They fought. They fought for freedom of religion. They fought for power. They fought to become more integrated into White society. But while fighting those who oppressed them, they also began to fight their fellow oppressed. The antebellum era in which The Gangs of New York takes place was a violent, tumultuous period of time in which groups attempted to assert themselves through the illegal activities that made them infamous. Irish immigrants departed their homeland hoping to leave the famine and religious persecution that plagued them in Ireland. Unfortunately, they were not warmly embraced by Lady Liberty’s arms when they stepped off the ship. Instead of being assimilated into a land of opportunity, they were sucked into the underbelly of American society. They were instantly oppressed due to how they looked and the cultural differences that they brought with them. Consequently came a criminalization associated with not only the area they lived in, but also the poverty that they had no real way of getting out of. In turn, many immigrants became gangsters, trying to show their worth, trying to earn their way to “Whiteness.”
Crime and poverty seemed to go hand in hand. So much so, that poverty itself became the crime. The poor would pickpocket and steal from burning buildings in an attempt to move their way up the social food chain and earn protection for their people. Thus was the vicious cycle of crime and poverty. Thomas Anbinder also describes the very wantonness that made the Five Points. “The Five Points as a whole was infamous for its depravity, one of its buildings in particular became ground zero for wretchedness. Here is the story of the ‘Old Brewery,’ the most repulsive building of its day, a vast dark cave, a black hole into which every urban nightmare and unspeakable fear could be projected” (Anbinder 67). Such a dark, destitute area had to be teeming with crime. The miserable area and lifestyle the Irish lived in made their poverty itself a crime. Herbert Asbury describes this connection in Gangs of New York. “Thousands eked out a wretched existence in the garrets and damp cellars with which the district abounded, and the bulk of the population was in the most abject poverty, devoting itself almost exclusively to vice and crime” (Asbury 9). Conditions were so destitute that the men, women and children who were literally living on top of each other were almost forced into a life a crime just to survive in this underworld of New York.
If conditions were so bad in their new “homes” in America, why did so many Irish leave their native land in the first place? Anbinder describes the life of one Irish family and their struggle to come to America. “If Five Points was so famously wretched, why did so many immigrants settle there? Ellen Holland’s tale provides one answer: it was far better than staying home” (Anbinder 38). The Irish fled not only the potato famine, but also the Penal laws that took away many of their rights simply because they were Catholic. While they immigrated to a land of opportunity, many were equally suppressed in America. Their religious, physical and cultural differences made them a racialized group. Just like the immigrants that came before them, and the immigrants that would come after them, they were segregated and oppressed due to their alleged differences and negative impacts they would have on the “Native Americans.” Political cartoons and writers of the time portrayed the Irish as animalistic creatures, far inferior to their whiter, Protestant, American-born neighbors. Charles Dickens in fact compared the immigrants to the pigs that roamed the street. “Many of these 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” (Asbury 9). Once again, Irish were portrayed as animalistic and prone to criminality. These racial, anti-immigrant sentiments were the very reason why the Irish fought and formed gangs. Unfortunately, as time went on and the Civil War progressed, the Irish began to turn on another oppressed group to make their way into the more mainstream society.
In their attempt to purchase “Whiteness” and become a part of mainstream society, the Irish turned their back on the African Americans, who had at one time been an ally to many an Irishman. The Irish immigrants attempted to move up the ladder of the hierarchy of being white to gain more power. The gangs originally started off as a form of protection and pride for the solidarity of the Irish Catholics. Once the 1863 Draft Riots came, the Irish decided to not only fight for their own rights, but to also subjugate another oppressed group in their way to a more perfect whiteness. If the “Americans” were not willing to integrate them into their society, and if the rich could be exempt from having to go to war, the Irish did not feel the need to fight for their country. “Most of the neighborhood’s Irish-American residents probably opposed the breakup of the Union, yet Five Pointers were reluctant to go to war to stop it. The Irish-American’s editors, for example, did ‘not believe that this Confederation can be held together by armed force. Even if it could be, it would not be worth the trouble’” (Anbinder 307). Somehow, they decided that rioting – which in turn would cause even more armed force – was worth the trouble.
