Historical Accuracy

All historical films are bound to have inaccuracies. However, contextually and broadly, the film portrays many truisms. Scorsese does a fine job in accurately portraying life in the Five Points. Him and his staff paid close attention to costumes, set design, accents and slang leaving the audience to fell as if they were in the Five Points. The Five Points was notorious for Irish and Nativist street gangs. There was also strife amongst the Irish, the Blacks, the Catholics, and the Protestants. And the film does portray the draft riot in response to the 1863 Conscription Act with a high degree of historical accuracy. However, when deconstructed, there are places that are almost pure fiction. The film does gain some inspiration and some history from Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York [1]. Asbury, was newspaperman who wrote salacious tales about the New York underworld and was known for recycling long held urban myths rather than actual fact. While the Five Points was a violent city, the film seems to exaggerate this point with overly bloody battle scenes and explosions[2]. Professor Tyler Anbinder author of The Five Points said, that the neighborhood was less dangerous, less violent and more productive than it’s image said and much of the violence and murder was overstated[3]. Many of the immigrants in real life were seamstresses and skilled workers, such as tailors, shoemakers, and day laborers[4]. With that being said, there are three main issues that I am focusing on that drastically impact the big picture.

The Fictionalization of Characters

One of the most disappointing historical inaccuracies is the fictionalization of characters. Mid-19th century New York was indeed a violent place. Gangs and rioting were common. There were  famous gang members and leaders that could have been implemented into the film rather than to make up almost all of the characters. The most pronounced fictional aspect is  Bill “the Butcher” Cutting. Cutting is a fictionalized character based on an infamous butcher from an earlier era, Bill “the Butcher” Poole. William Poole (July 24, 1821 – March 8, 1855), also Bill the Butcherknown as Bill the Butcher, was the leader of the New York City gang Bowery Boys, a bare-knuckle boxer, and a leader of the Know Nothing political movement. The Gangs of New York antagonist  incorporates many aspects of Poole’s character and history; notorious, a butcher, a Nativist etc. Cutting is also depicted as living through the Civil War and being killed in a gang fight during the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. The real Butcher, Poole had been murdered eight years prior. Poole’s last spoken words;” Good-bye boys; I die a true American” are almost exactly the same as Cutting’s “Thank God I die a true American.”
All three of the protagonists, the Priest, Amsterdam, and Jenny are also fictionalized. While there was some Irish- American gang leaders that could have been the heroes of our film, Scorsese chose to make up these characters instead. This could have been done to fit a broader picture and to symbolize facets of Irish Americans of the time. He could have made this choice because fictional characters were more interesting than real people and made for a more exciting story. Either way, we come away from the film with a martyr, a hero, and a love interest that never existed. The fictional depiction made for a great story but was not historically accurate.


Asian Representation

The Gangs of New York also shows a lot of interaction with Asians, specifically the Chinese. This depiction is quite inaccurate. In a review of the film done by J. Matthew Gallman, “we see more Chinese characters in the film then there probably were in the entire state”[5]. Ah Ken is claimed to be the first Chinese individual to have arrived in the fringe of the Five Points in the 1840’s. He is the first Chinese person credited as having permanently immigrated to “Chinatown”[6]. Chinatown started on Mott, Park, Pell, and Doyers Streets, just east of the Five Points district. By 1870, there was a Chinese population of a little over 200[7]. The Sparrow Pagoda and the amount of Chinese interaction is not accurate and can most likely be attributed to the time this film was made.  Martin Scorsese says as much. Sparrow’s Chinese Pagoda was a saloon in the 1880’s. And Scorsese also said the depiction of the pagoda was fantasy and based on The Shanghai Gesture a Boris Leven film[8].


The “Catacombs”

Another instance that is not historically accurate are the “catacombs” at the Old Brewery. The “catacombs” in the Old Brewery are a virtual impossibility due to the ground they were built on. According to Ashbury, the Old Brewery held over 1,000 men, women and children, though this fact, like many others, is most likely distorted[9]. The Five Points was built on what the Dutch called the Collect Pond[10]. In the 18th century, the pond was used as a picnic area during summer and a skating rink during the winter. It was the areas fresh water supply as well. However, industries began to use the water and dump waste there. These included tanneries, breweries, ropewalks, and slaughterhouses[11]. By the late 18th century, the pond was already considered a common sewer.   It was summarily filled in from land and refuge removed from nearby Bayard’s Mount, and leveled between 1803 and 1811[12]. So it is highly unlikely than an area that was a pond in a short period of time could be dug as catacombs.

old brewary


Foot Notes

[1] Robert W. Snyder, “Gangs of New York Gets New York City Wrong” Open Democracy, https://www.opendemocracy.net/arts-Film/article_890.jsp

[2] J. Matthew Gallman, “Gangs of New York Review”The Journal of American History, vol. 90, no.3 (2003), 1124-1126

[3] Tyler Anbinder , Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum (New York: Free Press, 2001), 225

[4] Robert W. Snyder, “Gangs of New York Gets New York City Wrong” Open Democracy, https://www.opendemocracy.net/arts-Film/article_890.jsp

[5] J. Matthew Gallman,Gangs of New York Review” The Journal of American History, vol. 90 no. 3 (2003), 1124-1126

[6] Ian Christie and David Thompson ed., Scorsese on Scorsese (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2003), 262

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Herbert Asbury, Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (New York: Knopf, 1928), 13

[10] Ian Christie and David Thompson, Scorsese on Scorsese (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2003), 262

[11] Kenneth T. Jackson ed., The Encyclopedia of New York City ( Yale University Press, 1995), 250

[12] Ibid.

Photo Credits

[1] Bill the Butcher photo , http://www.fastcompany.com/3010811/

[2] the Old Brewery drawing, http://www.urbanography.com/5_points/


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