Dead Rabbits’ Riot of 1857

The origin of the term “Dead Rabbits,” which became so well known this year from being identified with a serious riot, is not certainly known. It is said that an organization known as the “Roach Guards,” called after a liquor dealer by that name, became split into two factions, and in one of their stormy meetings some one threw a dead rabbit into the room, and one party suddenly proposed to assume the name.

These two factions became bitterly hostile to each other; and on the day before the 4th of July came in collision, but finally separated without doing much damage. They were mostly young men, some of them being mere boys.

The next day, the fight was renewed at Nos. 40 and 42 Bowery Street, and clubs, stones, and even pistols were freely used. The “Dead Rabbits” were beaten and retired, yelling and firing revolvers in the air, and attacking everybody that came in their way. Their uniform was a blue stripe on their pantaloons, while that of the Roach Guards was a red stripe. People in the neighborhood were frightened, and fastened their doors and windows. No serious damage was done, however.

About ten o’clock, a policeman in Worth Street, while endeavoring to clear the sidewalk, was knocked down and severely beaten. At length, breaking away from his assailants, he hastened to the central office in White Street, and reported the state of things. A squad of police was immediately dispatched to arrest the ringleaders. On reaching Centre Street they found a desperate fight going on, and immediately rushed in, to put a stop to it. The belligerents at once made common cause against them. A bloody hand to hand conflict followed, but the police at length forced the mob to retreat. The latter, however, did not give up the contest, but mounting to the upper stories and roofs of the tenement houses, rained down clubs and stones so fiercely, that the police were driven off with only two prisoners.

Comparative quiet was now restored, though the excitement spread in every direction. It lasted, however, only an hour or two, when suddenly a loud yell was heard near the Tombs, accompanied with the report of fire arms, and crowds of people came pouring down Baxter and Leonard Streets, to get out of the way of bullets. Some wounded men were carried by, and the utmost terror and confusion prevailed. The air was filled with flying missiles and oaths, and shouts of defiance. Now the Dead Rabbits would drive their foes before them, and again be driven back. The bloody fight thus swayed backwards and forwards through the narrow streets for a long time. At length twenty five Metropolitan Police appeared on the scene, while fifty more were held in reserve. Though assailed at every step with clubs and stones, they marched steadily on, clearing the crowd as they advanced, and forcing the Dead Rabbits into the houses, whither they followed them, mounting even to the roof, and clubbing them at every step. After clearing the houses, they resumed their march, when they were again attacked by the increasing crowd, many of them armed with muskets and pistols. Barricades were now erected, behind which the mob rallied, and the contest assumed the aspect of a regular battle. The notorious Captain Rynders came on the ground, between six and seven o’clock, and attempted to restore quiet. Not succeeding, however, he repaired to the office of the Police Commissioners, and told Commissioner Draper, if he had not police force enough to disperse the mob, he should call out the military. The latter replied that he had made a requisition on Major-General Sandford, for three regiments, and that they would soon be on the ground. But it was nine o’clock before they made their appearance. The police then formed in two bodies of seventy-five men each, and supported, one by the Seventy-first Regiment and the other by the Eighth, marched down White and Worth Streets. This formidable display of force overawed the rioters, and they fled in every direction. This ended the riot, although the military were kept on duty during the night.

At times, the fight was close and deadly, and it was reported that eight were killed and some thirty wounded.


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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