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The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld Paperback – October 10, 2001

3.9 out of 5 stars 97 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Journalist Asbury pulled this book together from several official sources, including police records as well as unofficial ones such as the rough memories of criminals. True to the title, the book is a history of crime both organized and not that permeated the dirty underbelly of New York City and its boroughs in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these gangs were so vicious they would post signs warning police to stay out of their neighborhoods or else! The 1927 volume is the basis of Martin Scorsese's forthcoming film of the same name starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Titanic heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio, so make sure to have at least one copy on hand. This edition contains numerous illustrations and a foreword by Jorge Luis Borges.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"Asbury comes off as positively multicultural when you compare him with his peers and immediate predecessors . . ." -- Judith Shulevitz, The New York Times Book Review

"Bursts with exuberance for its criminal subject matter. A riproaring read ... Asbury's lurid prose gives [the book] mythic stature." -- Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, The Financial Times Limited, January 18, 2003

"Gangs is one of the essential works of the city, as deserving of a permanent place on the shelf . . ." -- Luc Sante, The New York Review

"The rhetoric of the times, slang and colorful nicknames provide a poetic pleasure that helps offset the horrors . . ." -- Robert Flanagan, The Dispatch

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 366 pages
  • Publisher: Thunder's Mouth Press; Later Printing edition (October 10, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1560252758
  • ISBN-13: 978-1560252757
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (97 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,278,119 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Joel L. Gandelman VINE VOICE on January 30, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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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