Scorsese’s Gangs of New York: How the Left Misuses American History

by Norman Berdichevsky (March 2011)

I saw this film in Spain. The Spanish audience emerged visibly shaken by the violent scenes. In their discussion about the movie that I overhead and read in reactions to the newspapers, many viewers reflected that the film “confirmed” their anti-American sentiments regarding American foreign policy in Iraq, and the old prejudice still deeply held that America has been “anti-Catholic” as well as anti-Negro, anti-immigrant and simply anti-poor. This is rewriting history by the Left is an art-form in its own right, one that pays absolutely NO attention to historical fact. Gangs of New York was based on the 1928 nonfiction book of the same title by Herbert Asbury. The film is homage to how low an art form can sink and what happens when Hollywood teaches history. Rarely, if ever, has an historical film distorted the truth in such a consistent and flagrant manner.

The film matches the worst anti-American propaganda of both Nazi and Soviet regimes in portraying American society as culturally debased, violent, ruled by corrupt politicians, dominated by the rich who control the police and anxious to receive new immigrants only to use them as cannon fodder, views combined with cinematography sufficient to earn it ten Academy Award nominations in 2002 for BEST film, actor, director etc., etc. It didn’t win in any category but has widely been referred to as “great historical epic.” It is symptomatic of American self hatred by a small clique of Hollywood producers that include Oliver Stone (JFK) whose films violate every cannon of historical research and have had a huge impact on the way young people in particular developed an instinctive gut reaction blaming their country and viewing all its faults with a magnifying glass. Time Magazine, with the same world view as much of Hollywood, nominated Scorsese in 2007 for one of the 100 most influential persons in the world.

One would expect an Italian-American filmmaker to be particularly sensitive and cautious about ethnic stereotypes. Certainly, Hollywood must answer for the hundreds of movies in which Italian-Americans were consistently portrayed as gangsters, bootleggers, pimps, prostitutes, boxers, organ grinders and pickpockets. Former New York Mayor and City Prosecutor Rudy Giuliani has poignantly discussed how much pain this stereotype has caused. Whatever its artistic merits, another big blockbuster The Godfather focused only on violent Italian-Americans in an epic dealing with immigration, crime and the difficulties of assimilation. Viewers might have hoped that Scorsese would have tried to present a film that avoided the worst excesses of blatant propaganda. Gangs of New York is a travesty. Whatever its cinematic qualities, the film presents the ugliest picture possible of America prior to the Civil War and falsifies the events of the great Draft Riots in New York City in July, 1863.

Gratuitous Violence

It is the pervasive, graphic violence of Gangs of New York that is particularly shocking. Blood flows in rivers on cobblestone streets, eyes are torn out, flesh is ripped apart by butcher cleavers, axes, spears, knives, clubs, bricks and bullets. Politicians kill one another as well as any bystander who doesn’t vote for them. For the span of the movie, a brawl or riot erupts at the drop of a hat. There is a public lynching of four men. Crucifixion is not omitted. Throats are slit, skulls cracked open, limbs severed, and torsos disemboweled yet strangely enough, most of the characters including the prostitutes appear to be in vibrant good health with perfect teeth including several Chinese women at a time when 95% of the Chinese present in New York City were males.

The scene of most of the action is the Five Points area of Lower Manhattan, indeed a slum and renowned as an area of crime and poor living conditions but hardly notably worse than similar areas in London and Paris at that time. The opening scene is a huge fight between two rival gangs set in The Five Points in 1846 involving Irish Catholic immigrants and the local WASPS (of native-born British , German and Dutch stock) referred to as “the Yankees.” How true to life is this?

Tyler Anbinder, a specialist in 19th Century American politics and a consultant for the film had this to say in an interview on the History News Network of NPR (December 23, 2002):

“Scorsese has over-dramatized the amount of bloodshed and death there would have been in a pre Civil War riot. There were a couple of riots like that one depicted in the movie between native born Protestants and Catholics in the neighborhood, but, at most, they resulted in a death or two, not the huge carnage you see in the scene.”

The film gets progressively worse in its infidelity to the truth. In the former Soviet Union and modern Poland, courageous producers and directors have not shied away from revealing the truth of the inhuman brutality of the regimes and produced films on themes that Hollywood has never considered. They are the Russian film The Chekist (Aleksandr Rogozhkin; 1992 Cannes Film Festival Award), the account of the interrogation methods and summary executions of tens of thousands of civilians by the Cheka (forerunner of the NKVD) in 1920-23 and Katyn (Andrzej Wajda, 2007) the true story of the slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers in April, 1940 by Stalin’s henchmen and basedon the book Post Mortem: The Story of Katyn, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Award.

