Bill the Butcher is sitting in an upstairs bedroom where Amsterdam and Jenny lie after their night together, cloaked in a tattered American flag and morning light spilling on him from the window to his right.
I killed the last honorable man fifteen years ago…
He refers to Priest Vallon, not knowing at this point of the relationship between Priest and Amsterdam, and reveals a vulnerable side of himself by relaying the shame he carries having killed Priest Vallon in battle. We surmise that Amsterdam’s actions the night prior, saving Bill’s life from the gun of a stranger, greatly endeared Bill and moved him to sharing this part of himself. However, the scene instead of heart-warming, is tense; we aren’t sure if Bill has discovered the truth about Amsterdam, and we read Amsterdam’s anxiety in his glare and Bill, “a murderous rage”.
During one duel, Bill tells Amsterdam, Priest gains the upper hand and has the opportunity to kill him, but when the Butcher couldn’t face him, the Priest resolves to spare him so that he has to live with the shame. Bill’s barbaric response to this explains his false eye–that he gouges the eye that didn’t meet Priest’s, wraps and sends it to him in blue paper. And when he gets better, he kills Priest, the scene ending with a shaky “Well done” from Amsterdam.
What I was most curious to explore about this scene was the concept of Honor: what it means, what it meant in 19th C. America, and why it was so important to the men of Gangs of New York.
From Pistols at Ten Paces: The Story of the Code of Honor in America by William Oliver Stevens
The duel, a social practice common in the United States during the century 1770 to 1870, has been defined as a “a private fight between two persons, prearranged and fought with deadly weapons..having for its object to decide a personal quarrel or to settle a point of honor.”
Martin Scorsese portrays from the 1840’s to the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863, the ghetto gehenna of the Five Points. This setting places the fateful conflict of Bill the Butcher, Priest Vallon, and son Amsterdam Vallon within the time frame of the social practice of duels before mentioned. But I can begin to understand how the responsibility of earning and defending honor can be of such importance to these men by analyzing their socioeconomic reality–living in a place where survival supersedes morality, and the conditions to survive are very physical in nature, where gender roles are not as progressive as today’s, and how that too came with its set of expectations and responsibilities. How would one find work if a man didn’t deem him an honorable man worthy of work?
Honor in 19th C. America is manhood, and the shame that Bill the Butcher feels beneath Priest Vallon in duel stripped him of his personal manhood, which then was only regained through fatal retribution. And when Amsterdam is released from the boys’ home fifteen years after the death of his father at the hands of the butcher, it is the same honor that he must earn and defend on behalf of his late father through fatal retribution. Duels and their outcomes were understood between gentlemen, and they could picture no better way to die than an honorable death at the hands of an honorable man. The anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers defines the philosophy in these terms:
Honour is the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is also the acknowledgment of that claim, his excellence recognized by society, his right to pride.