Monday, 30 September 2013

Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury

This classic account was published in 1927; at the height, therefore, of the Prohibition era, when organised crime in New York, Chicago and many other cities rose to unprecedented levels of wealth and power. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to discover that the final chapter is headed “The Passing of the Gangster”, since Asbury could hardly have been unaware that the gangsters were emerging from the slums to make vast sums of money from bootlegging, and use it to thoroughly corrupt the city police and politicians and become a serious menace to society. The reason for this apparent dichotomy lies in Asbury’s definition of what constitutes a gang.

By a “gang” Asbury means the violent mobs from the revolting slums in and around the Five Points area of lower Manhatten in the 19th century (the original meaning of the term “downtown”), who brawled with each other and with the police, maimed and robbed passers-by, and sometimes sallied forth, numbered in scores or even hundreds, to murder and riot. The names of some of these gangs live on in legend: the Plug Uglies, the Dead Rabbits, the Whyos; later, the Hudson Dusters, the Gophers and many others. The early gang members were mostly of Irish extraction, and their favoured weapons were the club, the knife, the knuckle-duster, and an ingenious instrument to gouge out the eyes of victims. Often the women were as ferocious as the men. Asbury has a separate chapter on the Chinese gangs, whose murderous wars, being largely confined within the Chinese community, were less known to the general public.

Asbury makes it clear that whole districts of downtown Manhatten were effectively "no-go" areas for the police, but also shows that a level of corruption assisted the gangs' progress. Unscrupulous politicians employed the gangs at election time to wreck opposition campaigns and intimidate voters, and having gained power would instruct the police to turn a blind eye to certain gang activities. Many policemen found it much less dangerous to take their cut of gangster profits than to attempt to suppress the gangs, and the immigrant communities often looked on the gangsters as heroes rather than villains.

The Martin Scorsese film that bears the same title was based, rather loosely, on Asbury's book. What the film did was to take from the book a number of of real-life individuals (Bill the Butcher and Boss Tweed), locations (the Old Brewery), gangs (the Dead Rabbits) and events (the draft riots of 1863) and run them all together, when in reality they were spread over several decades (Bill Poole, alias "Bill the Butcher", who was by no means the charismatic personality of the movie, was actually shot dead in 1853, whereas Boss Tweed's spectacularly corrupt city administration flourished after the Civil War). This technique makes bad history, but good movies! The first "Godfather" film was similar: taking famous incidents from the lives of different real-life gangsters and making them all happen to the same person. (It is perhaps not surprising that the scariest part of Asbury's book - the description of how, in the great Draft Riots, the gangs tortured and murdered any Negroes they found - does not feature in Scorsese's film)

The penultimate chapter of the book, which deals with the years before the First World War, is headed "The Last of the Gang Wars". Asbury observes that things are changing. The gun had replaced the club and the knife as the favoured weapon of gangdom. Muggings and robbery as a means of raising funds were being supplanted by extorting money from brothels and gambling dens, and by providing thugs to intervene in labour disputes, schlamming either strikers or blacklegs depending on who paid them. Endless brawling over territory was giving way to targeted assassination. Police and politicians increasingly received back-handers to look the other way. New waves of immigrants had moved into the Lower East Side and parts of Brooklyn, and gave birth to new gangs: Italian and Jewish rather than Irish. New names emerged that looked forward to the Prohibition era: Owen "the killer" Madden, Jacob "little Augie" Orgen, and the leader of the James Street gang, Johnny Torrio. But Asbury fails to draw appropriate conclusions from the obvious signs of changing times. A glance at the index shows that the word "Mafia" appears nowhere in the book. Of Torrio he records only that he left New York, moved west and "soon became a conspicuous figure in the underworld of Chicago". This is a profound understatement, for Torrio became one of the most seminal figures in the history of organised crime. The message he preached to the Chicago gangs, which was taken up in New York too, was: "There's enough money out there to make us all rich; but too many dead bodies littering the streets gets crime a bad name, and the public may demand action. So let's form alliances rather than fight, agree to keep to our own territories and our own fields of operations, then we can pay off the cops and the politicians and everything will be fine". And, although some of the more psychopathic gangsters took no notice, it gradually became gang strategy. To assist his control in Chicago, Torrio called in a promising young thug from Brooklyn. His name was Al Capone. It is unsurprising to find that this name is also missing from Asbury's index.

By his own definitions, Asbury was right. New York had gradually become more civilized. The huge mobs who swarmed out of the noisome slums of lower Manhatten to fight street battles and terrorize respectable citizens no longer existed by the 1920s. But the gangs still flourished, though in a different form, and were more insidiously powerful than ever.

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