"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.