The Real Story Behind ‘Gangs of New York’

A look at some of the real people and events behind Martin Scorsese's 2002 epic.
Gangs Of New York

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the real story behind Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York.

Martin Scorsese’s 2002 epic Gangs of New York will always hold a special place in the director’s oeuvre: it was his first of many collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio, after all. But the film is also a deeply personal one for Scorsese, himself one of New York City’s most famous sons. It took more than twenty years for him to make. As Roger Ebert noted during a 2002 interview with the director, Scorsese first took out an ad announcing the project after he finished Taxi Driver in 1977.

For Scorsese (via NPR):

This film sort of represents the foundation upon which all my other movies are based in a way. It sort of creates a world in which the worlds I depict in Mean Streets and GoodFellas and Raging Bull, to a certain extent, Taxi Driver, it’s the foundation from which those worlds emerged And, yes, there’s no doubt. This is based on history.

Here is a look at some of the true stories and people behind Scorsese’s monumental achievement, Gangs of New York, which is based on a book of the almost-same- name by Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York.

The Real “Bill the Butcher”

The film begins with a fight between two gangs in the Five Points, a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. On one side are the Irish Catholic immigrants, called the Dead Rabbits, led by “Priest” Vallon, played by Liam Neeson. Vallon is the father of young Amsterdam, who grows up to be the man played by DiCaprio. They face in combat the Confederation of American Natives, a Protestant group led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The opening scene ends with Bill killing the “Priest,” thus winning the territory for the protestant faction. The film then fast forwards nearly two decades later, where Bill, still the leader of his gang, works as a political operative, allied with the powerful Tammany Hall, led by William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent).

I Know Nothing

The character played by Day-Lewis is based on a man named William Poole, also nicknamed “Bill the Butcher.” A boxer, butcher, and firefighter, Poole held tremendous sway in the community. He was affiliated with the Know Nothing party, a secret group whose members, if asked by anyone outside the group about the society, were instructed to respond, “I know nothing.” Their platform included: “deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office.” The influence of the Know Nothing party grew, and, in the 1850s, they boasted hundreds of elected officials around the country, including more than 100 congressmen and eight governors. As Lorraine Boissoneault, writing in Smithsonian, notes, “Know-Nothings were the American political system’s first major third party.”

Poole was a major figure in the rise of the Know Nothings and the nativist cause. Boissoneault writes:

No person exemplified this veneration of the working class more than Poole. Despite gambling extravagantly and regularly brawling in bars, Poole was a revered party insider, leading a gang that terrorized voters at polling places in such a violent fashion that one victim was later reported to have a bite on his arm and a severe eye injury. Poole was also the Know Nothings’ first martyr.

Old Smoke

The martyrdom of Poole came in 1855. He got into a dispute with Irish boxer John Morrissey, who carried the nickname Old Smoke. The two, according to Boissoneault, exchanged insults and drew guns before the police arrived. Later, Poole returned to the saloon and was shot in the chest by one of Morrissey’s men. His last words, at the age of 33: “Goodbye boys, I die a true American.” The circumstances and timing of Poole’s death mark an obvious difference between him and Scorsese’s Cutting, who, in the film, dies by a gunshot wound decades later.

Murder charges were brought and then eventually dropped for Morrissey and his men. Poole became a hero in death. And decades later, Morrissey was elected to Congress with the help of Tammany Hall. He then later served in the New York Senate until his death in 1878.

City Life

Historians and critics alike have praised Scorsese’s film for its realistic depiction of immigrant life. To Ebert’s mind:

No movie has ever depicted American poverty and squalor in this way: Immigrants huddle on shelves in a rooming house, starving children die in the streets, there is no law except the rule of the mighty, and each immigrant or racial tribe battles the others.

The set design and abundance of background characters bring this texture and level of authenticity to the film. There is Roger Ashton-Griffiths as P. T. Barnum, the famous showman and politician. And Cara Seymour as Hell-Cat Maggie, one of the most well-known woman gang members of the period. Then there is, of course, one of the film’s main, albeit fictional characters, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), who works as a pickpocket, often donning a disguise to enter and steal from the homes of the wealthy. Each of these characters plays on Scorsese’s broader depiction of the period, themes like class and crime, and how each can at times be both dreadfully serious violence and spectacle.

Talking with NPR after the film’s release, historian Tyler Anbinder said:

Certainly in terms of the visual images of the period, he’s gotten that just right. The Five Points as depicted in the movie, 19th-century New York as visually depicted in the movie, he couldn’t have done much better than that. He also does a fabulous job of recreating the sense that the Irish and immigrants, in general, when they came to the United States in the 19th century did feel persecuted and were very much discriminated against, and he gets that theme very much right, too.

The Civil War

Much of the film is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Scorsese depicts horrific racism and violence directed at Black Americans. Images of Abraham Lincoln abound. And the poor and working-class people of New York live in fear of the draft, of going off to die for a country that cares so little about them. Some enlist and choose to look at the bright side, saying at least now that they are in the army, they might get the chance to eat. Scorsese shows how immigrants were cornered by political and military operatives immediately after they step onto US shores. They wanted two things from the immigrants: to vote and fight for them.

The film ends with one of the most famous incidents of the war: the 1863 New York Draft riots. Earlier that year, Lincoln signed a conscription law that made all men aged 20-35 and all unmarried men aged 35-45 subject to military duty, according to History. These men would all then be entered into a lottery. The catch was that one could buy himself out of the draft for $300, an amount most would be lucky to make in a year. The fee made it so that only the rich could buy their way out of service.

New York City held its first lottery on July 11. By that Monday, July 13, things devolved into the deadliest riot in the country’s history. Thousands of workers began to attack government and military buildings. They then began to attack the homes and businesses of Black Americans, who were not eligible for the draft because they were not considered citizens. According to History: 

In one notorious example, a mob of several thousand people, some armed with clubs and bats, stormed the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue near 42nd Street, a four-story building housing more than 200 children.

The riots lasted until July 16. By that point, riots had broken out in other boroughs. And thousands of federal troops, who had been fighting at Gettysburg, arrived on the scene. By the close, the official death toll reached 119. However, History notes that some speculate the real total may have been closer to 1,200. Property damage totaled millions of dollars. About 3,000 of the city’s Black residents were left without a home.

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.