The Wild East: Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury

The Gangs of New YorkThe Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury

I remember watching this movie back in high school, although I’d be lying if I said too much about it besides the violence really stands out nearly a decade later. But unlike a lot of a trash I watched then – the remake of I Spy, starring Eddie Murphy, for example – I actually remember something. And when I saw this book a few weeks ago, I picked up based on those memories alone.

I guess maybe I forgot something.

Gangs of New York isn’t bad read, but it’s not a pulpy one either. It’s more of a history of the evolution of New York’s seedier side, starting with loose gangs of criminals operating on the edges of town, running through depths of poverty and corruption and finally ending up with criminals protected by political ties and a retreat into what we’d now call organized crime. Curiously, Asbury contents himself by saying the time of gangs is over: not only was the mafia off his radar, but smaller-scale groups of criminals were, too.

Still, one isn’t reading this to get a documentary look at urban crime. Chances are you’re here from one of two routes: the movie or Jorge Luis Borges’ little essay about this book (an excerpt of it appears as the forward to this book). In either case, one’s likely to be taken aback: not only is there a lot more history than Bill the Butcher or Monk Eastman, but a lot of it’s even wilder than you’d suppose.

Large parts of this history read like something out of a failed state: massive corruption, riots in the street and wild shootouts in public. Some of these riots last for days, some of these shootouts read like stories of people shooting wildly into crowded streets. And this is New York City, not some lonely town out in the desert!

One especially memorable event, and something of a microcosm of the problems the book charts, is the Police Riots of 1857, when NY police were so corrupt another force was created by the state to actually attempt to carry out law enforcement. Why nobody saw the inevitable problem  is beyond me: was the corrupt force just supposed to hand over their badges and walk away? After days of countering the other, releasing whomever the other force arrested and breaking up any attempt to police the city, both forces clashed in the streets and inside City Hall. As brawling continued, the sudden lack of any kind of police allowed criminals to operate unchecked. It got so bad that the state militia was called in.

The stories are only half the appeal here: the personalities are the other. Famed criminals like Eastman, Bill the Butcher and Paul Kelly leap off the page, their outsized personalities matched only by the scope of their crimes. These were people who spoke like a caricature of a 20’s gangster, only they spoke of killing people like they were discussing the weather. In one chapter, Asbury writes about the rise of the criminal underground in Chinatown, but not without some casual racism, unfortunately.

Rating: 7/10. The book’s a little dated, especially in language and attitude, but it’s still a fun read. If you like it, be sure to check out Joseph Mitchell and AJ Liebling, who each covered similar ground in the New Yorker a couple decades later. Recommended, especially if you remember the movie or are into Boardwalk Empire.


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