Gangs of New York

Bill "the Butcher" Poole Photo Credit- Murder by Gaslight
Bill “the Butcher” Poole Photo Credit- Murder by Gaslight

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.

John Morrissey ca 1860 Photo Credit- PD-US
John Morrissey ca 1860 Photo Credit- PD-US

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



U-571 was an exciting thriller made in 2000 about how an the crew of an American submarine attempting to steal an enigma machine from a German U-Boat.  Enigma machines were used by the Germans in World War II to create a very difficult code to send their messages.  It was based on the work of Polish mathematicians in 1932.  The code was nearly unbreakable for the first part of the war.  In the movie, U-571 is disabled from a destroyer attack and our heroes are dispatched to pretend to be the German rescue sub to pick up the remainder of the crew.  Their mission is to capture or kill the crew and capture the enigma machine on board to turn over to Allied codebreakers and turn the tide of the war.  They do all this by locating the stricken U boat in a terrible storm, all before GPS, subduing the crew and getting away after being pursued by a German destroyer.  Yay America and the Allies.   Except that wasn’t the way it was.


The film was set in 1942, however, the allies had already broken the enigma code on June 1,1941.  The British had captured several Enigma machines by this time, the first being in 1940 where three of them were hidden in a German sailor’s pants.  That must have made it hard to sit down.  These were sent to Bletchley Park, where most of the German codes were broken, and duly studied and deciphered.  Also the U boat in question, U-571, was sunk by an Australian plane off the coast of Ireland in 1944.  So two strikes.

Scene from U-571
Scene from U-571

The movie seems to be based on a real event in the war in May of 1941, Operation Primrose.  In this operation, U-110 attacked a convoy of allied ships.  Part of the convoy was HMS Bulldog, who damaged the U boat with depth charges.  The British sailors from the Bulldog boarded the disabled U boat and took all the papers they could find along with an Enigma machine.  By this time Bletchley Park already had several Enigmas, however, they did not have the matching codebooks.  This was the real achievement of Operation Primrose.  However, Enigma machine sounds much “sexier” than boring old code books.

Note, the crew of the ship was British not American.  This was a big enough deal at the time that Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of England, complained.  He felt it was an insult to the efforts of the Royal Navy.  

It goes without saying that all the men who served to defeat the Nazis were heroes, whatever color uniform they wore, however, we should remember who did what more accurately to ensure the memory of their sacrifices are not forgotten.


Sources available on request.


King Leonidas Photo Credit-
King Leonidas Photo Credit-
Gerald Butler as King Leonidas Photo Credit-
Gerald Butler as King Leonidas Photo Credit-

Entertainment and history often cross because most of the time life is much more interesting and stranger than fiction. However, entertainment often takes liberties with the real story to dress it up or make it more “sexy”. That’s fine, since most of us know that a fictional movie is not a documentary. In the movie 300 we are discussing today, the creator Frank Miller was up front about it. He said, “The inaccuracies, almost all of them, are intentional.” and in the same interview, “I was looking for more an evocation than a history lesson. The best result I can hope for is that if the movie excites someone, they’ll go explore the histories themselves. Because the histories are endlessly fascinating.”

That’s true. Fiction can be a great jumping off point for study. However, sometimes there are those little things that nag at us. Little things that take anyone who has some knowledge about the time period out of the suspension of disbelief. That is what I’m going to discuss today.

The Spartans were the amazing warriors they were portrayed as in the movie, however, there were some significant differences. Spartan babies were inspected for “defects” at birth, as shown in the movie, and if they were not perfect they were exposed to the elements. Plutarch described as “If after examination the baby proved well-built and sturdy they [the state] instructed the father to bring it up, and assigned it one of the 9,000 lots of land. But if it was puny and deformed, they dispatched it to what was called ‘the place of rejection’, a precipitous spot by Mount Taygetus, considering it better both for itself and the state that the child should die if right from its birth it was poorly endowed for health or strength.” Only the strong survived in Sparta.

Young boys left home to live in the barracks at seven years old to begin a rigorous education to become a warrior called agoge. The agoge also cultivated a sense of group belonging. The boys were divided into herds, or agelae, each under a leader. For the boys that they would honor even above their family. The boys ate together, hunted and trained together. Men did not even eat dinner with their wives until they were 25. The agelae was everything.

