Mean Streets

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, then at the very height of its fame.

Herbert Asbury was himself something of a renegade. Family tradition held that he was related to Cotton Mather on his father’s side and to Roger Williams on his mother’s; he definitely was the great-great-grand-nephew of Bishop Francis Asbury, the formidable apostle of Methodism in America. Early in life, however, he discovered smoking, drinking, gambling, and sex, and went enthusiastically over to the devil’s party. He became a newspaper reporter, first for the Atlanta Georgian and then, in New York City, for the Sun and the Herald-Tribune. His first book, Up from Methodism (1926), was a memoir of his youth in Farmington, Missouri, and of his efforts to escape from the jail of piety. It bore fruit in an unexpected way. Mencken excerpted one section in the American Mercury, a sad and sympathetic account of the town whore, a woman known as “Hatrack” in reference to her figure, who took Protestant clients to the Catholic cemetery and Catholic clients to the Protestant cemetery. Despite the story’s total lack of sexual explicitness, the issue was banned in Boston by the redoubtable New England Watch and Ward Society. Mencken decided to press a test case, and personally sold copies on Boston Common until he was arrested. While litigation dragged on interminably (the case was eventually settled in the magazine’s favor, but not before its mailing privileges were temporarily suspended, among other inconveniences), the book became a best seller and Asbury a celebrity.

He began publishing books at a rapid clip: an iconoclastic biography of his evangelical ancestor (A Methodist Saint), followed by two novels whose titles (The Tick of the Clock and The Devil of Pei-Ling) suggest some kinship to the Charlie Chan genre, then The Gangs of New York, all in two years. The novels do not seem to have done well, since he only wrote those two, and attempts at Broadway playwriting likewise flopped. But The Gangs decided his career—he would henceforth be the premier popular historian of urban America, with particular emphasis on crime and vice. He cast his net wide, producing not only two more books about New York City (Ye Olde Fire Laddies, 1930, and the miscellanea collection All Around the Town, 1934), but Gangs-like studies of San Francisco (The Barbary Coast, 1933), New Orleans (French Quarter, 1936), and Chicago (Gem of the Prairie, 1940). He also wrote a biography of the anti-saloon crusader Carry Nation (1929), a history of gambling in America (Sucker’s Progress, 1938), and a history of Prohibition (The Great Illusion, 1950), and scored a great success, in the middle of the dry years, with his edition of the legendary nineteenth-century bartender Professor Jerry Thomas’s The Bon Vivant’s Companion, or How to Mix Drinks (1928). He died in 1963, at seventy-four, from lung ailments that had plagued him since he was exposed to mustard gas during the First World War.

All of Asbury’s chronicles are readable, dramatic, informative, but The Gangs of New York is especially strong, flowing seamlessly from the deep past to the (then) present, and from nineteenth-century copperplate styles to Asbury’s own prose—sonorous, sometimes grand, sometimes arch, with the seductiveness of the practiced raconteur:

No one would ever have mistaken Monk Eastman, a worthy successor to Mose the Bowery Boy and as brave a thug as ever shot an enemy in the back or blackjacked a voter at the polls, for a bank clerk or a theological student. So far as looks were concerned, and actions, too, for that matter, Eastman was a true moving picture gangster. He began life with a bullet-shaped head, and during his turbulent career acquired a broken nose and a pair of cauliflower ears, which were not calculated to increase his beauty. He had heavily veined, sagging jowls, and a short, bull neck, plentifully scarred with battle marks, as were his cheeks. He always seemed to need a hair cut, and he accentuated his ferocious and unusual appearance by affecting a derby hat several sizes too small, which perched precariously atop his shock of bristly, unruly hair.

Even his more irritating tics, his moralizing and attitudinizing, are of a piece with his panoramic subject. The book does not drily examine the past but seems to spring directly from it, a message issuing from the cobblestones.

That is certainly how my friends and I took it when we first read it in the mid-1970s, passing around a ragged copy of the Garden City Press reprint (the book has suffered an episodic publishing history, having gone out of print at least four or five times) like some sort of samizdat. This was the true story of New York City, the one you didn’t learn in school—after all, even an event as significant as the Draft Riots had never previously been brought to our attention. The book had literary credentials, too: it appeared somewhere near the top of the syllabus that William Burroughs would perennially supply to students and other interested young people, and Jorge Luis Borges had lifted from it the entire contents of the chapter he devoted to Monk Eastman in his Universal History of Infamy. Above all, though, it was a seemingly bottomless source of hair-raising stories of violence and dissipation, stories that confirmed everything we knew and suspected about the city—things we observed, too, as we watched the streets lit up with enormous garbage bonfires during the sanitation strike in the summer of 1975, or the saturnalia of looting during the blackout of 1977. The Gangs of New York might as well have been the city’s Golden Bough, a compendium of myths that amounted to a prophecy.

Now the city is going through one of its reform phases. It’s getting so only the very highest rank of crooks can afford to live there, and the alleys are full of revisionists. Archaeologists digging up the remains of the Five Points a decade ago found Staffordshire china fragments and other indicators of petit-bourgeois comfort. Did this prove that the stories about the neighborhood were all lies, or merely that matters were a bit more complicated than the penny-dreadful journalism of the 1840s and 1850s had made them out to be? Asbury’s stories can be picked apart at leisure by historians of the statistical and document-analysis persuasions, who however risk missing their emotional substance.

