The anti-abolitionist riots of 1834, also known simplistically as the Farren Riots, occurred in New York City over a series of four nights, beginning on July 7, 1834. Their deeper origins lay in the combination of nativism and abolitionism among the Protestants who had controlled the booming city since the American Revolutionary War, and fear and resentment of blacks among the growing underclass of Irish Immigrants and their kin. In 1827 Britain repealed legislation controlling and restricting emigration from Ireland, and 20,000 Irish emigrated; by 1835 over 30,000 Irish arrived in New York annually.
On Wednesday evening, July 9, three interconnected riots erupted. Several thousand whites gathered at the Chatham Street Chapel; their object was to break up a planned anti-slavery meeting. When the abolitionists was alerted and did not appear, the crowd broke into the chapel and held a counter-meeting, with preaching in mock-Negro style and calling for deportation of blacks to Africa.
Four thousand rioters descended on the Bowery Theatre to avenge an anti-American remark made by George P. Farren, the theatre’s English-born stage manager and an abolitionist: “Damn the Yankees; they are a damn set of jackasses and fit to be gulled.” He had also fired an American actor. Pro-slavery activists had posted handbills around New York that recounted Farren’s actions.
A production of Metamora was in progress as part of a benefit for Farren. Manager Thomas S. Hamblin and actor Edwin Forrest tried to calm the rioters, who demanded Farren’s apology and called for the deportation of blacks. The riot was apparently quelled when Farren had the American flag displayed, and blackface performer George Washington Dixon performed “Yankee Doodle” and the minstrel song “Zip Coon”, which made fun of a Northern black dandy. The mayor addressed the crowd, followed by Dixon. The mob gradually dispersed.
Violence escalated over the next two days, apparently fueled by provocative handbills. A list of other locations slated for attack by the rioters was compiled by the Mayor’s office, among them the home of Reverend Joshua Leavitt at 146 Thompson Street. Leavitt was the editor of The Evangelist and a manager of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
The mob targeted homes, businesses, churches, and other buildings associated with the abolitionists and African Americans. More than seven churches and a dozen houses were damaged, many of them belonging to African Americans. The home of Reverend Peter Williams Jr., an African-American Episcopal priest, was damaged, and the St. Phillip’s African Episcopal Church was utterly demolished. One group of rioters reportedly carried a hogshead of black ink with which to dunk white abolitionists. In addition to other targeted churches, the Charlton Street home of Reverend Samuel Hanson Cox was invaded and vandalized. The rioting was heaviest in the Five Points.
According to another report, the riots were finally quelled when the New York First Division (swelled by volunteers) was called out by the Mayor on July 11 to support the police. The “military paraded the streets during the day and the night of the 12th.: they were all furnished with ball cartridge, the magistrates having determined to fire upon the mob, had any fresh attempt been made to renew the riots.”
At the time, the riots were interpreted by some as just deserts for the abolitionist leaders, who had “taken it upon themselves to regulate public opinion upon [the subject of abolition]” and who showed “smutty tastes” and “temerity”. By this light the rioters represented “not only the denunciation of an insulted community, but the violence of an infuriated populace.” Dale Cockrell partially agrees, stating that the riots were “about who would control public discourse and community values, with class at base the issue.” Pro-abolitionist observers saw them as simple explosions of Racism.