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105 of 110 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating anecdotal history (NOT movie novelization)
The Gangs of New York is a fascinating chunk of controversial history (some question its accuracy), an interesting period piece written nearly 90 years ago-- but fans of the highly-touted film should BEWARE if they're expecting for something closely related to the Martin Scorese flick.
Even so, no matter what anyone (including yours truly) says...and awful lot of...
Published on January 30, 2003 by Joel L. Gandelman

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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining (but double-check the historical accuracy)
The long-awaited (and long-delayed) release of Martin Scorsese's film, Gangs of New York, will no doubt bring renewed interest in Herbert Asbury's 1928 book of the same name. Asbury, who was a journalist, editor and author, claims that this book is based on material "obtained from the new-papers and magazines, from police and court records, and from personal interviews...
Published on December 15, 2002 by Amazon Customer


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105 of 110 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating anecdotal history (NOT movie novelization), January 30, 2003
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The Gangs of New York is a fascinating chunk of controversial history (some question its accuracy), an interesting period piece written nearly 90 years ago-- but fans of the highly-touted film should BEWARE if they're expecting for something closely related to the Martin Scorese flick.
Even so, no matter what anyone (including yours truly) says...and awful lot of people of all ages READ this book -- and love it. I was recently on a flight and sat next to a guy in his early 20s who sat there fascinated, reading it during the entire 3 hour flight.
Gangs of New York is NOT your typical book on which a movie is based. If it's bought by someone who loves the film somebody is going to be in for a monster surprise (or disappointment). Don't expect a plot, don't expect compelling writing, don't expect a large section on which the book is based and to easily find those sections. But do expect to be fascinated.
WHAT THIS IS: This is a book about: early brutal gang warfare, during a time in the 19th century where gangs literally swarmed all over New York City; blow-by-blow bloody battles and legendary gang fighters in a city virtually in the grip of gangs -- leading to the creation of the NY City Police department; and the politically dominating Tammany Hall machine's birth and growth in the 19th and 20th centuries, set within the context of a politically corrupt, violence-prone city.
Most interestingly, it's about a time in NYC's history that you seldom see portrayed in films or in books. I found the accounts of the 1863 Civil War draft riots absolutely gripping. But mostly it's about the gangs with names such as Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies etc (the film used these names too). Many illustrations are old-style drawings rather than photos.
WHAT IT DOES: Gangs of New York gives you a good history seemingly based on interviews and mountains of old newspaper clippings, most of it in anecdotal versus dry statistical form.
WHAT IT IS NOT: It is not a book written in a modern prose style, but it isn't boring. It doesn't have a "plot" with a beginning, middle and end. No, it doesn't have a hero, or anyone resembling Leonardo, a love subplot, etc.
But if you're interested in the acclaimed movie's source material and learning about a fascinating and often forgotten period in NY City's municipal history you'll love it. Even though it was out of print for many years The Gangs of New York has been a legend itself for many years -- and it easy to see why.
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66 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bible of Gangland Americana, February 20, 2000
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For the American Gangster and for those interested in their colorful rise in the halls of American folklore, this book can be considered nothing less than a classic to be ranked with Moby Dick and Last of the Mohicans. The title is simple, yet apt, but the content hits the reader with the force of a lead pipe. From the teeming streets of the 19th Century Lower East Side to the ivory towers of Tammany Hall in the early 20th Century, the 'Gangs of New York' leads you on a walk through Hell filled with violence, despair and the reality of the early immigrants life in squalor, where the only way of life was the street.
This is an easy-to-read and thoroughly enjoyable history book written in the colorful, "oral" style of writing found with authors such as Harold Lamb. The characters are memorable, and their names will stay with you forever. Personalities such as Hell-cat Maggie, Baboon Connelly, Googy Corcoran, Paul Kelly, Monk Eastman, and Owney Madden fill the ranks of the legendary New York Gangs; The Dead Rabbits, The Plug Uglies, The Whyos, The Five-Points Gang, The Eastmans, and the Hells Kitchen Gophers. Witness their rise and fall, but watch out for flying bricks and bullets!
