Flour Riot of 1837

Hunger will drive any people mad, and once let there be real suffering for want of food among the lower classes, while grain is piled up in the storehouses of the rich, and riots will surely follow. In the French Revolution of 1789, there was a great scarcity of provisions, which caused frightful outbreaks. It will never do to treat with scorn the cry of millions for bread. When, amid the general suffering in Paris, one said to Foulon, the minister of state, the people are starving for bread, he replied, “Let them eat hay.” The next day he was hung to a lamp post. The tumultuous multitude marching on Versailles, shouting wildly for “bread,” was a fearful spectacle. One can hardly blame starving men from seizing food by violence, if it can be got in no other way; and if ever a mob could be justifiable, it would be when they see their families suffering and perishing around them, in the very sight of well stored granaries.

In the old despotism of Europe, the poor and oppressed attribute all their want and suffering to the rich and powerful, so that they are not held back from redressing their wrongs by ignorance of their source, but fear of the strong hand of their rulers.

These men, embittered not only by their own sufferings, but by the traditions of the past, when they come to this country are easily roused to commit acts of violence by anything that reminds them of their old oppressions. They have tasted the wormwood and the gall, and refuse to have it pressed to their lips in a country where liberty is the birthright of all. This is what has made, and still makes, the foreign population among us so dangerous. The vast proportion of them are from this very class. Ignorant of everything but their wrongs, they rise in angry rebellion at any attempt, or fancied attempt, to renew them here. Unfortunately there are Americans among us, who, knowing this, work upon this sensitive, suspicious feeling, to accomplish their own ends. The politician does it to secure votes; but the worst class is composed of those who edit papers that circulate only among the scum of society, and embittered by the sight of luxuries beyond their reach, are always ready to denounce the rich and excite the lower classes against what they call the oppression of the aristocracy.

It is doubtful whether the frightful riot of 1863 would ever have taken place, but for this tone assumed by many of the city papers. So of this flour riot, it probably would never have happened, but for demagogues, who lashed the ignorant foreign population into fury against their rich oppressors. Starvation, which as we said may be a justification of violence, did not exist it was only the high price of provisions, growing out of scarcity, that caused it, but which scarcity, they were told, was created solely by the cupidity of the rich.

The year in which the great fire occurred, was a disastrous one to the crops of the country. The mighty West, that great granary of the nation, was not then open as now, and the main supply of grain came from east of the Alleghenies. Hence the cause which would create a short crop in one section, would be apt to prevail more or less over all the grain region. We imported wheat at this time very largely; not only from England, but from the Black Sea.

In September, flour was about seven dollars a barrel, but this, as the winter came on, went up to twelve dollars, a great rise at that time.

From Virginia, a great wheat State, came disastrous tidings; not only was the crop short and the price of flour high, but it was said that the latter would probably go up to fifteen or twenty dollars a barrel. In Troy, a great depot for State flour, it was stated that there were only four thousand barrels against thirty thousand at the same time the previous year. As February came on, a report circulated in the city that there were only three or four weeks’ supply on hand. This was repeated in the penny papers, with the information added, that in certain stores were hoarded vast amounts of grain and flour, kept out of the market to compel a still greater advance in the price. This was very probably true, as it is a rule with merchants, when they have a large stock of anything on hand, of which there threatens to be a scarcity, to hold on in order to make the scarcity greater, thus forcing higher prices. This will always prove a dangerous experiment in this country in the article of flour. It is the prime necessary of life, and the right to make it scarce for the sake of gain, and at the expense of human suffering, will always be questioned by the poorer classes.

Although the stock of grain on hand at this time was small, there was no danger of starvation, nor was it to the instinct of self preservation that demagogues appealed. They talked of the rich oppressing the poor by their extortions of monopolists, caring only to increase their gains without regard to the distress they occasioned.

There was, doubtless, much suffering among the poorer classes, not only on account of the high price of flour, but also of all the necessary articles of living. Meat advanced materially, while from some strange fatality, coal went up to ten dollars a ton. There seemed no reason for this, as the amount sent to market was said to be largely in excess of the previous year. In Canada, coal was so scarce, that the line of steamers between Montreal and Quebec was suspended before winter set in.

