Abolition Riots of 1834-1835

Most of the riots of New York have grown out of causes more or less local, and wholly transient in their nature. Hence, the object sought to be obtained was at once secured, or abandoned altogether. But those arising from the formation of Abolition societies, and the discussion of the doctrine of immediate emancipation, were of a different character, and confined to no locality or time. The spirit that produced them developed itself in every section of the country, and the question continued to assume vaster proportions, till the Union itself was involved, and what was first only a conflict between the police of the city and a few hundred or thousands of ignorant, reckless men, grew at last into the most gigantic and terrible civil war that ever cursed the earth. The Union was rent asunder, and State arrayed against State, while the world looked on aghast at the strange and bloody spectacle. The final result has been the emancipation of the slaves, and their endowment with all the rights and privileges of American citizens. But with this has come a frightful national debt, the destruction of that feeling of common interest and patriotism, which is the strongest security of a country; a contempt for the Constitution, the concentration of power in the hands of Congress, small regard for State rights, while the controlling power in the South has passed into the hands of an ignorant, incapable, irresponsible class; and, worse than all, the people have become accustomed to the strange spectacle, so fraught with danger in a republic, of seeing the legislatures and executives of sovereign States overawed and overborne by the national troops. That frightful conflict for the slave has sown dangerous seed; what the final harvest will be, the future historian alone will be able to show.

The inconsistency of having a system of slavery incorporated into a republican government was always felt by good men North and South, as well as its damaging effect on the social and political well being of the whole community; and steps had been taken both in Virginia and Kentucky to do away with it by legislative action. Whether these incipient steps would ever have ended in relieving us of the evil, can only be conjectured. We only know that a peaceable solution of the question was rendered impossible, by the action of the Abolitionists, as they were called, who, governed by the short logic, that slavery being wrong, it could not exist a moment without sin, and therefore must be abandoned at once without regard to consequences. The system of slavery was no longer a social or political problem, calling for great wisdom, prudence, statesmanship, and patience, but a personal crime, not to be tolerated for a moment. The whole South was divided by them into two classes, the oppressor and oppressed, the kidnapper and kidnapped, the tyrant and the slave a relationship which liberty, religion, justice, humanity, alike demanded should be severed without a moment’s delay.

These views, in the judgment of the press at the time, and of sound statesmen, would eventually end in civil war, if adopted by the entire North, and hence they denounced them. The Abolitionists were considered by all as enemies to the Union, whom the lower classes felt should be put down, if necessary, by violence. This feeling was increased by the action of William Lloyd Garrison, the founder of the society, who went to England, and joined with the antislavery men there in abusing this country for its inconsistency and crime. These causes produced a state of public feeling that would be very apt to exhibit itself on the first opportunity. When, therefore, in the autumn of 1833, after Garrison’s return from England, a notice appeared for an antislavery meeting in Clinton Hall, some of the most respectable men in New York determined to attend, and crush out, by the weight of their influence, the dangerous movement. Another class was resolved to effect the same project in another way, and on the 2d of October the following placard was posted in naming letters all over the city:

To all persons from the South.All persons interested in the subject of the meeting called by J. Leavitt, W. Goodell, W. Green, J. Rankin, Lewis Tappan,At Clinton Hall, this evening, at 7 o’clock, are requested to attend at the same hour and place.Many Southerners.
New York, October 2d, 1833.

N.B. All citizens who may feel disposed to manifest the true feeling of the State on this subject, are requested to attend.

Putting the appeal in the name of the Southerners, was an artful device to call out the people.

At an early hour crowds began to assemble in front of Clinton Hall; but to their surprise they found a notice nailed on the door, that no meeting would be held. Many, seeing it, returned home; but still the crowd continued to swell to thousands, who rent the air with shouts and threats against Garrison. Determined not to be disappointed in a meeting of some kind, they forced their way upstairs, till the room in which it was to be held was crammed to suffocation. The meeting was then organized, and waited till quarter past seven, when it was moved to adjourn to Tammany Hall. There it was again organized, and a gentleman was about to address the crowd, when a man stepped forward to the president, and stated that the meeting announced to be held in Clinton Hall was at that moment under full headway in Chatham Street Chapel. Instantly several voices shouted, “Let us go there and rout them!” But the chairman said they had met to pass certain resolutions, and they should attend to this business first, and then every one could do as he liked. The resolutions were read, and after some remarks had been made upon them, adopted, and the meeting adjourned. A portion of those present, however, were not satisfied, but resolved to go to the chapel and break up the meeting there. The little handful assembled within, apprised of their approach, fled, so that when the mob arrived, the building, though the doors were open and the lights burning, was empty. It immediately took possession of the room, and giving a Negro who was foremost in the sport the name of one of the Abolitionists, made him chairman. The most absurd resolutions were then offered, and carried, when the chairman returned thanks for the honor done him amid the most uproarious laughter, and what had threatened to be a serious riot ended in a wild, lawless frolic.

