All About The Real Five Points, The Neighborhood That Inspired 'Gangs of New York'

Martin Scorsese's period epic Gangs of New York took up residence in the chaos-ridden New York City neighborhoods of the mid-1800s, populated by eccentric characters and vicious acts of aggression. Its depiction wasn't entirely accurate, but it was based on a very real neighborhood and the very real misery it experienced. Five Points, a major intersection in lower Manhattan, was home to a host of impoverished immigrants seeking a better future for their families. That future wasn't easy to come by; newcomers mostly encountered hostility and distrust, which often boiled over into conflict.

This ignored, feared community was the subject of slander and exaggeration, which only increased the terror within the neighborhood. In later years, residents were able to reform it, but only by challenging the lack of city funding and the control the underworld held over local politics. Still, the legacy of Five Points - America's first notorious slum - remains intact.

  • The Neighborhood Was Filled With Gangs, Each With Its Own Distinctive Calling Card
    Photo: Miramax / Miramax

    The Neighborhood Was Filled With Gangs, Each With Its Own Distinctive Calling Card

    Although many things about Five Points were exaggerated in Scorsese's movie, the tenacity of the clans within the neighborhood was not. Many were led by tough-as-nails boxers like Bill "The Butcher" Poole and John Morrissey. They often threw their muscle behind political candidates and operated as grotesque "political clubs" that would literally fight at the polls. Religious and cultural tensions would occasionally spark fights. Ultimately, though, these clashes rarely led to any loss of life. Despite legends that one Five Points building saw a slaying a night, there was barely more than one per month in New York at the time.

    Each of the Five Points groups had colorful and strange traits to distinguish themselves from the competition. The Bowery Boys would go out in red shirts and stovepipe hats. The Dead Rabbits would march out with a rabbit nailed to a stick. The Short Tails would roam in untucked shirts (hence "tails"). The Whyos had an aural calling card rather than a visual one - they would call out with an owl-like screech that sounded like "Why-Oh!"

  • One Clash Had Almost 1,000 Participants
    Photo: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One Clash Had Almost 1,000 Participants

    The many crews of Five Points would often come into conflict - and those conflicts occasionally turned devastating. Some fights had a cultural basis, with Catholics fighting Protestants, but more often they took place within religious groups for other reasons.

    One of the most infamous conflicts took place over two entire days, with an estimated 1,000 people joining the fracas over the course of the fight. By the time the dust settled, more than 100 had been harmed and eight people lost their lives.

  • Police Records Show There Were Brothels On Every Block
    Photo: F. A. Mead / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Police Records Show There Were Brothels On Every Block

    Five Points residents had no shortage of gambling dens and saloons to pick from, but more than anything else, they had brothels.

    "Every house was a brothel, and every brothel a hell," missionary Lewis Pease once wrote of Five Points. Police records from the time show that the blocks in and around the Five Points intersection featured a brothel in nearly every building.

  • Irish Immigrants Poured Into The Tiny Neighborhood During The Potato Famine

    The Irish Potato Famine devastated the people of Ireland, sending thousands overseas in search of a better home. Many Irish ended up in the tenements of Five Points with no money to pursue nicer lodgings or improve their surroundings. These desperate immigrants were perceived as lowborn lawbreakers by many middle- and upper-class locals, fomenting long-running tensions between the groups. Much of the bad press and aggression in Five Points grew from this hostility.

  • The 'Firetrap Tenements' Bred Cholera And Typhus, Among Other Infectious Diseases
    Photo: Miramax

    The 'Firetrap Tenements' Bred Cholera And Typhus, Among Other Infectious Diseases

    Due to very poor living conditions, disease outbreaks in Five Points were extremely common. Records from the time are limited but reveal that only parts of East London were competitive with Five Points' severe disease problem. Cholera, measles, diphtheria, and typhus all raged through the community and claimed the lives of many infants and children. Local sanitation and safety efforts were lax, meanwhile, and the tenement homes were considered "firetraps."

  • The Neighborhood Started Out As A Pond That Slaughterhouses Would Dump Into
    Photo: Edgar Viele / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Neighborhood Started Out As A Pond That Slaughterhouses Would Dump Into

    In the 1700s, Manhattan featured a five-acre lake called the Collect. It was initially a popular gathering place during summer and winter alike, but gradually, slaughterhouses and tanneries set up along the banks. They began dumping bodily fluids, offal, and chemical byproducts into the lake, which was the Collect's unofficial beginning as a trash dump.

    By 1813, the lake had been filled in, and buildings gradually popped up in its place. When Five Points was enduring its lowest point in the 1840s and '50s, the stench was still so bad visitors would use camphor-soaked handkerchiefs to block out the rotten smells.