Monday, February 4, 2008

Mysteries of the Human Condition

Whenever I read nonfiction about life in the 19th-century underworld, I'm always astonished that people actually managed to survive those days. I suppose future generations will think of the 20th and 21st centuries in much the same way, but...come on, street brawls where it wasn't uncommon for someone to bite your ear and/or nose off? Baby-eating rats? Rookeries where there was at least a murder a night and they usually just buried the bodies under the dirt floor? How we managed to last into the 20th century, much less the 21st, will forever be a mystery to me.

The book in question is Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury. The cover proclaims that the Scorcese movie was based on the book, but I think it's more accurate to say it was "inspired by." This isn't a bad thing in the least -- each chapter focuses on a single group or event, like the pirates that roamed the Hudson river (?!?!) or the murder of Bill "The Butcher" Poole, and it's a surprisingly fast, entertaining read. A few of the footnotes have led me into interesting Google territory (look up the Doctor's Riots of 1788 -- talk about a morbid joke blown way out of proportion), and aside from some uncomfortably jarring language ("'Miscegenation'?! Jesus, when the hell was this written, anyway? 19...2...8. Oh."), it's fairly easy to overlook the fact that it was written about eighty years ago. It holds up well.

Right now, I'm in the section about the police riots -- apparently, the city government and Municipal police were so corrupt by the 1850s that the higher levels of government stepped in, created the Metropolitan police, and declared the Municipals disbanded. Unfortunately, the Municipals didn't like that idea, some political stuff happened wherein the Metropolitans tried to arrest the corrupt mayor and the Municipals fought back, and the whole thing culminated in a huge riot. In City Hall. In which a good fifty officers were injured and one was permanently maimed. After that, the two branches of the city police spent more time fighting each other than the gangsters themselves, to the point where one would actually release a criminal they saw the other arrest, just to be a jerk.

It's funny until you think about it too hard, and then it's just horrifying. And we think jurisdiction arguments now are bad...

I don't know why I find this stuff so fascinating. It's taking sincere effort not to write even more about it than I already have, because a) Asbury does it better, and b) I suspect most people don't care.

BUT I DO! [/dork]

1 comment:

So@24 said...

I'm going to Wikipedia this as soon as I'm finished.

I'm not even kidding.