This was the beginning of the Abolition riots in New York City, which afterwards, to a greater or less extent, prevailed for years in different parts of the Union.

Next summer the excitement, which during the winter had nothing to call it forth, broke out afresh, ending in destruction of property and bloodshed, and the calling out of the military. On the evening of the 7th of July, an assembly of colored persons of both sexes occupied Chatham Street Chapel, for the purpose of listening to a sermon from a Negro preacher. The New York Sacred Music Society had leased the building for certain evenings in the week, of which it was asserted this was one. Justice Lowndes, of the Police Court, was president, and Dr. Rockwell vice-president of the society, and they repaired to the building during the evening, and finding it occupied, at once claimed their right to it, and demanded that the blacks should leave. But the latter, having hired and paid for it, refused to do so, when a fight ensued, in which lamps and chairs were broken, loaded canes used freely, and some persons seriously injured. The news of the fight spread rapidly, and a dense crowd gathered around the door. But the police soon arrived, and forcing their way in, drove white and black out together, and locked up the church.

The riot, however, continued for some time in the street; but the blacks, finding themselves outnumbered, fled, and peace was restored.

A portion of the crowd, having recognized Lewis Tappan, one of the leading Abolitionists, followed him home with hoots and yells, and even hurled stones at his house after he had entered it.

The next evening, at dusk, the crowd began again to assemble in front of the chapel. But the lessee of it had closed and locked the gates. The multitude determined, however, not to be disappointed of a meeting, and forcing open the gates, obtained entrance. The meeting was then organized, and Mr. William W. Wilder called to the chair. After making a speech, in which he showed the evil effects of a sudden abolition of slavery, by relating his experience in San Domingo, he moved an adjournment until the next meeting of the Antislavery Society. The motion was carried, and the assembly broke up. This was, however, altogether too quiet a termination for a part of the crowd, and a shout was made for the Bowery Theater. The attacks on us by the English, for upholding slavery, and their sympathy and aid for Garrison, and co operation with him in agitating the question of abolition in this country, had rekindled the old slumbering feeling of hostility to that country; and Mr. Farren, the stage manager of the Bowery, being an Englishman, it was transferred to him, especially as reports had been circulated that he had spoken disrespectfully of the Americans.

This night having been selected to give him a benefit, his enemies had posted placards over the city, stating the fact of his hostility to this country whether with the intention of causing a thin house, or breaking it up altogether, is not known. At all events, the mob resolved on the latter course, and streaming up the Bowery in one wild, excited mass, gathered with loud shouts in front of the theater. The doors were closed in their faces, but pressing against them with their immense weight, they gave way, and like a dark, stormy wave, they surged up the aisles toward the foot lights. In the garish light, faces grew pale, and turned eagerly toward the doors for a way of escape. But these were jammed with the excited, yelling mob. The play was “Metamora,” and was under full headway, when this sudden inundation of the rioters took place. The actors stopped, aghast at the introduction of this new, appalling scene. Messrs. Hamlin and Forrest advanced to the front of the stage, and attempted to address them; but apologies and entreaties were alike in vain. The thundering shouts and yells that interrupted them were not those of admiration, and spectators and actors were compelled to remain silent, while this strange audience took complete possession of the house, and inaugurated a play of their own.

