Herbert Asbury

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Herbert Asbury
Born (1889-09-01)September 1, 1889
Farmington, Missouri
Died February 24, 1963(1963-02-24) (aged 73)
New York City
Occupation Writer and journalist
Genre True crime
Spouse Edith Snyder

Herbert Asbury (September 1, 1889 – February 24, 1963) was an American journalist and writer who is best known for his true crime books detailing crime during the 19th and early 20th century such as Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld, The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld and The Gangs of New York. The Gangs of New York was later adapted for film as Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002). However, the film adaptation of Gangs of New York was so loose that Gangs was nominated for "Best Original Screenplay" rather than as a screenplay adapted from another work.

In earlier decades, Asbury was known for his self-described "informal histories", which included descriptions of various cities, focusing on violence, crime, prostitution and lurid events.

Early life[edit]

Born in Farmington, Missouri, he was raised in a highly religious family which included several generations of devout Methodist preachers. During his early teens, Asbury, along with his siblings Mary, Emmett and Fred Asbury, became disenchanted with the local Southern Methodist church.

During World War I, Asbury enlisted as a private in the United States Army. He was later promoted to sergeant, and then to second lieutenant. He served in France until he was seriously wounded during a gas attack (his lungs were severely damaged and would result in health problems throughout his life). He eventually received an honorable discharge in January 1919.

H. L. Mencken and The American Mercury[edit]

Asbury achieved first notoriety with a story that H. L. Mencken published in his magazine, The American Mercury in 1926. The story profiled a prostitute from Asbury's hometown of Farmington, Missouri. The prostitute took her Protestant customers to the Catholic cemetery to conduct business, and took her Catholic customers to the Protestant cemetery; some in Farmington considered this woman beyond redemption.

The article caused a sensation: The Boston Watch and Ward Society had the magazine banned. Mencken then journeyed to Boston, sold a copy of his magazine on Boston Common, and was arrested. Sales of the recently founded Mercury boomed, and Asbury became a celebrity. Asbury then focused his attention on a series of articles debunking temperance crusader Carrie Nation.

The following year he wrote a biography of Francis Asbury, to whom he claimed to be very distantly related (although scholars find this unlikely).[1]

Later career[edit]

Herbert continued working as a reporter for various newspapers including the Atlanta Georgian, the New York Sun, the New York Herald and the New York Tribune. In 1928, he decided to devote his time exclusively to writing. During this time, he wrote numerous books and magazine articles on true crime. He was also involved in screenwriting and wrote several plays which appeared on Broadway. None were successful.

He married Edith Snyder in 1945, a journalist ultimately employed by The New York Times where she spent most of her career as a reporter.[2]

After his final book The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition in 1950, he retired from writing. Asbury died on February 24, 1963 at the age of 73 from a chronic lung disease.

Recent years[edit]

The 2002 film Gangs of New York revitalized interest in Asbury and many of Asbury's works, mostly chronicling the largely hidden history of the seamier side of American popular culture, have been reissued.[3] In 2008, The Library of America selected an excerpt from The Gangs of New York for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.

Although his books have long been popular within the true crime genre, commentators such as Luc Sante,[4] Tyler Anbinder[5] and Tracy Melton[6] have suggested that Asbury took journalistic liberties with his material. However, Asbury's books generally feature lengthy bibliographies, noting the newspapers, books, pamphlets, police reports and personal interviews he drew upon for his works. Most are footnoted, citing source material by publication title, date and page.

In 2005, Tracy Melton claimed in his book Hanging Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore's Plug Uglies, 1854–1860 that the Plug Uglies were actually a Baltimore-based gang. New York City newspapers compared the Dead Rabbits to the Baltimore Plug Uglies following the July 4, 1857 riots, which occurred just a month after Plug Ugly involvement in the Know-Nothing Riot in Washington. Melton further speculated that Asbury had apparently read these accounts and inaccurately incorporated the Plug Uglies into his book The Gangs of New York.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Up From Methodism 1926.
  • A Methodist Saint: The Life of Bishop Asbury 1927. A biography of Rev. Francis Asbury
  • The Devil of Pei-ling 1927. A novel.
  • The Tick of the Clock 1928. A novel.
  • The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld 1928. Reprinted in original format 1989 Dorset Press; ISBN 0-88029-429-9. Republished in 2001 with a foreword by Jorge Luis Borges.
  • Not at Night: A Collection of Weird Tales 1928.
  • The Bon Vivant's Companion: Or, How to Mix Drinks 1928. Written by Jerry Thomas, reissue edited by Asbury.
  • [The Life of] Carry Nation 1928.
  • Ye Olde Fire Laddies Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1930. An informal history of firefighting in New York City.
  • The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1933. ISBN 1-56025-408-4
  • All Around the Town: Murder, Scandal, Riot and Mayhem in Old New York 1934. (reissued as a "Sequel to Gangs of New York)
  • The Breathless Moment (with Philip van Doren Stern) 1935.
  • The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld 1936. ISBN 1-56025-494-7
  • Sucker's Progress: An Informal History of Gambling in America 1938.
  • Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld 1940. Reissued in 1986 by Northern Illinois University Press with a preface by Perry R. Duis; reissued again as The Gangs of Chicago ISBN 1-56025-454-8
  • The Golden Flood: An Informal History of America's First Oil Field Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1941 (often dated 1942).
  • The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition 1950.

Filmography[edit]

Asbury is credited with several crime-thriller screenplays for Columbia Pictures, which he co-wrote with Fred Niblo Jr (1903–1973):

  • Gangs of New York (1938)
  • Name the Woman (1934)
  • Among the Missing (1934)
  • Fugitive Lady (1934)

References[edit]

  1. ^ American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists by John Wigger. Oxford University Press: 2012. ISBN 0199948240 pg 415
  2. ^ Fox, Margalit. "Edith Evans Asbury, 98, Veteran Times Reporter, Is Dead", The New York Times, October 30, 2008. Accessed October 31, 2008.
  3. ^ See New General Catalog of Old Books and Authors.
  4. ^ Sante, Luc (1992). Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 363. 
  5. ^ Anbinder, Tyler (2001). Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Top Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum. New York: Free Press. 
  6. ^ Melton, Tracy Matthew (2005). Hanging Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore's Plug Uglies, 1854–1860. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. p. 33. 

External links[edit]