American Mysterymania

The Informal History of Herbert Asbury’s Underworld

Table des matières


Most of the authors who wrote urban mysteries content themselves with a unique city. Sue did not try to extend his vision of the Parisian underworld to other cities, Reynolds was happy with London, and Ned Buntline with New York. Apparently, these metropolises, with all their vices, their crimes, and their low life, gave them enough to deal with.  Herbert Asbury appears as an exception: his literary hunger pushed him to describe no less than four cities. Beginning with New York in 1928, he also devoted studies to San Francisco (1933), New Orleans (1936), and Chicago (1940) [Figures 1-3]1. If these books are not “urban mysteries” strictly speaking, they offer long and detailed descriptions of a city underworld and aspire to form a series, clearly identified with a common subtitle: “an informal history of the XX underworld”. The great success of Martin Scorcese’s 2002 movie Gangs of New York, based on Asbury’s first informal history, has led publishers to rename all the books of the series “the Gangs of…”. Asbury, however, gave different and specific titles to each book, and only gathered them together around a shared goal – the description of the underworld – and a same generic title: an informal history of. They constitute, according to Perry R. Duis, “our greatest compendium of information about American urban lowlife”2. In this short essay I would like to present briefly Asbury’s project and to discuss whether, or not, it belongs to the genre of the urban mysteries that started to sprawl in the 1840s. I will address three points. First, who was Herbert Asbury when he undertook this series? Second, what were his main intentions and how do they appear in the texts? Third, in what sense shall we consider these books as twentieth-century adaptations of the urban mysteries genre?

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It is not easy to obtain detailed information on the life and career of Asbury. If he is not quite an unknown, especially after the success of Scorcese’s film, most of the available data collected online or in biographical dictionaries provide the same standardized version, characterized by three main points: his Methodist youth and background, his boldness as a young reporter, and his final transformation into a writer determined to denounce America’s moral and religious hypocrisy. No doubt we need a more substantial portrait of Asbury, but it would require a descent into the familial, local, and professional archives (such as newspapers) that I could not get from Paris. However, I have tried to gather some useful information. When Asbury began the writing of Gangs of New York (in 1927), he was still a journalist, aged thirty eight, but clearly involved in a turning point of his life and career. For at least one year, he was in search of a new path, trying to publish more books than articles.

We know little about Asbury’s first years in Farmington, a small town in Missouri near St. Louis, except (but this point has to be checked because the only source is Asbury’s autobiography) that he became disenchanted with the local Methodist Church, a fact that oriented his future interest for crime, vice, and sin. The Missouri Biographical Dictionary provides more precise information: his father Samuel was city clerk and surveyor of the county; the family, which was very religious, counted several preachers among their number, including the famous Francis Asbury who, born in England, was appointed as a traveler preacher by John Wesley, and became the first bishop of the American Methodist Episcopal Church in the late eighteenth century. So Herbert, along with his sister and his two brothers, was raised in a very strict Methodist tradition, educated in a local seminary and then a Baptist college. He turned eventually to journalism, but apparently without much success. He wrote articles for the local newspaper, the Farmington Time, which he joined full-time after graduation. But he was soon fired after having taken extended vacation. It seems that from that time date his loss of faith and his break with the Methodist church. However, he returned to journalism, first in Quincey and Peoria, Illinois, then in Atlanta where he worked for William Hearst’s Atlanta Georgian. He moved then to New York City in 1915 and wrote for the New York Sun, the New York Herald, and the New York Tribune [Figure 4]. We also know that he enlisted in the US army in 1917 (he was then 28), was sent to the French front where he was seriously wounded in a gas attack. Like many such soldiers, he suffered from severe lung deficiency throughout his life. He returned to New York after the war and went on writing papers for the main New York newspapers. He gained at that time a good reputation as a reporter, but the fact is that from that moment forward he tried to diversify his occupations, and around 1925 he got into different kinds of writing: tales, theater plays, novels, documents.

