Richard's Reviews > The Gangs of New York

The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury
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's review
Jul 11, 08

bookshelves: so-glad-i-read
Read in May, 2007

Herbert Asbury has developed in this book a delightfully readable (and read-out-loudable) history of the dark underbelly of New York City--the picaresque and downright nasty underground of gambling tongs, gang warfare and thorough political corruption.

I of course came to this book only recently, after having seen the Scorsese film of the same name. It is in fact quite wonderful to see the liberties Scorsese took to make a challenging film and not just a recapping of this oral-style history. Familiar names and events and places appear in the mist, but in a whole new context. This book will let you know that the incredible Scorsese movie merely scratches the surface of the NYC underworld from the Civil War era to the start of the 20th dentury, if this book is to be believed.

It is this last point that gives me some pause about this book. As I said before, this book is eminently readable and enjoyable. The webs of rivalry and alliance, of rumbles that go on for hours, riots that go on for days, tales of violence and retribution and a host of characters whose corruption and indulgence o'ershadow even the prohibition days of Chicago. Asbury freely admits when some of his tales are mere folklore, stories that criminals pass along to each other as legends, drastically overexaggerrated to confer the level of respect of awe that a gang leader or significant change of the balance of power has earned.

But sometimes it's hard to believe the level of reliable research that could have gone into so many other ta1es. The histories of particular criminals are detailed down to their dismemberment by cannon fire in the Civil War, or their miserable ends to cowardly ambush or the breaking of spirits after a particularly bad loss of business or to a mightier opponent, or to their incarceration, and the mug shots are wonderfully stylish, but it is hard to stomach easily the thoroughness of the information, unless Asbury was a devotee of the Five Corners and other such areas of ill-repute in its heyday. No doubt there was prodigious information provided by police records and other data, but perhaps this is a book to be taken more as a work of social anthropology than history--an examination of the underworld culture of NYC in this time period rather than a necessarily accurate historical document. One part bragging, another part horror, and a wonderful gaze at the debaucheries of the ale houses and gambling establishments down Asbury's nose in a way that seems sometimes sincere, sometimes a little over the top for the sake of appearances, this book is worth the read, especially to spread stories to others...just don't accept it readily as 'fact.'

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