In 1835, a gentlemen riot broke out among people who considered themselves respectable. They even dragged a magazine publisher through the streets of Boston.
That year, 147 riots ignited in U.S. cities, with the most frequent violence in Boston, Philadelphia and New York.
In Boston, upper-class men took to the streets to protest abolitionists. New England’s textile industry depended cotton growing, and businessmen worried the anti-slavery movement threatened their mercantile relationships with the South. Female abolitionists also threatened male social dominance.
Maria Chapman, a wealthy, well-educated socialite, had founded the interracial Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. The group circulated petitions, raised money, wrote and edited publications and corresponded with each other frequently.
On Oct. 21, 1835. British abolitionist George Thompson came to speak to a meeting of 45 abolitionists. Thompson, one of the most important abolitionists in both the U.S. and UK, spoke at the office of William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery publication The Liberator.
The ‘gentlemen,’ who had held a pro-slavery rally at Faneuil Hall the previous month, gathered again on Washington Street. The Boston Commercial Gazette described them as ‘an assemblage of fifteen hundred or two thousand highly respectable gentlemen.’
Mayor Theodore Lyman stood on a chair and urged the threatening mob to disperse — to no avail. They then marched to the Liberator’s office on Cornhill Street, now the Boston City Hall plaza. However, they failed to find George Thompson. Then they angrily destroyed the wooden sign that announced the meeting.
Lyman then urged the women to leave for their safety. Maria Chapman refused. “If this is the last bulwark of freedom, we may as well die here as anywhere,” she said.
But despite her refusal, the women were escorted through the crowd to safety. The rioters, though, got hold of William Lloyd Garrison, who left through the back door. They then tied him up, handled him roughly and began to drag him through the street. Two working-class brothers rescued Garrison and turned him over to the mayor and several constables.
Garrison was taken to the Old State House, but a crowd gathered around it. Authorities brought a coach to the door along with 30 or 40 large, strong men. The mayor had called them, all night watchmen. As they tried to put Garrison in the coach, a mob of young men described as merchants’ clerks attacked the bodyguards. Garrison struggled into the coach and the coachman cracked the whip. The merchants’ clerks tried but failed to cut the harness. The horses raced through the crowd and took Garrison to the Leverett Street Jail for his safety.
Garrison wrote this graffiti on the wall of the jail:
William Lloyd Garrison was put into this cell on Wednesday afternoon, October 21, 1835, to save him from the violence of a “respectable and influential” mob, who sought to destroy him for preaching the abominable and dangerous doctrine that “all men are created equal” and that all oppression is odious in the sight of God.
Such a Mob
Thompson offered a withering comment about the gentlemen who rioted.
“Such a mob–30 ladies routed and a 6X2 board demolished by 4,000 men,” he said.
Maria Chapman made a decision during the crisis: the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society should hold annual fairs. She and her sisters would run them for years as a major source of funds for the abolitionist cause.
With thanks to Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence by Jack Tager. This story was updated in 2022.