An Eyewitness Account of the Flour Riot in New York

February 1837

Here is one account1 of unrest in the North, from an unsympathetic observer. It describes the actions of six thousand New Yorkers who, before the Civil War, assaulted local flour merchants who were hoarding flour in order to drive up prices.

There were... speakers... who came directly to the business or the meeting, and, in the most exciting manner, denounced the landlords, and the holders of flour, for the prices of rents and provisions. One of these orators, in the course of his address, after working upon the passions of his audience until they were fitted for the work of spoil and outrage, is reported to have expressly directed the popular vengeance against Mr. Eli Hart, who is one of our most extensive flour dealers on commission. "Fellow-citizens!" he exclaimed, "Mr. Hart has now 53,000 barrels of flour in his store; let us go and offer him eight dollars a barrel, and if he does not take it"— here some person touched the orator on the shoulder, and he suddenly lowered his voice, and finished his sentence by saying, "we shall depart from him in peace."

The hint was sufficient; and a large body of the meeting moved off in the direction of Mr. Hart's store, in Washington, between Dey and Courtlandt streets. The store is a very large brick building, having three wide but strong iron doors upon the street. Being apprised of the approach of the mob, the clerks secured the doors and windows; but not until the middle door had been forced, and some twenty or thirty barrels of flour or more, rolled into the street, and the heads staved in. At this point of time Mr. Hart himself arrived on the ground, with a posse of officers from the police. The officers were assailed by a portion of the mob in Dey street, their staves wrested from them, and shivered to pieces. The number of the mob not being large at this time, the officers succeeded in entering the store, and for a short time interrupted the work of destruction.

The mayor next arrived at the scene of waste and riot, and attempted to remonstrate with the infatuated multitude on the folly of their conduct—but to no purpose; their numbers were rapidly increasing, and his honor was assailed with missiles of all sorts at hand, and with such fury that he was compelled to retire. Large reinforcements of the rioters having arrived, the officers were driven from the field, and the store carried by assault—the first iron door torn from its hinges, being used as a battering ram against the others. The destructives at once rushed in, and the windows and doors of the lofts were broken open. And now again commenced the work of destruction.

Barrels of flour, by dozens, fifties and hundreds were tumbled into the street from the doors, and thrown in rapid succession from the windows, and the heads of those which did not break in falling, were instantly staved in. Intermingled with the flour, were sacks of wheat by the hundred, which were cast into the street, and their contents thrown upon the pavement. About one thousand bushels of wheat, and tour or five hundred barrels of flour, were thus wantonly and foolishly as well as wickedly destroyed. The most active of the destructionists were foreigners—indeed the greater part of the assemblage was of exotic origin; but there were probably five hundred or a thousand others, standing by and abetting their incendiary labors.

Amidst the falling and bursting of the barrels and sacks of wheat, numbers of women were engaged, like the crones who strip the dead in battle, filling the boxes and baskets with which they were provided, and their aprons, with flour, and making off with it. One of the destructives, a boy named James Roach, was seen upon one of the upper window sills, throwing barrel after barrel into the street, and crying out with every throw—"here goes flour at eight dollars a barrel!" Early in the assault, Mr. Hart's counting room was entered, his books and papers seized and scattered to the winds. And herein, probably, consists his greatest loss.

Night had now closed upon the scene, but the work of destruction did not cease until strong bodies of police arrived, followed, soon afterward, by detachments of troops. The store was then cleared by justices Lownds and Bloodgood, and several of the rioters were arrested, and dispatthed to Bridewell, under charge of Bowyer, of the police. On his way to the prison, he and his assistants were assailed, his coat torn from his back, and several of the prisoners were rescued. Several more, however, were afterwards captured and secured.

Before the close of the proceedings at Hart's store, however, the cry of "Meech" was raised—whereupon a detachment of the rioters crossed over to Coenties slip, for the purpose of attacking the establishment of Meech and Co., but the store of S. H. Herrick and Co. coming first in their way, they commenced an attack upon that. The windows were first smashed in with a shower of brick-bats, and the doors immediately afterwards broken. Some twenty or thirty barrels of flour were then rolled into the street, and the heads of ten or a dozen knocked in.

The numbers of the rioters engaged in this work was comparatively small and they soon desisted from their labors—probably from an intimation that a strong body of the police were on the way thither. Another account is that they were induced to desist from the work of mischief, by an assurance from the owner, that if they would spare the flour, he would give it all to the poor today. Be this, however, as it may, the officers were promptly on the spot, and by the aid of the citizens who collected rapidly, the wretched rabble was dispersed—some thirty or forty of them having been taken and secured at the two points of action. Unfortunately, however, the ringleaders escaped almost if not quite to a man.

From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove


1 An Eyewitness Account of the Flour Riot in New York (February 1837). First printed in the Commercial Register (New York, New York), February 14, 1837, and then in Niles' Weekly Register (Baltimore, Maryland), 5th series, voL 1, no. 26 (February 25, 1837), pp. 433-44.

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