Gangs of New York is exactly the sort of book that I’d like to use to beat some sense into the types of people always looking back fondly to the ‘good old days’ (which are always much better when seen through rose-tinted glasses and presume that the person looking back would have been a rich, white man to elevate themselves above all the shit), a comprehensive look at the many, many stampings, stabbings, robberies, murders, riots and much more perpetrated by the incredible and vast array of gangs that bedevilled New York throughout the 1800’s, not forgetting to include those who enabled, incited and quite often joined them – the police, fire brigades and the Tammany politicians who kept many of the gangsters on their payrolls to further their own nefarious plans.
Reading this made me boggle sometimes that New York is even still standing – the shocking destruction caused by the many riots that even reached into the wealthy parts of the city, robbing and burning the homes of the well-to-do, was really quite incredible while the paltry sums that people were regularly beaten to death for make you realise just how hard life was for anyone not a member of the very highest classes. Less shocking, sadly, was the violent racism prevalent in every level of society, from the richest to the very poorest, with every bit of civic trouble seemingly used as an excuse to lynch members of the black community, nor was the disgusting behaviour of the police and politicians.
If you’ve seen the Scorsese film of the same name, not to worry – the film only deals with around the first eighth of the book (and Scorsese has naturally used a great deal of artistic license to shoehorn some of the facts and figures found inside into his film) and most of what you’ll read is actually much more shockingly violent and corrupt than Scorsese could ever have hoped to have depicted, though at times repetitive.
I did find it rather amusing though, to find Asbury finishing up in 1920 saying that was the last New York saw of gangs….