This state of things excited the attention of the people generally, and in the fore part of this month, a public meeting was called at the Tabernacle to consider what could be done. It amounted to nothing. Some speeches were made, resolutions offered, but nothing practical was proposed. The temperance people attempted to make a little capital out of it, by asserting that the high price of grain was owing to the amount used by the distilleries rye being sold as high as one dollar and seventy cents per bushel.

But a different class of people were now discussing the subject, and in a different spirit. Their attention was directed to men, not theories the individual oppressors, not the general causes.

Chief among those against whom the popular feeling was now directed, was Hart & Co., large commission merchants in Washington Street, between Dey and Cortlandt Streets. Their store was packed with flour and wheat, and every day men passed it with sinister looks. Sometimes a little knot of men would stop opposite it, and talk of the loads of grain stored up there, while their own families were pinched for bread. They would gaze savagely on its heavy iron doors, that seemed to defy the weak and helpless, and then walk on, muttering threats and curses. These signs of a gathering storm were, however, unheeded by the proprietors. Others, better informed, were not so tranquil; and by anonymous letters tried to arouse Mr. Hart to take precautionary measures. An anonymous letter addressed to Mr. W. Lenox was picked up in the Park, in which the writer stated that a conspiracy was formed for breaking open and plundering Mr. Hart’s store, and gave the following plan of action. On some dark night, two alarms of fire were to be given, one near the Battery, and the other up town, in order to draw off the watchmen and police, when a large crowd already assembled in the neighborhood would make a sudden rush for the building, and sack it before help could arrive. This letter was handed to the High Constable Hays, who showed it to Hart & Co., but they seemed to regard it as an attempt to frighten them. This was followed by anonymous letters from other parties, that reached the Mayor, insisting on it that danger was hanging over this house. He sent them to Hart & Co., but they, thinking it was only a trick to put down the price of flour, paid no attention to them. They locked their three massive iron doors at night as usual, and went to their homes without fear, and the underground swell kept on increasing in volume.

The first plan of operation, if it ever existed, was either abandoned by the mob or deferred till after other measures were tried.

At length, on the afternoon of the 10th of February, the following placard was posted up all over the city:

Bread, Meat, Rent, Fuel!The voice of the people shall he heard and will prevail.The people will meet in the Park, rain or shine, at four o’clock on

Monday Afternoon, to inquire into the cause of the present unexampled distress, and to devise a suitable remedy. All friends of humanity, determined to resist monopolists and extortionists, are invited to attend.

Moses Jacques. Daniel Graham. Paulus Hedle. John Windt. Daniel A. Robertson. Alexander Ming, Jr. Warden Hayward. Elijah F. Crane.

New York, Feb. 10th, 1837.

The idle crowd had all day Sunday to talk over this call. Everywhere knots of men were seen gathered before these placards some spelling out slowly, and with great difficulty, the words for themselves others reading the call to those unable to read it. The groggeries were filled with excited men, talking over the meeting, and interspersing their oaths with copious draughts of liquor, and threatening openly to teach these rich oppressors a lesson they would not soon forget.

There was something ominous in the hour selected for the meeting; four o’clock in February meant night, before it would get under full headway. It was evident that the leaders did not mean the meeting to be one of mere speech making. They knew that under cover of darkness, men could be incited to do what in broad daylight they would be afraid to undertake.

Before the time appointed, a crowd began to assemble, the character of which boded no good. Dirty, ragged, and rough looking, as they flowed from different quarters together into the enclosure, those who composed it were evidently a mob already made to hand.

At length, four or five thousand shivering wretches were gathered in front of the City Hall. Moses Jacques, a man who would make a good French Communist today, was chosen chairman. But this motley multitude had no idea or respect for order, or regular proceedings, and they broke up into different groups, each pushing forward its favorite orator.