A coming of age ritual for a Spartan boy was not the killing of a wolf as in the movie. A Spartan boy was expected to kill a helot or slave. If the boy was caught murdering a helot, he was severely punished. Not for taking a life, but for getting caught. The murder was an exercise in stealth. Helots were a dime a dozen and the Spartans were some of the largest slaveholders in Greece. To be a helot in Sparta was the lowest of the low. According to Plutarch, they would get the Helots drunk and torment them to show the boys the evils of drink. They were also forced to till the soil for their Spartan masters, but were forbidden to make a profit. Xenophon said the helots would happily eat the Spartans raw if they got a chance.

Since the men were together in the barracks training to be soldiers, Spartan women had an unusual level of rights. Women could own property, the only place they could in the Greek world. They could also speak freely and were quite active in politics. However, in the movie Queen Gorgo is shown killing a council member. This did not happen, although, I’d place good money that she probably knew how as Spartan girls often were as athletic as their male counterparts. Gorgo was as formidable as her husband, Leonidas. Plutarch recounts this story, “When asked by a woman from Attica, ‘Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?’, she said: ‘Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men.’” Damn.

Since eugenics was such an ingrained part of the culture, a young wife with an older husband could have children with a younger virile man. Plutarch describes it as such, “If an older man with a young wife should take a liking to one of the well-bred young men and approve of him, he might well introduce him to her so as to fill her with noble sperm and then adopt the child as his own. Conversely, a respectable man who admired someone else’s wife noted for her lovely children and her good sense, might gain the husband’s permission to sleep with her — thereby planting in fruitful soil, so to speak, and producing fine children who would be linked to fine ancestors by blood and family.” No wonder Spartan women had a reputation among the other Greek city states for licentiousness.

King Leonidas did defend the Thermopylae Pass with 300 men and said a lot of the awesome pithy sayings attributed to him in the movie. However, it wasn’t just Sparta alone. It was an alliance of Greek city states working together to defend against the Persians. The Spartans were buying time to evacuate the bulk of the army. They also did not fight nearly naked. They had body armor to protect them. The traitor Ephialtes did exist, however, he was not hunchbacked as he was portrayed in the movie. There was no record of Leonidas rejecting Ephialtes and sending him to the Persians. In real life he did it for the plain old motive of money. The character of Dilios was fictional. There were soldiers who were stricken with an ophthalmic injury and were sent home. One was a helot, who came back and died with Leonidas, the other was named Aristodemus who went home and was called a coward. He only redeemed himself at the Battle of Plataea by fighting with courage. Also, the general at the Battle of Plataea was Pausanias not the fictional Dilios. This is particularly egregious to some as Pausanias is regarded as one of the greatest generals who ever lived.

And that is just the Greek side of the movie! There were discrepancies enough on the Persian side to have the movie cause outrage in Iran. However, I’d love to hear what nagged at you!


Sources available on request

Historical Inaccuracies in Gladiator

Bust of Roman Emperor Commodus
Bust of Roman Emperor Commodus

I can understand why creative license is taken in film and television. We just do not know every tiny detail that happened throughout history. Sometimes creative license is taken to condense the events to fit into the relatively short time frame of movies and television. However, sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why major changes were made. Things have been unchanged needlessly and the real story is not given its due.

Gladiator was a box office hit with all-star cast as well as being loaded with fighting, action and blood galore; a mixture for pure success. But what happens when that particularly popular movie tells the story of Ancient Romans and is not quite accurate enough to be the truth? You are left with Gladiator and people believing what the writers, directors and producers of the film want you to believe.

Most people understand that Russel Crowe’s character, Maximus Decimus Meridius, is a completely fictionalized creation, but most people do not realize that the character Commodus, while very real, was not exactly the man the movie portrayed him to be.

Emperor Commodus

The movie would have you believe that Marcus Aurelius, Commodus’ father and Emperor, did not claim Commodus as the heir to the empire. As a result, Commodus kills his father because of his grief and claims the title of Emperor for himself.

