Priest Vallon prays to St Michael. His young son, Amsterdam understands that St Michael cast Satan out of Paradise. Weapons are distributed. It’s the Natives vs the Priest’s Dead Rabbits. Walter McGinn, also known as Monk, says he’s with the Priest. Monk hefts his club, with forty four notches where a notch equals a kill.
The Dead Rabbits line up. Across the battlefield, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting appears with his Natives. His left eye is glass, with a blue eagle where the pupil should be.
The Priest calls Bill’s men miss nancies. More men arrive on the Priest’s side. The O’Connell Guard, The Plug Uglies, The Shirt Tails, The Chichesters, The Forty Thieves. All armed to the teeth.
They’ve met at that chosen ground to settle for good and all who holds sway over the Five Points. Bill says may the Christian Lord guide his hand. The Priest draws his sword and says prepare to receive the true Lord. After some valiant fighting, Bill fatally stabs the Priest in the stomach. A horn sounds and everyone stops.
Bill leaves the knife inside him because the Priest might need it across the river. Monk reaches inside the Priest’s jacket. Amsterdam grabs his father’s knife and runs off. Bill says Priest Vallon’s Dead Rabbits is outlawed. No-one should ever speak their name.
New York City. 1846–16 years later
Amsterdam receives a Bible and thanks the Reverend. He leaves Hellgate House of Reform and discards the Bible. New York wasn’t a city, more a furnace, where a city someday might be forged.
Every day, democrat William Tweed goes down to the waterfront with hot soup for the Irish as they come ashore. He’s building a political base. Bill hurls missiles and abuse at them.
Mulberry Street and Worth, Cross and Orange and Little Water. Each of the Five Points is a finger. When Bill closes his hand, it becomes a fist. Any time he wishes, he can turn it against Tweed.
Tweed says the people should understand that all civic duties are best kept within the Tammany family. Importantly, the appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it’s being broken.
Amsterdam tells Johnny he’s returned because he missed the Five Points, Paradise Square. He asks about the current gangs. The Daybreak Boys and Swamp Angels work the river, looting ships. The Frog Hollows Shanghai sailors near the Bloody Angle. Shirt Tails have become a bunch of jack-rolling dandies lolling around Murderers’ Alley looking like Chinamen.
There’s the Plug Uglies. The Night Walkers of Ragpickers Row work on their backs and kill with their hands. The Slaughter Housers and the Broadway Twisters are a fine bunch. And, the Little Forty Thieves. True Blue Americans just stand on corners damning England. The Dead Rabbits have been outlawed.
A fire in the Points meant you could watch the municipal police fighting the metropolitan police. There were thirty seven amateur fire brigades and they all fought each other.
Tweed arrives with his fire brigade. When the Bowery Boys arrive, he tells his boys to attack them. Amsterdam follows Johnny into the burning building scavenging for food. Bill’s fire brigade arrives, Bill telling his men to spill some claret. He then sits in a dining chair untouched by the surrounding chaos.
The Natives celebrated annually the killing of the Priest at Sparrow’s Chinese Pagoda in Mott Street. Amsterdam’s standing outside what’s known as Satan’s Circus.
There’s a Portuguese ship in the harbour, quarantined three weeks ready for looting. Amsterdam, Johnny and others board the ship. The Daybreak Boys have left nothing of value behind. Amsterdam secures a fresh corpse and sells it to medical science for $15.
Bill’s proud of what Amsterdam did, but McGloin calls them fidlam-bens. Amsterdam and McGloin prepare to fight. Bets are placed and they exchange blows. Amsterdam finally fish-hooks McGloin and they’re split up. Amsterdam’s given a steak for his face and Bill humiliates McGloin.
Bill says everything around them belongs to him. The beggars, newsboys and thieves there in Paradise, the sailor dives, gin mills and blind tigers on the waterfront, the anglers and amusers, the she-hes, the Chinese. Everybody owes, everybody pays.
The authorities need 30,000 soldiers and they’re prepared to pay volunteers $677 plus three square meals a day. You could buy your way out for $300, but nobody had $300.
Jenny pickpockets Amsterdam’s medal. Then, he follows her. Every type thief had a different name. An autem-diver picks your pocket in church. A badger gets a fellow into bed with a girl then robs his pockets while they’re on the go.
Jenny was a bludget — a girl pickpocket and a turtledove. A turtledove goes uptown dressed like a housemaid, picks out a fine house, goes through the back door and robs them blind. Amsterdam scuffles with Jenny and eventually reclaims his medal.
The Schermerhorns were one of the oldest families in New York, effectively running the city. The family wished to view the Points in all its squalor. Bill calls it a slum sociable. Jack makes introductions, but Bill already knows them.
He takes Miss Schermerhorn’s hand, smelling delicious orange blossom, commenting to her father that she’s a peach. Jack calls Bill a leader of the Five Points. Bill assures Greeley they’ll pass in safety. Greeley’s flattered to find that he’s famous in the Five Points.
Tweed’s tired of people complaining about crime in the Points, suggesting they hang some people. The hangman then reads out charges of lewdness, jack-rolling, sneak-thievery, chloral-hydrating, sodomy, strangulation and enthusiastic corruption of the public good.
There’s a raid on an illegal fist fight. Tweed says they paid off the municipal police, but it’s the metropolitan police doing the raiding. Amsterdam suggests they hold the fight legally on a ship. The winner’s announced in the 75th round and people are thrown overboard.
At a theatre, Amsterdam warns Bill about an Irish assassin. Bill’s shot, then the assassin’s shot. Bill tastes his own blood. He suggests he keep the man’s fancy waistcoat as a souvenir. Everyone cheers.
