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See the extensive bibliography (divided into print, video/audio, and online resources) below the essay.

1857: The Bowery Boys Riot

Let me begin with a brief note of explanation here as to the omission of the term “Dead Rabbits,” typically so closely tied to the Gangs of New York film. The Dead Rabbits, as they stand as a gang, likely took no part in this riot. In fact, it is unclear if a unified gang of that name ever operated in the Five Points. Contemporaneous newspaper accounts do use the name; however, these accounts found contemporaneous opponents, claiming in editorials that this colorful name was an invention. Given the relative obscurity of the gang name when it comes to events other than this one, I chose instead to refer to the anti-Bowery faction generally as The Mulberry Boys, a gang with uncontested historicity.

[1] New York City in the middle of the 19th century was a volatile place. People were by and large scratching out meager livings, devoid of creature comforts, living in dirty and diseased tenements with little hope for improvement on the horizon. The tensions that were bound to proliferate among such a downtrodden population quite literally boiled to the surface during the hot summer months of July and August. This is seen time and again throughout the century, but in no year more clearly than 1857, the year of the Bowery Boys riot. Though overshadowed by the draft riots taking place just five years later, the Bowery Boys riot was nonetheless a serious affair. Political ideological differences, xenophobia, and religious persecution were at the heart of the rioting, issues which continue to shape America up to the modern day.

[2] The year was 1857, and New York City was rapidly changing. The city’s population was ballooning: in 1800 there were just over 50,000 people living in the city; by 1850 it was over half a million. Harboring naturally different interests, the state government of New York increasingly sought to exert some control over the great city. Throughout the middle of the century and beyond, the state legislature enacted various pieces of legislation aimed at extending and solidifying this control. One such piece of law was the Metropolitan Police Act of 1857, which dissolved the then functioning police body in New York City (the Municipal Police Board) and set up a new body, the Metropolitan Police. These officers were to have jurisdiction over Manhattan, Staten Island, and Brooklyn and would be appointed by a group of commissioners, five men who were in turn appointed by the Governor. Simply put, Albany wrested the power of peace-keeping within the city from the city government and put it into its own hands.

[3] This action necessarily upset the political elite as it was a direct reduction of their influence and power, but it also had a profound impact upon many of the common residents of New York’s impoverished wards. Policeman was one of the most highly coveted patronage positions available at this time; it was a job that paid relatively well and, more importantly, paid 365 days a year. This was crucial for a workforce otherwise largely relying on labor positions that were vulnerable to weather conditions. Stripping city officials of the power to appoint police officers and instead sending that power to the state meant on a very real level that many people lost their jobs. Additionally, these jobs that were previously dominated by Irish immigrants would no longer be available to those citizens; the powers at be at the state level received nothing from the petty patronage previously practiced. This act then led to a large degree of discontent among the Irish immigrant populations as well as a strong hatred for those men employed as policemen under the new regime.

[4] Adding to this rising tide of negative public opinion was the great Fernando Wood, then mayor, and one of the most colorful figures in the history of politics in New York City. Wood was firmly against the Metropolitan Police Act and said so to anyone caring to listen, going so far as to challenging the constitutionality of the act before the state Supreme Court and flaunting its application in the meantime. This was done by publicly challenging the Metropolitans, refusing to accept their authority, and allowing the Municipal Police to continue operating as usual. The early summer months of 1857 were unlike any other in the history of the city as the two rival forces, each legitimized by competing authorities, attempted to enact the forces of law and order. Unsurprisingly, in practice this failed and instead led to an increase in lawlessness and disorder. A man arrested by one force would be released and exonerated by other as they tried to undermine each other, and the policemen could regularly be seen attacking each other, literally grappling over their shared power. This spirit of revolt helped set the stage for July 4th of that year and what became known as The Bowery Boys Riot.

[5] The Municipal Police Force was officially disbanded on July 2nd, after the Supreme Court’s ruling finally persuaded Fernando Wood to acquiesce to the Metropolitan Act. The people of the Five Points were considerably less conciliatory. July 3rd saw the first day that the Metropolitans exercised officially unchallenged power; the following day saw a violent, unofficial, challenge. Fearing that the newly appointed police would be composed entirely of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativists, the predominately Irish Five Points prepared for armed rebellion, particularly in the infamously violent Sixth Ward. Starting in the dark midnight hours of the 4th, gangs of Five Pointers, particularly those men belonging to the street gang The Mulberry Boys, began roving the streets looking for Metropolitans to attack. When one was spotted he was chased down almost mirthfully and laid in on by dozens of attackers. The Metropolitans had not ventured too far into the Sixth for fear of reprisal, and as a result the Mulberry Boys extended their hunt beyond their established turf. It was this action, the invasion of the Bowery Boys abutting territory, which ignited the Bowery Boys Riot.

