Joe Bruno on the Mob – The New York City Anti-Abolition Riots of 1834

It started as a peaceful service at the Chatham Street Chapel by a black minister, but soon turned into four days of riots, that transformed the streets of New York City into an evil cauldron of hatred.

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In the early 1800’s, there was a vibrant movement in the United States to end slavery. Yet, there was no place in the country that incited more animosity against black slaves than the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Abolitionist Movement (to abolish slavery) was spearheaded by men like William Lloyd Garrison, and bothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan. Yet the hatred for black slaves permeated the streets of New York City and was incited by the ruling Irish faction of Tammany Hall. This hatred was punctuated by atrocities committed against slaves by the Irish Five Points street gangs, that Tammany Hall so overtly protected from prosecution for their numerous crimes.

In 1833, aided by the fiery speeches made by William Lloyd Garrison, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. Many of the British living in America spoke out vociferously against slavery and this did not go over too well with the powers that be at Tammany Hall , which convinced the Irish street gangs that the Abolitionists were looking to transform America back into a British colony. Anti-Abolitionist James Watson Webb inciting the Irish gangs even further when he printed in his Courier and Enquirer that, “Abolitionists had told their daughters to marry blacks, black dandies in search of white wives were promenading Broadway on horseback, and Arthur Tappan had divorced his wife and married a negress.” All lies, but believed by the rabble nevertheless.

On July 7, 1834, a group of black slaves gathered at the Chatham Street Chapel to hear a sermon by a black minister. In the audience lending his support. was Arthur Tappan. The sermon had just begun, when members of the New York Sacred Music Society broke in, claiming they had rented the place for the evening. The blacks, who had paid for the use of the chapel, refused to leave. The street gangs, with members of the Plug Uglies, Forty Thieves and Roach Guards banding together, attacked the blacks with leaded canes, seriously injuring several of them.

An angry mob formed outside the chapel, and as the police arrived to try to quell the disturbance, Tappan hurried from the scene to his house on Rose Street, which is now the site of the New York City Municipal Building. Knowing he was an avowed abolitionist, a crowd followed him and pelted his home with rocks as he rushed inside.

Webb’s paper predictably lied again when he described the event as a “Negro riot,” owing to “Arthur Tappan’s mad impertinence.” The Commercial Advertiser, another pro-slavery rag, said that “gangs of blacks were preparing to set the city ablaze.”

Yet this was just the beginning. The next night a huge mob of gang members broke down the door of the Chatham Street Chapel, and while they held an impromptu meeting inside, W.W. Wilder yelled, “To the Bowery Theater!”

The reason for their attack on the Bowery Theater was because it’s manager and British actor George P. Farren, another avowed abolitionist, had recently said of the pro-slavery crowd, “Damn the Yankees; they are a damn set of jackasses and fit to be gulled.” Farren had also just fired an American actor, and as a result, anti-abolitionists had posted handbills detailing Farren’s actions all around New York City.
An estimated 4000 rioters broke down the doors of the Bowery Theater, interrupting the performance of beloved American actor Edwin Forrest, who was a favorite of the Five Point gangs. Forrest tried to quiet the angry mob, but they insisted on knowing the whereabouts of Farren, who was hiding somewhere on the premises. Before they could take the place apart looking for Ferren and subsequently hang him, a large contingent of police arrived and drove the mob from the theater with billy clubs.

Yet the mob was not through. They yelled, “To Arthur Tappan’s house!” And that’s where they went.

Tappan and his family had escaped before the mob arrived. But when the mob did arrive, they tore his house down, board by board. They pilled Tappan’s furniture on the street and set it on fire, until there was nothing left but a painting of George Washington. As one rioter tried to throw the painting into the fire, another one ripped it from his hands saying, “It’s George Washington! For God’s sake, don’t burn Washington!”

The mob rampaged though the city, torturing and raping black slaves, and even gouging out the eyes of an Englishman, after they ripped off his ears. The worst rioting was in the Five Points area where dozens of houses, including St. Phillip’s Church were burned to the ground. Several English sailors and black slaves were captured and mutilated. Word soon went out that every house would be burned down in the Five Points that did not have a candle burning in the window. In minutes, candles appeared in almost every window, saving the neighborhood from destruction at the hands of the out-of-control mob.

On the afternoon of July 11, Mayor Cornelius Lawrence issued a proclamation asking all good citizens to band together to stop the rioting. He also told Major General Shadfor to call in the 27th Regiment of the National Guard Infantry. At 9 pm that night, around 300 Five Point Gang members assembled before the Laight Street Church, which was run by vocal abolitionist Rev. Samuel Hanson Cox. The church was guarded by several New York City policemen, but the mob charged anyway, forcing the out-manned policemen to run for their lives.

As the mob destroyed the Church, Mayor Lawrence ordered the infantry into action. Armed with clubs, bayonets, muskets and pistols, the infantry drove the rioters from several downtown churches and the surrounding streets, back into the Five Points area.

The next day, armed soldiers and policemen scoured the Five Points looking for known mob members. They rounded up and arrested 150 Five Points gang members, but then Tammany Hall stepped in and released almost all of them. Only 20 gang members, out of the thousands who pillaged the streets of New York City in July of 1834, were ever tried and convicted.

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