But the police, having received information of what was going on, now arrived, and forcing their way in, drove the rioters into the street, and restored order. But the demon of lawless violence, that was now fully raised, was not to be thus laid. Some one got hold of a bell, and began to ring it violently. This increased the excitement, and suddenly the shout arose, “to Arthur Tappan’s.” [Footnote: A silk merchant, and one of the leading Abolitionists.] The cry was at once taken up by a thousand voices, and the crowd started down the street. But instead of going to his house, they went to that of his brother, Lewis, in Hose Street, a still more obnoxious Abolitionist. Reaching it, they staved open the doors, and smashed in the windows, and began to pitch the furniture into the street. Chairs, sofas, tables, pictures, mirrors, and bedding, went out one after another. But all at once a lull occurred in the work of destruction. In pitching the pictures out, one came across a portrait of Washington. Suddenly the cry arose, “It is Washington! For God’s sake, “don’t burn Washington!” In an instant the spirit of disorder was laid, and the portrait was handed carefully from man to man, till at length the populace, bearing it aloft, carried it with shouts to a neighboring house for safety. It was one of those strange freaks or sudden changes that will sometimes come over the wildest and most brutal men, like a gleam of gentle light across a dark and stormy sea the good in man for a moment making its voice heard above the din and strife of evil passions.

This singular episode being terminated, they returned to their work of destruction. But suddenly the cry of “Watchmen!” was heard, and the next moment the police came charging down the street. The mob recoiled before it, then broke and fled, and the former took possession of the street. But the latter, coming across some piles of brick, filled their arms and hands full, and rallying, returned. Charging the watchmen in turn with a blinding shower of these, they drove them from the ground. They then kindled a fire on the pavement, and as the flames flashed up in the darkness and gained headway, they piled on bedding and furniture, till the whole street was illuminated with the costly bonfire. This caused the fire bells to be rung, and soon the engines came thundering down the street, before which the crowd gave way. The burning furniture was then extinguished, and the house taken possession of. It was now two o’clock in the morning, and the mob dispersed.

The next day nothing was talked about in the saloons, groceries, and on the corners of the by streets, but the events of the night before; and as evening came on, a crowd began to assemble in front of the battered, dilapidated house of Lewis Tappan. Another attack was imminent, when the police came up and dispersed them. They had not, however, abandoned the purpose for which they had assembled.

The little band of Abolitionists, that the year before had been composed mostly of comparatively obscure men, had now increased both in numbers and men of influence. Persecution had produced its usual effects advanced the cause it designed to destroy. Among other well-known citizens who had joined their ranks were the two brothers, Dr. Abraham Cox, M.D., and Dr. Samuel Cox, the latter, pastor of Laight Street Church, and one of the most popular preachers of the city. Though opposed by a large majority of his congregation, he had become known as a bold, outspoken man against slavery; and now the mob, bent on mischief, streamed across the city toward his church. It was dark, and as they gathered in a black, dense mass in front of it, suddenly, as if by a common impulse, a loud yell broke forth, and the next moment a shower of stones and brick bats fell on the windows. Babel was now let loose, and, amid the crashing of window-glass, arose every variety of sound and all kinds of calls, interspersed with oaths and curses on “Abolitionists and niggers.”

Shrieks of laughter and obscene epithets helped to swell the uproar. It was evident they would not be satisfied until they left the church a ruin; but at this critical moment, the Mayor, Justice Lowndes, the District Attorney, and a posse of police officers and watchmen arrived on the ground. Expecting trouble, they had arranged to be ready at a moment’s warning to hasten to any threatened point. Their unexpected presence frightened the crowd, and fearing arrest, they slunk away in squads, and the danger seemed over. But, evidently by previous arrangement, the broken fragments, arriving by different streets, came together in front of Dr. Cox’s house, in Charlton Street.

The doctor, however, was not at home. He had received warnings and threats from various quarters, and knowing, from the fate of Lewis Tappan’s house, what that of his own would be, he had, during the day, quietly removed his furniture, and in the afternoon put his family on board of a steamboat, and left the city.

The mob found the door barricaded, but they broke it open, and began to smash the windows and blinds of the lower story. Before, however, they had begun to sack the house, police officers and watchmen, with two detachments of horse, arrived and dislodged them. They did not, however, disperse. A more dangerous and determined spirit was getting possession of them than they had before evinced. Crowding back on each other, they packed the street east, within four blocks of Broadway. Seizing some carts, they made a hasty barricade of them across the streets, while a neighboring fence supplied them with clubs. A large number were armed with paving-stones, which they would smite loudly together, saying in deep undertones, “all together.” As they thus stood savagely at bay, a collision seemed inevitable, and had they been attacked, would doubtless have made a desperate fight. But being let alone they slowly dispersed. A portion, however, though it was now late at night, could not retire without venting a little more spite, and returning to the church, broke in some more windows.

