The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury, written in 1928, is a great read for those who love to read stories about crime and criminals that took place in New York City, dating back to the early 1800’s. The book starts with the chapter entitled “The Cradle of the Gangs,” which was the Five Points Area in 1829. Roughly, the Five Points area was the territory bounded by Broadway, Canal Street, the Bowery and Park Row, which was formerly Chatham Street. Now this area is the home to the city prison called the Tombs, the Criminal Courts Building and the County Court House. In the early 1700’s, the area was mostly a swap area, surrounding a lake called Fresh Water Pond by the English and Shellpoint by the Dutch.
The lake was eventually filled in and homes built on the landfill. This landfill became the region know as the Five Points. The Five Points area was named after the intersection of the five blocks of Cross, which became Park Street and is now Mosco Street, Anthony, which became Worth, Orange which became Baxter, Mulberry Street and Little Water, which now does not even exist. It was originally a respectable area where the rich lived, but then houses began sinking into the imperfectly drained swamp, and the rich abandoned the area for better parts of Manhattan Island. Their places were taken mostly by freed Negro slaves and the low-class Irish, who began flooding into the area from Ireland, starting around 1790.
The Five Points area became a breeding ground for crooks and criminal, and people from other parts of the city dared not venture into its boundaries. The great Charles Dickens once visited the area and he wrote about the Five Points, “This is the place: these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Debauchery has made the houses very prematurely old. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and the whole world over. Many pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright instead of going on all fours, and why they talk instead of grunting?”
It was in these rotted streets that Dickens described, that the first street gang was formed in 1825. It was aptly named the Forty Thieves, and was started in the back room of a produce shop on Center Street. It was owned by Roseanna Peers, and past the rotted vegetables outside, she sold illegal hootch in the inside back room, and allowed a dastardly chap named Edward Coleman to rule a motley crew of criminals. Being Irish, they all hated the Englishmen, but they robbed and pillaged from mostly their own.
Soon other gangs cropped up with names like the Chichesters, the Plug Uglies, Roach Guards, Shirt Tails and Dead Rabbits. The fought amongst each other over who would have the right to control the crime on certain streets. Soon more gangs arrived on the Five Points boundaries, like the Bowery Boys, the True Blue Americans, the American Guards, the O’Connell Guards and the Atlantic Guards. The streets, in and around the Five Points area, became so dangerous the brave Davey Crockett, known for his heroism out west, said the Five Points area of New York City was the most dangerous place he had ever visited in his entire life.
As the years went by, gangs came and went in the Five Points area. The Civil War was the biggest destroyer of the original Five Points gangs, since many of the hooligans were drafted into the war down south. Some came back maimed. Some came back not at all.
The rest of Asbury’s book details every gang and crook that prowled New York City, until m1928. We meet such unlikable chaps as Monk Eastman and his Jewish Gang, Owney Madden and his Irish Hudson Dusters, and Paul Kelly (Paulo Vaccarelli ) and his Italian Five Pointers.
If you want to get down and dirty, reading about the lives of men so despicable they were hung weekly in the courtyard of the city prison called Tombs, The Gangs of New York is the book for you.