The story of the gangster would not be complete without the police, for the story of the early rise and fall of the gangster is closely intertwined with the growing pains of the modern New York Police Department. Asbury illustrates the police relationship with the gangster, and highlights the police "riots" during the merger of the Municipal and Metropolitan police departments. The history of the NYPD is filled with greed, corruption, and and other problems associated with a department ruled by the ward bosses and political powerhouses of Tammany Hall, but it is also one of uncommon valor. The events described in this book on the Civil War Draft Riots are "edge of your seat", and the battles fought by the outnumbered police vs the rioters are as vicious as those fought by the men wearing the blue and the grey.
This is a definite "Must-Read" for those interested in History AND Entertainment. Enjoy
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining (but double-check the historical accuracy), December 15, 2002
The long-awaited (and long-delayed) release of Martin Scorsese's film, Gangs of New York, will no doubt bring renewed interest in Herbert Asbury's 1928 book of the same name. Asbury, who was a journalist, editor and author, claims that this book is based on material "obtained from the new-papers and magazines, from police and court records, and from personal interviews with criminals and police officials. The two page bibliography cites numerous 19th Century sources that are contemporary with the mainly Irish gangs who are the focus of Asbury's book; however, quite a bit of it reads more like American tall tales (e.g., Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, or John Henry who died with a hammer in his hand) than accurate American history.
Are we really to believe that the most famous of the Bowery Boys, Mose, was "eight feet tall" with hands "as large as the hams of a Virginia hog" and a hat that measured "more than two feet across", that "during the hot months he went about with a great fifty gallon keg of ale dangling from his belt in lieu of a canteen"? Or that Gallus Mag was over six feet tall and kept a jar full of alcohol-preserved ears she had bitten off of her victims (one of which she gave back in a later fit of admiration)?
Certainly, most of Asbury's book is based on fact. Indeed, his long description of the 1863 draft riots agrees with other accounts and, further, delves more into the actual reasons behind that torrid affair than do many other sources. Interestingly, in this section he relies less on purple prose than he does elsewhere. However, here, as in other chapters, sorting out what is fact, what is exaggeration, and what is plain fancy, is difficult.
In sum, this is interesting and entertaining reading (if a bit florid), but, without further research into other sources, readers shouldn't accept everything in this book as unimpeachable fact.
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99 of 114 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars History as dime novel, December 18, 2002
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Herbert Asbury's "Gangs of New York" was an expose first published in 1927. Its style shows its age: reading this book is like listening to an old 1920's newspaper reporter from the far end of the bar after he's had too many drinks: lots of exotic tall tales of life in the gritty city; countless names and places rise and disappear never to be heard again. The overall effect is entertaining but completely unbelievable, as though Paul Bunyon had moved to the Lower East Side of 19th-century Manhattan.
One illustration will suffice: the early gangster "Mighty Mose" is describe as 'at least 8 feet tall' wearing boots studded with inch-long spikes.On one occasion Asbury has Mose pulling an oak tree out of the ground by its roots to 'smite' some of a rival gang, the Dead Rabbits. On another the author claims Mose swam underwater from Manhattan to Staten Island without coming up for air. It comes off as the kind of book a boy would have hidden in a corncrib to read when it was first published in 1927: lowlife fun, but if you're looking for the real history, you will be disappointed.
You will be even FURTHER disappointed if you expect the book to resemble the new Scorcese movie in any manner. Although Scorcese borrows the names of characters from the book - Bill the Butcher, Jack Scirocco, Vallon, Everdeane - and sets the movie around the time of the 1863 Draft Riots, which really occured - in the book these characters are sometimes separated by 50 years and 100 pages. The character played by Leonardo diCaprio, Amsterdam Vallon, does not appear at all in the book.