Asbury was not a modern historian; he did little archival research, studied no graphs, did not inquire more than glancingly into immigration patterns or employment figures or variations in the price of wheat. He did, apparently, conduct some interviews for the later chapters, but mostly he just read. You can find his principal sources listed in the slender bibliography at the end. What he read were mainly partial and unreliable accounts: the highly colored nineteenth-century newspapers (as opposed to the dry sort, which devoted themselves to sermons and social notes); the memoirs of retired churchmen, retired crooks, retired cops; the fuzzy anecdotal collections of antiquarians. The newspapers had no fact-checkers and avoided libel suits by being vague on specifics of name and place. The retirees had fallible memories and even more fallible egos. The antiquarians collected and polished any stray bits of ephemera that blew their way, and those could range from the precise to the spurious.

You can follow a given story of Asbury’s through a chain of sources, from a romancer like Alfred Henry Lewis (The Apaches of New York, 1912) or a windbag like Frank Moss (The American Metropolis, 1897) back to the Police Gazette, ancestor of both the true-crime magazine and the supermarket tabloid, or to a pamphlet or a tip sheet or a broadside from even earlier in the nineteenth century, whose contents were likely improved, not to say invented wholesale, by their author or editorial staff of two or three Grub Street poets. Did the Old Brewery in the Five Points really average a murder a night for nearly fifteen years? Was Brian Boru really eaten by rats as he slept off a drunk in a marble yard? And what about all those dens of vice? Asbury reproduces the adjectives of the slummers who visited or perhaps just heard about them: they were “sordid,” “vile,” “depraved,” but what else? Maybe they did feature orgies worthy of the name, or maybe they were just as miserable, dirty, dank, and sad as the needled-beer joints photographed around 1890 by Jacob Riis, the first person to put substance to a century’s worth of horrified rhetoric.

This is not to say that Asbury was gullible. You will note that he puts no inverted commas, actual or figurative, around the stories concerning Mose Humphries, the city’s own Paul Bunyan, a Bowery Boy who was at least eight feet tall and could scratch his knee while standing erect. That does not, however, mean that Asbury believed that Mose could swim the Hudson in two strokes, or that he rescued becalmed ships by blowing his cigar smoke at their sails.

What most confuses the modern reader, though, is that questionable anecdotes coexist with matters of unimpeachable authority. The Draft Riots of 1863, which were nominally prompted by the fact that rich New Yorkers could buy their way out of conscription in the Civil War, really were that bad—contemporary accounts are consistent on the facts: some two thousand dead, including about a hundred black people lynched or otherwise killed, thousands wounded, over a hundred buildings burned. The city really did at one time have two competing police forces that made a sport of releasing each other’s prisoners. And, above all, there were gangs, two hundred years’ worth and counting.

All you need to do to test the overall credibility of this volume is to check it against the city today. While the place is perhaps less colorful now than it has been at any time since the administration of Mayor George B. McClellan (who on Christmas Day, 1908, shut down all the city’s movie houses, on moral grounds), it still contains a great many gangs. Every generation and every immigrant wave produces them. Some of them kill people; some mostly play basketball. Some have actual clubhouses, extort protection payments from shopkeepers, pursue vendettas through prison walls; others exist to give young people an identity and a social base. The latter can be spun into legend by hack journalists just as easily as the former. And even though we don’t tend to see them in the current climate does not mean that there are not still numerous dens of vice, from expensive brothels to sordid shooting galleries and crack houses, hidden in innocuous or nearly inaccessible locations. With only a small effort of the imagination you can add your own chapter to this book, concerning the times in which you live.

The Gangs of New York is one of the essential works of the city, as deserving of a permanent place on the shelf as Stephen Crane’s Maggie, Walt Whitman’s chapters on horse cars and theaters in Specimen Days, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “My Lost City,” Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause, Weegee’s Naked City, Jules Dassin’s Naked City, the New York photographs of William Klein and those of Louis Faurer, Chester Himes’s Blind Man with a Pistol, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel—I’m forgetting, at minimum, several dozen. It deserves this privileged placement because, despite all the caveats and asterisks previously noted, it owns a direct pipeline to the city’s unconscious. It is not so much an account of the city’s history as it is a historical retrospective of what city dwellers have most feared, in a city that has long taken a perverse pride in its own fund of dangers.

From the best-documented to the most suspect of the stories collected herein, all have in common that they could cause respectable people to double-lock their doors and avoid venturing into selected neighborhoods. And New York City needs fear; it is the counterbalance to its ambition. Fear of crime, specifically, is the city’s great equalizer—at least in psychological terms—its higher power and daily judgment, its compensation for the local absence of cyclones and dust storms and wildfires. Fear of crime is the manifestation of the city’s bad conscience, a reminder of the diverse paths ambition takes. The gang, in your dreams, is composed of all those people you have elbowed out of your way, now out to seek their revenge. The Gangs of New York is the portrait gallery in the ancestral mansion of your bad dreams.