Peter Dill
Peter Dill
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Peter Dill

Ph.D. in Cinema Studies, born in LA moved to New York, will never regret it.

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