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He achieved his first notoriety in April 1926, with an article on a scandal that foreshadowed the rest of his career, when he wrote for The American Mercury [Figure 5], the famous Henry L Mencken’s magazine, a piece entitled “Hat Rack”, which told the story of the unique prostitute of Farmington, his hometown. He named her hat rack because “when she stood with her arms outstretched she bore a remarkable resemblance to the tall hat-racks then in general use in our homes.” This sad and lonely prostitute services her Protestant clients in the Catholic cemetery and the Catholic customers in the Protestant. Asbury wanted, he explains later, to write something “critical of the attitude of the churches and the virtuous people of Farmington toward their fallen sisters”, and debunk a town of hymn-singing hypocrites. The story caused a national sensation and gave Asbury’s career a boost. The Post Office refused to send the issue through the mails and extended the ban nationwide. In Boston, the Watch and Ward Society convinced the Police to stop the sales in the city and to arrest Mencken himself for selling copies on Boston Common, though Mencken finally won the case3. The huge publicity caused by the arrest and the trial raised magazine circulation and made Asbury a celebrity. From then on, he clearly sought to build on the success of his 1926 story. The same year, he published a kind of autobiography, Up From Methodism4, subtitled “A Memoir of a Man gone with the Devil”, in which he relates his religious boyhood, “destined to heaven” and what he called “the machinery of salvation”. A chapter recycles “Hatrack” and Asbury wrote in the conclusion that “I find myself full of contempt for the Church, and disgust for the forms of religion. To me such things are silly; I cannot understand how grown people can believe in them, or how they can repress their giggles as they listen to the ministerial platitudes and perform such mummeries as are the rule in all churches.” He then entered a period of intense writing and publishing activity. 1927 saw the publication of the biography of his ancestor the bishop Asbury (A Methodist Saint, 1927), two novels (The Devil of Pei-Ling and The Thick of the Clock) and also a Collection of Weird Tales. He went on the following year with a bartender guide, and a biography of Carrie Nation, a famous and radical activist of the temperance movement who attacked with a hatchet alcohol-serving bars in the years before Prohibition. Obviously, Asbury wanted to devote himself to the writing of books, but to live by his pen was difficult. He would have to strike it rich. Apparently, bishops or temperance crusaders biographies, weird tales or novels, let alone his plays, did not bring him the needed literary consecration. But Gangs of New York, which Alfred Knopf published in 1928, did. He had found his way: a mix of true crime and of urban history, of exploitation and of denunciation of vice and crime, and more invocation and debunking of religious philanthropy. From that time, Asbury is known as the author of the informal history of the American Underworld. I have already quoted the “tales of the four cities” he wrote between 1928 and 1940, and I will go back to these books, but he also prolonged the model after that moment. He published a sequel to Gangs of New York (All around the town in 1934), an informal history of firefighting in New York City (1930), an informal history of gambling in America (1938), an informal history of American’s first Oil field (1941), and an informal history of Prohibition (1950).

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What are these four books about? Do they tell us the same story, as their titles and their publication by the same publisher Alfred Knopf seem to indicate, and, to begin with, what does this adjective “informal” mean? No doubt informal does not mean here bad or improperly done, or written in an undue form. It just means that we are in the presence of another history, an atypical, non-academic history, especially at a time (the late 1920s, the 1930s) when academic historiography had little room for the story of such social developments as the growth of ethnic neighborhoods, transgression, prostitution, or crime. However, if the four volumes constitute obviously a series, three distinctions could be made regarding the structure of the books.  

An immediate and clear line separates the first volume (Gangs of New York) from the others. As Asbury explains himself in the “special introduction” to the condensed Avon edition in 1950, “this book is a chronicle of some of the more spectacular exploits of the great criminal gangs of New York for almost a century” [Figure 6]. From the first chapter to the last, the book juxtaposes narratives which detail, in a chronological order, the crimes, assaults, brawls, reprisals, and colorful actions committed by the most famous or fierce outlaws of New York, all of which are accompanied by a gallery of lively portraits. If Asbury always takes care to specify the contexts (urban, social, demographic, and political), the story is built on a collection of events reported in a journalistic style. The organization of the three others books is slightly different, as they also want to provide a history of the birth and growth of the cities in which they are set. The informal histories of the San Francisco, New Orleans, and Chicago Underworlds all start, unlike New York, with a long and detailed account of the origins of the city, its first inhabitants, and its development [Figures 7-9]. In the second book, long passages are devoted to San Francisco before the Gold rush (Hierba Buena), to the Mexican times, and the arrival of John Sutter and the first Mormon missions. Similarly, The French Quarter traces the foundation of New Orleans by the French, the marquis and the marquise de Vaudreuil, the capture of the city by the Spanish, the role of the Mississippi company, and the progressive Americanization of the city. Gem of the prairie begins in the same way by some indications on the origins of the city, its first inhabitants and its first reformers, the history of the great fire, and the huge rise of the city in the second half of the nineteenth century. Unlike the approach to New York, these books also show up as foundation narratives. Of course, after such inaugural chapters, we get back to a similar structure as the one described for New York. But this important difference has two major effects: first, these books appear much more as historical studies than does Gangs of New York; and, second, they link more closely, almost inseparably, the foundation and the rise of the city with crime and vice.

