Herbert Asbury (September 1, 1889 – February 24, 1963) was an American journalist and writer best known for his books detailing crime during the 19th and early-20th centuries, such as Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld, The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, Sucker’s Progress: An Informal History of Gambling in America 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.
Born in Farmington, Missouri, he was raised in a highly religious family which included several generations of devout Methodist preachers. His great-great uncle was Francis Asbury, the first bishop of the Methodist Church to be ordained in the United States. When he was in his early teens, he and 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 his lungs were severely damaged in a gas attack (as a result, he had health problems throughout his life). He received an honorable discharge in January 1919.
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.