Dr. Cox came back to his house next morning, to see if it was safe. As he left the mutilated building, a crowd of boys, who were looking at the ruins, immediately gave chase to him with yells and derisive laughter, and pressed him so closely, at the same time hurling dirty missiles at him, that he was compelled to take shelter in the house of a parishioner.

The crowd around the house continued to increase all the morning, but a hundred policemen arriving at one o’clock, no disturbance of the peace was attempted. In the afternoon, Mayor Lawrence issued a proclamation, denouncing the rioters, and calling on all good citizens to aid in maintaining the peace, and assuring them that he had taken ample measures to repress all attempts at violence. At the Arsenal, City Hall, and Bazaar, large bodies of troops were assembled, ready to march at a moment’s notice; and it was evident that the coming night was to witness a trial of strength between the rioters and the city authorities.

As soon as it was fairly dark, large crowds gathered in front of Arthur Tappan’s store, and began to stone the building. Some fifteen or twenty watchmen were stationed here, and endeavored to arrest the ringleaders, when the mob turned on them, and handled them so roughly that they were compelled to take refuge in flight. Alderman Lalagh was severely wounded; but he refused to leave, and standing fiercely at bay, denounced and threatened the maddened wretches, who in turn swore they would take his life. He told them to force open the doors if they dare; that the inside was full of armed men, who were ready to blow their brains out the moment the door gave way. This frightened them, and they had to content themselves with stoning the windows, and cursing the Abolitionist who owned the building. In the meantime, Justice Lowndes came up with a strong police force, when they fled.

While this was going on here, similar scenes were passing in other parts of the city. At dark, some three or four hundred gathered around Dr. Cox’s church, in Laight Street, discussing the conduct of the Abolitionists, but making no outward demonstrations calling for the interference of the police, until nine o’clock, when a reinforcement came yelling down Varick Street, armed with stones and brick bats. These charged, without halting, so furiously on the police officers, and the few watchmen stationed there, that, bruised and bleeding, they were compelled to flee for their lives. The next moment stones rattled like hail against the church, and, in a few minutes, the remaining windows were smashed in. The police rallied when they reached Beach Street, and hurried off a messenger to the City Hall for the military. In the meantime, loud shouts were heard in the direction of Spring Street, and with answering shouts the mob left the church, and rushed yelling like Indians to the spot. A vast crowd was in front of a church there, under the care of Rev. Mr. Ludlow, another Abolitionist, and had already commenced the work of destruction. They had torn down the fence surrounding it, and were demolishing the windows. Through them they made an entrance, and tore down the pulpit, ripped up the seats, and made a wreck of everything destructible without the aid of fire. The session-room shared the same fate, and the splintered wreck of both was carried in their arms, and on their shoulders, out of doors, and piled into barricades in the street on both sides of the building, to stop the anticipated charge of cavalry. Carts, hauled furiously along by the mob, were drawn up behind this, and chained together, making a formidable obstruction. They then rung the bell furiously, in order to bring out the firemen. The watch-house bell in Prince Street gave a few answering strokes, but information being received of what was going on, it ceased, and the firemen did not come out. It was now near eleven o’clock, when, all at once, an unearthly yell arose from the immense throng. Word had passed through it that the military was approaching. Pandemonium seemed suddenly to have broken loose, and shouts, and yells, and oaths arose from five thousand throats, as the men sprung behind their barricades. It was a moonless night, but the stars were shining brightly, and, in their light, the sheen of nearly a thousand bayonets made the street look like a lane of steel. The Twenty-seventh Regiment of National Guards, led by Colonel Stevens, had been sent from the City Hall, and their regular heavy tramp sounded ominously, as they came steadily on. The church-bell was set ringing furiously by the mob and there was every appearance of a determined resistance. As Colonel Stevens approached the first barricade, he halted his regiment, and ordered his pioneer guard to advance. They promptly obeyed, armed with their axes. A shower of stones met them, while clubs were waved frantically in the air, accompanied with oaths and threats. They, however, moved firmly up to the barricade, and the shining steel of their axes, as they swung them in the air, was as terrific as the gleam of the bayonets, and the crowd retired precipitately behind the second barricade. The first was now speedily torn down, and the head of the column advanced. The second was a more formidable affair, in fact, a regular bastion, behind which were packed in one dense mass an immense body of desperate men, reaching down the street, till lost in the darkness. It seemed now that nothing but deadly volleys would answer. One of the city officers advised Colonel Stevens to retreat, but, instead of obeying, he ordered the pioneer guard to advance, and sustained it by a detachment of troops. Amid the raining missiles they moved forward, when the crowd fell back, some fleeing up the side streets. The guard then mounted the barricade, and in a short time it was scattered in every direction; and when the order “Forward” was given, the column marched straight on the mob. At this moment, Justice Lowndes, at the head of a band of watchmen, arrived on the ground, when the two forces moved forward together, clearing the street of the rioters. While the fight was going on, some of the gang remained inside the church, and kept the bell ringing violently, until Colonel Stevens ordered one of his officers to cut the rope.

