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The Gangs of New York – Herbert Asbury
Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, written in 1928, is a great read for those who like to read stories about crimes and criminals that took place in New York, dating back to the early 1800s. The book opens with a chapter titled “The Cradle of the Gangs,” which was the Five Points area in 1829. Roughly speaking, the Five Points area was the territory bounded by Broadway, Canal Street, the Bowery, and Park Row, which was formerly Chatham Street. Now, this area houses the city prison of Grobnice, the building of the criminal court and the building of the County Court. In the early 1700s, this area was mostly a replacement area, around a lake called Fresh Water Pond by the English and Shellpoint by the Dutch.
In the end, the lake was filled in and at the landfill of the built house. This landfill became the region known as the Five Points. The Five Points area was named after the five-block intersection of Cross, which became Park Street and now Mosco Street, Anthony, which became Worth, Orange, which became Baxter, Mulberry Street, and Little Water, which doesn’t even exist now. It was originally a respectable area where the wealthy lived, but then the houses began to sink into the imperfectly drained swamp, and the wealthy left the area for better parts of Manhattan Island. Their places were taken by mainly freed black slaves and lower-class Irish, who began flooding into the area from Ireland, beginning around 1790.
The Five Points area became a hotbed of thieves and criminals, and people from other parts of the city did not dare to enter its borders. The great Charles Dickens once visited the area and wrote of the Five Points: “This is the place: these narrow roads diverging right and left and everywhere reeking of filth and filth. Debauchery has made the houses old very prematurely. rough and puffed faces on the door has mates at home and all over the world. Many pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright instead of on all fours, and why they talk instead of grunting?”
It was in those rotten streets that Dickens described that the first street gang was formed in 1825. Aptly named Forty Thieves, it was started in the back room of a produce store on Central Street. It was owned by Roseanne Peers, and in addition to rotting vegetables outside, she sold illegal ball in the back room inside and allowed a sleazy guy named Edward Coleman to run a motley crew of criminals. Being Irish, they all hated the English, but they plundered and pillaged mostly their own.
Other gangs soon emerged with names such as the Chichesters, Plug Uglies, Roach Guards, Shirt Tails and Dead Rabbits. They fought each other over who would have the right to control crime on certain streets. Soon, more gangs arrived on the borders of Five Points, such as the Bowery Boys, True Blue Americans, American Guards, O’Connell Guards and Atlantic Guards. The streets in and around the Five Points area became so dangerous that brave Davey Crockett, famous for his heroics in the west, said that the Five Points area of New York was the most dangerous place he had ever visited in his life.
As the years passed, gangs came and went in the Five Points area. The Civil War was the biggest destroyer of the original Five Points gangs, as many hoodlums were drafted into the war in the South. Some came back maimed. Some never returned at all.
The rest of Asbury’s book describes every gang and thief that roamed New York, all the way back to 1928. We meet such unsympathetic guys as Monk Eastman and his Jewish gang, Owney Madden and his Irish Hudson Dusters, and Paul Kelly (Paulo Vaccarelli) and his Italian Five Pointers.
If you want to get down and dirty, reading about the lives of people so despicable that they were hanged every week in the courtyard of the city’s prison called the Tombs, The Gangs of New York is the book for you.
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