Akiva's Reviews > The Gangs of New York

The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury
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Apr 24, 09

Read in April, 2009

As the title suggests, this book is about the gangs of New York. In particular, it's a collection of mostly short anecdotes, in rough chronological order running from the mid nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. This rogue's gallery is full of tales about the worst sort of scofflaws: murderers, pickpockets, pimps, ear-biters, and greedy politicians. These tales of violence and depravity are interesting to read, but since most of the figures appear for only a few pages at a time and there is a certain feeling of repetition to the stories of gangland grudges and police crackdowns, the book lacks a certain momentum.

Oddly, the most interesting section wasn't really about gangs at all. There are a few chapters in the middle about the draft riots of 1863, a several day period when the citizens of New York, scared of conscription and angry at the rich who could buy their way out of the draft, looted much of and almost burnt down the entire city in a giant riot during the middle of the Civil War. Thousands died and most of the police force was injured or incapacitated. The riots were had to be quelled by a quickly mobilized combination of parts of the National Guard and the Union army.

The Martin Scorsese movie of the same name mainly takes setting and color from the book as well as the event of the draft riot, since there isn't really a complete story in the book to grab onto, but is quite worth watching in its own right, especially for the hats and the performance of Daniel Day Lewis.
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