Connection Between the Movie and the Reality
Gangs are definitely nothing new to America. Gangs go back practically to the founding of this country. A revolutionary war veteran, a former captain and also a justice of the peace, Samuel Mason, ran one of the early gangs along the Ohio River near the end of the 1700s and on into the early 1800s. The Mason Gang would lure travelers of the river in with the bait of liquor and then kill and rob their victims.
So, I think it was no mistake that Bill The Butcher Poole started to find his calling in the 1840s when he was a fireman and a gang leader; Poole was not just a fireman he was the founder of the Washington Street Gang. Funny thing about firemen in those days, like the police, it was hard to distinguish them from the gangs; in fact, the fire stations competed over who got to put out fires, while buildings burned to the ground. Such was the level of contention and desperation in American history. A country which emphasized status, exploitation, struggle and competition was bound to find itself also contending with violence.
Bill was no nice guy. He was a Nativist and a leader of the Know-Nothing political organization too; a group that was xenophobic and wanted to keep America "pure". Bill hated the Irish immigrants that had begun to make their way to New York and he took every opportunity to make their lives difficult. This was the cause of much gang violence, as Irish gangs formed just for the sake of survival.
Scorsese doesn't pull any punches when it comes to portraying Bill's bigotry. Nor did he shy away from depicting Mr. Poole's tendency toward physical brutality. A classic scene in which he murders the competition, a man named Walter McGinn is in no way inaccurate in terms of The Butcher's real life propensity for gory violence. Poole, in real life, was known as a Rough and Tumble fighter, even the New York papers reported his cruel exploits this way; he was known for mutilating his opponents. Rough and Tumble fighting was a real fighting form in the US, started in the Southern backwoods and eventually spreading North and West. It generally consisted of a minimal amount of boxing leading to a clinch and then an effort to bite off noses or digits or to gouge out eyeballs. Bill was such a fighter.
Bill The Butcher Versus Walter McGinn
The Scorsese movie is also accurate in its exposition of the political corruption of New York during 19th century gangland history. The gangs were muscle for political parties, including forerunner to the Democratic Party, Tammany Hall. Gangs coerced voters, stuffed ballot boxes and the politicians made sure their thugs stayed out of jail.
In fact, while the politicians used both the Eastman Gang and the Five Points Gang for their own ends, they tolerated their gang fights and shootouts until it started to make them look bad in front of the voters. So, they eventually had to call meetings to make the gang leaders cool off their hot heads so that they didn't interfere with the happiness of constituents. Eventually a favorite gang had to be chosen so that Tammany Hall wasn't bailing out both sides all the time.
Essentially, there was a fine line, or no line at all, between criminal and public official.
The value of Scorsese's movie is that it reveals to us that gangs are not some recent phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries restricted to Black and Latino youth. Gangs are a phenomenon that are part of the fabric of America and the history of a land in which struggle is common-place, status is constantly sought and exploitation is a constant threat. Every man for himself turned American brutal, I think that's clear. Something happened very early on in our history that set the stage for the formation of gangs and brutality and a means to survive in a harsh atmosphere in which aggression was encouraged because it might have been the only thing ensuring survival.
Gangs indeed are American history.