By Mike Davis
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 270

Bloody Streets of New York

This article is over 19 years, 6 months old
Martin Scorsese's new film tells of American Civil War race riots. But this is only half the story.
Issue 270

One icy night in 1855, the celebrated street brawler John Morrissey walked into a Broadway saloon and spat in the face of Bill ‘The Butcher’ Poole, the even more renowned goliath of the New York streets. Poole, who led a murderous mob of anti-Catholic ‘know nothings’, was the arch-foe of Morrissey and other Irish gang leaders in the pay of Tammany Hall. Morrissey tried to blow Poole’s brains out with his pistol but it misfired and Butcher Bill was preparing to ‘bone the Irishman’s cutlet’ when the police intervened.

Later that night Poole and some companions returned to the same saloon where they were attacked by the rest of Morrissey’s gang. In the fighting style of the period, there was berserk mayhem with bowie knives, antique pistols, and much chewing of ears and noses. Poole was shot in the heart, but lingered for two weeks before gasping his famous last words, ‘Goodbye, boys, I die a true American!’ Five thousand admirers marched in his funeral procession and Poole became a martyr for anti-immigrant nativists.

The legend of Bill the Butcher, generally forgotten after the Civil War, was colourfully resurrected in 1927 by Herbert Asbury in ‘Gangs of New York’. Although of dubious value as social history, Asbury’s gang genealogy of Manhattan is unquestionably wonderful storytelling–an urban counterpart to the Homeric epic or Icelandic saga. Like the rivalry of Achilles and Hector, the heroic combat between Morrissey and Poole (or, later in the book, between Monk Eastman and Paul Kelly) has beguiled generations of readers–not least among them, Jorge Luis Borges and Luc Sante.

Now Gangs of New York provides both a title and loose narrative framework for Martin Scorsese’s $120 million film. Daniel Day-Lewis, who reportedly roused himself to the role by listening nonstop to Eminem CDs, plays Bill the Butcher, while Leonardo DiCaprio is the vengeful son of an Irish immigrant killed by the gang chieftain. The film portrays the epic street battles, two years after the historical Poole’s murder, between the Irish Dead Rabbits and the native Protestant Bowery Boys. It ends in the apocalypse of the July 1863 Draft Riots, the bloodiest urban insurrection in US history, with regiments recalled from Gettysburg firing grapeshot point blank at mobs of Irish slumdwellers.

The film’s startling claim is that ‘America was born in the streets’, or, rather, in these street wars. Scorsese, of course, is the greatest contemporary fabulist of New York’s mean streets, and ‘The Gangs of New York’ is his urban creation myth, explaining the origins of the world that would eventually be inherited by his petty thieves, ‘made’ guys, taxi drivers, child prostitutes, prizefighters, crooked cops, petty bookies and Times Square hustlers.

Violent rivalries

But is this Manhattan ‘Iliad’ real history? The short answer is that it is half the story. The violent rivalries between native American workers and the Irish immigrant poor did provide internal combustion for the great engine of Tammany Hall (the Manhattan Democratic Party) and its endlessly skilful manipulations of an ethnically and confessionally divided working class. Indeed street gangs, along with volunteer fire companies, were the true grassroots of the ethnic spoils contest that passed for ‘democracy’ in the city with the largest mass electorate in the mid-Victorian world.

But the streets of Manhattan in the 1850s and 1860s were also an epic battleground between capital and labour. While Morrissey and Poole were leading their tribes to war at the behest of ambitious political bosses, other immigrants–English Chartists, Irish Fenians, and German Communists–were struggling alongside native American trade unionists to build a united labour movement. This is the untold story within Asbury’s and Scorsese’s ‘secret history’ of 19th century New York.

Gotham’s most radical constituency–the immigrant artisans and industrial workers of Kleindeutschland–scarcely figure in the big-screen drama. These Lower East Side Germans (a third of the city’s population by 1870) were the most class-conscious section of the working class, equally opposed to gang leaders, political bosses, and racist demagogues as well as to the uptown plutocracy. Indeed, this German New York, to quote its leading historian, was ‘the first stronghold of socialism in American history’.

