The Gangs of New York (2002)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (Amsterdam), Cameron Diaz (Jenny Everdeane), Daniel Day-Lewis (Bill "The Butcher" Poole), Liam Neeson (Amsterdam's father), Henry Thomas.
ethnic tensions between Irish immigrants and native Americans leads to infamous New York City draft riots of 1863
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Amsterdam is the son of an Irish gang leader, Priest Vallon, of a gang called the Dead Rabbits. His father prepares for battle with the racist nativists in the area. Their leader is Bill "The Butcher" Poole. Before Vallon goes out, he shaves. When he is finished, he gives the blade to his son. Amsterdam starts to clean the blood off the blade from a nick on his father's neck. Dad stops him from wiping the blade clean, telling Amsterdam the blood stays on the blade.
The Dead Rabbits gather together to head outside. Vallon asks a big fellow named Monk if he is with them? Monk says he will fight alongside them as long as he gets paid for every man he knocks out or kills. Outside the ground is covered with snow. Out comes Poole and his men. Most of them are wearing stove pipe hats. Poole is not impressed by Vallon's gang as his own gang outnumbers them. Vallon, however, has brought friends along with him. Now showing up are other gangs: the O'Connel Guards, the Plug Uglies, the Shirt Tails, the Chichesters and the Forty Thieves.
Bill says this is a battle for who holds sway over the Five Points area, Manhattan, New York. It's the native born against the "foreign hordes defiling the land". The two groups charge each other. It's a fight to the death. Blood stains the snow. Poole and Vallon are killing man after man. Poole goes against Vallon and he is able to knife Vallon. Amsterdam sees his father go down and runs over to his father. The fighting stops. Amsterdam tells his father to get up, but he can't. Vallon tells Poole: "Finish it!" Poole knives Vallon to finish him off. Amsterdam grabs a knife and uses it to help him run from the nativists, but he is soon caught. He is to be turned over to the law, where, it is said, he will get a good education. Poole says that the Dead Rabbits are done and outlawed.
New York City. 1846. 16 years later. Hellgate House of Reform, Blackswell's Island, New York City. Amsterdam is now grown up. He leaves the institution after thanking the reverend. Amsterdam throws the Bible the reverend gave him into the river.
It is the second year of the Civil War. There is a big celebration and parade for the President's Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery in the rebel states. The Irish Brigade of the army marches through the streets. The nativists attack some blacks on the street, calling them niggers and telling them to go back to Africa. What really bothered many residents of the city was the new Conscription Act, the first military draft in the nation's history. Poole throws a knife into a portrait of Lincoln. There is also talk of an Irish invasion. "While the North invades the South, the Irish invade New York." The Irish coming in off the boats often receive a hostile welcome. Men throw things at the Irish saying things like: "Go back to Ireland, you dumb Micks!" Tammany politicians give out their cards to the immigrants telling them to vote for Tammany Hall candidates.
William Tweed runs Tammany Hall. The thieves kind of admire him for his audacious thievery of the citizens of New York. Poole pays a visit to Boss Tweed.
Amsterdam arrives back in the Five Points section.
Boss Tweed is trying to build up a political base with the Irish, but Poole says if he had the guns, he'd kill every Irish immigrant coming off the boats.
Amsterdam goes down into the Dead Rabbit caverns where he once lived. He digs up the knife he used in his attempt to escape the clutches of the nativists.
Tweed offers an alliance between Tammany Hall and Poole's organization. Poole guesses that Tweed wants his men to act as the muscle of the organization. Poole suggests that Tweed use the police for this, but Tweed says absolutely not: "The appearance of the law must be upheld, especially while it's being broken."
A white guy and a black guy look as if they are going to rob Amsterdam, so Amsterdam knocks out the black guy and puts his knife up to the throat of the white guy. The white guy guesses that this stranger is really the son of Priest Vallon. He follows Amsterdam into the streets and tells him that when Amsterdam was trying to escape from the nativists he was the one who tried to help him. The felloe's name is Johnny. The two walk by some fancy dressed dudes known as the Bowery Boys. Amsterdam asks his comrade what are the gangs now? There's the Daybreak Boys and the Swamp Angels who loot ships. The Frog Hollows shanghai sailors. The Plug Uglies love to fight the cops. And the Night Walkers work on their backs. The Slaughter Housers and the Broadway Twisters are a bunch of "bingo boys" and then there's the Forty Thieves. The True Blue Americans think they are a gang, but they just stand around damning England. Monk watches the two young men from his barber shop.