The Polish and Russian films were historical truth yet Scorsese, Oliver Stone and others have done the opposite, and created fictional accounts to portray American society in the worst possible light. The villain in the film called William Cutting a.k.a. ”Butcher Bill” is the incarnation of evil. He leads the “Yankee gang” that dominates Tammany Hall and exploit the new immigrants at every turn. His main features are a glass eye and an astounding, uncanny ability to throw knives. In a close-up, we see that the glass eye is engraved with the American Eagle, long the symbol of American patriotism and etched on our banknotes and coins for generations. In Scorsese’s film, it represents everything immoral, corrupt and evil.  

The Historic Five Points

The Five Points was the scene of scams, drunkenness and much violent crime. However, aside from the many saloons and brothels shown in the film, it was also a source of much creative energy including dancing halls, political activity and boxing rings. It was run by “Tammany Hall” machine politicians in the service of the Democratic Party who ran it throughout the period 1835-60. Observers such as Abraham Lincoln, Davy Crockett and Charles Dickens regarded the Five Points as the epicenter of the ills of unassimilated immigrants, unscrupulous politicians and urban decay yet they were also impressed with the area’s vitality.

The Irish

The viewer of the move has little to no sense at all of how the lives of many immigrants changed for the better after arriving in New York. In Ireland, many of the Irish were victims of the Potato Famine. Recent Irish arrivals often took the lowest-paying and least desirable jobs in the city, living in Five Points’ most squalid tenements, yet eventually they were able to save enough money to move out and build secure lives. Even the most impoverished Irish famine victims living in North America’s slums were able to improve their lives dramatically not long after their arrival in the United States; yet the entire ethos of the film from start to finish suggests that the Irish were primarily victims and politically powerless until they were able to rise up against their oppressors – in particular, against the rich as symbolized in the film by editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, who exemplifies what the film portrays as nativist WASP bigotry and racism.

The politicians (Tammany Hall) are portrayed as being subservient to the Yankee WASPS and wealthy old families until the “masses” of Irish immigrants rise up against them in the anti-draft riots of 1863. This ignores the fact that as early as 1832, Irish immigrants voted overwhelmingly to throw out the old Whig administration and install the Tammany Hall Machine of the Democratic Party for which they were rewarded with considerable patronage and access to jobs and influence. A dominant political figure in the area was Fernando Wood, a “native-born American” of British origin who nevertheless secured considerable Irish supporters who went on to work for him as his “enforcers,” (illegal voters and ballot-box stuffers). He was a popular figure among the saloon and brothel keepers of The Five Points who rewarded him with kickbacks. In fact, this political manipulation in New York and other East Coast cities alarmed many Yankee WASPs who felt that their only recourse to offset Irish immigrant block voting and the growing influence of the Catholic Church was to organize in the form of a political party (eventually to be called the American Party, but known contemptuously as the “Know-nothings”).

In the film, Irish Catholics in America are portrayed as experiencing humiliating job discrimination. This was symbolized by signs proclaiming “Help wanted – No Irish Need Apply!” Yet, in actual fact, such signs were infrequent and rarely applied to healthy young male labor (which was needed on the great building project of the Erie Canal). The market for women occasionally specified religion or nationality, yet Irish women nevertheless dominated the market for domestics because they provided a reliable supply of an essential service. Many had done such work at home and, unlike other immigrants, understood English.

The slogan “No Irish Need Apply” was more common in England, especially London, where it was turned into a song. This song eventually reached America and was modified to portray an Irishman who confronts the discrimination by giving its sponsor a sound beating. The song was an immediate hit, and is the source of the myth. More Americans were suspicious of the Irish not because of the threat of competition on the job market but due to their religion and their subservience to the corrupt Democratic Party machine. By the Civil War, these fears had dissipated. Nevertheless, many Irish tended to live together in order to be near their church and maximize their political strength. This tendency towards residential concentration was viewed by many “natives” as the reluctance of the Irish to assimilate. The suspicions of many native-born Americans only increased as it also became obvious that the Irish were anxious for the North not to press the abolitionist cause and allow free blacks to enter the job market.

