In Low Life, a 1991 study of New York’s many overlapping 19th-century underworlds, journalist Luc Sante reports, “The basic unit of social life among young males in New York in the nineteenth century was (as it perhaps is still and ever more shall be) the gang.” For “the Manhattan of the immigrants,” he says, the gang served as “an important marker, a sort of social stake driven in,” which allowed various ethnic groups to control a few blocks of a city in which they wielded very little real power. “They engaged in violence,” writes Sante, “but violence was a normal part of life in their always-contested environment; turf war was a condition of the neighborhood.”
Gangs specialized in everything from waterborne piracy to picking pockets, burglary and election fraud. Even more commonly they tried their hands at indiscriminate mayhem. One gang, for example, worked the Hudson River in rowboats, robbing ships at anchor. They were commanded by a fearsome Valkyrie known as Sadie the Goat, who at the height of a barroom brawl had an ear bitten off by the equally ferocious Gallus Mag, who earned her stripes as a bouncer at the Hole-in-the-Wall, a notorious bar. Thereafter, Sadie is said to have worn the missing anatomical feature in a locket around her neck. Hard-drinking sailors were especially popular targets. “Crimps” (meaning kidnappers) operated boardinghouses where seamen were regularly drugged, robbed and often murdered; in the 1860s, it was estimated that 15,000 sailors were mugged each year on Cherry Street alone. It was said that no well-dressed man, and certainly no woman, could venture safely off Broadway, even in the daylight. “If the gangsters could not lure a prospective victim into a dive, they followed him until he passed beneath an appointed window, from which a woman dumped a bucket of ashes on his head,” wrote Asbury. “As he gasped and choked, the thugs rushed him into a cellar, where they killed him and stripped the clothing from his back, afterward casting his naked body upon the sidewalk.”
For all their ferocity, some gangs had a well-developed sense of public relations. After a prolonged and bloody outbreak of fighting in 1857, the New York Times printed a notice that read: “We are requested by the Dead Rabbits to state that the Dead Rabbit club members are not thieves, that they did not participate in the riot with the Bowery Boys, and that the fight in Mulberry street was between the Roach Guards of Mulberry street and the Atlantic Guards of the Bowery. The Dead Rabbits are sensitive on points of honor, we are assured, and wouldn’t allow a thief to live on their beat, much less be a member of their club.”
As interpreted by actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Bill “the Butcher” Cutting, a violent character Scorsese based on Bill “the Butcher” Poole, a gang leader with nativist sympathies, remains a fundamentally ethical man. Cutting possesses a sense of dignity and of history. In the script, Cutting’s father had been killed fighting the English in the War of 1812. The son fancies his hatred of foreigners to be a kind of patriotism and his combat with immigrants a defense of the values for which he believes his father died. “Judged by today’s standards, he would be a psychotic,” says Day-Lewis. “But I don’t think that he was a rare species.” Day-Lewis grew up in south London, where he remembers rival mobs of soccer supporters scheming to murder one another. “Cutting had learned how to live in the streets of his place and time,” he adds. “He represents a very common experience, of a native-born man whose parents somehow managed to claw their way up to a position of self-respect. He has got a code of ethics, and he sees himself as continuing the good work that his father began. But people like him are under siege. Every time a boat unloads another load of ‘savages,’ if you are Bill Cutting, you feel you’re going to lose another rung in the pecking order.”
In real life, Bill Poole led a gang based around Christopher Street, in the heart of present-day Greenwich Village. Standing over six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, Poole was, in Asbury’s words, a “champion brawler and eye-gouger.” One of his sidelines was providing muscle to nativist-leaning candidates during local elections. Poole developed a rivalry with an Irish-American prizefighter and gambler, John Morrissey, who would go on, through the patronage of the corrupt Democratic Party machine known as Tammany Hall, to become a state legislator and a Democratic member of the United States Congress. Morrissey, who was savagely beaten by Poole when the boxer and his henchmen attacked a nativist clubhouse, vowed revenge.