Pick-pocket Jenny Everdeane deliberately bumps into Johnny and steals his time-piece. Still, Amsterdam likes the look of Jenny.
Amsterdam says that Five Points loves a fire. There are 37 amateur fire brigades and "they all fought each other". Tweed leads his fire brigade, trying to reach the fire before the Black Joke gets there. When the Black Joke group arrives, the two fire brigades start fighting each other. They fight, while the building burns down. Now arriving is Poole and his fire brigade. Johnny and Amsterdam rush into the building to steal some valuables. Amsterdam saves Johnny's life as he was cornered by the fire.
Johnny introduces Amsterdam to the head of the gang of thieves. Amsterdam has to hand over anything of value he has. He doesn't like the idea and antagonizes the leader so much, that the fellow tries to thrash Amsterdam. He is stopped by the other gang members. A policeman named Happy Jack Mulraney enters the place saying he wants his money from the gang. Amsterdam recognizes him as one of the Dead Rabbits that used to fight alongside his father. The corrupt cop starts taking the jewelry the gang obtained and then leaves.
Every year the nativists celebrate the killing of Amsterdam's father at Sparrow's Chinese Pagoda in Mott Street. Amsterdam plots the death of Poole.
Johnny goes over to talk with Poole. Amsterdam stays behind, but Poole is more interest in Amsterdam than in Johnny. He signals Amsterdam to come over to him. Poole, however, gets distracted by a card player who he thinks is cheating. He knifes the man's hand to the table. Poole then tells Johnny about a job he wants him to do. If he completes it successfully, they may be able to work together again. Johnny agrees to do the job. Poole asks Amsterdam his name and then tells him to never come again to see him empty-handed. He must give Poole something for the privilege of talking to him.
Johnny, Amsterdam and the gang start to steal from a Portuguese ship. They have to hurry for fear that the Daybreak Boys might catch them on the river. Down on the docks the caskets of dead Union soldiers are off-loaded from the ships. Amsterdam comments: "It was a mournful sight." The guys row over to the ship and climb aboard. A policeman is going to kill the black fellow, but Amsterdam stabs him in the back before he can shoot the young man. And it seems the Daybreak Boys have already been there. They have taken everything of value. So Amsterdam picks up a dead body and throws it into their boat. Back on shore they sell the body to a man with connections to "medical science". Their crime makes the Police Gazette.
Checking in with Poole, one of his henchmen, McGloin, takes offense at the body snatching and taunts Amsterdam. Amsterdam takes offense and they start to fight. Amsterdam wins the fight. Poole takes the group on a walk through the area pointing out that he owns most of the businesses, especially the illegal ones, in the area. He continues to insult the Irish.
There is a great deal of talk about the draft. The wealthy can buy their way out of the draft for $300 dollars, but Amsterdam says it might as well have been $3 million dollars because Five Pointers could never get $300 dollars.
Amsterdam runs into pickpocket Jenny and he tells her to stay away from him. She deliberately runs into him. Amsterdam checks his pockets, but finds everything in order there. Jenny gets on a streetcar. Amsterdam checks another pocket and finds he has become just another crime victim, so he races to get onto the street car. He follows Jenny out to a very exclusive neighborhood and discovers that she's a "turtledove", that is, one who goes uptown dressed like a housemaid, goes through the back door of a fancy house and robs the place.
When Jenny finishes robbing the house she comes out. Amsterdam grabs her but she knees him in the groin. He still manages to grab her again only to be kneed again. For the fourth time he grabs her and pushes her up against a wall of the house. He demands that she return his father's medallion to him. She opens the clothing around her neck, so he can take his medallion. He asks her: "Suppose I help myself to everything?" She just says: "Suppose you do." He yanks his medallion from her neck and then buttons up her dress to cover her neck. Now he asks her if he can walk with her. She consents.