One of the strangest freaks of this meeting, was an address to a collection of Democrats by Alexander Ming, Jr. He forgot all about the object of the meeting, and being a strong Bentonian, launched out into the currency question, attributing all the evils of the Republic, past, present, and to come, to the issue of bank notes; and advising his hearers to refuse to take the trash altogether, and receive nothing but specie. This was the more comical, as not one out of ten of the poor wretches he addressed had the chance to refuse either. Half starving, they would have been glad to receive anything in the shape of money that would help them through the hard winter. Yet when Mr. Ming offered a resolution, proposing a memorial to the Legislature, requiring a law to be passed, forbidding any bank to issue a note under the denomination of a hundred dollars, the deluded people, who had been listening with gaping mouths, rent the air with acclamations. It was a curious exhibition of the wisdom of the sovereign people this verdict of a ragged mob on the currency question. They were so delighted with this lucid exposition of the cause of the scarcity of flour, that they seized the orator bodily, and elevating him on their shoulders, bore him across the street to Tammany Hall, where something beside specie was received from behind the bar to reward their devotion.

There was, however, some excuse for him. He had been several times candidate for city register, and hence was more anxious to secure votes than flour be a popular demagogue rather than a public benefactor.

But there were other speakers who kept more directly to the point. They launched at once into a bitter tirade against landlords for their high rents, and against monopolists for holding on to flour at the expense of the poor and suffering. Knowing the character of the audience before them, and their bitter hatred of the rich that had grown with their growth, and strengthened with their strength in the old country, it was not difficult to lash them into a tempest of passion. They depicted the aristocrats around them rolling in wealth, wrung from their necessities laughing at their sufferings while rioting in luxury nay, hoarding up the very bread without which they must starve, in order to realize a few dollars more on a barrel of flour. Loud oaths and deep muttered curses followed these appeals, and the excited multitude became agitated with passion. One of the speakers closed his bitter harangue with “Fellow citizens, Mr. Eli Hart has now 53,000 barrels of flour in his store; let us go and offer him eight dollars a barrel for it, and if he will not take it,” It was not difficult to know how he meant to close the sentence; but just then, a friend shrewder than he, seeing the legal consequences to themselves of an open proposition to resort to violence, touched him on the shoulder, when in a lower tone of voice he concluded: “we shall depart in peace.” In the excitement of the moment, he had evidently forgotten the guarded language he intended to use, and was about to utter that which would have consigned him to a prisoner’s cell, but checked himself in time. He was willing others should suffer the consequence of violating the law, to which his appeals urged them; but his love for the poor did not prompt him to share their fate.

It was bitterly cold, and it was a wonder that the crowd had listened patiently so long. The proposition to go to Hart’s store with a demand for flour, was instantly seized, and those around the speaker started off with a shout, and streaming down Broadway, poured in one dark living stream along Cortlandt Street into Washington Street. The clerks in the store heard the turmoil, and suspecting the object of the rioters, rushed to the doors and windows, and began to close and bolt them. There were three large iron doors opening on the sidewalk, and they had succeeded in bolting and barring all but one, when the mob arrived. Forcing their way through this middle door, the latter seized the barrels, and began to roll them out into the street. Mr. Hart, who, either from curiosity to hear what the meeting would propose to do, or from his suspicions being aroused from what he had previously heard, was on the spot, and as soon as he saw the crowd stream out of the Park, down Broadway, he hurried to the police, and obtaining a posse of officers, made all haste for his store. But as they were going down Dey Street, the mob, which blocked the farther end, rushed on them with such fury, that before they had time to defend themselves, their clubs, or staves as they were then called, were wrenched from their hands and broken into fragments. The crowd was not yet very great, and the disarmed officers forced their way into Washington Street and into the store. Their presence frightened the few inside, and they hastily decamped. The Mayor, who was in his room at the City Hall, had been speedily notified of the riot, and hurried to the spot. The crowd remaining in the Park had also been informed of what was going on, and dashing madly down Broadway, and through Cortlandt Street, joined with loud shouts their companions in front of the store. The Mayor mounted a flight of steps, and began to harangue the mob, urging them to desist, and warning them of the consequences of their unlawful action. He had not proceeded far, however, before brick bats, and sticks, and pieces of ice came raining around him in such a dangerous shower, that he had to give it up, and make his way to a place of safety. The street was now black with the momentarily increasing throng, and emboldened by their numbers, they made a rush at the entrance of the store. Driving the police officers before them, they wrenched by main force one of the heavy iron doors from its hinges. A half a score of men at once seized it, and using it as a battering ram, hurled it with such force against the others, that after a few thundering blows, they one after another gave way, and the crowd poured in. The clerks fled, and the rioters went to work without hindrance. Mounting to the upper lofts, they first broke in all the doors and windows, and then began to roll and heave out the flour. The barrels on the ground floor were rolled, swift as one could follow another, into the street, when they were at once seized by those waiting without, and their heads knocked in, and their contents strewn over the pavement. On the upper lofts, they were rolled to the broken windows, and lifted on to the sill, and tumbled below. Warned by their descent, the crowd backed to the farther side of the street. Part would be staved in by their fall; those that were not, were seized as they rolled off the sidewalk, and the heads knocked out. One fellow, as he stood by the window sill and pitched the barrels below, shouted as each one went with a crash to the flagging: “Here goes flour at eight dollars a barrel!”

