Magazine | December 22, 2014, Issue

Uproars Past and Present

‘Mob” is short for “mobile vulgus,” the people on the move. Any community, however small, can assemble one, and the city has been producing them for years.

One of the largest mobs of the 18th century was responsible for the Doctors Riot. Then as now doctors studied anatomy by dissecting corpses, but then not as now they procured their corpses by digging them up in cemeteries (the doctors or middlemen who performed these feats were known as “resurrection men”). In April 1788, some children were peering through a window of New York Hospital at med students working on a cadaver. One of the students picked up an arm, waved it at a boy, and told him facetiously that it belonged to his mother. The child’s mother had in fact recently died, and he ran home to tell his father. When the man went to the burial ground of Trinity Church he found that his late wife’s casket had been rifled.

Over the next two days, enraged mobs, 5,000 strong — the population of the city then was only 30,000 — trashed the hospital, Columbia College, and doctors’ residences. At the end of the second day, they converged on the city jail, where doctors and students were hiding for safety. A handful of the revolutionary elite — Governor George Clinton, Mayor James Duane, Chancellor Robert Livingston, Baron von Steuben, John Jay — stood guard at the jail, with a troop of militia. The crowd showered them with bricks and stones (Jay was struck in the head and carried away, unconscious). Steuben, not liking the look of things, urged the mayor to fire. A volley from the militia killed three; the crowd dispersed. The state legislature subsequently banned the “Odious Practice” of digging up bodies, but offered doctors the corpses of executed criminals to study instead.

The great city diarists of the mid 19th century, Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong, recorded the activities of notable mobs. Solid burghers — Hone was a merchant who served briefly as mayor, Strong was a lawyer and founder of the Union League Club — both men abhorred disorder. Hone described the mob that caused the Astor Place Riot in 1849, between partisans of two actors, the Englishman William Charles Macready — “a gentleman,” according to Hone — and the American Edwin Forrest — “a vulgar, arrogant loafer, with a pack of kindred rowdies at his heels.” Forrest’s admirers tried to break up Macready’s performance as Macbeth at the Opera House on Astor Place. Police kept order in the theater, “but the war raged with frightful violence in the adjacent streets. . . . Opposite the New York hotel, I met a detachment of troops, consisting of about sixty cavalry and three hundred infantry, fine-looking fellows, well armed, who marched steadily to the field of action. . . . On their arrival they were assailed by the mob, pelted with stones and brickbats, and several were carried off severely wounded. Under this provocation, with the sanction of the civil authorities, orders were given to fire.” Twenty were killed (“It is to be lamented that in the number were several innocent persons, as is always the case in such affairs”). But Hone was pleased with the night’s work: “Although the lesson has been dearly bought, it is of great value, inasmuch as the fact has been established that law and order can be maintained under a Republican form of government.”

The mob Strong described caused the far deadlier Draft Riot. There was a military draft during the Civil War, but wealthy men could buy exemptions. In the summer of 1863, the city’s underclass rose up. Strong watched a house being sacked on Lexington Avenue:

The mob was in no hurry; they had no need to be; there was no one to molest them or make them afraid. The beastly ruffians were masters of the situation and of the city. After a while sporadic paving-stones began to fly at the windows, ladies and children emerged from the rear and had a rather hard scramble over a high board fence, and then scudded off across the open, Heaven knows whither. Then men and small boys appeared at rear windows and began smashing the sashes and the blinds and shied out light articles, such as books and crockery, and dropped chairs and mirrors into the back yard; the rear fence was demolished and loafers were seen marching off with portable articles of furniture. And at last a light smoke began to float out of the windows and I came away.

When it was all over, hundreds had been killed, by rioters, then by federal troops. Strong singled out

the unspeakable infamy of the nigger persecution. They are the most peaceable, sober, and inoffensive of our poor, and the outrages they have suffered during this last week are less excusable — are founded on worse pretext and less provocation — than St. Bartholomew’s or the Jew-hunting of the Middle Ages. . . . How this infernal slavery system has corrupted our blood, North as well as South!

One of the last rampaging mobs in the city took advantage of the blackout of 1977. That happened one month before I moved here, but two friends of mine lived through it. One, a Soviet Jew, was on Morningside Heights. He said “all of Harlem rose up.” He had the blunt racism of foreigners — what else would black people do? — plus a Hollywoodish view of America as a Wild West show. “When a store owner sat in front of his shop with a gun,” he said admiringly, “there was clear space all around.” The other friend, a black Jamaican, was then a boy living in the Bronx. He wanted to see what was happening, but his mother said, “Sit your black ass down.” So he did.

So on Ferguson night there was a babble of voices in the square. I am a modern man; I witnessed it only when I got home and saw news clips of demonstrators online. There was not much to see, a lot of talking the talk and walking the walk but little else. Helicopters roared all night. This time the mobs were elsewhere.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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