Manhattan Mayhem

Martin Scorsese's realistic portrayal of pre-Civil War strife Gangs of New York re-creates the brutal street warfare waged between immigrant groups

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The feud continued until 1855, when Poole met his end in a Broadway barroom. One of Morrissey’s hoodlums, Lew Baker, shot him with a long-barreled Colt. Though fatally wounded, Poole managed to seize a carving knife and lurch for his assailant before he died. Baker fled on a ship bound for the Canary Islands, but was intercepted by a private yacht, dispatched by one of Poole’s wealthy cronies, and carried back to New York. Tried for murder along with Morrissey, he ultimately went free after three separate juries failed to reach a consensus, despite several eyewitnesses to Poole’s assassination—proof of how firmly the city was in the grip of Tammany’s minions. Melodramas celebrating Poole as a local folk hero soon appeared. The productions invariably ended with an actor draped in an American flag, gasping out Poole’s alleged farewell to his cronies: “Goodbye, boys, I die a true American!”


Although Scorsese’s film concludes with the 1863 draft riots, which marked an end to one phase of violent conflict in the city’s streets, gangs continued to flourish long after the Civil War. The gangsters of the later 1800s reflected America’s changed society. George Leonidas Leslie, believed to have masterminded 80 percent of the bank robberies committed in New York from 1874 to 1885, was a college graduate, while 250-pound Marm Mandelbaum lived comfortably in her Lower East Side apartment, from which she ran a school for pickpockets.


In comparison with the tribal mayhem of the mid-19th century, the Italian-American mafia, as it rose to power in the 1890s, was positively corporate in its structure, built on complex hierarchies and entrepreneurial sophistication. But mafiosi were not the only outlaws demonstrating a head for business. When a bruiser named Piker Ryan, a member of the fearsome Whyos gang, was arrested by the police in the late 1800s, he was found to be carrying a presumably market-tested price list of crimes-forhire, including:


Punching. . . $2

Both eyes blacked. . . $4

Ear chawed off. . . $15

Stab. . . $25


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