It was a Monday morning in New York City on July 4th, 1853 as the denizens of the city prepared to celebrate their 77th Independence Day. The clouds from a nocturnal storm had begun to disperse and the emerging sun heralded a bright new day for the festive event. Many New Yorkers meandering down Broadway that morning were attracted by the annual military parade and its guest of honor, Daniel Spancer, a 95 year old veteran of the Revolutionary War who was there to reminisce. Others were attracted by the noise created by the firing of the cannons and other combustibles set off by city residents; “the popping, fizzing, whirring and banging sounds” in the city that day were said to create a noise chain from the battery all the way to Harlem. (NYDT, July 5, 1853, 1)
Nearby, a group of around 500 Irish marchers, wearing green scarves and badges, set out to march in the first 4th of July parade of their own. Under the aegis of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, they planned to merge with the official parade on Broadway. Tensions between the Catholic Irish immigrant community and the local, mostly Protestant population had simmered for years and clashes were not uncommon. Less than thirty years prior, on July 12, 1824, while celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, Irish Protestants clashed with Irish Catholics in Greenwich Village, with only the Catholic parties arrested and blamed for the disturbance. Back then the Irish Catholics made up a small immigrant community of the New York population but all that changed radically by the late 1840s. That decade a potato famine in Ireland sent hundreds of thousands of Irish fleeing their native land with a large number ending up in New York City. By the end of the decade Irish fraternal organizations like the Ancient Society of Hibernians were increasingly making their influence felt in politics as well as local city life.
That July morning, as the Hibernians proceeded to march in the western direction on 14th street towards 8th avenue, they flew a large banner depicting George Washington shaking hands with Daniel O’Connell, an Irish politician who championed Catholic rights. At approximately 10:30 when the procession heading south on Houston Street reached Abingdon Square in Greenwich Village a fight erupted. A passing Kipp & Brown stage tried to pass through the ranks of the marching Hibernians. Whether it was done on purpose by Edwin F. Carpenter, the stage driver, or whether the spooked horses bolted in the direction of the procession remains a conjecture. Once in the midst of the marchers, the driver was reportedly pulled down and savagely beaten. The surrounding throngs soon joined in and the melee spread to other parts of the village. At its apex thousands of people were battling it out on New York streets. The members of the local gang called the Short Boys, who probably were the main instigators, were soon joined by volunteer firemen who reportedly rushed the marchers with the cry “kill the Catholic sons of bitches!” (Burrows, 828). Most of the arriving police officers from the ninth ward sided with the natives of Greenwich Village, clubbing anyone wearing the signature scarf and badge.
Beaten and bloodied, dozens of Irishmen were arrested for inciting the riot; the large banner of George Washington was destroyed in the process. A prohibitive bail of $500 was imposed on each man with that of the procession marshal set at $5000. The press, almost universally anti-Irish, condemned the marchers as the sole party responsible for the disturbance of the peace. Initial reports were continually augmented with sensational information. The nativist spectators who joined in the riot were described as peaceful citizens who tried to reason with the Hibernians before being attacked and forced to fight to defend themselves. The Irish on the other hand were described as savages who resorted to arms in lieu of diplomacy as soon as an opportunity offered itself. The marshal of the Hibernians was said to encourage his men with a drawn sword. The marchers themselves, armed with pistols, staves and stones attacked anyone regardless of age or physical condition, fleeing as soon as the scales were turned against them.
Much of the accusations were soon dispelled. The Hibernians set up a committee to investigate and refute the charges levied against them. Edwin, the stage driver, who was purported to be killed or in critical condition, later appeared in court with barely a scratch but the Hibernians were still branded guilty by public opinion. Two policemen, Patrick Kelly and John Cusick, both Irish, were accused of siding with the marchers, were suspended from the force and given minor punishments for failure to enforce the law.
The Ninth Ward Riot as the event became known was just one in a series of public disturbances in the volatile 1850s. Greenwich Village remained as one of the focal points for clashes in the upcoming years, culminating in the Draft Riots of 1863. With the passage of time, as the population of the area became more diverse, it still retained much of the spirit which made it a hotbed of social activity in the middle of the 19th century.
“Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” July 5, 1853, 2 (http://eagle.brooklynpubliclibrary.org/Default/Skins/BEagle/Client.asp?Skin=BEagle)
“New York Daily Times,” July 5, 1853, 1; July 6, 1853, 3; July 7, 1853, 6; July 13, 1853, 8; July 23, 1853, 4, 6; August 3, 1853, 8; December 23, 1853, 3 (Proquest)
“New York Evangelist,” July 7, 1853, 24, 27 (American Periodicals Series)
Burrows, Edwin G, Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.