[6] Once inside Bowery Boys territory, the Metropolitans wisely threw themselves at the feet of that gang, running into shops and saloons run by prominent Bowery Boy leaders. The plan paid off, as the Bowery Boys raised a force and repelled the surprised Mulberries back onto their own turf. It is important to note here that the Bowery Boys did not defend the Metropolitans out of sympathy for their position. It is more accurate to say that the Bowery Boys were defending their neighborhood and attacking the invaders; the actual cause for the incursion was irrelevant. The streets of the Sixth Ward were not controlled at this time by any police but by powerful factions referred to as gangs. In truth, while there was criminality and violence within their ranks, these were socio-political clubs, created to empower the immigrant masses. Politicians fought for control of their wards in order to secure patronage positions for their followers and comfort for themselves, so naturally competition was fierce. This was a yearly problem at election times when these competing factions would most closely resemble gangs as they fought to gain office through whatever means of intimidation they saw fit to employ. The Bowery Boys were here asserting their dominance in this particular section of the ward.

[7] What started as an attack on the Metropolitans and slipped into an assertion of territorial control, quickly evolved into a full-scale gang war. Though referred to as a riot, this was more a pitted struggle between warring factions than a reckless free-for-all. After their initial retreat the Mulberry Boys and their supporters continued to harass any Metropolitans they could find but were contented to some degree by their earlier violence. Being the 4th of July the streets were full of people and so the men had another outlet to channel some of their pent-up tensions and aggression. Early that evening, the character of the day once more quickly dissolved. A force of Metropolitan Police was dispatched to the Sixth to clear the streets of particularly rowdy elements, which was a job they were wholly unequipped to perform. When they arrived they were overrun by the mob in the street, attacking them and driving them back as they had done earlier in the day. This time, however, they were not alone as hundreds of Bowery Boys came to their defense. The Metropolitans retreated, leaving the Bowery Boys, the Mulberry Boys, and all of their unaffiliated allies to determine justice in the street.

[8] The fighting was fierce throughout the day and into the early evening. Each side was armed with paving stones, bricks, and whatever other bludgeoning objects they could muster, with little mercy shown in their application. Barricades were constructed in the streets out of overturned carts and wagons as well as furniture from the surrounding tenements. Indeed, the people living around and above the fighting participated freely; a seemingly constant rain of household goods fell upon the combatants as people threw whatever came to hand. Bloodied men, and some women, were seen retreating from the battlefield while others energetically took their places on the front lines. It was chaotic, ruthless mayhem. The Metropolitans were vastly outnumbered and untrained to assert any authority; the Municipals felt no obligation to assist in an intervention. As the riot progressed, firearms were employed, a new and transformative aspect of gang violence, and many fell wounded or dead. In the end the riot was put down peaceably by its own leaders, who realized the magnitude and gravity of the day’s events. This was not so, however, before eight men were killed and countless others injured.

[9] This number is significant: never before in the history of New York City had so many civilians been killed by fellow civilians in the course of a riot. This event also shows how deeply factionalized 19th-century ward politics were. These men were willing to fight and to die to defend their political territory, despite largely sharing an ideology with their opponents. The political interests whom the Bowery Boys and the Mulberry Boys supported were of the same party! If taken objectively, the Bowery Boys surely would have opposed the Metropolitans, they merely came to their aid to emphasize that Mulberry encroachment into their territory, for any reason, would not be tolerated.

[10] The Bowery Boys Riot of 1857 remains one of the bloodiest thirty-six hours that New York City has ever seen. This is especially chilling as most of the fighting was done in hand-to-hand melee fashion without the use of firearms. The multifarious issues that emerge from this story provide a rich look at the complex life of an immigrant in the Five Points in antebellum New York. Understanding the event from a more dynamic perspective than the typical Nativist vs. Immigrant narrative so often told allows for a much fuller grasp of the daily tensions facing these men and women.

