March 14, 2011
Before the New York Minute begins I’d like to take some time to jump on the bandwagon and begin my own serialized pulp drama. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Hollywood Russell in The Case of the Virtuous Vixen.
Hollywood Russell entered the room. His steely eyes twitched to the left, then the right.
To be continued.
And now, your New York Minute.
Hollywood may be the movie capital of the world, but New York might be Hollywood’s favorite city.
In 1908 The Thieving Hand was shot in Flatbush Brooklyn, and the upcoming Avengers will be set in New York, though mostly filmed elsewhere. In the years between Hollywood has taken us to New York’s past in Gangs of New York, New York’s future in Escape from New York, and gave Charlton Heston the New York surprise of his life in Planet of the Apes. New York’s trains have been hijacked in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, chased in The French Connection, helped a gang escape to Coney Island in The Warriors, and crashed in Die Hard with a Vengeance.
Yes, Hollywood has made its fair share of New York films and more than its share of fair to mediocre at best New York films. And that brings me to The Bowery Boys. During the 1940’s and 1950’s Hollywood cranked out dozens of B-movies featuring a rotating cast of juvenile delinquents from New York. Since these films were comedies these youthful offenders, led by the increasingly not-so-youthful Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey, never smoked dope or ripped off a liquor store. The Bowery Boys were more likely to get mixed up with Nazi spies, spend a night in a haunted house, accidentally break up a crooked boxing syndicate, or somehow help the police track down a foreign princess. They were also known at various times as the East Side Kids, the Dead End Kids and, early in their history, The Little Tough Guys. People usually only change their names that often to avoid creditors. In at least two quote unquote memorable films they met Bela Lugosi, demonstrating in just which direction his career was moving.
Of course, any student of history will tell that history lies, and any student of the movies will tell you that Hollywood lies with every agent’s breath, so it is a sad fact that the real Bowery Boys were nothing like the bunch of clumsy nincompoops featured onscreen.
The Bowery Boys were an anti-Catholic, anti-Irish gang based north of the Five Points section of Manhattan in the mid-19th century. This was a time of great Irish immigration. They gang was based in the Bowery section of New York, hence their name. It was said that the gang was so strong and even popular during its time that many of the smaller or weaker gangs in Bowery followed their lead. One of their main rivals was a gang called The Dead Rabbits. I don’t know about you, but I think The Dead Rabbits is a lousy name for a gang. But I would never say it to their faces.
The Bowery Boys were young men who frequented the saloons and brothels of the Bowery and dressed in black stovepipe hats, red shirts, black flared trousers, high-heeled boots and black vests, with slick hair. I mention this because they were generally well-dressed and most of them even had respectable jobs. One famous member of the Bowery Boys was William Poole, also known as Bill the Butcher. As far as I know, none of them were named Satch, Slip, or Glimpy. It took Hollywood to come up with those brilliant monikers for The Bowery Boys films. Their most famous leader was known only as Mose the Fireboy, and some research suggests that he may have simply been a tall tale or urban legend. Ballads and songs were sung of him in the Bowery and his name was a common battle cry among the Bowery Boys throughout their existence. He was supposedly eight feet tall and had the strength of ten men. It was sort of like if Paul Bunyan joined the Crips.
At this point I would like to mention that I never saw and refuse to see Gangs of New York, despite how good I hear it is. But I digress.
Some odd facts popped up while researching The Bowery Boys. For example, they ran their own local fire department. They were fiercely patriotic and were actually allied with the Metropolitan Police Department. This makes sense when you realize that New York had two competing police departments. The Metropolitan Police Department had a feud with the Municipal Police. Over the course of two days in 1857, fighting between the two police departments, The Bowery Boys, The Dead Rabbits, and several smaller gangs left eight people dead,. That was only the official number. Unofficially the body count may have been much higher.
The gang was cruel and violent. During the New York Draft Riots of 1863, the Bowery Boys took part in much of the looting while fighting with rival gangs. The brawling was so bad that the military was called in to stop it.
Eventually infighting and other disputes caused the gang to splinter and weaken and they eventually disappeared into history, with only their name carried on in such films as Spook Busters and Dig that Uranium. Sigh. History may forget you, but it takes Hollywood to insult you.
This has been your New York Minute.
An audio version of this legend recently appeared (or is about to!) in the amazing FlashPulp website. Check them out for awesomeness and goodies!