A portion of the mob now hurried to Thompson Street, where Mr. Ludlow resided. The family had retired for the night, but their repose was suddenly broken by loud yells and the sound of stones dashing in their windows. Jumping up in wild alarm, they saw the doors broken in, through which streamed the shouting, yelling crowd.

Either from fear of the military, which they knew would soon be upon them, or some other cause, they decamped almost as suddenly as they came, and relieved the terror-stricken household of their presence.

About this time, another immense mob had collected at Five Points. The rioters here seemed to be well organized, and to act in concert. Runners were kept passing between the different bodies, keeping each informed of the actions of the other, and giving notice of the approach of the police.

The destruction at Five Points was on a more extensive scale, and the gatherings in this, then dangerous section of the city the home of desperadoes and depraved beings of every kind were of such a character, that for a time the city authorities seemed to be over-awed. The rioters had it all their own way for several hours, and the midnight heavens became lurid with burning dwellings. It somehow got round that they had resolved to attack every house not illuminated with candles, and these dirty streets soon became brilliant with the lighted windows. Five houses of ill fame were gutted, and almost entirely demolished. St. Philip’s Church, in Center Street, occupied by a colored congregation, was broken into, and for two hours the mob continued the work of destruction unmolested. They left it a complete ruin. A house adjoining, and three houses opposite, shared the same fate. The mob was everywhere; and although the police made some arrests and had some fights, they were too weak to effect much. About one o’clock a shout arose, “away to Anthony Street!” and thither the yelling wretches repaired.

The Mayor was at the City Hall all night, doing what he could; but the mob had arranged their plans to act in concert, appearing in separate bodies in different sections of the city at the same time, so that he hardly knew, with the force at his disposal, where to strike. The next morning he issued another proclamation, calling on the citizens to report to him and be organized into companies to aid the police. He called also on all the volunteer military companies of the city to rally to the support of the laws. They did so, and that (Saturday) night they, with most of the fire companies, who had offered their services, were stationed in strong bodies all over the city; and the rioters saw that their rule was ended. Beside, many of the most notorious ringleaders had been arrested and put in prison. A short fight occurred in Catharine Street between the police and mob, in which both had some of their men badly hurt; and an attempt was made to get up a riot in Reade Street, but it was promptly put down. The city was rife with rumors of bloody things which the mob had threatened to do; but, with the exception of the military in the streets, the city on Sunday presented its usual appearance. The lawless spirit was crushed out, and a hundred and fifty of the desperadoes who had been instrumental in rousing it were locked up to await their trial.

In June of the summer of 1835 occurred the Five Points riot, which grew out of the feeling between Americans and foreigners. It threatened for a time to be a very serious matter, but was finally quelled by the police without the aid of the military. Dr. W. M. Caffrey was accidentally killed by one of the mob, and Justice Lowndes was dangerously wounded.

In connection with the series of riots of 1834 and 1835, might be mentioned the Stonecutters’ riot, though it was promptly suppressed

Abolition, History,

Headley, Joel Tyler. The great riots of New York, 1712 to 1873: including a full and complete account of the Four Days' Draft Riot of 1863. New York: E. B. Treat, 1873.

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