He asks Jenny if he could pair up with her, but Jenny says she works alone. And how much does she have to pay Bill the Butcher? She says she doesn't pay him anything, because she and he have a special arrangement. This shocks Amsterdam a bit and Jenny tells him that she doesn't want to see him again. They part ways.
Happy Jack Mulraney gives a tour of Five Points to the rich Schermerhorn family, who are accompanied by the famous newspaper man, Horace Greeley. Poole comes over to ingratiate himself with the wealthy group. Amsterdam tags along. Monk says a few words to Poole and then, as Amsterdam passes him, he lifts up the young man's cap. To avoid real trouble, Monk immediately says he just wanted to see the lad's face. "No harm intended."
Amsterdam suddenly has a flashback to the big fight between the Dead Rabbits and the Natives. He remembers the big man Monk with his big smashing club.
Bill is butchering pigs and he demonstrates to Amsterdam which knife thrusts into the pig would be a kill and which would just be a wound. Amsterdam has a flashback to Poole killing his father. He thrusts the knife into the pig again and again, stabbing it as if it were Poole himself.
Poole takes Johnny and Amsterdam with him to see Boss Tweed. He has the fellows wait outside. Johnny uses the opportunity to ask Amsterdam if he is plotting anything. He asks because he wants no part in it. Amsterdam just says he's only trying to survive just like Johnny.
Boss Tweed explains to Poole that he is getting a lot of complaints about the crime in Five Points. Therefore, he wants Poole to grab four men with no affiliations and hang them publicly. On the day of the hangings, a huge crowd gathers to see the event. In the crowd Amsterdam sees Jenny again. The four men go to their deaths accompanied by enthusiastic clapping from the crowd.
That night the "reformers" (the wealthy people) hold a dance. It is the first annual Mission Dance. Rev. Raleigh picks out Jenny from a line-up of the prostitutes and other women of low character and places her in a chair. She is said to be the queen of the dance. He has the men line up and walk past Jenny from her rear while Jenny watches their faces in a big hand mirror. Johnny really likes Jenny, but she does not choose him. She does, however, choose Amsterdam.
Amsterdam wants to know why she picked him and not Johnny. She answers: "Because I didn't want him." Later they go to a quiet area and start smooching. Amsterdam stops when he sees a locket around her neck that Poole gave her. Jenny says it's a gift. Upset at the idea of Poole together with Jenny, he tells her he's through with her. He tells her: ". . . I ain't interested in the Butcher's leavings." Jenny leaves.
The police arrive to put a stop to a boxing match sponsored by Poole. The match takes place out on a peer in the river. Amsterdam explains that the match is actually taking place outside the limits of New York City and, therefore, is legal. The boxing match goes on. The larger man wins the match in the 75th round. Amsterdam is acknowledged by none other than showman P. T. Barnum as an associate of Poole's and the crowd gives him a round of applause. Amsterdam sees Jenny picking up a customer and he doesn't like it.
Boss Tweed tells Poole that there is a handsome reward for him for every Irish immigrant vote Tammany receives in the election. Poole, however, hates the Irish too much to help them out. Tweed tells him he's turning his back on the future. Poole doesn't care. Many of the young, male Irish immigrants off the boats are signed up to fight for the Union cause. The new soldiers then are placed in uniform and sent off on another boat to the place(s) where they are needed for the fighting.
Actors put on a performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In the scene where Uncle Tom is going to rise to heaven, someone shouts: "Ah, leave the nigger dead!" Then the audience starts throwing tomatoes and other food stuffs at the actors. Amsterdam is in the audience with Poole. Poole shouts: "Down with the Union!" Amsterdam repeats the phrase. He then sees what looks like a very determined man approaching them. He also sees the man take out a pistol. Amsterdam pushes Bill away and tackles the man, but not before the man shoots Bill. Luckily for Poole, the shot was in the left shoulder.
Amsterdam is on the floor struggling with the man for the pistol. One of Bill's henchmen shoots the man in the stomach area. Bill calls the Irishman an "Irish nigger" and demands the man tells him who he is working for. The man dies without answering the question. Poole takes off his hat to Amsterdam in acknowledgement of Amsterdam's saving his life. Amsterdam removes his hat in answer to the acknowledgment. He then leaves the theater. Bill shouts that intermission is over and the play resumes.
