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Gone to Amerikay

At some time after the script for Gone to Amerikay was completed, our editor, Joan Hilty, asked if I'd mind putting together a text piece going into a little detail about the real historical characters who pass through the background of the book.  A similar piece for Stagger Lee had seemed very well received by readers, and I really like writing stuff like that anyway, so I didn’t require much persuading.  I wrote a couple of pages of notes, turned them in, and forgot about them.

Time passed, there were editorial upheavals at Vertigo, and we lost Joan as our editor.  When I eventually received the galleys for the book, I noticed that the notes on the historical characters weren’t included…and the solicited page count didn’t seem to make it possible to include them.  I tried to get the pages put back in, but it was clearly too late.  I harboured a hope that they would make it back into the paperback edition, but again…time passed, I forgot about it, editorial more upheaval occurred, and by the time it entered my head to ask about the text pages the book had already been solicited at a page count too small to include them.

Never one to let things go to waste, I’ve decided to recycle those notes here on my own web page.  If you’ve read Gone to Amerikay and were curious about the real people lurking in the background, this is the page for you.  Following are my character notes, exactly as they were intended to go into print.

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Notes on the Text

By Derek McCulloch

It hardly seems necessary to point out that this book is a work of fiction in every way, but I do so anyway for the benefit of anybody inclined to tell me where I got things wrong.  That preemptive defense notwithstanding, I’m proud to say that Colleen and I tried our best to ground our fiction in the real world, filling the background with people and places and things that really did exist—or at least really may have existed.  What follows here is a quick overview of some of these background elements, with recommendations for sources of more detailed information on some truly fascinating subjects.

The Dead Rabbits – During Independence Day celebrations on the fourth of July, 1857, the political friction between the immigrant Irish of Five Points and the nativists entrenched in the Metropolitan Police Department erupted into fierce street fights.  These fights grew in turn into mob war between toughs from Five Points and the Bowery.  The violence escalated ever further until the whole city was embroiled for two days in a riot that ended only when the intervention of the State militia was threatened.  The press called this “the Dead Rabbits/Bowery Boy Riot,” and eventually just “The Dead Rabbits Riot.”  Seventy years later, journalist Herbert Asbury exhumed these stories for his “Informal History of the Underworld,” The Gangs of New York.  He elaborated freely on the history of The Dead Rabbits of Five Points and their status as one of old New York’s most feared Irish gangs.  As a storyteller, Asbury was magnificent; as a historian, he was less than scrupulous.  The early references to the Dead Rabbits in the press following the riots came exclusively from the Bowery side of the conflict.  Residents of Five Points vehemently denied the existence of any such gang.  Asbury’s gleefully lurid collection of old rumors is an entertaining read – but as history, it’s every bit as suspect as the present volume.  In his more rigorously researched account of the riots in the definitive history of the neighborhood, Five Points, Tyler Anbinder thoroughly debunks the participation of The Dead Rabbits in the 1857 riot, and suggests that it is unlikely that any gang by that name ever actually existed in New York.

Knowing that, why did I still name my Five Points gang “the Dead Rabbits?”  The same reason, I suppose, that Herbert Asbury, Martin Scorsese, and everyone else who’s ever told a story involving Irish gangs in 1800s New York did:  “the Dead Rabbits” is an awesome name.

Marm Mandelbaum – Our depiction of Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum is as accurate as we could make it, right down to the location of her dry goods store at Clinton and Rivington.  She really was the biggest fence in New York, moving millions of dollars in stolen goods over a 20‑year period.  She really did throw lavish dinner parties for the cream of the underworld.  She really did flee prosecution with a million dollars.  This was in 1884, after an undercover Pinkerton agent gathered enough evidence for the arrest of Marm, her son Julius, and one of her clerks.  Marm made bail easily and immediately left for Toronto, where she lived in comfort until her death in 1894 at the age of 76.  She apparently returned to New York only once, secretly attending the funeral of her youngest daughter.

Adam Worth – Adam Worth was, as Sophie notes to Lewis, supposedly Conan Doyle’s model for his criminal genius, Professor Moriarty, and was known in his time, as “the Napoleon of crime.”  Worth’s family immigrated from Prussia to the United States when he was five.  At ten, he ran away from home, drifting from city to city.  He enlisted in the Union Army at the age of 17 and was wounded in the Second Battle of Bull Run.  Discovering that he had been mistakenly listed as killed in action, he took the opportunity to remove himself from service, at least temporarily.  He became a “bounty jumper,” taking money to enlist (under an assumed name) in another man’s place, and then deserting as soon as he collected his first pay.  After the war, he became a pickpocket in New York, eventually organizing a gang of pickpockets.  He then graduated to robberies of ever larger scale and elaborateness, robbing stores and even tunneling into bank vaults.  In the 1870s, Worth moved his operation to Europe, basing himself first in Paris and then in London, where he continued to pull off brazen heists, stealing money, art, and jewels.  In 1892, the law finally caught up with Worth when a robbery in Belgium went awry.  He was released in 1897, and lived only five more years.  He died in 1902 of heart failure and liver disease or, as the coroner put it, “chronic habits of intemperance.”  He was penniless and was deposited in a pauper’s mass grave.  As a criminal, Worth was unusually cerebral, his heists marked by careful planning and preparation.  He was also adamantly non-violent.  It’s said that in his long criminal career, he never physically harmed anyone.