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One can also note another difference, which goes in the same direction. If the first volume on New York cites a few sources, the process becomes much more systematic in the following volumes. The San Francisco history is clearly based on a rich press material, and Asbury regularly quotes: Annals of San Francisco, San Francisco Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bulletin, and The Examiner, along with some books such as Metropolitan Life Unveiled, or the Mysteries and Miseries of American Great Cities, a genuine urban mystery published by James Buel in 1882. The last two books also have long and complete bibliographies. The Chicago edition, for instance, provides the list of more than sixty references (books and monographs; articles, administrative reports and social surveys, biographies and autobiographies, including some recent works – such as those of John Landesco – published in academic journals, but no works from the pioneer urban sociologists of Chicago such as Frederik Trasher or Clifford Shaw, who published their famous work at the same moment). However, the approach appears more and more scholarly even if the core of the study remains vice and crime.

A final difference separates the last volume (Chicago) from the three previous [Figure 10]. Whereas the first three volumes clearly focus on finished stories (there are no more gangs in New York, reveals the last chapter “The passing of the gangs”, while “the end of the Barbary Coast” closes the second volume, and “the abolition of Storyville” the third one), the history of Chicago could not hold the same position. Published in 1940, it deals with a recent history it cannot ignore or by-pass. A last chapter tells the recent history of Al Capone, Big Jim Colosimo, Johnny Torrio, and other famous gangsters. The study runs until 1931, the year Capone was arrested, and details “the decade in which Chicago was overrun by gangsters”, while the previous volumes all ended around World War I, when most of the American cities promulgate laws ordering the closure of red light districts5. Not only does the author (or was it the Publisher?) add a last and almost contemporary chapter, but also a “foreword” which explains that “limitations of space have prevented the inclusion in this book to a really comprehensive survey of the Chicago underworld during the prohibition epoch”, as well as a short bibliographic supplement. Obviously, Asbury felt less conformable with these recent events: he points out in the book the rise of a new crime organization out of the ruins of the old, but it is clear than he developed a relative distaste for the post-WWI years of his subject; the gang wars of the 1920s do not sparkle with the witty stories and admiration for some nineteenth-century bandits. However, he wrote this last chapter that transformed the nature and the intention of the book.

Figure 10

Yet, beyond these distinctions, the series has a strong unity which I would like to emphasize now. The intention is clear: to provide a chronicle of vice and crime during “the old days”, i.e. the long nineteenth century, and to write a chronicle of the nether side of the main American cities, made of detailed sketches, at a time where no such books were available. From then on, three main features become clear.

Each book offers a precise geography of transgression. If “underworld” designates people and behaviors, it first means places, and Asbury’s books offer a clear mapping of crime and vice, an evolving map of the geographical distribution of crime. One of the main goals of the series is to provide clear information on places, not only areas and neighborhoods, but also precise locations, streets, buildings, saloons, and brothels. These descriptions include maps, plans, illustrations, drawings, sometimes pictures, and could work as a guidebook of the low and bad places of the underworld. Even if it was not its first intention, one can go slumming with Asbury’s book in hand. Furthermore, one of the main ideas of the series is to point out the rise and fall, in American cities, of the places of segregated vice. The chronological consistency of the series (and in a way its ideological consistency too) is to focus on a time when society imposed the concentration of vice and gambling areas (the Barbary Coast in San Francisco, Storyville in New Orleans, The Levee in Chicago). That’s why the books mainly end with the narrative of the downfall of these eras of segregated vice, the dispersal of gambling and of prostitution, and the declining tolerance of the more public forms of vice.

A second and major feature emerges from the series. As much as places, Asbury focuses on individual personalities, on people. His narratives insist on the deeds of specific people rather than on social processes, broad forces or long-term trends. This insistence on people is a clear consequence of his journalistic profession (was he a crime reporter?), and above all of the journalistic sources he uses. Asbury’s books could not have been written without the newspapers and the old clippings he uses. The structure of many chapters appears as a compilation of newspaper’s crime reports, sometimes taken from sloppy papers. This way of working presents of course many difficulties. It has to deal with the perpetual problem of sensationalism; he uses flashy stories and takes them for granted, and uses without distance material which results from journalistic challenge and rivalry. That is also why Asbury’s books have been strongly refuted by historians of crime and low life, like Luc Santé or Tyler Anbinder.