Print Resources

Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum. New York: Free, 2001.
Tyler Anbinder's work Five Points is perhaps the single most relevant piece of scholarship for studying the subject matter of this film. The book explores life in New York City throughout but mostly in the middle of the 19th century through the lens of the slums that became known as The Five Points. Anbinder paid little attention to such topics that readers expect from a historical treatment as political figures and legislative acts, and when those topics were discussed they were stated simply to add context. What Anbinder is interested in is how regular New Yorker's lived their lives, the struggles they went through, and the ways these "little" people shaped the future of the great metropolis. Because of this refined scope, Anbinder's fascinating book is the first stop for anyone researching the historical accuracy of this film.
Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. Garden City: Garden City Pub., 1928.
Asbury's classic work inspired Scorsese. This fact alone makes this an essential source for any scholar of this material. Asbury was a journalist as well as a writer and, as such, the book makes great use of periodicals and other printed work from the time period. The book is lively and entertaining and gives the reader a good foundational understanding of life in New York City's notorious underworld. However, it should not be treated by any means as a complete resource or an unimpeachable one. Recent scholarship has shown significant errors in both the research methodologies employed by Asbury, as well as his commitment to presenting facts truthfully and accurately. It is clear, for example, that Asbury conflated some elements of criminality in such other major cities as Washington and Baltimore into his depiction of New York City. There have also been claims made suggesting that Asbury's references were compilations of references for other similar works and that he did little or no personal research for the book at all. Notwithstanding these quibbles over historicity, it remains true that this work is important to anyone studying this history.
Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
This definitive work on New York City's history up to the turn of the 20th century is an essential resource for studying the city in this time period. In a review for The Atlantic, Timothy Gilfoyle remarked that while "few historians today attempt synthetic and comprehensive interpretations of this magnitude," Burrows and Wallace produced "the most comprehensive examination to date" of New York's history leading up to the 20th century. The treatment of the draft riots is particularly relevant and, in line with the rest of the work, exhaustively researched. The level of detail given in Gotham, at times to the point of banality, is unrivaled, making this work essential for a study of 19th century New York City.
Cook, Adrian. The Armies of the Streets; the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1974.
At just over 200 pages, Cook's work is a concise look at the factors leading up to, the execution of, and the immediate aftermath from the New York City Draft Riots. This book has not received nearly the attention that it deserves after being published nearly four decades ago. Cook devotes what must have been an enormous amount of time into researching this book, pouring over archival sources which had previously received no attention. It is here that Cook finds his greatest success, recounting information from the records of the Court of General Sessions, specifically grand jury testimony, indictments, and dismissals. This information, as well as information on the deceased, is woven throughout Cook's narrative as well as appearing neatly in the appendices. This feature allows the reader to analyze not only the numbers of people involved but some specific facets of their identity and the circumstances surrounding their involvement in the riots. If the appendices would remain a relevant resource but given the strength of the accompanying prose, the book is a must read in its entirety.
Foster, George C. New York by Gaslight and Other Urban Sketches. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.
Foster's book was a tour-de-force when it was first published in 1850, captivating national interest. Foster was a journalist by trade, working for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune for years, and was mostly interested in social commentary. In this book he draws together his experiences from living in New York City and paints a picture of the city after dark. Each chapter explores a different feature of late-night life in New York City, from brothels and dance halls to oyster shacks and dive bars. The imagery and descriptions presented by Foster provide the reader with a rich understanding of what it felt like to live in New York City at this time. Accompanied by an excellent introduction by Stuart Blumin outlining some of the known history of Foster's life, this book should be read by anyone interested in the social culture of New York in the mid-19th century
Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives. 1890. [Whitefish, Mont.]: Kessinger Pub., 2004.
Few books had a larger impact on the social and cultural trajectory of New York City at the turn of the 20th century. The book immediately became intensely popular, launching Riis into celebrity status. Riis was a journalist who became very interested in the new emerging field of photography. Flash photography was only just developing at this time and it had yet to find widespread use. Finding it impossible to impress upon people the true depravity of slum conditions with words alone, Riis turned to photography. Along with some colleagues, Riis took cameras into the slums of the Five Points and recorded what he saw. These images are interspersed throughout the book, lending credible evidence to the then startling claims that he makes. This book represents the first time that most Americans were confronted with these stark images, giving Riis' words a great deal of added credibility. This work is an important resource for anyone researching slum living conditions in New York and other cities during the 19th century, as well as to anyone researching the social and cultural lives of New Yorkers more generally.
Spann, Edward K. Gotham at War: New York City, 1860-1865. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 2002.
Another resource that scholars of the New York Draft Riots should include in their research. While not providing a wealth of new information, Spann's organization and inviting prose make this one of the more approachable treatments of this subject matter. Additionally, this book is about the city during the entirety of the war. By looking at New York both before and after 1863 Spann offers a more dynamic look at the Draft Riots than prior authors had done. Spann remains constantly concentrated on New York City and avoids drawing in broader events taking place in America at large, lending to its utility for this subject matter. This book is an essential resource for anyone specifically studying the Draft Riots or New York City's place in the war more generally. It is also a useful resource more generally for anyone interested in New York City during the 1860's.
Spann, Edward K. The New Metropolis: New York City, 1840-1857. New York: Columbia UP, 1981.
Spann focuses very tightly on New York City during the two decades leading up to the Civil War. At over 500 pages, this makes the analysis extremely detailed and minutely articulated. The book covers everything one looks for in a history, paying specific attention to the political, economic, and demographic developments during the time. While most of this material is extraneous to the subject matter of the film, it is all rich and useful historical material that at the very least can augment and inform more focused study. Along with Anbinder this is one of very few scholarly works to constrain its focus entirely to the middle of 19th century New York City and therefore must be seen as an essential resource for this subject. While not quite making it to the Draft Riots, Spann provides the reader with a comprehensive look at how New York society was formed at this time and what pressures produced the type of behaviors and activities we see in the film.
Srebnick, Amy Gilman. The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-century New York. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Srebnick recounts the story of Mary Rogers' untimely demise. Rogers had worked as a prostitute after coming to New York City from Connecticut and was infamously murdered and dumped in the Hudson River in 1838. This story dominated national presses for weeks following the discovery of Rogers' corpse, as the investigation into her murder stymied and failed to find the killer. In Srebnick's work we are given a rich review of this historical information as well as a fascinating investigation into what this story can tell us about society, sexuality, and women's roles in New York City as well as America at large during this time. Accompanied by engravings and woodcuts taken from contemporary newspapers, Srebnick's analysis develops a unique understanding of life for women at this time. This is one of the richest sources for anyone researching women's roles or sex and sexuality in this period. It is also particularly relevant to studies on journalism's role in society but can be useful augmentation to any topic of study during this period.

