America was built on a great deal of hardship no matter which story is told. Those historical tales and fictional dramas that have been pieced together and created to offer insight or even just a bit of entertainment often showcase a world that was far different than what the modern age. In some ways however it is strikingly familiar. In one such case, the plight of New Yorkers during the late 1800s was particularly tumultuous considering that the country was still reeling from the devastating effects of the Civil War. “Gangs of New York” blends fiction with historical fact to create an iconic story that showcases the grim truth of America’s earliest years.
The film is by and large a fun bit of embellishment on history, as several characters are fabricated from notorious legends and even the settings are created in a style more befitting a drama than a historical documentary. As Ted Chamberlain (2003) states, award-winning director, Martin Scorsese, is lauded as being far more knowledgeable concerning the history and reality of his chosen site, the Five Points district, but obviously desired a film that would make a statement, not show the actual history of the city. For all that however the film is quite on point with many of its representations, keeping true to the feel of the era. While Scorsese wanted to make a cinema-worthy drama, he was also intelligent enough to know that people who watched the film would want some semblance of realism.
One of the major plot points has to do with the massive influx of Irish immigrants that
made their way to New York due to the debilitating potato famine that occurred in the 1840s. This led to wave after wave of Irish immigrants leaving their homes to seek out more prosperous opportunities in America. Unfortunately they were not well-received and were often forced to fight for their place in the city. A great many made their way to the Five Points district, which throughout history has become renowned as being one of the more notorious locations of New York in the mid to late 19th century.
The movie goes into this quite well, but differs on only a few points. For instance, there were several gangs that ran the streets, but instead as Stern (2003) relates, they were far more political in nature than the thuggish, unkempt bands that the film displays. The Irish were in fact considered one of the first lower-class and impoverished peoples during the time period of this film, and were very well-depicted as having to scrape and fight for nearly everything they gained. What is not accurate however is the fact that these gangs did not engage in the usual violence that the film displays so readily.
It is easy to believe that film such as this can be pushed forward by a startling amount of conflict in the form of audience-pleasing gore and bone-breaking action that lends a savage counterpoint to an otherwise historic look at the past. Scorsese’s did in fact admit that his methods were more geared towards creating a fictional drama than a true documentary, though many fans still managed to cry foul when learning the true history of New York. These gangs did in fact tussle from time to time, but rarely, if ever, on the level that the movie shows. The most violence that was usually show was during election time when each gang attempted to push their candidate into office, as Chamberlain (2003) has attested to.
The characters that drive the story are entirely fictional save for one, the main protagonist
known as William “The Butcher” Cutting. Portrayed in a masterful manner by acclaimed actor
Daniel Day-Lewis, Cutting is a fictional character based upon an historical figure by the name of Bill “The Butcher” Poole. While Lewis’ acting is on par with the character of Bill Poole, the timeline is not accurate at all. In the movie, Bill Cutting survived until the post-Civil War era, whereas Bill Poole was shot dead well before his counterpart’s cinematic demise. Lewis did however display the outward hostility and bigotry that Poole was so well known for, and even managed to speak the last recorded words that Poole uttered before expiring, albeit with a slight modification.
The character of William Cutting drives the film far more than any character or even the scenery can, as he embodies the era, the sentiment towards the Irish, and the feel of the city during this time period. Scorsese takes a great many liberties with the historical content he uses to bring this movie to life, though he manages to keep the gritty, run-down feeling of the Five Points District and Cutting’s role in its day to day operations as a central feature. The real Butcher, Bill Poole, was just as ruthless and critical of his fellow New Yorkers, but for all accounts did not have a glass eye or ever feud with more than one pivotal character in history that brought about his downfall. Instead, he was a pugilist and gang leader that was well known to be violent as well as temperamental according to William Bryk (2003).
His level of violence was a great inspiration to the movie, though his personal gang, the
Know Nothing Gang was replaced in “Gangs of New York” by the Natives Party, which Bryk
(2003) explains that Poole was actually a part of at one point. In fact, as Evan Andrews (2013)
points out, several gangs depicted in the movie were at one point real gangs that were
represented in the Five Points. This would include the Bowery Boys, of whom Poole was also a
member, the Dead Rabbits, and the Forty Thieves. While the gangs were not as bloodthirsty nor
as prone to rioting as the movie would suggest, they were decidedly violent towards one another
on certain occasions, as was evidenced between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys, who were notorious enemies in the movie and in real life.
The main points of this movie are quite obvious, but are centered around the characters that are meant to drive the story and make it a believable moment in history when America was still a young nation still discovering its identity. The Irish immigrants were a very real part of New York’s constantly evolving landscape, and were treated far worse than many other groups during their transition to American life. It is even shown in the movie that they were duped into joining the Union army right after landing upon American soil, while their countrymen that had come before were being shipped back home in coffins. According to Damien Shiels (2014) this kind of recruitment was not only highly illegal, but it was rare.
Despite the belief that the Irish knew very little about the American Civil War, it is far more likely that letters were sent home to those who had yet to make the trip detailing the struggle. While the film doesn’t go into this detail in any real depth, the idea is that the poor, starving Irish who depart the boat and are of proper age, and male, are given uniforms and rifles after signing their lives away only to be loaded up on another boat bound for parts unknown. Many of the Irish that came to America came with the express purpose of joining the military, as it was a way earn money that could be sent back home and procure a place for them in America. While the Irish were despised for many reasons, their sense of patriotism was not among them.
Another main point the film likes to make is that the Irish and the New York natives were
constantly at odds. This was true in part, as Bill Poole was at the forefront of this particular
conflict. While he was not quite on par with Bill Cutting’s representation, he was a very
influential character that heaped abuse and scorn upon the Irish time and again. He was not
against using them to turn a profit however. While it is not truly known if Bill Poole ever had an
Irish accomplice or allowed them into his private circle, it is well documented in the film that one of his defeated enemies was among the group that he trusted most.