Places and people also mean a specific vocabulary (slang and argot), inaccessible to common people. The first volume of the series, Gangs of New York, ends with a lexicon which translates “the slang of the early gangsters” used in the book. Based on The Rogue’s Lexicon published by the former Chief Police George W. Mattsell in 1858, it explains that a dangler is a seducer and a gooh a prostitute, that a nose is a spy, and that gadding the hoof means going without shoes. The books also gave frequent explanations of forgotten words and expressions: “rabbits”, the origins of the “Sydney Ducks”, of the “hoodlums”.

The third main theme could be found in the convenient collaboration between transgression and politics, which are at the roots of modern organized crime. All the books insist on the connection between the gangs and Tammany Hall, on their partnerships with a corrupted police force, and the close relationships between gamblers, prostitution houses and the politicians who controlled law enforcement. Hence the emphasis on private initiatives (social demand, vigilantes’ committees, reformers, anti-vice crusaders) to get rid of the crime and shut down the infamous districts. His second book, the Barbary Coast, particularly insists on the cleansing operated by the Vigilantes of San Francisco against the Sydney Ducks, and the almost unbelievable corrupt political machine of the City. 

Is it possible to consider Asbury’s informal histories as urban mysteries? Obviously, as with most urban mysteries, they offer long and detailed descriptions of the underworld (places, people, attitudes); they deal with the exoticism and the picturesque of low life; they feed the public appeal and fascination for vice and transgression. Asbury never expresses a clear moral judgment in his books: he remains neutral. The only condemnation appears in the uses of adjectives such as “wicked”, “depraved”, and of terms like “sin”, “debauchery”, “corruption”, or “vice”.  But he generally uses the neutrality of the reporter, whose goal is to be precise, objective, exhaustive, colorful, to deal with exoticism, escapism. He writes short narratives insisting on picturesque personalities, on amazing events. Besides, he sometimes shows some indulgence and kindness toward the criminals and contributes to their legend. This is of course obvious when he evokes Joaquin Muleta, a social bandit and sort of local Robin Hood, killed in 1853 in San Francisco by The Hounds, an anti-Mexican league, or when he tells the life of Jean Lafitte, the great folk-hero of New Orleans. But his appreciation is more ambiguous with regard to some New York old-timer criminals: their huge gatherings (sometime up to 1000 individuals), their use of physical violence, their taste for fists, blades, and brawls clearly arouse Asbury’s fascination. In other ways, like most crime narratives, Asbury fuels without hesitation the popular fascination for crime and violence. Like Josiah Flynt Willard, who published from 1900 in McClure’s his “True stories from the underworld”, he could be considered as one of the numerous American authors of true crime.  

A clear evidence of the proximity between Asbury’s books and the traditional urban mysteries can also be found in the translation into French of The Gangs of New York. Very curiously, all the American slang terms which feature in the text are translated in French by old argotic words, directly taken from The Mysteries of Paris and that very few people could understand nowadays: tapis-francs, escarpe, ogresse, chourineur, bousingot.

However, many essential components of urban mysteries are missing. Let us look more precisely at the way Asbury builds his chapters. Most of them are constructed on a spatio-temporal framework: they focus on a peculiar place at a given time. For instance the Waterfront or the Bowery in 1840 in New York City, Sydney town, Chinatown or the Tenderloin in San Francisco, the Mississippi River, Basin Street, or Gallatin Street in New Orleans, the Levee in Chicago. Once the urban and moral scenery of the neighborhood is settled, the chapter zooms in on its main and symbolic places: saloons, dance-halls, melodeons, gambling dens, wine-houses, taverns and deadfalls, bagnos, parlor houses, peep-shows, and brothels. Very precise types are produced. Regarding the brothels for instance, we learn the strong differences between a cow-yard, a crib, a Chinese bagno and a parlor-house, and the author quickly introduces us to the most famous of these places: for instance the Bella Union or the Cow Bow rest in SF, the Maison Coquet or the True Delta in New Orleans, the Everleigh Club in Chicago. And finally, when the framework and the main places are settled, the chapter concludes with the introduction of the main characters and their stories: gangs and their chefs, anonymous and famous hoodlums, loose ladies of Basin Street. Some of them give way to long descriptions : like Bill the Butcher, Kid Dropper or Monk Eastman in NY, Johnny Devine (better known as the Shanghai Chicken), the big Bertha (“a sprightly lass of 280 pounds who sang sentimental ballads in a squeaky soprano”), or Maggie Kell, a voluptuous blonde known as the Queen of the Barbary Coast in SF, the murderer Bricktop Jackson, or the famous madams of New Orleans Kate Townsend, Molly Johnson or Fanny Sweet, not to mention the Everleigh sisters or Capone in Chicago.

