All historical movies take a bit of poetic licence with their subjects. However, this is hardly needed as the truth is most times stranger than fiction. This is also true of the movie Gangs of New York. Set in Five Points around the time of the New York City Draft riots in 1863, it is the story of rival gangs as well as a blood feud between Amsterdam Vallon, played by Leonardo di Caprio, and Bill “the Butcher” Cutter, played by an amazing Daniel Day Lewis. Their struggle plays out against the backdrop of extreme poverty, squalor and violence of the Five Points neighborhood and the volatility of the Civil War. Floods of immigrants were coming into New York from Ireland, and there was a huge prejudice against them. The new immigrants were poor, Catholic and unused to city life. Ads for employment often specified “No Irish”. The flooded into the slums and were only helped by societies like the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. Most of this was in exchange for a vote. On the other side were the Nativists who painted all the Irish as no good belligerent drunks taking jobs and money from “true Americans”. But is it true? Parts of it.
Bill “the Butcher” Cutter is an entirely fictional character based on Bill “the Butcher” Poole. Poole was the leader of the Bowery Boys gang before the movie is set, and is quite a character. Gangs and politics were tied together at this time, and Poole was an ardent supporter of the the Nativist movement, or the Know Nothing Party. Bill and his boys were the party enforcers, rounding up men to come vote, guarding ballot boxes and polling places so the opposition couldn’t vote and so their side could stuff the box. Poole was actually a butcher and was said to be able to hit the target with a knife from 20 feet and had a penchant for eye gouging. He towered over his fellows at 6 feet 200 pounds. His chief rival was John Morrissey, an Irish immigrant who grew up in the tough town of Troy, New York, who became the head of the Dead Rabbits. When the two of them met it was an epic clash.
Morrissey arrived in New York and decided to make a name for himself in the splashiest way possible. He marched into the Americus Club, the headquarters of the Nativist gangs in Five Points, and challenged everyone in their to a fight. The man had guts. He got jumped by everyone in there, and almost killed by Poole, who only left him alive as a warning to others. His audacity impressed the owner of the Americus Club, Captain Isaiah Rynders, who let Morrissey convalesce in his best bedroom and offered him a job. Morrissey refused out of hatred of Poole. However, Morrissey and Poole weren’t done with each other yet. Morrissey was hired by Tammany Hall, the notorious political machine of New York, to protect the ballot box in an upcoming election against Poole. Poole confronted him, but this time was outnumbered and had to back down.
By this time, Morrissey was making his name as a bare knuckles boxer. The rules to these fights were not like they are now. There was no padding, no gloves and basically no rules. You tried to get your man down and however you did it was fine by the audience. Morrissey challenged the Nativist champion, Yankee Sullivan. The two of them fought it out for 37 rounds and Morrissey took an unmerciful beating. By the 38th round, the onlookers stormed the ring and in the confusion Sullivan got into a fight with Morrissey’s “second”. This was against what few rules there were, and the referee called the fight for Morrissey, who was now the Heavyweight Champion of America. This did not go down well with Poole and his nativist friends. Tensions between the Nativists gangs and the Tammany gangs were at their highest. It was time to settle this.
Morrissey challenged Poole to a bare knuckles, no holds barred fight and Poole happily agreed. The two agreed to meet at 7:00 in the morning on July 27, 1854 at the Amos Street dock. Accounts differ as to what happened that morning. Some say that it was an ambush and Poole never showed up, leaving his thugs to do the work for him. However, the New York Times account says Poole arrived early and had the dock surrounded with his supporters. Within minutes of the fight, Poole had Morrissey down and he gave up. Poole left and his supporters turned on any and all Tammany men there in a free for all. Morrissey and his gang barely escaped with their lives.
A few months later, Poole came upon Morrissey playing cards at the newly opened Stanwix Hall, opposite the Metropolitan Hotel on Broadway. The two got into an argument and Morrissey pulled a revolver and fired three times, and unbelievably the gun misfired all three times. Poole drew his revolver, but Morrissey’s companion intervened saying, “You wouldn’t kill a helpless man in cold blood would you?” Poole dropped the gun and grabbed two knives from the kitchen and hurled them into the bar, inviting Morrissey to a knife fight. Before they could get into it, both men were arrested.
Poole returned to the Stanwix after being sprung on bail, supposedly to apologize to the bartender. There he was jumped by some of Morrissey’s men, but didn’t seem too concerned as he bet them five hundred dollars in gold he could “whip all of them”. Guns got into the fray, and Poole was shot once in the leg and once in the chest. He was taken to his home and despite the bullet in his heart, he lived for two weeks, dying on March 8,1851. His last words were, “Goodbye boys: I die a true American!”
All involved, including Morrissey, were tried for murder, but the jury could not come to a verdict. Bill “the Butcher” Poole got the largest funeral ever seen in New York City. It was reported that so many people stood on the roofs of buildings to watch the procession that one house collapsed under the weight killing four people. Morrissey organized gangs from Five Points throw bricks and rocks at the mourners. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, 15 years later, John Morrissey became a New York State Senator.
Now that would have made a great movie.
Sources available on request