The Five Points Neighborhood and the New York City Draft Riots

New York City Draft RiotsThis is the opening sequence of assignments for my "HIS 270: Immigration and Ethnicity in U.S. History, 1815 to the Present". As the course number perhaps suggests, it is an intermediate level course. A majority of the students taking it will be history majors and minors, but the course is open to all and some students will elect it (often out of interest in their own ethnic backgrounds). My decision to begin the course in medias res with the New York City Draft Riots and the Five Points Neighborhood is admittedly idiosyncratic. I like to argue that historians never really can begin at the beginning of anything, that we all plunge in and then work forward and backward. History texts, in contrast, do routinely begin at some conventionally acknowledged beginning point. In our course, I explain on the first day, we will function as historians. So we will just jump in.

Harper's WeeklyJumping in requires us to acknowledge that we will need time to get our bearings. You will note the injunction to students that I want "shallow, as opposed to profound, notes. Polished explanations are neither expected nor desired." This allows them to raise questions and admit confusions. Learning begins in puzzlement.

Because there is so much material to cover, I break the class into teams and provide a specific amount of class time for students to discuss the project with teammates. Their task, they quickly discover, is a grown-up variant on "show-and-tell." They also quickly discover that there are no bad choices to make. Any piece of evidence they choose to discuss is a good choice. And, since they are encouraged to choose what they find puzzling as well as enlightening, they do not have to pretend to an expertise they cannot yet possess.

Virtual New YorkMaking this flexibility possible is the overall structure of the assignments that culminate in a review of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. It invites them into the ongoing conversation among historians about the film and about the issues the film raises. They have read enough about the Five Points and about the riots to have an informed opinion about both. What do they think Scorsese might have done differently? What did they learn from what he did do?

Aug. 29: Introduction to course and to the New York City Draft Riots. Below is the central panel from a Harper’s Weekly full-page illustration of the Riots. For the entire page, click on the image. We will break into five teams and look at the riots according to the contemporary reports found at Virtual New York, and according to Harper’s Weekly. Every one will read the Introduction at Virtual New York. It contains useful background information and a summary of events. Four teams will each take one day of the riots and explore the relevant segment of Virtual New York. The fifth will look at the coverage in Harper’s Weekly. Each team’s task is to choose specific segments of documents, specific images, and other materials. You will show these in class; at least one hour before class, e-mail me brief but detailed notes about what you found interesting, odd, thought-provoking, enlightening, and/or mystifying about each piece of evidence you choose.  [Note: This is, as you will quickly discover, a complicated story. So, I am looking for shallow, as opposed to profound, notes. Polished explanations are neither expected nor desired.]

Harper's Weekly illustration of the riots

Where "The Gangs" LivedAug. 31–Sept. 2: Team reports; The “Five Points” did not supply all of the rioters, although contemporary press coverage could leave that impression. The neighborhood had long epitomized the dangers of urban life and of unregulated immigration. Its continuing hold on the popular imagination is shown in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, Gangs of New York. Before viewing it, we will examine Gregory Christiano’s Where the Gangs Lived (image at right), which contains contemporary descriptions of the neighborhood, and his 1857—A Year to Forget, which contains sources on both the police riot of that year and of the gang battle that begins Scorsese’s film. We will also examine the American Social History Project’s Five Points: New York’s Irish Working Class in the 1850s to allow us to contextualize the primary materials. Again we will break into teams, one for each site. We will take the last 12 minutes of the Sept. 2 class to allow teams to survey the materials they will be covering and to decide who will be responsible for what.

Homes of the RiotersSept. 5: Labor Day Holiday
Homes of the Rioters.  The caption reads, “On the 13th of July not a single thief was left in the Five Points. Capt. John Jourden, 6th ward Metropolitan Police.” A highly laudatory account of the police response to the riot, taken from the coverage of the New York Times is available at the Making of America site.

Sept. 7: Reports on Where the Gangs Lived. Choose specific segments of documents, specific images, and other materials. You will show these in class; at least one hour before class, post brief but detailed notes about what you found interesting, odd, thought-provoking, enlightening, and/or mystifying about each piece of evidence you choose.

Sept. 9: Reports on 1857–A Year to Forget—the Police Riots and the Gang Riots

Dead Rabbits’ Fight With The Bowery Boys

New York, July 4, 1857.  Written at Hoboken, by Saugerties Bard. Air-Jordan

They had a dreadful fight, upon last Saturday night,
The papers gave the news accordin ;
Guns, pistols, clubs and sticks, hot water and old bricks,
Which drove them on the other side of Jordan.

Then pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
For Bayard is a hard street to travel;
So pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
The Bloody Sixth is a hard ward to travel I believe.

Like wild dogs they did fight, this Fourth of July night,
Of course they laid their plans accordin ;
Some were wounded and some killed, and lots of blood spill'd,
In the fight on the other side of Jordan
Then pull off the coat, &c.

The new Police did join the Bowery boys in line,
With orders strict and right accordin ;
Bullets, clubs and bricks did fly, and many groan and die,
Hard road to travel over Jordan.
Then pull off the coat, &c.

When the new police did interfere, this made the Rabbits sneer,
And very much enraged them accordin ;
With bricks they did go in, determined for to win,
And drive them on the other side of Jordan.
Then take off the coat, &c.

At last the battle closed, yet few that night reposed,
For frightful were their dreams accordin;
For the devil on two sticks was a marching on the bricks,
All night on the other side of Jordan.
Then pull off the coat, &c.

Sept. 12: Evening class in Media Center: Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York

History News Network - Interview with Tyler AnbinderSept. 14: Movie review due: Scorsese’s film touched off a debate within the historical profession. You can get a taste of this by looking at an interview with Tyler Anbinder, author of a well-reviewed book on the Five Points, and then at Joshua Brown’s “The Gang’s Not All Here.” Brown directed the creation of the Five Points site of the American Social History Project we used. In your review (500–600 words) discuss what you would want Scorsese to do differently and also what seeing his movie helped you understand about the materials we have been reviewing. Be specific. Do not imagine yourself to be Roger Ebert. Do not nominate Daniel Day Lewis for an Oscar. Keep your focus upon the film as a popular history.