We understand at this brief analysis of the structure of the books how far we are from the formula story which rules most urban mysteries. The main difference doesn’t lie in the lack of fiction itself. We know that many urban mysteries, beginning with Sue and going on with George Reynolds or Buntline, mix up facts and fictions, and nothing proves that Asbury’s accounts (or the newspaper reports upon which he relies) are genuine. The difference lies in the employment. What is missing here is a plot able to connect family, love, and class issues, and of course the character able to lead and embody it. For the goal is no longer to reveal the city or to unveil the social world. Neither New York, nor San Francisco nor Chicago are gothic cities in Asbury’s mind. These cities still create vice, danger, and anxiety, but these miseries can be thoroughly reviewed and displayed in the newspapers columns. These cities produce low life and underworlds, but no labyrinths: no need therefore to dive, to descend, to plunge vertically into a dark and opaque world. No more mysteries for Asbury, just “true crimes” and actual vices that a well-informed historical approach can explain. Hence the very clear and recurrent structure of his chapters. The social world according to Asbury is not undecipherable, the cities he described are not composed of branched, ramified, and complex spaces: they appear in their unveiled nudity, they are true cities corrupted by true crime and true vice. In this first half of the twentieth century, novels are not enough to tell the truth of the social world. Representation prevails over explanation. Underworld has lost its nineteenth century meaning which linked, like the French “bas-fonds”, crime, vice and destitution in a gothic, intricate and labyrinthine comprehension. To Asbury’s mind, it has just become a synonymous with “organized crime,” which is its present meaning in English.

Unlike several authors of urban mysteries, Asbury does not try to make of his narratives an instrument of social identification or of social demand. Unlike Jacob Riis or Upton Sinclair, he is not a muckraker involved in any urban or social campaign. Furthermore, his books don’t deal with the present, but are clearly located in the past. His purpose is to situate his accounts in History, to tell things of the past. Another intention, however, strongly shapes his books: a personal as well as a national intention to denounce the moral hypocrisy of the nation, in the past as well as in the present. No doubt this debunking appears ambiguous for the books also take advantage of the story of crime and vice he relates. But the fact remains that all his books could appear as an attack against American intolerance, a way to question how a nation that claimed so loud and so fervently its faith and morality could support such an industry of gambling, prostitution, liquor, and crime.

(University Paris 1 Panthéon – Sorbonne – Centre d’histoire du XIXe siècle)

Works Cited

Primary Sources

ASBURY, Herbert, Up from Methodism, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.

-----, The Gangs of New York, An informal history of the underworld, NY, A.A. Knopf, 1928.

-----,The Barbary coast, An informal history of the San Francisco underworld, NY, A.A. Knopf, 1933.

-----, The French quarter, An informal history of the New Orleans underworld, NY, A.A. Knopf, 1936.

-----, Gem of the prairie, An informal history of the Chicago underworld, NY, A. A. Knopf, 1940.

Secondary Sources

BOYER, Paul, Purity in Print, NY, Scribner’s Son, 1968.

MACKEY, Thomas C., Red Lights Out, A Legal History of Prostitution, Disorderly Houses and Vice Districts, 1870-1917, NY, Garland, 1986.


1 The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the New York Underworld, NY, A. Knopf, 1928; The Barbary Cost: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, NY, A. Knopf, 1933; The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld, NY, A. Knopf, 1936; Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld, New York, A. Knopf, 1940.

2 Perry R. Duys, introduction at The Gangs of Chicago [1940], New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1986, p. xiii.

3 Paul Boyer, Purity in Print, New York, Scribner’s Son, 1968, p. 176–181.

4 Up from Methodism, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.

5 Thomas C. Mackey, Red Lights Out. A Legal History of Prostitution, Disorderly Houses and Vice Districts, 1870–1917, New York, Garland, 1986.

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