From around 1920 to 1970, writers who specialized in popular history produced a huge number of endlessly enjoyable, surprisingly informative non-fiction books which stayed in print for years, entertaining and enlightening successive generations of readers. One of our favorites, and one whose books remain in print to this day, is Herbert W. Asbury (1889-1963).
Born and raised in Farmington, Missouri, Asbury was raised in a highly religious Methodist family from which he ran as soon as he could. After serving in World War I, where a gas attack permanently injured his lungs, he turned to a career in journalism while working on his first book, Up From Methodism: A Memoir of A Man Gone to the Devil. An excerpt, “Hatrack,” published byH.L. Mencken in his magazine, The American Mercury, told the story a local Farmington prostitute noted for carrying out her transactions with Catholics in the Protestant cemetery, and with Protestants in the Catholic cemetery so that no one’s ground could be desecrated. After the magazine was accordingly banned in Boston by the notorious Boston Watch & Ward Society, Mencken traveled there specifically to sell a copy on Boston Common — which he did, and was arrested for it, to great acclaim and publicity for the magazine, for Mencken, and for Asbury.
He began writing his second book, a biography of Methodist Church founder Francis Asbury (no relation) while working on newspapers includingthe New York Sun, the New York Herald, and the New York Tribune. He soon began to write a series of works about the more salacious aspects of urban subcultures of major US cities — New York, Chicago (Gem of the Prairie, currently retitled The Gangs of Chicago), New Orleans (The French Quarter), and San Francisco (The Barbary Coast), in which he recounted with considerable brio long-forgotten tales of gangs, murders, prostitution, riots, and such figures as the Everleigh Sisters, Marie Laveau, Lulu White, the Emperor Norton, the King of Pain and many more. He also wrote about the hatchet-waving temperance firebrand Carrie Nation, the volunteer fire departments of New York City (Ye Old Fire Laddies), as well as several novels and one anthology of horror stories by others which appeared originally in Weird Tales (Not At Night). His last book, The Great Illusion, a history of Prohibition, appeared in 1950. His book on the history of gambling in the US, Sucker’s Progress, was for many years not just the standard, but only book on the subject.
The Gangs of New York of course remains the book for which he is best noted, and will likely continue to be remembered. While Asbury’s recounting of the slum life of the 19th century and of such characters as Bill the Butcher, Gallus Mag, the Dead Rabbits, and Monk Eastman has been called not entirely accurate in its historical details, the book itself has usually been in print since its 1927 publication. The 2002 film has its moments, but there is little of Asbury in it, below the surface; it’s far better to go directly to see what the author himself said — anything he wrote is worth reading.