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William J. Stern
What Gangs of New York Misses
Director Martin Scorsese’s violent tale of gang warfare in nineteenth-century New York ignores the dramatic transformation of the city’s Irish underclass into mainstream citizens.
14 January 2003

In 1842, accompanied by two policemen to ensure his safety, Charles Dickens visited Gotham’s Five Points slum, at the corner of what today are Worth, Baxter, and Park Streets behind Manhattan’s Supreme Court building, and found it “loathsome, drooping, and decayed” (see “A Traveller’s New York, 1842,” Autumn 1994). The area boasted some 17 brothels and countless saloons; for dark-side amusement and thrills, Five Points was the place. Davy Crockett remarked after a trip through the neighborhood that he would rather venture into Indian Country than ever return there. Irish-born John Hughes, the first Catholic Archbishop of New York, described Five Points’ predominantly Irish residents as “the poorest and most wretched population that can be found in the world—the scattered debris of the Irish nation.” In addition to the Irish, residents included blacks, Chinese, French, Germans, Poles, and Spaniards. It is this troubled neighborhood and its people, the beginning of the New York melting pot, that director Martin Scorsese seeks to bring back to life in his major new movie Gangs of New York, a chronicle of gang warfare between Irish immigrants and anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant natives, or “nativists.”

As entertainment, Gangs of New York is fine. Though as history the film is bunk, it nevertheless has a wonderfully evocative feel. Scorsese’s reconstruction of Five Points’ Paradise Square (the rowdy entertainment district) and the neighborhood’s wooden apartment houses, with their overcrowded living quarters and cave-like cellars, gives the viewer a sense of what living in the area must have been like in the mid–nineteenth century—though everything is too big, too clean, and too pretty to feel authentic. Gangs also features a screen-dominating performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, who boasts a wonderful New York accent throughout the movie, the kind you don’t hear in the city much anymore. The accent is anachronistic, however: New Yorkese didn’t reach its full development until the early twentieth century, four decades after the events the movie depicts.

Lewis’s performance creates a character of almost fairy-tale vividness in thuggish gang boss “Butcher” Bill Cutting, modeled roughly on Bill Poole, who died in the mid-1850s. Poole was a leader of the “nativists,” American-born citizens who abhorred the immigrants flooding into New York in the decades before and during the Civil War—and especially the Irish immigrants, fleeing famine in their own land. Day-Lewis’s riveting performance looms even larger in Gangs of New York when contrasted with that of co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, who seemed to know neither what the movie was about nor what he was doing in it. In the movie’s opening scene, DiCaprio’s character, “Amsterdam,” witnesses the murder of his father, an Irish gang leader played by Liam Neeson, at Bill Cutting’s hands. It’s too bad that Scorsese couldn’t have saved Neeson and jettisoned DiCaprio.

The big problem with Gangs of New York, however, is not DiCaprio’s weak performance. It’s that Scorsese, by concentrating solely on nineteenth-century gangbanging—and turning it into grand guignol theater of violence—missed a wonderful opportunity to show what was actually taking place in mid-nineteenth century New York. The hordes of immigrant Irish had by then become the nation’s first underclass, of which gangs like that headed by Neeson were symptoms—as were the 1863 draft riots depicted in the movie, a disgraceful, Irish-led, anti-black pogrom, sparked by opposition to the draft instituted during the Civil War. Over a century later, the association of an urban underclass with urban riots became even more familiar.

While Scorsese has Butcher Cutting express some of the period’s nativist sentiment, the movie makes no effort to show who the nativists really were. They weren’t simply an early version of the twentieth century’s Ku Klux Klan. Unlike the Klan, whose ranks consisted overwhelmingly of uneducated, low-income whites (like Cutting), the nativists included among their number some of America’s elite leaders and thinkers. Indeed, the nativists’ anti-Catholicism had a long history among American elites. Some of the country’s founders believed that Anglo-Saxon culture was basically identical with Western Civilization. Catholicism, in their view, was incompatible with democracy and religious freedom. As a delegate drafting the New York State Constitution, for example, John Jay successfully pushed for an amendment forbidding practitioners of religions with leaders located beyond American shores—like, say, the pope in Rome—from becoming U.S. citizens (the federal government eventually took over the responsibility of granting citizenship, rendering such state restrictions void). Fear that the pope was telling American Catholics what to do and think characterized the opinions of elite figures like John Quincy Adams, Samuel Morse, and P. T. Barnum, and continued right up to the presidential election of John Kennedy, who during his campaign had to promise a group of Protestant ministers that he would be faithful to the U.S. Constitution. 