Grace O’Malley – The bedtime story that Ciara tells is a genuine Irish folk tale based on genuine Irish history.  Gráinne Ní Mháille or Grace O’Malley lived from about 1530 to about 1603.  The hereditary chieftain of the Clan Ó Máille, she became known as a pirate queen, ruling the northwestern coast of Ireland and extracting tribute from all ships that sailed her waters.  O’Malley lived a thoroughly colorful life that was further embellished through ballads and legends, but no exaggeration is necessary to see the remarkable figure she was.  In 1593, she met directly with Elizabeth I to negotiate the release of O’Malley’s sons, who had been captured by the British.  The two monarchs, lacking any other common language, spoke in Latin.  The two most powerful women in the British Isles clearly discovered some common ground, coming to a mutually satisfactory (though not terribly long-lived) diplomatic settlement.  Perhaps the best known of the folkloric artifacts of the life of Grace O’Malley is the Gaelic ballad “Óró Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile,” which I first heard as a small child, in a recording by the subjects of the following paragraph.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – Though they appear nowhere in the story, the influence of this pioneering Irish-folk group of the 1960s on this book is huge, both in terms of music and history.  Their renditions of ballads like “Roddy McCorley,” “The Rising of the Moon,” and “The Jug of Punch” were the indelible soundtrack of my childhood, and I returned to their canon again and again when supplying Johnny and Brian with songs to sing.  Moreover, Liam Clancy’s funny and lyrical autobiography, The Mountain of the Women, provided many of the underpinnings for our depiction of the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1960.  Like Johnny and Brian, the Clancys and Makem came to America intending to be actors and instead found success singing folk songs they’d taken for granted growing up in Ireland.  I borrowed the broad arc of their careers – from Broadway dabbling to singing on the Ed Sullivan Show – but the characters and careers of Johnny and Brian are entirely invented.

Brendan Behan – The details given here of Brendan Behan’s 1960 trip to New York are largely accurate.  He came for the American debut of his play, The Hostage, at the Cort theatre.  The press meeting him at Idlewild expected to interview the mad playwright who had shocked Britain with his wild, publicly drunken antics.  Instead, they met a milk-drinking teetotaler.  Behan had been sober for months and planned to stay that way throughout his visit to America.  His resolve saw him through the airport interviews, but not much farther.  He fell spectacularly off the wagon after an argument with his wife and stayed there for the four years that remained in his too-short life.  The main biographical source I consulted for Behan’s appearance in this book was Michael O’Sullivan’s Brendan Behan:  A Life.  There are several other good biographies, but anyone curious to know more about Behan would be best served simply by reading or better yet seeing his plays.

Dave Van Ronk – The late singer/guitarist Dave Van Ronk was at home in virtually every folk music idiom.  He learned blues guitar from the Reverend Gary Davis and incorporated jazz, blues, swing, and folk forms from America, England, Ireland, and Africa in his repertoire.  A fixture of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 60s and a friend to Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and young Bob Dylan, he became known as “The Mayor of McDougal Street.”  Van Ronk’s cameo in this story is small, but it seemed to me that no story touching on the Village folk scene of the 60s could omit him entirely.  For more on Van Ronk’s life, consult his memoir, The Mayor of McDougal Street, but for a better sense of his importance to the field, listen to Inside Dave Van Ronk, a compilation of two of his best early-60s recordings.

The Ed Sullivan Show – It almost didn’t occur to me to provide notes on the Ed Sullivan Show, but it may actually be necessary for any readers under the age of 40.  Sullivan was a sports writer and later a gossip columnist in New York in the 1930s, a contemporary of and competitor to Water Winchell.  In 1948, at the dawn of the television age, CBS hired Sullivan to host a variety show.  The show he created was in essence a recreation of the vaudeville stage of his childhood, a bizarre amalgamation of singers, jugglers, comics, acrobats, dramatic readings, and puppet shows, all presided over by Sullivan, whose famously wooden delivery became fodder for generations of impressionists.  The show became a success far beyond anyone’s expectations.  Every Sunday for 20 years, America sat down to see what Sullivan had lined up for them that night.  It is no exaggeration to say that the show became an institution, and an essential launching pad for show business careers.  It lasted until 1971, when the inevitable shift in generations and demographics forced Sullivan to step aside for a younger generation of entertainers.

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