Commencement of the Mob

Meanwhile, events were assuming an alarming aspect in the western part of the city. Early in the morning men began to assemble here in separate groups, as if in accordance with a previous arrangement, and at last moved quietly north along the various avenues. Women, also, like camp followers, took the same direction in crowds. They were thus divided into separate gangs, apparently to take each avenue in their progress, and make a clean sweep. The factories and workshops were visited, and the men compelled to knock off work and join them, while the proprietors were threatened with the destruction of their property, if they made any opposition. The separate crowds were thus swelled at almost every step, and armed with sticks, and clubs, and every conceivable weapon they could lay hands on, they moved north towards some point which had evidently been selected as a place of rendezvous. This proved to be a vacant lot near Central Park, and soon the living streams began to flow into it, and a more wild, savage, and heterogeneous looking mass could not be imagined. After a short consultation they again took up the line of march, and in two separate bodies, moved down Fifth and Sixth Avenues, until they reached Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh Streets, when they turned directly east.

The number composing this first mob has been so differently estimated, that it would be impossible from reports merely, to approximate the truth. A pretty accurate idea, however, can be gained of its immense size, from a statement made by Mr. King, son of President King, of Columbia College. Struck by its magnitude, he had the curiosity to get some estimate of it by timing its progress, and he found that although it filled the broad street from curbstone to curbstone, and was moving rapidly, it took between twenty and twenty-five minutes for it to pass a single point.

A ragged, coatless, heterogeneously weaponed army, it heaved tumultuously along toward Third Avenue. Tearing down the telegraph poles as it crossed the Harlem & New Haven Railroad track, it surged angrily up around the building where the drafting was going on. The small squad of police stationed there to repress disorder looked on bewildered, feeling they were powerless in the presence of such a host. Soon a stone went crashing through a window, which was the signal for a general assault on the doors. These giving way before the immense pressure, the foremost rushed in, followed by shouts and yells from those behind, and began to break up the furniture. The drafting officers, in an adjoining room, alarmed, fled precipitately through the rear of the building. The mob seized the wheel in which were the names, and what books, papers, and lists were left, and tore them up, and scattered them in every direction. A safe stood on one side, which was supposed to contain important papers, and on this they fell with clubs and stones, but in vain. Enraged at being thwarted, they set fire to the building, and hurried out of it. As the smoke began to ascend, the on looking multitude without sent up a loud cheer. Though the upper part of the building was occupied by families, the rioters, thinking that the officers were concealed there, rained stones and brick bats against the windows, sending terror into the hearts of the inmates. Deputy Provost Marshal Vanderpool, who had mingled in the crowd, fearing for the lives of the women and children, boldly stepped to the front, and tried to appease the mob, telling them the papers were all destroyed, and begged them to fall back, and let others help the inmates of the building, or take hold themselves. The reply was a heavy blow in the face. Vanderpool shoved the man who gave it aside, when he was assailed with a shower of blows and curses. Fearing for his life, he broke through the crowd, and hastened to the spot where the police were standing, wholly powerless in the midst of this vast, excited throng.

In the meantime, the flames, unarrested, made rapid way, and communicating to the adjoining building, set it on fire. The volumes of smoke, rolling heavenward, and the crackling and roaring of the flames, seemed for a moment to awe the mob, and it looked silently on the ravaging of a power more terrible and destructive than its own.

At this time Superintendent Kennedy was quietly making his way across the town toward the office of with a heavy club, endeavored to break in his skull, but Kennedy dodged his blows. Careful only for his head, he let them beat his body, while he made desperate efforts to break through the mass, whose demoniacal yells and oaths showed that they intended to take his life. In the struggle the whole crowd, swaying to and fro, slowly advanced toward Lexington Avenue, coming, as they did so, upon a wide mud hole. “Drown him! drown, him!” arose at once on every side, and the next moment a heavy blow, planted under his ear, sent him headforemost into the water.