Amsterdam finds a secluded place to cry over the death of the Irishman. When he is finished, he starts to leave, but Monk grabs him. Amsterdam tries to fight him, but Monk is too big and too strong for the young man. Monk tells him: "For all his faults, your father was a man who loved his people."
Poole takes Amsterdam with him to celebrate in a brothel (some nudity). Boss Tweed comes over to show concern that Bill might have been killed by the would-be assassin. Going late into the night, Amsterdam falls to sleep at the table. When he wakes up, he sees Jenny tending to the wounds of Poole. When she sees Amsterdam, she really starts getting affectionate with the older man. Jenny tells Johnny to get out of here. Now Amsterdam is really mad and he asks Jenny, after kicking some wash out of her hands, if there is anyone she hasn't screwed in Five Points? Jenny responds: "Yes! You!" Amsterdam slaps her and she slaps him back and then they start a fight. He pushes her up against a wooden pole and tells her to calm down. He wants to kiss her, but she says she will bite him if he tries. After several failed attempts, the two finally kiss each other. Johnny looks into the room and doesn't like what he sees. The couple start to have intercourse (no nudity).
Poole gets up out of his bed and goes to Jenny's room. He sits there while the couple sleeps. Amsterdam wakes and finds Bill sitting there. He says he hopes Bill doesn't mind them sleeping here. Poole indicates he doesn't mind. He doesn't sleep much anyway, because, as he says, he has to keep one eye open at night for his enemies and he's only got one good eye. Poole mentions that the last honorable man he knew he killed fifteen years ago. He even goes so far as to say Vallon was a great man. Before he leaves the room, he tells Amsterdam: "God bless you!"
Amsterdam now asks Jenny who is Poole to her? She says he took her in when she was 12 years old. She goes on to say: ". . . he never laid a hand on me until I asked him to." Amsterdam turns over and tries to go back to sleep, but Jenny asks: "Who are you?"
Monk hears the sound of a knife being thrown into wood. He looks out the window and sees Jack throwing his knife into a wooden post over and over again.
Poole is also good with knives. In fact, he is going to put on a show of his skill before an audience at the Chinese theater. Out of jealousy, Johnny tells Poole that Amsterdam aims to kill him. Bill doesn't believe him and threatens to cut his heart out, that is, until Johnny says: "His name's Vallon." Amsterdam comes into the theater and sees Johnny walking past him. He calls out to him, but Johnny just keeps walking. Poole comes in and Barnum introduces him to the audience. Bill goes up on stage. Jenny goes over to Amsterdam and he tells her to get out of this place. Too late. Bill asks Jenny to come up on stage and be his assistant.
Poole now throws his knives in a very menacing way at Jenny. In fact, one of the knives nicks her neck and draws a little blood. Then Poole announces it's time to celebrate America and patriotic music is played and the US flag is displayed. Poole comes off the stage and gives a toast before everyone for his honorable enemy Priest Vallon. Amsterdam throws a knife at Poole, but misses. Bill throws one and it hits Amsterdam in the stomach area. He tells Amsterdam it's only a wound. Bill comes over and introduces Amsterdam Vallon to the audience as a vial creature that is not worthy of his father. Bill says he took the young man in and helped him and this is the way the fellow repays him for his kindness. Bill has Amsterdam spread out on a table. He climbs on top of him and uses his head to smash Amsterdam's face. When he finally stops smashing his face into that of Amsterdam, his face is all bloody. Jenny tries to yell for Bill to stop, but there's too much noise in the room for her to be heard. Also, one of Amsterdam's henchmen holds Jenny back. Bill decides not to kill Amsterdam. Instead, he brands his face with a hot knife as a mark of shame.
Jenny takes Amsterdam into the old Dead Rabbit caverns and gets a doctor in to help heal his wound and the burn. Jenny wants Amsterdam to go with her to San Francisco, California. Monk shows up and Jenny points her small pistol at him. He tells Jenny he just wants to talk to her "mangled friend". Amsterdam asks the man why he rifled through his father's pockets after he was dead? Monk pulls out a small cross on a package containing his father's razor blade. He says he took it for safekeeping and now he is giving it to Amsterdam. The young man opens the blade and sees his father's blood still on the blade. He remembers that his father told him that the blood stays on the blade.
