This brief look at mid nineteenth century New York City, a period of mass immigration, street gangs, political corruption, and the worst civilian insurrection in the country's history, ...
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This brief look at mid nineteenth century New York City, a period of mass immigration, street gangs, political corruption, and the worst civilian insurrection in the country's history, lends insight into the inspiration for Martin Scorsese's new movie, Gangs of New York. Written by
This Discovery Channel production, timed with the release of Martin Scorcese's movie, gives more than just a history of the real gangs of New York. It's almost a history of New York City in the first half of the 1800s, when native gangs competed with gangs redintegrated from those of the Irish countryside. Some of the gang names may still be encountered. One gang was The Bowery Boys, only Leo Gorcey wasn't among them. The term Plug Ugly is still in use. And the word "dead" in Dead Rabbits is supposedly derive from an Irish Gaelic, word meaning "great" but I was able to find no corroboration.
The episode lays out the reasons for the influx of the very poor into the neighborhood of Five Points, which was somewhere between Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Courthouse. A pond had been inefficiently drained to make room for clapboard housing ("Canal Street") and it stank miserably. Several flats shared a single outdoor privy. The streets were filled with offal from slaughtered animals as well as horse manure and pigs. This was long before antibiotics so cholera was rampant and death at an early age not infrequent. It drew the poorest residents among all the poor. The conditions are covered in an episode of "Filthy Cities" (2011) available on YouTube which points out that most of New York was then crowded into the southern half of Manhattan. (Edgar Allen Poe's cottage in Fordham was in the Bronx, at the time a pleasant rural area.) There were 200,000 horses in the city. And when one died, it was left in the streets to rot. Everyone was responsible for disposing of his own refuse. Mostly they tossed it into the street so that at times the muck was five feet deep.
There is some sort of tie in between this History Channel production and Martin Scorcese's film, "The Gangs of New York," but I don't know what it is. Inserts lasting a few minutes each tell us how deeply Daniel Day-Lewis enacted his role. (He was great, too.) The feature film is based on the popular book, "The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the New York Underworld," by Herbert Asbury, originally published in 1908, but the film's narrative is fictional.
This Discovery Program is worth seeing, whether or not you found Scorcese's film appealing, because of its greater historical depth. I suspect that for most Americans the name William Marcy Tweed will ring only a very distant bell. And the epic riots of the Civil War, which destroyed more of the city than the attacks of 9/11, are generally omitted from media visions of the period because they are so awfully politically incorrect. The police officers were murdered and hung by the neck from lamp poles. The nativist gangs fought the Irish gangs and both of them turned on the community of recently freed slaves and burned down a black orphanage, killing a little girl.
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