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Copper: Interview with consulting historian Daniel Czitrom

Daniel Czitrom set the scene for BBC America's new series about policing the notorious Five Points neighborhood.

Photograph: Courtesy BBC AMERICA/Cineflix

From its inception, the creators of BBC America’s new series Copper—about New York’s notorious Five Points neighborhood—put a priority on historical accuracy. During the project’s infancy, cocreator and writer Will Rokos called on Daniel Czitrom, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College and self-described “PBS talking head,” to comb through his script for errors. When Copper was greenlit, Czitrom stayed on as consulting historian to make sure scripts remained plausible and to weigh in on everything from the sounds of city streets to interior decor. In advance of the series premiere (Aug 19 at 10pm, BBC America), we spoke to Czitrom about what NYC was like 158 years ago.

So Copper takes place in New York in 1864. What is the city like?
Daniel Czitrom: New York is a really different place back in the 1860s. You have about 900,000 people in New York and roughly half a million of them live below 14th Street—on about 10 percent of the island of Manhattan. And there are no buildings over five stories tall so [people are] packed in pretty tight. With all that overcrowding that means there’s things like disease and high death rates. So for a large majority of New Yorkers at that time, life is very tough.

And the city is still that packed and bustling with the Civil War going on?
Daniel Czitrom: There’s a lot of money in New York during the war, a lot of people making big bucks on defense contracts providing the Union Army with what it needs. That’s one of the amazing things of the Civil War: The North is booming. They’re building railroads, telegraphs, expanding mining and industry. It’s one of the reasons why the North won: It was able to out-produce and out-manufacture the South. At the same time there’s a big increase in the amount of weapons that you find on the street. People are bringing home guns from the battlefield. There was a great uptick in crime in the 1860s—during and after the war—because of the proliferation of guns.

Was the city unified in working toward the Union’s cause?
Daniel Czitrom: I think that working on this project reinforced my sense on how divided New York City was during the Civil War. Class divisions, ethnic tensions, the racial divide and political divide ran deep. When the show opens in early 1864, an election year, Abraham Lincoln is one of the most reviled figures, and in early 1864 there are very few people who think he will be reelected.

How can you revile Honest Abe?
Daniel Czitrom: There was a lot of hatred of Lincoln, particularly among the Irish working class, who pretty much opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. They were afraid that the end of slavery would flood the city with freed African-Americans, competing for jobs and housing. Lincoln also institutes the first draft [in 1863] in which you can buy your way out for $300. That was beyond the means of your average unskilled worker, so there’s a tremendous amount of anger on the part of the poor. ‘This rich guy can buy his way out, I’ve got to die so these black people can free.’ That’s what they saw.

And this is all happening before the series starts?
Right. This is early 1864. It’s a few months after the Draft Riots—they were the largest civil insurrection in American history. For three or four days the city’s exploding, and 40 or 50 buildings are torched. The riots exposed tensions very visibly.

Where does the series’s protagonist, the cop Kevin Corcoran [Tom Weston-Jones], fit in?
Daniel Czitrom: The police department in 1864 is called the Metropolitan Police Force. It’s a force that’s created by the state legislature to take the police out of the control of the mayor and city politics. Today we think of the police as solving and preventing crime, but back then police for all intents and purposes were a social services agency. They were responsible for things like removing dead animals from the streets, helping doctors give inoculations in the tenement districts, fishing out bodies from the harbor and the Hudson River when they floated up every spring, taking care of lost children. That means the cops probably knew the city as well as anybody. Detectives like Kevin Corcoran got to know all aspects of the city. He’s a Five Points guy, but he has to go uptown to [visit wealthy residents of] Fifth Avenue, and he has relationships in the black community.

Those duties sound a bit more tame than the Five Points described in Gangs of New York.
Daniel Czitrom: I was interested in Copper trying to provide a richer sense of what the Five Points was like rather than the cartoonish version that you see in Gangs of New York. Starting in the 1830s and 1840s, there were a lot of journalists and writers and preachers making claims about how awful the Five Points was—all the vice and crime and depravity. In Gangs of New York—both the movie and the book—it seems like everyone in New York is a thief or pimp or prostitute. But the social history is quite different. Part of the problem with Scorsese’s movie is his source material. [The book] was written in 1927 and based largely on old newspaper clips; what I call pulp history. We know now that the people living in Five Points are just normal people trying to make a life for themselves.

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