Sunday, September 12, 2010


By Herbert Asbury

Subtitled “An informal history of the underworld” this is Herbert Asbury’s best-known and perhaps most important work. Asbury made his career by writing the secret history of America’s big cities, the scandalous underbelly you never get to see in the official, "chamber of commerce approved" version.

If you’ve seen the movie by Martin Scorsese (with stellar performances by Daniel Day Lewis, Leo DiCaprio, and Cameron Diaz) here is a chance to see what that was based on. Asbury begins with the grim and dangerous slums of the Five-Points (and especially the Old Brewery) in the pre-Civil War era. This is legendary country where Paul Bunyon-like characters mingle with real life ward heelers. The life and death of Bill the Butcher Poole is recounted along with the bloody draft riots.

Asbury follows the nexus of street gangs and politics through the post war decades when Jewish and Italian immigrants began to displace the Irish and Germans. The fearsome confederacy of outlaws called the Whyos dominated New York in the 1870s from their hangout at a saloon called the Morgue. Asbury fills us in on the river pirates and the brothels. He tells of the day in August 1903 when hundreds of gangsters from the Monk Eastman gang shot it out with the Italians from the Five Points. Baboon Riley, Gyp the Blood, Hell-Cat Maggie, Gallus Mag, Humpty Jackson, Yoski Nigger, and Kid Twist are just a few of the strange and colorful characters who drifted through Old New York’s streets. The Daybreak Boys, the Gophers, the Dead Rabbits, the Roach Guards and Plug Uglies were once as powerful and deadly as the Crips, Latin Kings, or the Cosa Nostra.

Asbury’s work ends before the rise of the Syndicate as an interstate combination of organized crime (he originally published this in 1927). For anyone trying to understand the origins of modern organized crime this is essential reading. Even if you aren’t, it is still the fascinating story of the dark side of a great American city.
-Dave Hardy

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