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The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld [Paperback]

Herbert Asbury
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 1 2008 Vintage
First published in 1928, Herbert Asbury's whirlwind tour through the low-life of nineteenth-century New York has become an indispensible classic of urban history.

Focusing on the saloon halls, gambling dens, and winding alleys of the Bowery and the notorious Five Points district, The Gangs of New York dramatically evokes the destitution and shocking violence of a turbulent era, when colorfully named criminals like Dandy John Dolan, Bill the Butcher, and Hell-Cat Maggie lurked in the shadows, and infamous gangs like the Plug Uglies, the Dead Rabbits, and the Bowery Boys ruled the streets. A rogues gallery of prostitutes, pimps, poisoners, pickpockets, murderers, and thieves, The Gangs of New York is a dramatic and entertaining glimpse at a city's dark past.

Product Details

Product Description

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"A distinct contribution to Americana. . . . The tale is one of blood, excitement, and debauchery.”
The New York Times

"One of the essential works of the city. . . . It owns a direct pipeline to the city's unconscious.”
—Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

“A univeral history of infamy, the history of the gangs of New York contains all the confusion and cruelty of the barbarian cosmologies.”
—Jorge Luis Borges

“One of the best American books of its kind. Mr. Asbury writes in a direct and engaging manner.”
—Edmund Pearson, The Saturday Review of Literature

