The Gangs of New York, like a medieval geography, is in effect a collection of travelers’ tales. The travelers, passing through dangerous and exotic territory, are shocked, stultified, disoriented by what they see. Upon returning home they babble inarticulate reports, composed largely of adjectives, about hippogriffs and sea monsters and men whose heads grow below their shoulders. Some of this may be hallucination, but it is more likely a way of expressing sights for which there are no words in the language.
The territory in this case is the nineteenth-century slums of New York City, and the travelers are its few contemporary chroniclers, an odd collection of slummers, missionaries, sensation-mongers, and political propagandists. They often get things wrong, you begin to suspect, tend to confuse misery and wickedness, make mountains out of molehills—and vice versa—lack any idea of underlying social and economic forces. And yet they have witnessed something incredible but true. They are reporting on the unknown social stratum that lies next door—sometimes literally so—to their readers, an upper middle class too pious or busy or frightened or smug to have paid it any notice.
When Herbert Asbury collected these tales he was, in a way, continuing their tradition. To publish a book called The Gangs of New York in 1928 was to answer an urgent public need, a need to put into context the underworld that seemed to be running the city at that time, a year before the stock market crash, when Prohibition was nominally in force but liquor could be purchased with greater ease in more places than before Congress passed the Volstead Act. If you were a patron of speakeasies—and you probably were—chances are that you were personally acquainted with one or more persons you knew or suspected had underworld connections, a state of affairs unimaginable ten years earlier. The words “gang” and “gangster” appeared on the front pages of newspapers almost every day: they were hijacking trucks, shooting one another, enjoying sumptuous funerals, socializing with the rich and famous.
Parts of the book take place in the nearly impenetrable murk of the 1820s and 1830s, but others—despite Asbury’s introductory allegation that the gangster “has now passed from the metropolitan scene”—were still warm when the presses rolled. While Asbury began serializing sections of it, notably in H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan’s American Mercury, as early as 1926, his final anecdote—the brazen daylight shooting of Little Augie on Norfolk Street by one of four unknown men in a black touring car, an event that surprised even jaded New Yorkers of the period—occurred on October 16, 1927, less than three months before Asbury wrote his introduction. He ends his account of the gang leader Owney Madden by writing, “…he has more or less dropped out of sight, but is said to have backed several night clubs in Harlem and mid-Manhattan”—maybe he didn’t know that one of them was the Cotton Club …