The Gangs of New York, an informal history of the underworld was written by Herbert Asbury, a strictly brought up Methodist, in 1928.
The book relates the barbarian gigantism and ineptitude, this chaotic story is set in the cellars of the old breweries, which eventually turned into Negro tenements in a seedy New York City replete with Swamp Angels, cutthroat Daybreak Boys and the solitary giants of the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbit gang. Their erstwhile leaders included Danny John Dolan, Kit Burns and Danny Lyons. Regular riots culminated in the savage week of July 1863 when thousands of gang members fought the city authorities over military conscription when the battle of Gettysburg threatened Washington. A hundred buildings were burned and the army used artillery to clear the rioters. Monk Eastman was the most famous gang leader of a gang of twelve hundred men.
The book chronicles the most spectacular exploits of the dangerous nuisance of gangs and gang warfare that endured for almost a century. Asbury’s book reminds us of an era that is almost forgotten but is etched on our collective memories by the major film of the same name directed by Scorsese and starring Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The 1860 census recorded the population of New York City, then comprised solely of Manhattan Island, at 813,669, 50% of which were foreign born. Among the foreigners, the Irish were predominant, totalling 203,740, the next highest were the Germans with 119,984.
The Irish settled the Five points and the Mulberry Bend districts, the Germans were settled along the middle East Side. In 1862, the police arrested 82,072 men and women, representing 10% of the total population. These were human sweepings of European cities dumped in New York, where they remained.
Confederate armies under General Lee pushed north in June 1863. Washington called for 120,000 soldiers from northern cities including New York. President Lincoln urged the War Department to begin the army draft on Saturday, July 11. Rejecting the draft, New York gangs rioted, the vast majority were Irish, no Roman Catholic property was even threatened. The New York City arsenal at Second Avenue and 21t Street was threatened by the rioters. A week of fierce rioting was contained by 800 police and 1,000 US marines until Wednesday 15 July when five regiments of the victorious Union Armies were rushed to the City. Howitzers were used at street intersections to clear the mobs.
The book ends in 1927. Gangs continued to challenge the police since the era covered by the book, however, the gang membership declined from 1,200 to about 6 or 8 individuals, more manageable for the NYPD.