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars When New York was really wicked June 30 2004
"Gangs of New York" is an energetic and entertaining history book, detailing a time in American history that most people, myself included, are largely ignorant of. It tells the tale of the creating and the taming of one of the US's great cities, once a den of crime and vice unimaginable in today's society. Murderers for hire, unbelievable multi-storied monuments to prostitution and drinking, riots and the like are laid out in grim detail.
Gangs like The Dead Rabbits, The Plug Uglies, The Gophers, The Daybreak Boys and The Bowery Bois ruling vast sweeps of New York turf like The Five Points, Hell's Kitchen and Satan's Circus...names to conjure with. Add into this setting a cast of characters such as Hell-Cat Maggie, Kid Twist, Gyp the Blood and the Paul Bunyonesque character of Mose the Bowery Boi, who even then was known to be a Tall Tale and not a real person, and you have the recipe for some interesting history.
However, the book is not all shock-value exploitation. While written with an eye for excitement, these are real stories of real people, complete with photographs of several prominent gangsters and magazine artwork from the time illustrating the manuscript. It tells you something of the creating of a city, and how structures are put into place and wildness is tamed. I was surprised to find out that The New York Times is older than the New York Police Department. A newspaper was a greater priority than either a police department or a fire department.
Anyone expecting an adaptation of the film, however, will be disappointed. Scorsese pulled characters from history and jumbled them altogether, regardless of the years separating their lives. It would be like a Western featuring Jessie James, Billie the Kid, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hitchcock, Bat Masterson and several others who were not alive at the same time. Also, this is a history book, so there is no story as such. Just the passage of time.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining perhaps, but fails as a history book June 28 2004
After seeing the movie I was intrigued to find this book, the supposed "true story" behind the movie. Getting the "truth" here, however, is very unlikely.
The draft riot was of specific interest to me as someone who's researched and written about protest (violent and non-violent), political events, the military, etc. Unfortunately, it's quite obvious that Asbury wasn't interested in doing a history or sociology textbook when he put this together more 70 years ago. For example, the police are referred to as "heroic" and "valiant" while the rioters are depicted as monsters and animals. None of this helps explain why these events occurred. Instead, Asbury takes sides - which severely limits the book's worth if you're wanting to learn more about this forgotten piece of US history. It's certainly not a serious study of what caused the riot and the various brutalities committed by _all sides_. It's hard to believe that this book is the source material for the movie.
If you're seriously wanting to learn about the gangs, riots and turmoil in NYC during this era - the true story by behind the movie - then you'll want to look elsewhere. If you're interested in seeing some of the propaganda that was created regarding these events, some of the yellow journalism and tabloid style writing that existed in the 1920s and 30s when this text was written, then you might get something out of this book. On that merit alone - as flawed journalism - perhaps this book is worth a read.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Gangs of New York Feb. 22 2004
By A Customer
The use of literary devices on this piece of excellent literature was very strong. First of all the were parts of this novel where you thought you were in New York's infamous Five Points the early 1900's. Asbury's use of imagry was just amazing. He made you think you were in a scene with all of the description he used. Even if it was one of those scenes where you were overcome with sadness and possibly even anger from the more grapic events of this novel. The characters were based on real life people who lived in that time period and the fit in awesome with the story. There was the typical evil stock character of "The Butcher." He fit in perfect with the overall felling of this book, which is one none of us would like to be involved in. The topic of it is gangs and life when things are not going so well. So obviosly the are going to be unfortunite things that happen. The tone of this novel was a very serious one with gore and violent death, and one could tell that Asbury wanted you to know this type of things really did happen. This leads to the theme which is loyality. The fact he writes about gangs is a symbol of unity. With there being death and murder involved then comes authorities. In most of the cases the gang members would rather die than be a 'rat', which would come with harsher and more brutal punishment. That summerized is loyality.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Book that is just plain entertaining Sept. 19 2003
By A Customer
What to say about a book that was recently made into a movie robbed of its academy award to the horror of the movie "Chicago".Hmmmm...
Being a lad of only 19, I don't know how seriously this review will be taken, but I will say this; Gangs of New York by Asbury is a downright entertaining book.
I can honestly say that reading this book was "fun", unlike some of the books they force you to read in school. If one has any interest about the history of the new york gangs, this is the book to read. The writing is mainly anecdotes, with occasional police records throughout.
Is it far from what the movie was though. It is a history book, and if one doesn't like reading history related material, this book is not for you. Still, I don't see how reading about people being brutally murdered and robbed and gang war in general could be boring, but oh well.
The book is 300 plus pages, but is easy to read, though not for the light-going reader. The exploits of the gangs told are very brutal, and downright inhumane, but that is what makes it interesting. Bill the Butcher, Monk Eastman, and various others from the movie are introduced in it, but in different contexts. Still, learning that they were real beings makes for an exciting read
Still, i can't say its the perfect book, and some of it is boring, but one can overlook that in the fact that, for the most part, the stories are kept short and the anecdotes are over-embellished which makes it a good read. It is no War and Peace, but its almost like a modern day thriller and probably better. Hope this has been helpful.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Rollicking good read
A breezy, in-your-face tour into the bowels of the New York slums of the 19th and eary 20th century. Read more
Published on Sept. 15 2003 by Scott C. Gibson
2.0 out of 5 stars A Trifle
This book accomplishes very little of what it sets out to do. An "informal history of the underworld" turns out to mean the book is a mostly dull, mostly anecdotal,... Read more
Published on Sept. 11 2003 by Nicholas S. Ludlum
1.0 out of 5 stars Incredibly Boring
All I need to say is that this book is immensely boring. It is like one, long column in a newspaper. It is not well written and it did not grab my continuous interest. Read more
Published on Aug. 21 2003 by wannabemoviecritic
4.0 out of 5 stars Jewel in the Town
As a contemporaneous take on nineteenth-century New York, this book is like an uncut gem found beneath an attic eave. Read more
Published on June 23 2003 by Carolyn Paetow
5.0 out of 5 stars Remember: It's Informal. But Still Great!
Re-reading Asbury's classic "Gangs of New York" was sort of like re-reading Homer's "Iliad" with its litany of battles and combatants, and because of its epic... Read more
Published on June 4 2003 by Rocco Dormarunno
5.0 out of 5 stars Not merely a supplement to the film.
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... Read more
Published on Feb. 14 2003 by M. Maloney
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book For The Interested!
This is a great book for those interested in the roots of New Yorks dark side. There is much more to this book than what was made into the recent movie with the same title and the... Read more
Published on Feb. 13 2003 by Anuro3
4.0 out of 5 stars Full of Surprises...
This book surprised me from the very beginning when I discovered it was written in the 1920s... (For some reason, I thought it was written a few years ago)
Having LOVED the... Read more
Published on Feb. 8 2003 by John Stamper
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... Read more
Published on Jan. 30 2003 by Joel L. Gandelman
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