While most history books paint an accurate picture of a historical period, most people prefer to view a historical period of time through a movie. Although movies can allow a viewer to emotionally connect with the people and events in the movie, that movie may not be historically accurate, sometimes sacrificing historical fact for action and drama. As I began to research my object, a Civil War era draft wheel, I soon realized that everything that I knew about the wheel and the draft riots came from The Gangs of New York, an award winning movie by Martin Scorsese about gang violence in the mid-19th century.
The Gangs of New York was both lauded and criticized for its depiction of the mid-19th century time period in which the movie took place. Scorsese was praised for his recreation of historic New York City and the Five Points, created in brick, stone and wood, as the original buildings were built. The riot, which opens the film, was fictional, but considered fairly true to history for gang fights of this type, except there was considerably less bloodshed, and most people actually fought primarily with guns, not knives. In contrast to their portrayal in the movie, gangs like the Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys were political clubs. They would occasionally fight at the polls and sometimes beat up their opponents, but only to help a chosen candidate get elected, not for personal enjoyment. In the movie, Five Points is portrayed as an extremely brutal, dangerous place. In reality, most of Five Points’ inhabitants, in fact, were not violent gang members, but had real, law abiding jobs. Other than public drunkenness and prostitution, there was no more crime in Five Points than in any other city area.
In addition, time periods were also distorted. In the film, Chinese Americans are shown as having a considerable immigrant presence, with a large community and public venues, yet there was no major Chinese immigrant population in New York City until the late 1860s. The Chinese theater shown in the movie was not even completed until the 1890s. The Old Brewery, the run-down tenement shown in both 1846 and 1862/1863, was demolished in December, 1853. The character, William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, was based on the William “Bill the Butcher” Poole, who did own a butcher shop, was a leader of the Know Nothing political group, and was a member of the Bowery Boys, upon which William Cutting’s nativist group in the movie was based. In reality, Poole did not come from the Five Points area, and was murdered in 1855, eight years before the Draft Riots took place.
Despite a few factual errors, The Gangs of New York does accurately depict many of the issues of concern that were prevalent in mid-19th century New York City society. Of course, factual errors are not important to most, as most people do not go to the movies for a history lesson, but to be entertained. However, hopefully, some historical knowledge will be accumulated from such films, which hopefully will lead others to want to learn more about the events and people shown in the film. I would personally like to believe that historical movies, no matter how inaccurate, can plant the seeds of historical interest in the minds of people all over the world.