When he was growing up on Lower Manhattan’s Elizabeth Street in the 1950s, Martin Scorsese noticed tantalizing vestiges of a New York City that simply didn’t fit into the Little Italy neighborhood he otherwise knew so well. There were the tombstones dating to the 1810s in the graveyard at nearby St. Patrick’s church, cobblestone pavements that hinted at horse-drawn traffic, and the “very tiny, very ancient” basements he discovered beneath late-19th-century tenements. “I gradually realized that the Italian-Americans weren’t the first ones there, that other people had preceded us,” says Scorsese. “This fascinated me. I kept wondering, how did New York look? What were the people like? How did they walk, eat, work, dress?”
That childhood obsession with a vanished past propels the Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s epic evocation of the city’s brutal, colorful underworld in the first half of the 19th century. But the director says the movie, which opens nationwide this month, had its genesis in a “chance encounter” more than 30 years ago. In January 1970, Scorsese, by then an aspiring filmmaker, stumbled across a volume in a friend’s library that changed everything he thought he knew about his old neighborhood. Suddenly, the nameless ghosts that had flitted through those mysterious basements sprang to life. The book was The Gangs of New York, an account of the city’s 19th-century underworld published in 1927 by journalist Herbert Asbury. “It was a revelation,” Scorsese says. “There were so many gangs!”
In Asbury’s vivid chronicle, Scorsese discovered a deadly subculture of hoodlums with names like the Bowery Boys, the Plug Uglies, the Short Tails and the Dead Rabbits, the latter so called, it was said, because they carried a dead rabbit on a pike as their battle standard. In these pages, he was introduced to legions of once-notorious gangsters, among them Bill “the Butcher” Poole, Red Rocks Farrell, Slobbery Jim, Sow Madden, Piggy Noles, Suds Merrick, Cowlegged Sam McCarthy, Eat ’Em Up Jack McManus. Not all the thugs, he discovered, were male. Hell-Cat Maggie, legend has it, filed her front teeth to points and wore artificial brass fingernails, the better to lacerate her adversaries.
Behind much of the violence lay a clash that involved, on the one hand, a population of largely protestant Americans, some of them with 18th-century English and Dutch roots in the New World, some of them more recent arrivals. This group collectively came to be known as nativists, for their perceived entitlement to native American soil. They squared off against Catholic Irish immigrants who arrived in the millions during the 19th century. Nativists “looked at the Irish coming off the boats,” Scorsese adds, “and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ It was chaos, tribal chaos.”
In Asbury’s book, Scorsese recognized something larger than a portrait of the city’s bygone lowlife. As the descendant of immigrants himself (his grandparents arrived from Sicily at the turn of the century), he saw in the bloody street fighting of the mid-19th century a battle for nothing less than democracy itself. “The country was up for grabs, and New York was a powder keg,” says Scorsese. “This was the America not of the West with its wide open spaces, but of claustrophobia, where everyone was crushed together. If democracy didn’t happen in New York, it wasn’t going to happen anywhere.”