Afterwards, Monk calls Amsterdam an ignorant, barbarous Irish whelp, just like his father. He says the Irish motto: “if you’re not strong, you’d better be smart”.
Bill appraises the tavern’s depravity. Rhythms of the dark continent with an Irish shindig: a fine American mess. There are bare-breasted women everywhere. Amsterdam follows Jenny upstairs, then accuses her of having slept with everyone in the Five Points. They fight, then kiss passionately.
Later, Bill can’t sleep. He says the spectacle of fearsome acts has kept him alive. Somebody steals from him, he cuts off their hands. Somebody offends him, he cuts out their tongue. Somebody rises against him, he puts their head on a pike so all on the streets can see. Fear preserves the order of things. Amsterdam has a murderous rage in him and Bill likes it.
The finest beating Bill ever took was from the Priest. When the Priest came to finish him, Bill couldn’t look him in the eye. Bill cut out the eye that looked away and sent it to the Priest wrapped in blue paper.
Mr William Cutting is asked for an exciting exhibition of skill, courage, daring and drama — knives hanging from his belt. He beckons to Jenny.
Bill throws two knives that land by her shoulders. She walks forward, discarding the cloak. She removes the locket he gave her and he throws a knife at it.
Bill then throws another knife when she goes to pick it up. Jenny reaches down and Bill throws another knife where her head was. He asks if she has the sand to give them a grand finale. Another knife lands next to Jenny, drawing blood from her neck.
Bill lights his drink. He says they’re paying tribute to an honourable man. To defeat his enemy, he consumes him as he consumes those flames in honour of Priest Vallon.
Amsterdam throws a knife at Bill, who immediately throws a knife back. He says he wants everyone to meet the son of Priest Vallon attempting his life like a sneak thief.
Bill roars and starts head-butting Amsterdam. The crowd wants Amsterdam dead, but death’s too good for him. A red, hot blade sizzles as it’s pressed onto Amsterdam’s face.
Later, Jenny wants them both to go to San Francisco. Monk arrives and says his father was also killed in battle in Ireland. Amsterdam’s father tried to carve out a corner of America for his tribe: the Dead Rabbits.
Amsterdam asks why Monk went through the Priest’s pockets. Monk was safe-keeping a small Celtic Cross — which he thought Amsterdam could now use. Amsterdam boldly displays a dead rabbit in the Five Points. Amsterdam kills Jack and hoists up the body in the Five Points. Bill says it shows dash. They’ll settle it with a good rowdy-dow.
With 15,000 more Irish coming off the ships every week, the Dead Rabbits have an army. Amsterdam and Jenny find Johnny impaled on a fence. Amsterdam does as Johnny requests and shoots Johnny in the head.
Tweed wants an alliance with the Dead Rabbits. If Tweed backs an Irishman for Sheriff of New York, Amsterdam will get him elected. Amsterdam suggests Monk as democratic nomination for Sheriff. Monk quickly whips up pro-Irish fervour. Tweed says they should’ve run him for Mayor.
On election day, a line of men who’ve already voted are shaved and told to vote again. Soon, Monk’s winning by three thousand more votes than there are voters.
Bill threatens Monk. Monk addresses the Five Points, bringing up Bill’s threat. Bill soon buries a cleaver in Monk’s back, suggesting his friends burn him to see if his ashes turn green.
Tweed says Bill doesn’t know what he’s done to himself. Bill taps his glass eye with the tip of his knife. Bill’s gonna paint Paradise Square with Amsterdam’s blood and festoon his bedchamber with his guts.
Amsterdam and Bill agree to fight at daybreak the next day on Paradise Square with bricks, bats, axes and knives.
An angry, anti-draft mob bursts through windows shouting “kill the rich”. Mr Schermerhorn calls it a brief burst of anger over Mr Lincoln’s draft. But, Tweed’s seen the mob for himself and is uncertain. Anyone who never cared about slavery or the Union is getting stuck in.
Amsterdam says Let his sword devour until its thirst is quenched with blood and his enemies sleep forever. Bill prays to the Lord God of retribution. Schermerhorn says For the Lord is merciful and His love endures forever. All three say “amen” and rioters flood through the Schermerhorns’ windows.
The mob sacks houses. The police has no force to send. Rioters have broken open a gun store and are arming. The Marshal’s office on 3rd Ave is burning down.
The mob is attacking an armoury. All three hundred police are wounded or missing. 100 men are sent to Mayor Updike’s house. Barnum’s American Museum is on fire, with animals escaping.
Gunboat Liberty lying off Wall Street is ready to open fire. A large mob of about 4,500 is torching Harlem Bridge. There are rioters on 7th Ave, 28th St and they won’t disperse.
The Dead Rabbits finally face the Natives. Amsterdam holds aloft Monk’s club. The Liberty opens fire, shelling The Five Points. In the dust and thick gun smoke, Bill slashes Amsterdam with a blade, then Bill slashes Amsterdam again.
There’s more shelling and Amsterdam and Bill are left on the floor. McGloin’s riddled with bullets. Bill’s hit with shrapnel and is pleased he dies a true American. Amsterdam stabs him and Bill finally collapses.
It was four days and nights before the worst of the mob was put down. For those New Yorkers that lived and died in those furious days, it was like everything they knew was mightily swept away. Bill Cutting was buried next to Priest Vallon.
Starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Cameron Diaz. Daniel Day-Lewis. Rated 18. Dir Martin Scorsese. Released in the UK 2002. Runtime 2hrs 47mins