Gangs of New York is one of Martin Scorsese’s most notable films, and seeing as it’s a period gang drama or a historical film set in the not-so-distant past in New York City, it raises questions of authenticity. Suffice it to say, it’s not entirely unreasonable to ask, “Is Gangs of New York a true story?” Or, “Is Daniel Day’Lewis’ sick Bill the Butcher handlebar mustache real?”
More importantly, how did he style it or how to achieve that ‘stache? But that’s a topic for another time. We only have resources right now to answer the first question about Gangs of New York‘s faithfulness to history.
We’d also like to point out in advance that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in this film was undeniably fictional, partly because his character fell in love with 30-year-old Cameron Diaz. Were she under 25 years old at the time, Leo’s character would have been more believable.
The Five Points was real and nasty but exaggerated
Gangs of New York is set in the “Five Points” neighborhood. This area, often referred to as Paradise Square, was infamous for its squalor and violence during the mid to late-1800s. The film’s portrayal of the Five Points as a breeding ground for lawlessness and rival gangs is not entirely unfounded.
However, it’s crucial to note that while the movie amplifies the violence, historian Tyler Anbinder, who collaborated with Scorsese during the film’s production, debunked many of the extreme exaggerations presented in Herbert Asbury’s book, which served as the film’s inspiration.
The Five Points neighborhood was situated on land previously occupied by the Collect Pond, a source of fresh water for the city. Over time, this area became polluted and plagued by disease, making it an undesirable place to live.
When waves of Irish immigrants arrived in New York due to the Great Irish Famine, they settled in the Five Points, seeking refuge in this impoverished neighborhood.
Bill the Butcher was also somewhat real and embellished
One of the central characters in “Gangs of New York” is Bill Cutting or William Cutting, portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s one of his most iconic roles.
Bill Cutting is a ruthless gang leader who goes by the nickname “Bill the Butcher” in the film. While the character’s last name was changed from Poole to Cutting, Bill the Butcher’s inspiration was drawn from a real historical figure named William Poole.
William Poole, a Nativist enforcer affiliated with the Know-Nothing Party, was a bare-knuckle boxer and butcher by trade.
He was notorious for opposing the issuance of butchering licenses to Irish immigrants. While the film takes liberties with the timeline, as Bill Cutting survived longer than William Poole did, the core attributes and animosity toward Irish immigrants were drawn from Poole’s life.
Unlike the movie’s portrayal of a grand street battle, William Poole was fatally shot in real life, and not during a dramatic showdown but in a bar altercation. His final words were reported to be, “Goodbye, boys. I die a true American,” a sentiment that resonated with Bill the Butcher’s cinematic persona.
William Poole was rather xenophobic, much like his film counterpart. However, the movie’s William Cutting was more of a cruel caricature of William Poole as not only did he cause a public riot and uprising, but he was also a politician who fought with cleavers as a gang warlord.
The Know-Nothings and political tension existed
The movie accurately captured the political and social tensions of 19th-century New York, particularly the animosity between Catholics, immigrants, and Protestant “natives.”
The influx of Catholic immigrants, primarily Irish, led to the formation of the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist movement that aimed to counter what they perceived as the threat posed by immigrant influence.
Members of the Know-Nothings were often called “Know-Nothings” because they claimed ignorance about their secretive organization. Their primary objective was to promote native-born politicians and leaders while marginalizing immigrants and naturalized citizens.
William “The Butcher” Poole, a Know-Nothing member, served as a symbol of this nativist sentiment. His confrontations with Irish immigrant gangs, particularly the Dead Rabbits, underscored the real tensions that existed during this period.
The Dead Rabbits and the Five Points Gang were partly fictionalized
In the film, Priest Vallon leads the Dead Rabbits, a gang composed of Irish immigrants. While the Dead Rabbits were indeed a real gang, the movie’s portrayal of their leader and the events surrounding their clashes with other gangs, including the nativist Bowery Boys, is largely fictionalized for dramatic effect.
These various gangs of the time eventually coalesced into the Five Points Gang, which also existed and persisted until the early 1910s. Notably, this gang would give rise to future notorious figures like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, shaping the trajectory of organized crime and criminals in New York City.
The New York Draft Riots were also real
The movie’s climax unfolds against the backdrop of the New York Draft Riots of 1863, which indeed occurred. These riots were a response to the Civil War Military Draft Act and were fueled by economic and racial tensions. The film accurately portrayed the anger and violence that erupted during this period.
The riots targeted not only Black individuals but also abolitionists, government buildings, and military facilities. Thousands were killed, making it one of the deadliest riots in American history. Gangs of New York effectively captured the chaos and brutality of this dark chapter in New York City’s history.
William Poole’s transformation into Bill Cutting, the portrayal of the Know-Nothings, and the depiction of the New York Draft Riots all reflect the historical realities of the time period.
The film did a decent job of offering a glimpse into the tumultuous past of New York City. Gangs of New York might not be a strict historical documentary, but it succeeds in capturing the essence of a bygone era and the spirit of survival that defined it, which is more relevant than ever these days, especially for a place like New York City.