During the recent rioting in Baltimore, the media cliché was heard over and over: “How could this have happened?” The answer is another question: “How could this not have happened?” And the answer to that comes with a reflection on the sad, frustrating reality that throughout our nation’s history, violence spawned by poverty and prejudice has happened again and again.
The violence is never acceptable, but to contend that it is inexplicable is myopic at best, biased at worst. Poverty and prejudice are present in the Baltimore of 2015 – just as they were all too present in Boston in June 1837. In Boston, it was the Irish streets that erupted in violence that summer. For any Irish Americans bloviating with outrage over the tragic events in Baltimore, a pause is in order. That same bile-infused outrage was leveled long ago against another group of people seething with the same anger – the Boston Irish. Their rage exploded not against the police at first, but at local firefighters, according to an account by Edward Harrington in Volume 2 of the History of the Archdiocese of Boston.
On the sultry afternoon of June 11, 1837, trouble simmered in Boston near and along Broad Street. Fire Engine Company 20 had just returned to its station on East Street, having quelled a blaze in Roxbury. A few firemen had trudged wearily to their homes, but most went to a nearby saloon for a few drinks, according to an account by Edward Harrington in Volume 2 of the History of the Archdiocese of Boston and information from period publications.
When they headed back toward the firehouse, they waded straight into a crowd of hundred or so Irishmen on their way to join a funeral procession around the corner on Sea Street. A collision was inevitable, according to one account: “The Boston firemen, the protagonists in this drama, were then almost entirely drawn from the native [Yankee] stock, and chiefly from those poorer streets of the population among whom hostility to the Catholics and the Irish was fiercest.” Several of the firemen moving toward the mourners had reputedly had a hand in the 1834 burning of Charlestown’s Ursuline convent.
The firemen and the Irish met each other that afternoon with little more than surly stares, and the engine company had nearly passed through the crowd, which “seemed peaceable enough,” without incident. One engineman, however, 19-year-old George Fay, “had lingered longer than his comrades over his cups.” A cigar dangling from his lips, he reportedly either shoved several of the Irishmen or insulted them.
Within seconds Fay and several of the Irish were flailing at each other. Fay’s comrades rushed to help him, but, “being badly outnumbered, got the worst of it, and two of them were severely beaten” by the Irish. The enginemen fled to their station at the order of Third Foreman W.W. Miller.
If Miller had merely barred the station’s doors, many witnesses would agree, the pursuing Irish would soon have turned back to the funeral. Miller, though, “lost his head completely…carried away either with fear or with rage and thirst for revenge.” He issued an emergency alarm so that every fire company in Boston would come to East Street “to take vengeance on the Irish.”
The Irish had begun to disperse, but that did not stop the men of Engine Company 20 from rolling their wagon into the street and sounding its bell in a false fire alarm. Then, Miller dispatched men to ring the bells of the New South Church and a church on Purchase Street. One of the firefighters dashed to Engine Company Number 8, on Common Street, with a wild message: “The Irish have risen upon us and are going to kill us!”
The Irishmen who had fought with Company 20 were now following the funeral procession, a hearse and several carriages trailed by about 500 mourners. The cortege was working its way north onto Sea Street, winding toward the Bunker Hill Cemetery, in Charlestown.
Engine Company 20, with Miller leading, pursued the Irish. “Let the Paddies go ahead,” a fireman shouted, “and then we’ll start!”
The Irish mourners walked only a block before another band of firemen, Company Number 14, approached. At the sight of the Irish, the engineman cried: “Down with them!”
Nearly at the same moment, the procession turned onto New Broad Street (near today’s South Station) – and directly into oncoming Engine Company Number 9. A melee erupted as sticks, cudgels, and knives materialized, and stones, bricks, “and any other missiles that came to hand” slammed against heads and hearse alike.
The brawl soon swelled into a full-scale riot. The hearse’s drivers inched their way up Broad Street and eventually reached Charlestown, but the procession was “quite broken up.”
As the engine companies and their workmen allies scattered Irishmen and surged into the narrow streets, they chased or dragged Irish families from their homes and plunged into an orgy of looting. For immigrants who had been rousted from their cottages in Ireland and had seen their homes tumbled by landlords and British troops, the scene was sickeningly familiar. The looters trashed scores of households.
Although continuing the fight, the Irish fell farther back from the overwhelming Boston gangs. By 6 p.m., crowds of terrified immigrants crowded the wharves, backs literally to the water’s edge.
Help came belatedly from a source on which few of the Irish would have counted. Mayor Samuel A. Eliot sent ten companies of infantry and the Boston Lancers, cavalry, on a sweep along Broad Street and the adjacent Irish neighborhoods. The fire companies and their cohorts scattered. After nearly three hours of fury, the Broad Street Riot came to an end.
In July 1837, fourteen Irishmen and four Protestant men arrested during the brawl stood trial in front of a jury entirely composed of Yankees. Three of the Irish were sentenced to several months in jail. All the Protestants were found “innocent.”
While the eras and specific circumstances of the Baltimore and Boston riots are different, the poverty, mutual mistrust, bias, and violence aspects of each have a familiar ring.