Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Herbert Asbury, "All Around the Town".

Herbert Asbury (1889-1963) was an unrepentant sinner from a strict Methodist background. He was also a journalist and author, most famous today for penning the book "Gangs of New York" was based on. He consistently chose subject matter that was gritty and underground, writing about America from the 17th century to the early part of the 20th century. I recently found a re-issue of one of his books, All Around the Town: Murder, Scandal, Riot and Mayhem in Old New York(1934). Its contents are exactly what one would expect from its title- a compendium of the misbehavior of ne'er-do-wells in early Gotham.

Flipping through the book we can find sections on the forgers, pickpockets, gangs, and rioters. There is ample mention of the notorious Five Points thugs, who often gathered in mobs to attack abolitionists, or merely to protest hard times. Asbury tells us of the "Queen of Hackensack", who built a mansion on the proceeds of her shoplifting. We learn how John Allen, who was blessed with the moniker "The Wickedest Man in New York", went from stool pigeon, to being shanghied, to owning a vicious dance hall on the waterfront... only to end up striking a strange alliance with a group of revivalists. We are told of a butcher-turned-con man, who convinced hundreds of able-bodied men and contracting companies of a municipal plan to saw off lower Manhattan. It's an altogether seamy (yet very entertaining) ride through the perils of good old-fashioned vice and depravity.

But Asbury didn't confine himself to stories of the criminal world. In one chapter, he examines the great lengths that socialites of the mid-1800's would go to appear fashionable. In addition to the metal corsets and petticoats that have been well documented, women had their faces and bosoms enameled with a concoction that included white lead or arsenic at its base. They painted the veins of their hands blue, and their palms to match their dress. They wore fake hair (as much as 8 ounces) and false calves. The trains of their party dresses could reach up to twenty feet long, requiring a gentleman on either side to pull a silken cord to carry them along.

The lives of sportsmen, on the other hand, were much simpler due to the plentiful game once available on the island of Manhattan. There were bear, deer, bison and panther roaming the land. Foul included wild turkeys, geese, swans and wild pigeons. Simply shooting randomly in the air would often net results. The surrounding rivers were teeming with life. Fishermen landed sturgeon (known then as "Albany beef") that were 10-12 feet in length. Five-feet long lobsters, 12-inch shrimp, and crabs as big as dinner plates were caught. Shad, salmon, striped bass and mackerel were so numerous that they provided a dirt cheap source of sustenance. There was such abundance that the roe was simply discarded. In the 1700's whales (as big as 42 feet) would strand themselves on the shores of Coney Island. As late as 1825, there were still men charged specifically with reducing the population of sharks off Manhattan docks.

One of the things I enjoyed most about All Around the Town is the colorful language Asbury employed in the telling of the tales. Nothing makes me happier than words and phrases like "billingsgate" (foul, abusive language), "on the cross" (engaged in underworld activities) and "koneyacker" (passer of counterfeit money). And then there are the names of the criminal figures themselves- Gookin Peg, "Cupid" Downer, Jane the Grabber, Cork Maggie, Scar Face Charley and Bristol Bill. Partially due to the fact that Asbury was closer to the events than we are, he was able to describe a time and place in essential period detail, and capture the rhythm and atmosphere of pre-metropolitan New York City. It gets an unreserved recommendation.


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