I first read the book before the movie was filmed, because of my interest in New York history. It's entertaining although the writing style is pretty archaic. But if you came to this page looking for the 'true story' behind the movie, you won't find it here.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Maybe Not High Scholarship, But Very Entertaining, December 25, 2002
By 
Reading some of the reviews of this book makes me wonder what people were expecting when they bought it. This is pure tabloid history, of the type that one might have read in installments in the old "Liberty" magazine of the same time period.
Sure, some of it was tall tales, but they were written as such, and a reader would have to be an idiot to think the author was writing these to be believed as pure fact.
This may not be a college press sociological publlication with a bibliography longer than the actual text of the book itself, but when it was written, in the late 20's, that's not what a reader would have expected from a writer like Asbury. The book sets out to entertain, and I think it succeeds in this.
I found this in an used book store about 10 years ago, read it and it became an immediate favorite. I remember thinking at the time "somebody should make a movie of this", and now someone has done it. It's a good introduction to the basic events it describes. If one becomes more interested in these events, then one could delve into more scholarly tomes on the events. The past few years has seen a number of such tomes come out on these subjects, and I bet most of the authors were introduced to the study by Asbury's book.
I can understand that to some who don't live or work in New York, the place and street and neighborhood names might mean nothing, but if one is REALLY interested, one could get a street map of the city, or a travel guide from a public library to use as reference while reading the book. I happen to be from New York and work every day in the very area in which much of the action in this book takes place: Baxter and Mercer and Greene and Wooster Streets, etc., so the book may mean more to me than to a reader in, say, Dallas. But if you say "I ain't going thru all that trouble to get reference just to read this book", then you're not really that interested in the book. When I read about the Kennedy assassination, f'rinstance, and it describes areas and streets and neighborhoods in a city I am unfamiliar with (Dallas) I get a map. It makes the reading more interesting and gives the reader a better idea of what's going on.
By the way, if one is interested in further reading on this subject, I can recommend two further books. Both are old and out-of-print for years, but well worth finding. One is actually a novel, "An Original Belle" , written in 1885 by a now forgotten novelist, EP Roe. It is set in New York City during the Civil War, and gives one of the longest and best description of the draft riots I've read. Though this IS a novel, you can see that the author,who lived through the events and wrote this just a little over 20 years after the occurences, did deep research on the subject and wrote that section of the book as factual, detailed history. It serves as the dramatic climax of the novel, and because of that is kind of unique.
The second book is "Tammany Hall" by M. R. Werner, a magazine writer of the time (published in 1932). Less of a tall tale teller than Asbury, this book sticks to facts and the facts are eye-opening to say the least. The book is journalistic in style, but also VERY detailed. It is essential reading, and ties up very well the connection between street gangs, volunteer fire companies, political clubs, the NYC police, and the institution of Tammany Hall, from the lowly ward heeler all the way to the governor's mansion in Albany. It's hard to find, but worth the effort.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gets old pretty fast., December 16, 2002
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"mr_arch_stanton" (Santa Fe, New Mexico) - See all my reviews
Readers who purchase this book because they enjoyed the movie of the same name might find it challenging to determine just how the two works are connected (besides both being set in New York, and both involving gangs). It is more accurate to say that the Martin Scorcese film was "inspired by people and events" portrayed in this book. The book itself lacks the unifying narrative thread of the movie; it rushes and swerves frantically among countless colorful vignettes and covers many decades in the history of the New York City underworld. The book is a superb example of journalism from the 1910s and 1920s, i.e. fast and loose with the facts and interested primarily in generating a "sensation." However, to modern readers this style may prove frustrating, even distracting. I think that this book will remain far more interesting to historians of journalism than to fans of the DiCaprio movie.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read, But Read With Some Skepticism, December 13, 2001
By A Customer
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Asbury's book is a classic. However it was written in 1928 and has the tendency to engage in excessive hyperbole and to accept uncritically just about every outlandish so-called contemporary report on New York during the "Gilded" age. For example most historians now admit that the number of dead during the New York City Draft Riots in July 1863 are from 100-200. Asbury states that a conservative estimate is 2,000! Some of his other characters do not ring particularly true.