The riots only increased racial tensions, as noted by Noel Ignatiev. “Rioters do not merely reflect public opinion: they shape it” (Ignatiev 130). As rioting went on, anti-Abolition sentiment only increased, and African-Americans experienced the brunt of Irish revolt. The violence was extreme. African-Americans of all ages and sexes were mercilessly attacked. The rioters were so blinded by their anger that they even attacked an orphanage for African-American children. “The rioters who had invaded the Asylum destroyed the furniture with hatchets and axes, and killed a little Negro girl who had been overlooked in the hurried exodus of the children, and had sought refuge under a bed” (Asbury 128). Ignatiev contrasts the relationships between African-Americans and Irish-Americans in Philadelphia jails to their relationship outside of those literal bars. “In the larger society, while Afro-American and Irish-American workers often, and quite militantly, opposed established authority, they rarely collaborated to do so; yet that collaboration was common among the prisoners in the Walnut Street Jail. What accounted for the difference?” (Ignatiev 47). The answer really lies in the Irish’s attempt to gain what was considered a higher form of whiteness. Instead of working with another oppressed group to fight against the “native, whiter” oppressors, the Irish immigrants tried to become more integrated into the latter group. “In this chapter, I have tried to suggest that while the white skin made the Irish eligible for membership in the white race, it did not guarantee them admission; they had to earn it” (Ignatiev 59). The Irish attempted to earn this whiteness by showing that they were also against groups that were believed to be lower than these Protestant “Native Americans.” They were not only willing to turn their backs on other oppressed groups, but in the process, they also turned their backs on their very own culture that they had fought so long for.
Beyond just this racial, religious gang violence, women of the time were also in a very complex system. Many women asserted their power and more masculine character traits through violence and other gang related actions. However, women were also highly sexualized, and the very women who were acting in seemingly early feminist ways were also attacking fellow females and soliciting young women. One famous female pickpocket was Marm Mandelbaum. She worked with other female crooks and is estimated to have handled between 5 million to 10 million dollars of stolen property in her over twenty years of crime. She made a name for herself and worked to teach fellow female thieves. “She gave elaborate functions, and aroused such a furore in New Jersey society that she became known as Queen of Hackensack. But she remained a practical pickpocket and shoplifter, and spent two days of each week in New York replenishing her coffers” (Asbury 199). Other women were infamous in their own right. Another such woman was Hell-Cat Maggie. “The Dead Rabbits, during the early forties, commanded the allegiance of the most noted of the female battlers, an angular vixen known as Hell-Cat Maggie, who fought alongside the gang chieftains in many of the great battles with the Bowery gangs. She is said to have filed her front teeth to points, while on her fingers she wore long artificial nails, constructed of brass” (Asbury 27). These women became part of a boys club of violence, but they did so for their own gratification and to earn a higher place in this underground society. They did nothing to stop the sexualization or attacks of fellow females. Often times they were participants in these very acts. Asbury describes the houses of prostitution filled with girls dressed in black satin bodices and scarlet skirts and stockings. Many times, the girls that worked in these houses were taken right off the street. “One of the inmates of the Allen establishment soon after the Civil War was a daughter of Lieutenant—Governor of a New England state. She had come to New York to seek her fortune and had been caught in the meshes of the procurers, who then abounded throughout the city and operated almost without hindrance” (Asbury 50). While many of the early female gangsters broke gender norms by asserting masculine violence, they cannot be considered true feminists because they did nothing to better their sex as a whole.
The Gangs of New York describes a time of depravity, crime and poverty. While the Irish fought for their rights as new Americans, they oft turned to lives of crime simply to survive. As time went on, the Irish turned on the African Americans of the area in an attempt to gain a higher place in the hierarchy of whiteness. Women of the time were not exempt from the cruelties of the time either. Some women turned to violence, while others were forced into a life of prostitution. Thus, this era gives Americans an idea of some of the earliest issues related to poverty, immigration and feminism.
Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points. University of Colorado Electronic Reserves. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.
Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York. New York: Vintage Books, 1927.
Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. University of Colorado Electronic Reserves. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.