Amsterdam Vallon, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the son of Priest Vallon, Bill Cutting’s mortal enemy in the film (Gangs of New York, 2002), and is completely fictional. Where Cutting is the antagonist that drives the feel of the movie, Amsterdam is the counterpoint to Bill’s vicious and unpredictable nature, acting as a wild card whose true motives are known only to the viewer, but are revealed later in the film. Whether or not Bill Poole was an honorable man in any sense, Bill Cutting is without a doubt a man of principle, no matter that he will break them without fail if he is so provoked. Amsterdam on the other hand is a younger, more impulsive character who does not entirely fit with the overall story, and creates a very confusing and anticlimactic disturbance within the historical feel of the film.
From a historical standpoint the feud between Priest Vallon and Bill Cutting makes more sense and is actually closer to the truth. Bill Poole had a longstanding feud with an Irishman named John Morrissey, who was an enforcer for Tammany Hall as Bryk (2003) explains it. Instead of Poole killing Morrissey as Cutting killed Vallon in the film, Poole was mortally wounded by a firearm. In the film, Cutting despises firearms, as do his adversaries, but in real life this little tidbit was quite different, as firearms tended to provide a much easier way to eliminate one’s rivals. The historical value of the feud between Cutting and Vallon strikes closer to the truth that history tells, even if the content is changed to provide a more gripping story.
The next main point of the film took into account the Draft Riots that occurred near the
ending point of the Civil War. At this time the streets of New York were already admittedly in a
state of unrest as Irish immigrants were flooding into the city by the boatload and the Five Points
District, which was a critical staging point of the film, was becoming dangerously overcrowded.
The riots took place in response to a much stricter draft policy that required men between the ages of twenty and forty-five to be entered into a lottery that would determine whether they would be drafted into service or not. The only way out of this was to be ineligible due to infirmity or if an individual could pay their way out for three hundred dollars. The Irish were heavily recruited as they were often the poorest of citizens, while African-Americans were given absolutely no choice, as they were not even counted as citizens.
This part of the film is the boiling point to which the rest of the movie builds towards from the opening credits. As Amsterdam Vallon narrates the story, the audience is introduced to the rough and tumble way of life that dominates the Irish immigration to New York the struggles that result. The story between Bill Cutting and Priest Vallon is largely unknown in the beginning of the movie, but as already mentioned, it pulls at least in part from the feud that Poole and Morrissey experienced, mimicking the sheer animosity the men had for one another. From that point on it becomes largely fiction as the two men gather their gangs for an all out street war. The actual war however did not produce the well-developed and thought out carnage that begins and ends the film, but instead was a result of tensions that had been boiling for quite some time between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys.
The realistic aspects of the film include the continual persecution of the Irish as they
sought to find a place in America, as well as the scorn and discrimination that were heaped upon
them the moment they arrived. The notorious Five Points District was in fact a slum where
lawlessness was the common order of the day. Violence however was not always as prevalent as
the film would indicate, nor were the gangs constantly at one another’s throats in an effort to
carve out their own influence within the city. Instead, the real gangs of New York in that era did
their best to outdo one another when it came to political maneuverings and placing their own
candidates in power. With the backing Tammany Hall at one point, the Irish managed to make a very bold move and firmly secure their place within American history.
The feel of the movie, meaning its dark and gritty texture of life as well as the continual
greed and overbearing nature of the politicians, is somewhat overdone, but still fairly accurate. Politicians of that era were not so different from what the American people expect today, but were often known to employ methods of obtaining votes and special interest groups that would be seen as highly illegal in this day and age. It was all about the votes at one point, and who could attain more (Gangs of New York, 2002), as the politicians in this film are so fond of stating.
In the end of the film it comes down to the simple fact that life on the streets of New York, and the birth of America, was a very tumultuous and dangerous time. Whether one believes that Scorsese’s vision carries the true feeling of those volatile times or if written history is entirely accurate and unquestionable, the truth of the matter is that the early days of the nation were hard times for everyone involved. From gangsters to politicians to the poor immigrants and individuals caught in the middle, life was a constant struggle and would often result in hardship in one form or another. “Gangs of New York” is a work of fiction designed to entertain the viewer and offer a small bit of insight into the past, but it raises several interesting questions about how history is written, and who has a hand in the process.
It doesn’t matter if viewers love the film or absolutely hate it. The point is that “Gangs of New York” is a fictionalized glance into the past that is meant to entertain. Its more realistic aspects are loosely based representations of a time in American history that was particularly hard to survive and provided a basis for the way the world is now. While humans have evolved both socially and professionally, the attitudes of the past are still very apparent in the modern era.
Andrews, Evan. “7 Infamous Gangs of New York.” History,
Accessed 30 Dec. 2016.
Bryk, William. “Bill the Butcher: he died a true American, but not how you think.” Straus
Media, http://www.nypress.com/bill-the-butcher-he-died-a-true-american-but-not-how-you-think/, Accessed 30 Dec. 2016.
Chamberlain, Ted. “”Gangs of New York”: Fact vs. Fiction.” The National Geographic,
Accessed 30 Dec. 2016.
Gangs of New York. Directed by Martin Scorsese, performances by Daniel Day Lewis,
Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Brendan Gleeson, and Liam Neeson, Miramax Films, 2002.
Shiels, Damian. “Gangs of New York: Recruiting the Irish ‘Straight Off the Boat’.” Irish in the
American Civil War,
Stern, William J. “What Gangs of New York Misses.” City Journal,
Accessed 30 Dec. 2016.