See Also

Adams, Peter. The Bowery Boys: Street Corner Radicals and the Politics of Rebellion. Westport: Praeger, 2005.

Barnes, David M. The Draft Riots in New York. July, 1863 the Metropolitan Police, Their Services during Riot Week. Their Honorable Record. New York: Baker & Godwin, 1863.

Bernstein, Iver. The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Blackmar, Elizabeth. Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Bordewich, Fergus M. "Manhattan Mayhem." Smithsonian 33.9 (December 2002): 44-54.

Brace, Charles Loring. The Dangerous Classes of New York, and Twenty Years' Work among Them. Washington: National Association of Social Workers, 1973.

Cohen, P. C. "Unregulated Youth: Masculinity and Murder in the 1830s City." Radical History Review 1992.52 (1992): 33-52.

Domosh, Mona. Invented Cities: The Creation of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century New York & Boston. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.

Fry, James B. New York and the Conscription of 1863: A Chapter in the History of the Civil War. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1885.

Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1992.

Gopnik, Adam. article on Asbury in the New Yorker beore November 2002. recently in the New Yorker as 'a low-life character with a high-end purpose',

Harris, Leslie M. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Keller, Lisa. The Triumph of Order: Democracy & Public Space in New York and London. New York: Columbia UP, 2009.

McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Schecter, Barnet. The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America. New York: Walker, 2005.

Scherzer, Kenneth A. The Unbounded Community: Neighborhood Life and Social Structure in New York City, 1830-1875. Durham: Duke UP, 1992.

Stansell, Christine. "The Origins of the Sweatshop: Women and Early Industrialization in New York City." Working-Class America: Essays on Labor, Community, and American Society. Ed. Michael F. Frisch and Daniel J. Walkowitz. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1983.

Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Stott, Richard Briggs. Workers in the Metropolis: Class, Ethnicity, and Youth in Antebellum New York City. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.

Video/Audio Resources

Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York. Discovery Channel. 2002

Online Resources

Anbinder, Tyler. "Is Gangs of New York Historically Accurate?" Gotham Gazette 23 December 2002.

Chamberlain, Ted. ""Gangs of New York": Fact vs. Fiction." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 24 Mar. 2003.

"Draft Riot of 1863." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 2013.

Grinspan, Jon. "America's Worst Immigration War." 4 November 2006.

Yamin, Rebecca. "Five Points." Five Points. United States Global Services Administration, n.d.