On June 11, 1837, an English-American Fire brigade crossed paths with an Irish-American and immigrant funeral procession, and a huge clash ensued. This event quickly became known as The Great Broad Street Riot. Martial Law was declared, and the militia was called up to stop the fighting. It is very fortunate that many people were not killed during the clash.
Unbelievably, racism and bigotry between the various ethnic populations in Boston did not completely mend themselves until the late-1990s. The following article from the June 15, 1837 Baltimore Sun describes the huge riot at Broad Street and questioned Boston's moral standards at the time. The senseless hatred of people that are different from oneself is conveyed in this contemporary report. The Sun lambasted Boston for professing pious sentiment, while actually being a hotbed of intolerance by both Yankee and immigrant which culminated in civil unrest:
Riot in Boston. We are indebted for an account of a riot that occurred in Boston on Sunday last, to a correspondent in that city. The letter will be found below, and we do not hesitate to say, that is reflects eternal disgrace on a city, which has so loudly and so eloquently boasted of the purity of her morals, the chastity of her education, and the orthodoxy of her religious principles.
As to the relative merits of the parties engaged in this outrageous transaction, we have nothing to say about that; we know not, and care not what was the immediate provocation to aggression; it is sufficient for us to know, that the affair, in all that is disgraceful, has excelled all the outbreaks that has heretofore defiled the good name of the cities of the Union. It was a riot which profaned the sanctity of the Sabbath, and violated the repose of the unconscious dead!
It commenced with a funeral, and closed in sending its victims to a dishonored grave. Hereafter, let Boston hand her head in silence, and avoid the condemning verdict of the world. Let her in future prate no more about her devotion to morality, religion, and law; and last of all, let her not open her mouth, or the jaws of her press, to reproach the city of Baltimore. When was Baltimore with all her faults, guilty of acts like those presented in Boston last Sunday. When was St. Giles, or Mary-le-bone, or Wapping, or the stalls of Billingsgate, disgraced by an outrage so vile as that which has disgraced Boston's. No longer let her prate about her Faneuil Hall, her Cradle of Liberty let her hang her head and confess that her Cradle of Liberty has become the hot-bed of anarchy and confusion.
Alas, for Boston! Alas, alas!
Correspondence of the Sun. Boston, June 12, 1837.
Disgraceful Riot in Boston – Martial Law – Four Men Killed – The Mayor of the City Knocked Down by the Mob, & C.
It affords me great dissatisfaction and mortification to inform you, that this city was yesterday, and a portion of the last night, the theater of a disgraceful and fatal riot. It was but a day or two ago, that I read paragraphs in most of the papers of this city, headed, "Disgraceful Riots in Baltimore;" and at the same time, your place was, as I then thought, and yet think, some what unkindly denominated the "City of Riots." We shall, after today have but little cause to boast of the morality and peaceable disposition of Boston.
Yesterday, as an Irish funeral was passing through West street, it came in contact with fire Engine Company No. 20, called the Extinguisher, which was then on its return from a fire in Roxbury. The Irishmen who had charge of the funeral, commanded the company to stop and let the procession pass. The command being promptly disobeyed, a row ensured and the engine company was instantly outnumbered. Feeling itself incapable of further defense, and determined to be revenged for the insult given, the bell of the Extinguisher sounded the alarm of fire, which, by concert was responded by the bell in the Rev. Mr. Young's church.
The whole force of the fire department was thus called out; and, although nineteen-twentieths supposed that they were summoned in "Good Faith" it was soon made manifest to the Irishmen that an evil destiny awaited them. At that period, engine company No. 14, called the Cataract, accidentally came in contact with the funeral, when the Irishmen, supposing they were to be assailed again, commenced an attach on the men, and a fearful riot was the immediate result.
No. 14 defended itself to the best of its ability, but as it was not sufficiently strong to cope with its furious antagonists, it was about to retreat when it was reinforced by companies No. 2, 6, 8 , 9, 10, 13 and 20, and the "balance of trade" was immediately carried against the Irishmen.
The ranks of the funeral were broken up; the leader of the hearse barely escaped with the dead body he was conducting to the tomb; and those who had attended to convey the "unconscious sleeper" to the grave, found themselves engaged in a bloody fight.
The Irishmen fought with great vigor till they were overwhelmed by superior force, and then fled, leaving their opponents masters of the field. They retreated to Broad street, where they defended themselves as long as they possessed the ability to do so; but at last, yielded to the "proud conquering." Their houses were now attacked — their furniture was demolished, and their feather beds were ripped open and scattered to the winds. Never was ruin more sanguinary or complete.
At an early hour the Mayor was on the ground to suppress the riot, but was soon knocked down by some desperado, and as it was now found that civil force was not capable of soothing the "troubled elements." His honor called out the military. The corps of Lancers supported by the Boston Light infantry and City Guards repaired to the scene of desolation, and sided by the New England Guards, Rangers, Republican and Lafayette Guards, succeeded in restoring order.
From the best account I can get, four of the Irishmen were killed; a great number were badly and probably mortally. Mr. Charles Sears, of the Franklin Hose Company was badly wounded, supposed mortally, and a Capt. J. C. Talent of the North watch, was picked up in a state of insensibility. The city was under martial law all last night.
Broad Street Riot (1837)
Broad & Milk Streets, Boston, MA 02110