The True Story of Bill the Butcher
In Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis played a character named Bill the Butcher. In the movie, Bill the Butcher was a Protestant political leader, as well as the head of a gang called the “Nativists”.
Scorsese’s movie was based off of a book written back in 1926, also entitled The Gangs of New York, a non-fiction recounting of the seamier sides of New York City during from around 1830 up until the early 1900′s. The book itself reads like yellow-journalism, with the story being torrid enough to keep one interested, but so fantastic at times that it makes it difficult to believe. I’m not saying the book is untrue, per se, but merely that it’s a product of its time, as it bases many of its accounts on various magazines and newpapers of the era, and not all of them had the journalistic ethics to which were so accustomed to today. There are enough verifiable facts in the book that makes it difficult to discount completely.
Regardless, if the book plays fast and loose with the facts, the movie outright fictionalizes them in order to tell a better, more cohesive story. Scorsese himself would admit to this, and it’s hardly a sin. But one of the fictional aspects of the movie is Day-Lewis’ character, whose full name was William Cutter.
In real life, (or at least as real as the book will have you believe), there was also a Bill the Butcher, on which the movie Bill the Butcher was partially based. His real-life counterpart, however, was named Bill Poole.
If it’s one thing that the book makes clear, it’s the sheer amount of chaos that the urban-poor was part of on a day-to-day basis, and that the gangs were one mean of establishing order in that chaos. Gangs and their political persuasions helped establish identities and Bill Poole fit into that pattern with near perfection. Bill was a butcher by trade, and a member of the Bowery Boys, and politically identified as a Know-Nothing. And much like everyone else who was affiliated with a gang, Poole was likely a tremendous thug, one with respected fighting skills and a talent for encouraging mayhem.
He was not the epic man that Daniel Day-Lewis makes him out to be, but he did turn into a legend of sorts, based off of his political position as a leader in the Know-Nothing party, and his infamous last worlds. After a bar fight where one Lew Baker shot and mortally wounded Poole , the Butcher lasted another fourteen days before giving his last words, “Good-bye boys: I die a true American!”
The Nativist party decided to make a martyr of Poole’s death, and arranged a funeral procession consisting of 5000 men, and it walked down the entire length of Broadway. Soon afterwards, various plays, songs, and poems began to appear in the city, each extolling the virtue of the anti-immigration/anti-Catholic beliefs of Bill Poole, and each play, song, and poem referred to his “final” words in the most dramatic of fashions.
The real Bill the Butcher was not as much as a monster as the movie version. The real Bill was a mobster and thug, and very much a product of his age. His connections made him a small legend when he died, and would have dissolved into obscurity to those of us in the modern era save for the recreation of Draft-Riots era by one of the premier movie directors of our time.