Putting that aside, this is an entertaining read. Anyone who reads this book and lives or works in New York City will never walk thorugh Chinatown (formerly the Five Points District), the Lower East Side, the Bowery, or Sixth Avenue from 25th Street to the mid West 50's (the old tenderloin district known as "Satan's Circus") without thinking about the ghosts of thugs gone by - "The Plug Uglies", "The Dead Rabbits," "The Whyos." etc. Fortunately an educated reader will also be able to spot fact from apocryphal stories and enhanced urban legends.
This book is a good companion book to Luc Sante's "Low Life." It is a must for all New Yorkers in that it reminds us that crime and poverty and vice are not a 20th century phenomenon.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Now I Can't Wait for the Movie to Come Out., January 20, 2002
By 
Patrick F. Nicolello (Jupiter, Florida USA) - See all my reviews
Among the many special things that make this book a real treasure is that it was written in the mid 1920's. Without knowing what the future would bring Asbury concludes that the age of the gangs is over. And, in a way he is correct. Of course he could not foresee the development of gangs in the second half of the twentieth century, but he does successfully describe the changes in demographics and size that took place during the nineteenth. The later truly amazed me in that during the period of about 1840 to 1870 the shear size of the gangs that terrorized Manhattan, and its environs, were enormous. Gangs numbering in the thousands in an area of less than half of Manhattan is quiet frightening. Their relationship to political machines such as Tammany Hall and the Know Nothings insulated them from the long arm of justice.
Asbury also does a wonderful job of describing the rocky evolution of the New York City Police Department. Good or bad the heroics and sacrifice of the New York City Police during the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots should never be forgotten.
I highly recommend this book. If you have experienced New York then you owe it to yourself to compare then and now.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pulp fiction as History, January 2, 2003
By 
Tim Hewitt (Columbia, SC USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Asbury's book is highly readable, full of blood and thunder, loads of colorful characters and as many tall tales as there are pages. The book isn't so much a history as it is an impression. What Asbury captures is clearly an impression of the Five Points and its gangs in the public consciousness and folklore. This is a sort of "if it didn't happen this way, it should have" bit of storytelling. If you want actual history, look elsewhere. If you want a strong taste of American folklore, start reading. As has been noted, this isn't the story you'll find in the Scorcese film. And that's good. Reading "The Gangs of New York" actually illuminates the movie. You'll get a greater, grander sense of what Scorcese is getting at in his film. The book and the film are about American mythmaking. As Jimmy Stewart says at the end of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "when legend become fact, print the legend."
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not merely a supplement to the film., February 14, 2003
By 
M. Maloney (Savannah, GA United States) - See all my reviews
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It would be obtuse to begin a review without acknowledging the fact that Martin Scorsese, one of America's finest directors, has recently completed and released a motion picture version of this book.
Herbert Asbury's book, however, is much more than a worthy companion to this film. It is a brilliant historical document whose characters and events are so unbelievably fantastic, where it not for Asbury's mind-bending research and documentation, they would not be believed.
His book is an easy read for those inexperienced with early 1900's rhetoric. Even young adults would take great pleasure in the `smoking lounge' storytelling, though it may be to violent at times for younger teens.
It should be noted, however, that readers hoping to find a print version of Scorsese's film would be disappointed. `Bill the Butcher,' a prominent character in the film, was in reality a small and relatively inconsequential part of New York's history.
History buffs, give this book a read. It will fascinate you and expose you to another side of America's most violent decade. For those who enjoyed this book, I recommend Asbury's other efforts as well as Cormac McCarthy's `Blood Meridian.'
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The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld
The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury (Paperback - July 1, 2008)
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