On the lowbrow side, some nativist Protestants believed that the Catholic Church was the “Whore of Babylon,” an instrument of Satan, and that the pope was an anti-Christ. Protestant minister John S. Orr, known as “Angel Gabriel” to his followers, spoke to crowds of thousands in front of City Hall, advocating the casting of the Irish and the Catholic Church out of the city and into the Atlantic.

In addition to anti-Catholicism, many nativists also believed in Aryan supremacy—and the Irish weren’t Aryans. Famed cartoonist Thomas Nast regularly depicted the Irish as subhuman apes. In 1851, Harper’s Magazine described the Irish physiognomy in the same unflattering terms. A few years later, the brothers Orson and Lorenzo Fowler published a New Illustrated Self Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology that reinforced ideas about Irish genetic inferiority. This pseudoscientific view of the Irish was influential right through the end of the nineteenth century.

Many Americans fell prey to this destructive, racist form of thinking because of what they were seeing of the Irish underclass in mid-nineteenth century New York. Prostitution was rampant. The Irish immigration of the 1840s was some 60 percent female, most of them single, and many of these newcomers soon found themselves on the street. Ronald H. Baylor and Timothy J. Meagher report in their book, The New York Irish, that the prostitute population jumped from 11,000 in 1839 to 50,000 ten years later, and these “nymphs of the pave,” as people called them, were mostly young Irish girls. But it wasn’t just prostitution: venereal disease, alcoholism, opium addiction, child abandonment, infanticide—the New York Irish suffered crippling levels of social pathology.

The criminals of the city were almost all Irishmen—and they were far from the strapping, well-fed, hard-partying swells that Scorsese depicts as his gang members. The police cart that hauled away prisoners became the “paddy wagon” because it invariably transported Irish hoodlums. Irish gangs consisted mainly of tattered, hungry, dirty, abandoned Irish boys—many of them the offspring of nymphs of the pave like that played in the film by Cameron Diaz. Their lives were short, as Scorsese shows—and also, as he does not show, nasty and brutish. Faced with these grim realities, much grimmer than Scorsese’s fairytale fantasy, it should surprise no one that many wanted the Irish out of the city—and the country. In 1854, the anti-immigration Know Nothing Party captured 75 seats in Congress.

In a vicious circle, religious and ethnic discrimination was causing growing problems for New York’s Irish, while the destructive behavior of New York’s Irish fed growing religious and ethnic discrimination.

It took a charismatic religious leader to lead the Irish—and the nation—out of this destructive circle. “Dagger” John Hughes, an Irish immigrant gardener who became the first Catholic archbishop of New York, makes only a silent cameo appearance in Gangs of New York, looking like a refugee from The Godfather; but in the real world, he catalyzed a remarkable cultural change that would liberate Gotham’s Irish from their self-destructive underclass behavior, so that within a generation they began flooding into the American mainstream (see “How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish,” Spring 1997). It’s a shame that Scorsese didn’t find a bigger part in his film for this brilliant, complex, and extremely effective man. (Given Hollywood’s usual hostility to religion, however, Scorsese’s treatment of religion in the film is surprisingly sympathetic.)