The Native-born and the American Party

American politicians have often used immigrants as scapegoats for the nation’s problems, but the phenomenon of the American Party, is quite complex and bears little resemblance to the criminal element of native-born Americans. Remarkably, Scorsese has Butcher Bill operate out of headquarters in the very heart of the Irish immigrant neighborhood. This is analogous to the Ku Klux Klan establishing their national headquarters in Harlem!

The nativist anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movement started out as several secret organizations. It was a reaction to the perceived manipulation of Catholic-American immigrants by the Vatican and the Catholic Church. It was also a response to the vast increase in immigration beginning in 1845 with the Irish Potato Famine, exacerbated by the many unsuccessful liberal revolutions in Europe in 1848. A considerable proportion of the new immigrants were destitute, political radicals, non-English speaking, and/or Catholic. This fundamental change in the character of immigrants worried many native-born Americans and was not helped any by the growing sectional dispute between the North and the South.

Many native born Americans, especially in the Northern states, were opposed to slavery but believed that this issue might eventually be resolved with a maximum of goodwill, a fundamental dedication to the republican principles enshrined in the Constitution, and strict measures to ensure that new immigrants, especially Catholics, were integrated effectively into American society. It was hoped that this platform would draw support from both North and South. There was little support for this platform in the South, however, where, apart from the city of New Orleans, there were almost no European Catholic immigrants.

The use of The King James (“Protestant”) Bible in public schools, the greater education enjoyed by many native-born American women of English/Scots, German and Dutch origin compared to those in immigrant Irish families, the Protestant ethos emphasizing temperance and the work-ethic, the many electoral scandals involving block voting by new immigrants – all of these issues underscored the gulf between the WASP majority and the Catholic immigrants. Furthermore, the Whigs and the Democrats, the two major parties of the time, had not dealt effectively with these issues.

In 1852 and 1853, the “Know-nothing” movement and its supporters won many local elections under a variety of names. The “American Party” was officially founded in 1854. Previously, the various “nativist” organizations, with names such as “The Order of the Star Spangled Banner” and “United Sons of America” would reply “I know nothing” if asked about membership in a secret society. Within a year of its emergence in 1854, the party had elected eight governors, over one hundred members of congress, and thousands of local officials. Prominent politicians of every persuasion joined the Party. After that, the expression “I know nothing” was explained to mean “I know nothing except patriotism for my country.” The party’s platform, above all else, emphasized preservation of the Union.

Many observers predicted that the party would elect the next President. The ‘Know-Nothings’ phenomenal success was closely linked to their stance against the extension of slavery. Additionally, the party gained support because of its anti-Irish rhetoric and its platform on other social issues. In the 1856 national election (including the Democrat James Buchanan, the Republican John C. Fremont and the American Party Candidate, former President Millard Fillmore), Buchanan triumphed by a small margin. Fillmore carried the eight electoral votes of Maryland, a border slave state. The popular vote was 1,838,169 for Buchanan, 1,341,264 for Fremont and 874,534 for Fillmore.

Fillmore’s background, very similar to that of Abraham Lincoln, typified the “ideal” of the American Party candidate: Born in a log cabin in upstate New York a self-educated, hardly representative of the “establishment” or the wealthy elite as symbolized by Editor Horace Greeley in the film. The new Republican Party eventually absorbed a large part of the American Party Platform. In fact, the Republican Party assumed a more aggressive position opposing the spread of slavery, but the platform did not reflect the same hostility towards immigration and recent immigrants. In any case, this movement representing the original “core WASP” population of Americans of British descent, is misrepresented in Gangs of New York by the mob violence and the sadistic persona of Butcher Bill.

Catholic Reaction and Attitudes Toward Abolition

A number of unfortunate statements and aggressive attitudes by several Catholic political figures, churchmen and editors exaggerated tensions that were already widespread. Osres Brownson, the editor of the widely circulated Catholic Quarterly Review, played into the hands of the new political movement by openly proclaiming: “The time has come when Catholics must begin to make their principles tell upon the public sentiment of the country,” and even worse, “If the Pope directed the Roman Catholics of this country to overthrow the Constitution and to sell their nationality, they would be bound to obey.”

Many Irish in New York worked as stevedores and were hostile to free blacks, some of whom had been used in the past as strike-breakers on the docks. Archbishop John Hughes, who argued the Union cause in Europe warned the War Department that most Catholics in America supported the Constitution and laws but would not fight for the abolition of slavery. Thus, many abolitionists developed an antipathy towards the Irish, especially recent immigrants.

