Joe Bruno on the Mob – The New York City Flour Riots of 1837
The problem started with the 1835 Great New York City Fire, which destroyed 700 downtown buildings. Almost the entire city’s financial center, including the city’s lifeblood — the banks, were burned to the ground. Unable to obtain loans, owners of factories and other businesses were not able to rebuild, putting thousands of New Yorkers out of work.
By 1837, New York City had sunk to the depths of a recession. With no jobs and no money, people’s diets sometimes consisted of little more than simple buttered or jammed bread. The poor of the city began to panic, when they discovered that flour, needed to make their daily bread, would become so expensive, they wouldn’t be able to afford to buy it.
Matters were made worse when reports from Virginia and other wheat producing states, said there was a scarcity of wheat from which flour was made, and a rise in price was inevitable. At the beginning of January, 1837, wheat started at $5.62 cents a barrel. Within days, it had risen to $7 a barrel, then to $12 a barrel. There were rumors that in a few weeks, wheat would go to an incredible $20 a gallon.
The hardest hit were the poor people who lived in the slums of the Five Points, Bowery and the Fourth Ward areas on the Lower East Side. Besides the increase in the price of wheat, meat prices had doubled, and coal to heat their hovels rose to $10 a ton. People became desperate, and poor souls who were not normally crooks, felt they had no choice but to commit petty crimes in order to put food on their family’s table.
On February 1, 1837, news circulated that New York City had only four weeks supply of flour available, and that the large flour and grain depot in Troy, New York, contained only four thousand barrels of flour, rather than the usual thirty thousand barrels. The newspapers began sensationalizing the issue, when they stated in their editorials that certain merchants were hoarding wheat and flour in anticipation of the rising prices.
The Tammany Hall politicians were adept in causing unrest between the poor Irish, who populated the slums of Manhattan, and anyone with either money or prestige. Never letting a crisis go to waste, Tammany Hall began spreading unfounded rumors that England was refusing to send any flour to the United States. The message was compounded by the untruth that the Old Mother Country’s intention was to starve the poor Irish in America, as a repayment for the rancor between Ireland and England that had existed for centuries.
On February 10, 1837, a crowd of nearly six thousand slum-dwellers, from the Five Points, Fourth Ward and Bowery areas, met at City Hall Park. Running the meeting from atop the steps of City Hall were Tammany Hall titans like Moses Johnson, Paul Hedle, Warden Hayward and Alexander Ming Jr. There it was decided that two businesses in particular; Hart and Company on Washington Street, and SH. Herrick & Company on Coenties Slip, were packed with both flour and wheat, and were holding back distribution, hoping for future monetary gain when the prices rose.
One of the speakers said, “Fellow citizens, Mr. Eli Hart has fifty-three thousand barrels of flour in his store. Let us go there and offer him $8 a barrel, and if he does not take it……” The speaker stopped in mid sentence, but his implication was clear.
When the talking was over, the crowd stampeded from City Hall Park and headed down Broadway, west on Cortland and onto Washington Street. When the watchmen protecting Hart’s Store saw the surging mob, they quickly ran inside and locked the three huge iron doors, but they forgot to insert the inside bar on the center door. Eli Hart was watching the scene from a safe distance, and he immediately ran to City Hall, asking for police protection. Twenty policemen rushed to the scene, but they were beaten back by the rioters, and their clubs taken away from them. The newly elected mayor of New York City, Aaron Clark, rushed up the steps of the store and tried to quell the angry mob. But after he was showered with stones and bricks, he was forced to run for this life.
The rioters then rushed the building and wrenched one of the iron doors from it hinges. Using it as a battering ram, the bashed down the other two iron doors, then they rushed inside. Once inside, the mob entered the storerooms, then rolled approximately one thousand bushels of wheat and five hundred barrels of flour into the street. They smashed the bushel and barrels, until thousands of rioters were knee deep in the flour and wheat. People stared to sing, “Here goes flour at eight dollars a barrel!” Woman filled their apron and skirts with flour, while men used their hats and pockets to pilfer the goods. Even young children got into the act, scooping up what they could carry on their frail bodies.
Suddenly, the 27th Regiment of the National Guard arrived and confronted the rioters. Using bayonets and clubs, the Guard stabbed and clubbed as many rioters as they could. Eventually they captured scores of the worst offenders and started to march them to the Tombs Prison. But before they got very far, more rioters attacked them and rescued dozens of prisoners, and in the process, tore the police commissioner’s coat right off his back. Forty rioters were finally hustled to the Tombs, where they were tired and convicted, and sent to Sing Sing Prison.
While rioters carted off their dead and wounded from in front of Hart’s store, another contingent headed to the store of S.H. Herrick & Company. There they smashed the doors and windows with stones and bats, and within ten minutes, they were able to destroy an additional thirty barrels of flour and a hundred bushels of grain.
Then without any apparent reason, the mob suddenly disbursed and headed back to their slums, their thirst for destruction finally sated. The very next day, the price of flour increased one dollar more.