Hughes emerged as an aggressive champion of Irish and Catholic civil rights. Confronting a Methodist minister who’d been detailing the history of Catholic Church misdeeds in Europe, he charged: “Yours sir, is a young religion; there are no misdeeds in your past, but no glories either.” He never tired of telling Protestants that it was the Catholic Church that had given the world the modern university, organized philanthropy, the hospital, and the West’s greatest music and art. He reminded listeners that it was Protestant England that crushed religious liberty in Ireland—oppression that had victimized his family, who had come to America for its freedom of conscience. Hughes remained enthralled with America’s great potential to be a land of pluralism and tolerance. As a 19-year-old manual laborer in 1819, shortly after arriving in the U.S., Hughes had written a poem attacking slavery as out of keeping with America’s true greatness. (This is a point Scorsese’s film, with its failure of historical imagination, misses: the Civil War was not simply an occasion for the WASP power structure to draft poor Irishmen to die on the battlefield but an intensely moral struggle to free the slaves, in which Americans of all backgrounds gave their lives.)

Yet if Hughes attacked religious and ethnic bigotry, he also recognized that the dysfunctional behavior of New York’s Irish was more destructive than the discrimination against them. After all, he knew that German immigrants, 40 percent of whom were also Catholic (the majority was Protestant, with a small minority of Jews), were almost immediately successful upon arriving in the country, even though most had come to America with no more money than their Irish counterparts—though they did arrive as intact families to a much greater degree than the Irish. German Catholic immigrants did not experience anything akin to the troubles of Irish Catholics, proving that the source of Irish difficulties was not simply their religion or that their ancestors weren’t English. Tellingly, there are almost no reports of German gangs in the historical period that Gangs of New York—both the movie and the 1928 book by Herbert Asbury on which it is based—portrays.

The Irish badly needed rescue, then, and Hughes set out to be their rescuer. Religious renewal would be his chosen means of salvation. When asked what he was going to do about the Irish problem, Hughes replied curtly, “We are going to teach them their religion.” England had sharply curtailed the teaching of Catholicism in Ireland, so the rural Irish who came to America had almost no religious training. Scorsese accurately shows the dominant Catholicism of the New York Irish as a kind of ritualistic superstition; St. Thomas would not have recognized it. This degraded Catholicism could not long resist the worldly temptations of Five Points.

Hughes was fortunate to have more than his own considerable talent to rely on in reforming the New York Irish. The Oxford movement in England had resulted in the conversion to the Catholic Church of a number of brilliant and talented individuals, most famously John Henry Cardinal Newman. In New York, the movement had an even greater influence, leading several highly educated Protestants to convert to Catholicism. Many of these high-profile converts—Levi Silliman Ives (see “Once We Knew How to Rescue Poor Kids,” Autumn 1998), James Roosevelt Bayley, Elizabeth Boyle, Isaac Hecker, James McMaster, and others—offered to help the Irish; Hughes astutely availed himself of their services. Hughes also developed close relationships with WASP politicians like William H. Seward, the Whig Governor of New York. Many WASPs shared Hughes’s vision of a pluralistic America and felt that a large numbers of immigrants would speed the economic development of the country. They understood that with the help of immigrants, the U.S. could become the greatest economic power the world has ever known, and its greatest democracy. Too bad that Scorsese treats all WASP politicians and philanthropists as naive buffoons, without recognizing the value of their efforts to uplift the newcomers, very much an American tradition.

With the help of WASP pols and his talented converts, Hughes launched a series of what today we would call “faith-based initiatives.” These charitable initiatives, which often received government funding, aimed at everything from fighting alcoholism and promiscuity to boosting economic development and the self-esteem of Irish women. The initiatives drew on the power of faith to call people to personal responsibility. A life devoted to the Ten Commandments, Hughes recognized, would lead people to be responsible in their sexual conduct, to care for their children, to respect the elderly, to minister to the sick, to be financially responsible, and to live disciplined lives—a recipe for individual and communal success.

Hughes’s efforts proved astonishingly successful. In less than a generation, the New York Irish moved from being criminals to being the policemen and prosecutors who put the bad guys behind bars. In the mid-nineteenth century, New York Irish women had a reputation for promiscuity. By the end of the century, people chided them for being puritanical. By 1890, two-thirds of the schoolteachers in the city’s schools were Irish women. Temperance societies in every parish convinced most of the women and some of the men to abstain from alcohol. By 1880, when banking and shipping magnate William Grace became the first Irish-Catholic mayor of New York, people viewed the Irish as “a churched people.” Some, like Grace, had accumulated significant wealth; many more had entered the middle class; few resembled the violent, drunken, aimless citizens of 1860’s Five Points.

