Tag Archives: St. Patricks Day

The 1867 St Patrick’s Day riot: No peace in the Lower East Side

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reported on a ‘riot’ which occurred on Saint Patrick’s Day 1867 at the intersections of East Broadway, Grand and Pitt Streets, one block below Delancey Street and the Williamsburg Bridge (which was decades from being built by that date).

The parade began on East Broadway, with regiments assembling here (“slush and snowdrifts … disregarded”) to march throughout the city.

A bit after noon, a wagon driver, hemmed in by mounds of snow, got caught at Grand and Pitt street, blocking the parade route.  He was immediately set upon by angry marchers.  When a police officer interceded to protect the driver, he, too, was assaulted, “knocked down and severely injured by being trampled upon.”

Other officers arrived, and soon Grand and Pitt was the scene of senseless violence.  “The Hibernians broke their staves of office and used the fragments as shillelaghs and clubs, with such effect, that the officers were the recipients of several ugly scalp wounds and bruises.”  Another report lists the unique weaponry as “sword canes, society emblems and other missiles.”  One officer was wounded with a sabre. Soon the street corner filled with policemen, and the violence subsided. [source]

The whole event seemed to last no more than thirty minutes.  But the New York Times, a fairly anti-Democrat, anti-Irish paper in the mid 19th century, was truly outraged: “We trust there is no Irishman or Irish American, outside of a small lawless minority, that does not feel keenly the disgrace brought upon such celebrations as that of yesterday, by the wanton and brutal assaults upon the Police.”

How some rough Saint Patrick’s Day hangovers almost destroyed New York

The harbor in 1730, with a view of New York’s Fort George by the engraver John Carwitham

It was 270 years ago this week that a truly foul period in New York history began, starting with a host of fires sprouting up throughout lower Manhattan and ending with several black residents of the city hanged and accused of treason, a reign of terror known as the Conspiracy of 1741 (or the Negro Plot of 1741), a hellish inquisition fueled by hysteria, racism and rumor.

Believing that local slave and freed blacks — along with white ‘traitor’ conspirators — had conspired to wreck havoc in the city, the authorities gathered up suspects and accused them of crimes based on scant evidence. In the end, over 30 people were executed for their part in this supposed ‘conspiracy’. Modern historians are unsure such a plot existed at all, and if it had, most of the executed would still have been innocent of wrong-doing.

This violence, which kept the city in a grip of heightened suspicion for most of the spring of 1741, have often been called New York’s version of the Salem witch trials.

For a rich description of these events and some measured speculation to its cause, I direct you to Jill Lepore’s excellent book from a few years ago New York Burning, one of the few books that turned on my enthusiasm for New York City history.

The reason I’m bringing this up today is that St. Patrick’s Day — or rather, the Catholic Feast of St. Patrick from which the holiday derives — actually figures into the story. Just like the modern holiday, it appears that both Catholics and non-Catholics took part in the March 17th celebration, and in particular, the imbibing. According to ‘Gotham’ by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, soldiers at their posts at Fort George on March 18th were “recuperating in their barracks from their hearty celebration” the night before. Essentially, an epidemic of hangovers.

As a result, the fort was scantily patrolled that morning. As guards slept the morning away, unknown arsonists stole into the fort and set fire to several buildings inside, including the old governor’s house, once the home of Peter Stuyvesant (who, trust me, never would have allowed this to happen). The blaze quickly spread to the chapel , the soldiers barracks, and even to buildings outside the fort perimeter. It might have blossomed into a raging inferno that would have consumed the city had it not rained and doused the blaze from spreading further. (Thank you St. Pats!)

Had the men at Fort George been more alert, perhaps they would have identified the mysterious culprit. Not only would it have prevented the fire, it might have clamped down the later hysteria and prevented further arson from occurring throughout the next few weeks. The alleged ‘conspiracy’, either real or imagined, might not have materialized at all.