In reality, Commodus and Marcus Aurelius co-ruled together after a rumor spread of Aurelius’ death. The Syrian Governor, Marcus Cassius, was hailed as emperor by his men and accepted as he did not want Commodus ruling the Empire. Well, Cassius learned that Aurelius had only fallen ill and survived but since he had already been hailed as emperor in the east he was determined to keep it. Aurelius needed to act against Cassius so he began preparations to go east and deal with the usurper but never left since news that Cassius was killed by his own men reached Aurelius before he left. Aurelius knew that this meant his son’s accession to the throne was not secure and the best course of action was to make him co-emperor; this happened in 177 CE.

The two co-ruled together for the following three years until Aurelius’ death. He was not murdered by his son, in fact he was not murdered by anyone. Instead what really happened was that he simply died of a ‘plague’ (either the measels or smallpox) that was killing people all over the empire. Further, he didn’t actually die of this plague but of starvation after learning he had this disease.

Now, uncontested, Commodus became Emperor Commodus in 180 CE. He is the emperor hailed by some historians to be the one who started the fall of the Roman Empire.

Gladiator would also have you believe that Commodus was murdered in the Colosseum by the gladiator Maximus.

This is a little closer to reality but still very far from how Commodus met his end. Marcia, Commodus’ mistress and former friend of his sister, found her name on the top a list to be executed. To save her skin, Marcia decided to take matters into her own hands. She and Commodus’ sister had been involved in a plot to assassinate him in 181 A.D. Interestingly enough, but this time it had to work.

Relaxing in his bath, Commodus was unsuspecting as Marcia brought him a glass of wine. Commodus eagerly drank the poisoned wine but immediately began vomiting everything back up. The plotters involved were worried that he wouldn’t die because he would expel the poison so a wrestler, Narcissus, was brought in to finish the job. Commodus also ruled for a little over 12 years, another difference from the movie.

These are only a few of the disparages of Commodus’ portrayal in Gladiator, and only just skimming the surface of inaccuracies within the film in general. I beseech you to share what you had noticed that was historically inaccurate about the film to share with others while bestowing the true history of Rome during Commodus’ reign.


Historical inaccuracies in Reign

Reign has been a popular show on the CW for three years now but what has audiences so captivated? There is a list of inaccuracies starting from the pilot episode and continue in every episode thereafter. I will assume then that the audiences watching the show are unfamiliar with Mary Stuart specifically or history in general (or it is a guilty pleasure).With so many inaccuracies, I am hard-pressed to choose only one or two, but I will choose the ones I feel irk me the most. Then, my […]

2146035_origReign has been a popular show on the CW for three years now but what has audiences so captivated? There is a list of inaccuracies starting from the pilot episode and continue in every episode thereafter. I will assume then that the audiences watching the show are unfamiliar with Mary Stuart specifically or history in general (or it is a guilty pleasure).

With so many inaccuracies, I am hard-pressed to choose only one or two, but I will choose the ones I feel irk me the most. Then, my dear readers, I want you to contribute with what you have noticed in the series thus far that has you gritting your teeth in dismay.

Number 1: The fashion
I hope no one watching the show believes that the dresses (maybe costume is more suitable) are historically accurate. I have seen some wonderful blunders, like corsets worn outside of dresses when, in reality, they were strictly an undergarment. I have seen sleeveless dresses, which would certainly not have been worn but even worse, the strapless dress. It was not until the 1930s that strapless was invented, but you can see some of Mary’s lady’s-in-waiting wearing them. Also, the see-through tops that are seen periodically throughout the series. A lot of creative liberty went into that choice. Mary would have worn the fashion of the times; sleeves at all times, the ruff (the accordion looking scarf worn around the neck), and dresses that were floor length.

5260754_origNumber 2: Sebastian de Poitiers
The biggest mistake made with ‘Bash’ is that he didn’t exist. Not even a little bit. He was the product of someone wanting to create a riveting plot with a love triangle to entice the audience. So, that means Mary never thought about being with Bash (or come close to marrying him) and Kenna didn’t marry him to keep her reputation in tact. Diane de Poitiers was very real though, and she was the favorite mistress of Henry II. However, she never bore him any children, at least that we know of. She bore two daughters by her marriage, but had been widowed before having any more children. Her two daughters were at court with Diane but they were behind the scenes and certainly never a threat to the throne.

So, Sebastian was a completely fictional character set within a non-fictional story. At one point in the show, Bash even goes so far as to try and take Francis’ place, both with Mary and with the throne. Of course, none of it happened.

Now it is your turn. I want to hear what inaccuracies you have noticed.