When Scorsese’s film opens in 1846, as many German as Irish immigrants were pouring into the waterfront slums and tenement districts of New York. Likewise tens of thousands of young Yankees were leaving their hardscrabble farms and canal towns for the booming railroad workshops, shipyards, and slaughterhouses of Manhattan Island. The traditional plebeian population, with its long radical ‘producerist’ traditions, had to confront the competition of these new immigrants at the same time that their trades were being deskilled or replaced by machine production.

The resulting social turbulence, magnified by the crash of 1857, cannot be compressed into a single narrative–the reality was dialectical, not allegorical. While Irish and ‘American’ gangs were bloodying each other in the alleys of the Bowery, the Irish labour leader James McGuire, the German Communist Albert Komp and the native radical Ira B Davis were organising thousands of the unemployed into a militant American Workers’ League. When the bourgeois press begged the militia ‘to shoot down any quantity of Irish or Germans’ as necessary to break the movement, native workers defiantly stood shoulder to shoulder with immigrants in Tompkins Square.

Divided working class

Although the great capitalists of the day–Astor, Vanderbilt, Grinnell, Belmont and so on–despised Tammany Hall and its Irish allies (‘Rum and Rowdyism’ in the slogan of the time), they feared gangs less than unions, a divided working class less than a united labour movement. Defeated in their attempt to impose their own order on the city in the 1850s (a political crisis that included the famed ‘Dead Rabbit Riots’), the city’s mercantile elite on the eve of the Civil War was moving toward an accommodation with populist Mayor Fernando Wood and Democratic boss William Tweed.

Two groups resisted assimilation into this solution. One was the radical wing of the labour movement, solidly rooted amongst the Red 48s [veterans of Germany’s 1848 revolution] and socialists of Kleindeutschland, whose strategic goal was an independent labour party. Many of them were both abolitionists and anti-capitalists. The other was the Irish poor–the day labourers and sweatshop workers–whose appalling misery (brilliantly depicted by Scorsese) was now compounded by wartime inflation and inflamed by the terrific losses of Irish regiments in Virginia. The Irish were also alarmed by pro-Confederate propaganda that warned of a tidal wave of freed slaves in Northern labour markets if the Union won.

These two groups–the labour vanguard and the slum poor–played contrasting roles in the 1863 insurrection. The draft lottery that July was universally scorned by Northern workmen as an institutionalisation of class privilege, since the well-heeled could buy exemptions for $300. Accordingly, the massive demonstration and strike on Monday morning of 13 July was largely led by uptown Irish and German industrial workers, supported by volunteer fire companies.

By early evening, however, the trade unions had lost leadership to street gangs and Confederate sympathisers who directed the wrath of the Irish poor against both the mansions of the rich and the hovels of African-Americans. The Coloured Orphans Asylum was burnt to the ground and blacks were hounded down and hideously murdered. The Germans and, indeed, many Irish workers (especially those who had long lived side by side with blacks in the Five Points) recoiled from the carnage and either took no part or actively opposed the pogrom.

The hysterical upper classes, meanwhile, demanded a retaliatory bloodbath in the slums. Six thousand federal troops, many of them Irish New Yorkers, dutifuly cleared the streets with cannonfire and bayonets. The heroes of Gettysburg became the butchers of New York. In scenes which foreign observers compared to the June 1848 masssacres in Paris, scores of rag-clad Irish women and children were cut down alongside their menfolk.

Scorsese certainly has a poetic licence to depict the great riot as the climax of the age of gangs. Indeed, it was the direct outgrowth of the political role of street violence in dividing New York workers by religion and race. But this catastrophe hardly annihilated class consciousness or petrified history into a predetermined trajectory.

Indeed, the direct aftermath was a massive campaign, largely led by socialists, to rebuild an independent and non-sectarian labour movement. As one historian has emphasised, ‘The massive strikes for an eight-hour workday in spring 1872 were the sober denouement to the draft riots.’ Out of these struggles, in turn, arose the powerful New York branch of the First International, the pioneer Workingwoman’s Association, the ‘red spectre of the Commune’ at Tompkins Square in 1874, and, ultimately, the radical mayoral campaign of Henry George that came within a hair’s breadth of overthrowing Tammany Hall.

Certainly we should enjoy Scorsese’s Homeric tale–especially its vivid re-imagining of 1850s Manhattan as a Third World city–but we should not forget that socialists and class fighters, not gangsters, left the the biggest footprints on the real streets of old New York.

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