Hughes and his allies won a monumental struggle with the nativists. If they hadn’t won, the mass immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century might not have happened, because opposition to newcomers would have continued to grow, and the nation’s openness might have closed. America would have looked in the twentieth century like a gigantic WASP version of Japan. John Hughes is an American figure of major historic proportions.

Today in inner city America, of course, we have another underclass, this one largely African-American. Since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, many barriers to black advancement have come down, and the nation’s blacks have made considerable progress in many areas. Almost everyone would agree that the nation has more work to do to remove racist attitudes and racial discrimination. But what is also holding some blacks back is the explosion of out-of-wedlock births among African-Americans over the last several decades. As the data conclusively show, children born out of wedlock have an exponentially greater chance of living in poverty, committing a crime, doing poorly in school, going to prison, taking drugs, and suffering from a host of other problems than do children born to a married couple. Good schools mean little if a child has no interest in education; economic opportunity means even less if a child isn’t raised in a culture where the day after tomorrow matters.

In other words, culture is key. As Alcoholics Anonymous or any psychiatrist understands as well as Hughes, people often have problems that they can only solve by changing their inner self and accepting the idea of personal responsibility. That’s why faith-based initiatives, with their emphasis on inner transformation and individual accountability, help produce the kind of responsible citizens any freedom-loving democracy needs. They have been an important means for social progress throughout U.S. history, and they’ve often received government help in carrying out their mission. It has only been in recent decades that the courts have prevented government from enlisting this aid.

President Bush has proposed a program through which government would again provide support to faith-based initiatives for the purpose of solving social problems. Arrayed against these initiatives are the new nativists: the cultural Left, including the New York Times, the A.C.L.U., liberal justices, and a number of left-liberal elected officials. Unlike their nineteenth century predecessors, they don’t want the Catholic Church cast out of the country. Instead they want all religion cast out of the public square.

On December 30, 2002, the Times published an editorial entitled USING TAX DOLLARS FOR CHURCHES. The editorial asserted: “It is clearer today than ever that one of America’s greatest strengths is that we are a nation in which people are free to practice any faith or no faith, and the government keeps out of the religious realm. This is a tradition that has served America ever since its founding. There is no reason to tamper with it now.”

This is revisionism worthy of Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Times correspondent in Moscow who, when the Soviet government precipitated a famine in the Ukraine that killed at least 5 million people, blatantly denied the existence of the starvation in his dispatches to his editors back in the states. In 1871, the Times published an editorial arguing that government support of Catholic Charities was out of proportion to the trifling sums granted Protestant institutions. “How long will Protestants endure?,” the Times worried. The Times has gone from arguing “let’s give the Protestants more” to “let’s give nothing to religion.” The fact is, nineteenth century Americans—the Times included—understood religion’s essential role in fighting social problems.

For most of its history, government has helped religious institutions when they perform activities that help the country as a whole—and that secular service should be the test as to whether a faith-based institution (or, for that matter, a secular one) receives taxpayer support. In truth, the new nativists don’t like the moral teachings of traditional Judeo-Christian religion, and they want those teachings to disappear—regardless of how much that hurts America.

Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York only briefly depicts the role that religiously motivated people were playing in trying to help the citizens of Five Points during the 1860s, and doesn’t show at all the crucial fact that their efforts were gradually changing the culture.

A Roman general, when his officers dragged the leading actor of Rome before him, after they caught the actor sleeping with the general’s wife, said, “Don’t kill him; let him go—he’s only an actor.” We should forgive Scorsese for missing an opportunity. After all, he’s only a Hollywood director. And perhaps we should ignore the New York Times as well. After all, it is only the paper of Walter Duranty.

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More by William J. Stern:
New York Pols vs. Bush’s Tax Plan
Questionable Authorities
Abuse of Authority
More . . .
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