Amsterdam comes out onto the streets and the residents of the area stare at him. He goes to the center square and leaves the skin of a dead rabbit hanging on a fence. Bill finds out about the dead rabbit. He brings in Happy Jack Mulraney and he tells the officer to punish the person who killed the poor little rabbit. Mulraney doesn't want to do it, but Bill forces him to do it. The officer goes down into the caverns. He sees someone running up a flight of stairs, fires his pistol, but misses the person. He climbs the stairs telling Amsterdam that he won't hurt him. Amsterdam grabs him around the neck from behind and strangles him to death.
The body of the police officer is put up in the square hanging from a street lamp. Tweed tells Bill that this doesn't look good. He asks if dead politicians are next? Bill just says it shows the boy has some dash.
Amsterdam is working on the interior of a church. All of a sudden, the old gang of thieves shows up. They go in the back to talk. Amsterdam says that he heard that some 15,000 Irish were pouring into New York every week. He gives a small laugh and says: "And we're afraid of the Natives?" If all the Irish get together, they'll have not a gang, but an army. After the meeting Johnny confesses to Amsterdam that he was the one who told Bill. Amsterdam says: "Johnny, I gotta kill you." He pauses and then says: "Get out of the Points and don't come back." Johnny starts leaving, but McGloin grabs him and takes him to Bill.
To save his neck, Johnny says it isn't with the Irish, but with the Natives. Bill says Johnny is only a Native if he is willing to give his life for his country and asks Johnny if he can do that? Johnny says yes.
Amsterdam and Jenny run down to the square and find Johnny there with part of the fence stuck through his body. The young Vallon tries to free Johnny, but Johnny screams out in pain. Johnny asks Amsterdam to kill him. Jenny gives Amsterdam her pistol and he shoots Johnny upwards from underneath Johnny's chin.
In the church the Dead Rabbits corner McGloin and ask him why he is in their church when he's with the protestants? The guy seems to go crazy when he sees a black man (he says a nigger) is with them in the church. The black fellow knocks him down. The Dead Rabbits start kicking McGloin while he's down. McGloin gets up and continues to complain about the black fellow. The priest comes in and McGloin asks him if he knows there's a nigger man in the church? The priest slaps him across the face.
Poole and his gang come to the church. The Dead Rabbits are waiting for them. There are men, women and children in front of the church. Poole tells Amsterdam that they'll come back when they are ready for his Natives.
The draft fellows come picking up Irishmen to serve in the army. Quite a scene takes place in front of one of the houses in the area.
Boss Tweed comes down to speak with Amsterdam and Jenny, who has a rifle with her. He asks if the following headline is helpful: "Archbishop Hughes Promises Retaliation if Church is Attacked". Now Tweed wants to form an alliance with the Irish to oppose Bill Poole and his nativist candidates. He offers Amsterdam money for every Irish vote that comes the way of Tammany Hall. Amsterdam tells Tweed if he backs an Irish candidate for sheriff, he will be his ally. Tweed says it can't be done: no one can unite the Irish vote and no Irish candidate for sheriff has ever been found worth voting for. That's when Amsterdam calls Monk in.
Monk is running for sheriff. He turns out to be a pretty good stump speaker. The Irish grab their own to get them down to vote, while Bill grabs the Chinese workers to force them to vote his way. There is cheating on both sides. An election official tells Tweed that Monk has already won by 3,000 more votes than there are voters. Tweed says makes it 20,000 or 30,000 vote over the number of voters.
Bill sends up a pig's head to Monk. Monk grabs his club and comes out. Below him Bill stands in the street. Monk speaks to the people of Five Points. He tells them Bill is trying to push him into a confrontation that might become violent, but Monk doesn't want any violence. He tells Bill to come up to the barber shop and they'll settle their grievances the democratic way. Bill actually climbs up the stairs to the barber shop. As Monk is entering the shop, Bill throws a meat clever into his back. He tells the people in the shop: "That my friends is the minority vote." Then he kills Monk by braining him with his own club.