The scene which now presented itself was a most strange, extraordinary one. The night was clear and cold, and the wintry moon was sailing tranquilly through the blue and starlit heavens, flooding here and there the sea of upturned faces with its mellow light, or casting the deep shadow of intervening houses over the black mass, while the street looked as if a sudden snow storm had carpeted it with white. The men in the windows and those below were white with flour that had sifted over their garments; while, to give a still wilder aspect to the scene, women, some bareheaded, some in rags, were roaming around like camp followers after plunder. Here a group had seized empty boxes; there others pressed forward with baskets on their arms; and others still, empty handed, pushed along, with their aprons gathered up like a sack. These all knelt amid the flour, and scooped it up with an eagerness that contrasted strangely with the equal eagerness of those who were scattering it like sand over the street. The heavy thud of the barrels as they struck almost momentarily on the sidewalk, could be distinctly heard above the shouts of the men. Some of the mob found their way into Mr. Hart’s counting room, and tore up his papers and scattered them over the floor. It was evident they were bent on utter destruction; but when about five hundred barrels of flour had been destroyed, together with a thousand bushels of wheat in sacks, a heavy force of police came marching along the street. These were soon after followed by detachments of the National Guards from Colonel Smith’s and Hele’s regiments. The flashing of the moonbeams on the burnished barrels and bayonets of their muskets, struck terror into the hearts of the rioters. The cry of “The soldiers are coming!” flew from lip to lip, causing a sudden cessation of the work of destruction, and each one thought only of self preservation. Many, however, were arrested, and sent off to Bridewell under the charge of Officer Bowyer, with a squad of police. The latter were assailed, however, on the way, by a portion of the mob that pursued them, and a fierce fight followed. In the struggle, Bowyer and his assistants had their clothes torn from their backs, and some of the prisoners were rescued.

In the meantime, the military paraded the street, clearing it of the mob, and preventing their return. In front of the store, and far beyond it, the flour lay half knee deep a sad spectacle, in view of the daily increasing scarcity of grain.

Just before the military and police reached the ground, some one in the crowd shouted “Meeches.” This was another flour store at Coenties Slip, on the other side of the city, nearly opposite. A portion of the mob on the outside, that could not get to the store, and aid in the work of destruction, at once hurried away to this new field of operations. On the way over, they passed Herrick & Co.’s flour store, and stopped to demolish it. They were loaded down with brick bats, which they hurled at the windows, smashing them in. The doors followed, and the crowd, rushing through, began to roll out the barrels of flour. But when some twenty or thirty were tumbled into the street, and about half of them staved in, they, for some cause or other, stopped. Some said that they ceased because the owner promised, if they did, he would give it all away to the poor the next day. At all events, they would soon have been compelled to abandon the work of destruction, for the police hastened to the spot, accompanied by a large body of citizens, who had volunteered their help. Some were arrested, but most of the ringleaders escaped.

How many of those who attended the meeting in the Park anticipated a mob and its action, it is impossible to say; but that a great number of them did, there can be no doubt.

By nine o’clock the riot was over, and those who had engaged in it were either arrested or dispersed.

The next day, Mr. Hart issued a card, denying that the exorbitant price of flour was owing to his having purchased a large quantity for the sake of monopolizing it, but to its scarcity alone.

It was certainly a very original way to bring down the price, by attempting to destroy all there was in the city. Complaining of suffering from the want of provisions, they attempted to relieve themselves by putting its possession out of their power altogether. With little to eat, they attempted to make it impossible to eat at all. A better illustration of the insensate character of a mob could not be given.




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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