The Evil Union, Horace Greeley and The New York Tribune

In the film, the union troops firing on the Irish rioters are made to look like callous murderers, protecting the wealthy native establishment. The reality was that the troops called from the front at Gettysburg to put down the draft riots in New York were soldiers of “The Fighting 69th,” a famous regiment composed almost entirely of Irish-Americans!

In its ideological zeal to portray the anti-Draft riots as a class uprising, Gangs of New York targets “the Rich” as embodied by Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune. The film’s characterizations are way off base. Greeley started The New York Tribune on April 10, 1841, He edited the paper for over 30 years, during which time it was the single greatest journalistic influence in the country and was recognized as a progressive force in every area of civic and political endeavor.

With his newspaper, Greely intended to provide a publication as cheap as those of his rivals but less sensational and more probing. In fact, sensational crime news and objectionable materials were not permitted. The Tribune actively supported the Union and President Lincoln in the fight against slavery although initially was disposed to let the “Erring Sisters of the South” go, to avoid bloodshed. Greeley advocated labor and union activity, encourage the unionization of The Tribune’s printers without protest. He believed in sharing the profits and ownership of The Tribune with its employees and was an advocate of political reform, women’s rights and temperance. Karl Marx, who admired Greeley, occasionally contributed articles to The Tribune.

Greely advocated eventual abolition of slavery yet he is portrayed in the film as a gun toting plutocrat whose fear of an angry mob makes him summon the army to save his house. He persistently criticized Lincoln’s policy of conciliation with the Border States and on August 19, 1862 published an open letter to President Lincoln encouraging him to commit himself definitely to the abolition of slavery. Nevertheless, the same Greeley in Scorsese’s film becomes the target of the justifiable wrath of a mob.

Military Recruitment on the New York Docks

This scene is Scorsese at his worst, apparently trying to equate the Civil War with resistance to the draft during the Vietnam War. The 1863 draft law only applied to U.S. citizens, and it took five years before new arrivals could become citizens although some courts enabled new immigrants to become citizens much quicker due to the influence of corrupt political machines like Tammany Hall. In the film, we see Irish immigrants arriving at New York harbor being awarded citizenship in one hand and given a rifle in the other to be then shipped off to the front lines as cannon fodder in Tennessee.

The Corrupt New York Police and Fire Departments

The Police and fire departments are shown as pawns of Tammany Hall with no sincere concern for the citizens in danger. They only respond to emergencies to partake of the spoils. They are also involved in extensive blackmail, protectionism, racketeering and bribery. In actual fact, the New York Police actively protected blacks during the 1863 draft riots. More than seven hundred were sheltered in the main police station in lower Manhattan, avoiding otherwise certain death or mutilation at the hands of the rioters. Furthermore, almost one-third of all the New York Policemen at the time were of Irish origin! The volunteer New York City fire fighting companies acquired a reputation of gallantry in suppressing the devastating fires of 1835 and 1845. In the wake of the exalted heroism of the hundreds of New York City police and firemen who gave their lives on 9/11, audiences should have been incensed by the scurrilous distortions in Gangs of New York.

The Aftermath of the Riots

The Draft Riots lasted four days and increasingly involved purely criminal behavior of looting. It was the largest civil disturbance in American history. Although rioters were incensed at the unfairness of the draft law provision allowing men to avoid service by paying a $300 fee and finding a substitute, a fact given special attention in the film, it was ironically the corrupt Tammany hall politician, “Boss” Tweed who raised money for the poor to buy their exemption and thereby increase his popularity. Official government reports listed the fatalities at just over one hundred killed but persistent rumors were circulated that the “real number” was over 2,000 and that the “Republicans” led by Lincoln were responsible for a “cover up” conspiracy to hide the bodies. It does however reflect the strength of “Copperhead” sympathies (those Northerners opposed to the war) even in the heart of Union territory.

The riots took place in the heat and high humidity of mid-July yet, Scorsese sets the scene of the riots during a dreary winter. Why distort even the weather and seasons of the year? Obviously, this is the director’s “poetic license” to make the dreadful scenes of carnage even more depressing. In the aftermath of the Civil War, any lingering anti-Catholic sentiment in the North disappeared. The Irish along with the new flood of immigrants from Germany and Central Europe had demonstrated their loyalty, patriotism and courage alongside the veteran “old” Anglo-Americans. This film, however, like JFK, has had a profound impact on creating an alternative false history of events that is accepted by a large part of the viewing audience, especially among our young people who have inherited a picture of their country’s history from some of our present day film producers and directors that is propaganda designed to cast the United States as an evil and unjust society.  


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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.



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