Falling with his face amid the stones, he was kicked and trampled on, and pounded, till he was a mass of gore. Still struggling desperately for life, he managed to get to his feet again, and made a dash for the middle of the pond. The water was deep, and his murderers, disliking to get wet, did not follow him, but ran around to the other side, to meet him as he came out. But Kennedy was ahead of them, and springing up the bank into Lexington Avenue, saw a man whom he knew, and called out: “John Eagan, come here and save my life!” Mr. Eagan, who was a well known and influential resident of that vicinity, immediately rushed forward to his assistance, and arrested his pursuers. But the Superintendent was so terribly bruised and mangled, that Eagan did not recognize him. He, however, succeeded in keeping the mob back, who, seeing the horrible condition their victim was in, doubtless thought they had finished him. Other citizens now coming forward, a passing feed wagon was secured, into which Kennedy was lifted, and driven to police head quarters. Acton, who was in the street as the wagon approached, saw the mangled body within, did not dream who it was. The driver inquired where he should take him. “Around to the station,” carelessly replied Acton. The driver hesitated, and inquired again, “Where to?” Acton, supposing it was some drunkard, bruised in a brawl, replied rather petulantly, “Around to the station.” The man then told him it was Kennedy. Acton, scanning the features more closely, saw that it indeed was the Superintendent himself in this horrible condition. As the officers gathered around the bleeding, almost unconscious form, a murmur of wrath was heard, a sure premonition what work would be done when the hour of vengeance should come.

Kennedy was carried into head quarters, and a surgeon immediately sent for. After an examination had shown that no bones were broken, he was taken to the house of a friend, and, before the week closed, was on his feet again.

Acton, now the legal head of the police force, soon showed he was the right man in the right place. Of a nervous temperament, he was quick and prompt, yet cool and decided, and relentless as death in the discharge of his duty. Holding the views of the first Napoleon respecting mobs, he did not believe in speech making to them. His addresses were to be locust clubs and grape shot. Taking in at once the gravity of the situation, he, after despatching such force as was immediately available to the scene of the riot, telegraphed to the different precincts to have the entire reserve force concentrated at head quarters, which were in Mulberry Street, near Bleecker.

He saw at once, to have his force effective it must be well in hand, so that he could send it out in any direction in sufficient strength to bear down all opposition. Subsequent events proved the wisdom of his policy, for we shall see, after it had been accomplished, the police never lost a battle.

There being thirty two precincts in the limits of the Metropolitan Police, a vast territory was covered. These were reached by a system of telegraph wires, called the Telegraph Bureau, of which James Crowley was superintendent and Eldred Polhamus deputy. There were three operators Chapin, Duvall, and Lucas. A telegraph station was in each precinct thus making thirty-two, all coming to a focus at head-quarters. These are also divided into five sections north, south, east, west, and central. The Commissioners, therefore, sitting in the central office, can send messages almost instantaneously to every precinct of the city, and receive immediate answers. Hence, Mr. Acton was a huge Briareus, reaching out his arms to Fort Washington in the north, and Brooklyn in the south, and at the same time touching the banks of both rivers. No other system could be devised giving such tremendous power to the police the power of instant information and rapid concentration at any desired point. That it proved itself the strong right arm of the Commissioners, it needs only to state, that during the four days of the riot, between five and six thousand messages passed over the wires, showing that they were worked to their utmost capacity, day and night. The more intelligent of the mob understood this, and hence at the outset attempted to break up this communication, by cutting down the poles on Third Avenue. This stopped all messages to and from the precincts at Fort Washington, Manhattanville, Harlem, Yorkville, and Bloomingdale, as well as with the Nineteenth Precinct.

But fortunately, the orders to these had passed over the wires before the work was completed. Subsequently, the rioters cut down the poles in First Avenue, in Twenty-second Street, and Ninth Avenue, destroying communication between several other precincts.

Mr. Crowley, the Superintendent of the Telegraph Bureau, was made acquainted early, Monday, by mere accident with this plan of the rioters. Coming to town in the Third Avenue cars from Yorkville, where he resided, he suddenly found the car arrested by a mob, and getting out with the other passengers, discovered men chopping furiously away at the telegraph poles; and without stopping to think, rushed up to them and ordered them to desist. One of the ruffians, looking up, cried out, “he is one of the d d operators.” Instantly yells arose, “Smash him,” “Kill him,” when those nearest seized him. By great adroitness he disarmed their suspicions sufficiently to prevent further violence, though they held him prisoner for an hour. At last, seeing an opportunity when more important objects attracted their attention, he quietly worked his way out and escaped.


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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