Tweed comes to Bill saying he can't believe he would kill an elected official. Bill tells Tweed to tell Vallon that he's coming after him and will paint Paradise Square red with his blood. He also threatens Tweed that if he ever comes down to the Points again, he personally will kill him. There is a big funeral for Monk. Amsterdam is one of the pall bearers. The mourners walk right past Bill. Bill spits. Amsterdam challenges him and Bill accepts.
The papers say that 75,000 Manhattan men will be drafted along with 7,000 Brooklynites. The death lists of soldiers are terribly long.
The first day of the draft arrives. They pick the names and then read them out loud. Meanwhile, Amsterdam and Bill agree to the terms of the fight coming up tomorrow. No pistols.
Back at the draft office, all of a sudden, the men of one of the fire departments crash through the front windows of the draft office. The office is set on fire. Tweed is worried. He tells this to the wealthy circle he is a part of, but most of them don't think the draft protests will last. (Greeley is also worried about the riots.)
Jenny says goodbye to Amsterdam. He begs her to stay for just one more day and then he'll go with her to San Francisco. She says Amsterdam will be dead by then. She leaves.
The next morning all the poor seem to gather together to riot against the draft. The crowds shouts "Let the sons of the rich go and die. Let the sons of the poor stay home. No draft! No draft!" Bill is preparing his weapons for the fight. Jenny is having great difficulties getting to her ship because of the huge protests. Mr. Schermerhorn finishes his prayer before he and his family start eating, but bricks are thrown through the windows of the dining room. A mob busts open the doors. Mr. Schermerhorn shoots two of the attackers, but is soon overtaken by others of the mob.
In the streets blacks are attacked mercilessly. The mobs go for the armory and the 500 weapons there. Jenny is attacked, beaten briefly and knocked down. She shoots a woman in the shoulder to get away from the mob. The army has to be called in to try and stop the mobs.
Bill and Amsterdam are ready to start fighting. The army opens fire on a mob. Those not shot, quickly run away. The navy starts bombarding Five Points. This breaks up the fight between Bill and Amsterdam. But in the smoke and confusion Amsterdam calls out for Bill to come fight him. Bill uses the smoke effectively to get close to Amsterdam and slice him repeatedly. An explosion knocks both of the fighters down and covers them with dirt and debris. When the smoke clears, Bill has received a shrapnel wood in the side. The two men on their knees go back to the attack. Amsterdam knifes Bill. Jenny returns to Five Points and finds Amsterdam is still alive, but Bill is dead.
Tweed watches a mass burial of the dead. In the violence Amsterdam loses a lot of his friends, but also a lot of his enemies. He and Jenny start for home, wherever that is. The draft riots lasted four days and four night before it was finally put down.
The next morning Amsterdam buries his father's razor blade in the ground in the local cemetery. Bill's body is now buried right next to Priest Vallon's grave.
The story itself is not that great. It is a pretty simple plot. A young man named Amsterdam seeks vengeance against Bill "The Butcher" Poole, the man who killed his father (a former leader of one of the Irish gangs). He worms his way into Poole's circle with the help of the beautiful pickpocket Jenny Everdeane.
But the movie is a great spectacle giving the viewer at least some idea of how terrible social and economic conditions were in the Irish ghettos in such neighborhoods as Five Points; great atmospherics that make the movie a very good one.
As history, it is a blend of events that happened at different times, but the main ideas come through and that's what's important.
The white protestants are upset with the great influx of the Irish into the United States connected with the potato blight and consequent famine in Ireland. The gangs of the "native" Americans fight the the gangs of the newly arrived Irish.
But it is not just the white Americans the Irish feel threatened by. The Irish came in at the bottom of the white social scale, but ahead of the blacks. They were given unskilled jobs such as laborers. They often felt competition from blacks who could be used with lower labor costs. This did not set well with the Irish.
Given their competition with black labor, it is not surprising that the Irish soon came to resent such acts as the Emancipation Proclamation, which in the eyes of many made the war more about abolishing slavery than preserving the nation as a single entity. The Irish, who were vulnerable to the draft while the wealthy could pay for a substitute fort their military service, were very prejudiced toward the blacks.
Tensions rose so high, that the Irish started the 1863 draft riot in New York City. Blacks were made a special target, with the rioters even attacking the Colored Orphanage (the children were saved by the police who escorted them to an island in the East River).
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
Return To Main Page
Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)