The New York Flour Riot of 1837
The 1830s weren’t a great time to be in New York City. The Big Apple suffered a series of catastrophes of biblical proportions. Firstly, there was plague. The 1832 cholera outbreak lasted for months not only accounting for some 4,000 souls but also wrecking the local economy as half the population scarpered.
Then in 1835 came fire. Originating in Pearl Street the fire destroyed 700 buildings, pretty much all of what was then downtown Manhattan. The local fire brigade, volunteers all and weakened by the ravages of the cholera epidemic, stood by helplessly as the severe winter weather froze their hoses.
This in turn caused a financial crisis. Insurance companies, insufficiently capitalised to meet the cost of the devastating fire, collapsed. Their demise was quickly followed by the failure of some of the banks which in turn led to a credit shortage and a collapse in share prices and property values leading to the Panic of 1837. And the weather did its bit too – adverse climatic conditions damaging crops.
Inevitably the atmosphere was febrile. Unemployment stood at 30% and even city officials started to criticise the actions of mercenary landlords “who only contrive in what space they can to stow the greatest number of human beings in the smallest space”. It was around this time that Horace Greeley used the pages of his newly launched magazine, New Yorker, to encourage the youngsters to, in the words of the Pet Shop Boys, go west. The actions of grain and flour speculators who had forced the price of one of the basic foodstuffs to double also came under the microscope.
On 13th February 1837 a crowd of 6,000, mostly the Irish poor, congregated to protest at the price of flour and grain. One of the speakers focused his attention on one Eli Hart, a principal flour dealer. “Mr Hart has now 53,000 barrels of flour in his store; let us offer him $8 a barrel (the old price), and if he doesn’t take it” – adding sotto voce – “we shall depart from him in peace”. The crowd, not hearing the pay-off, were stirred into action and marched on Hart’s premises.
Although the staff at Hart’s establishment knew the mob were on their way they were able to gain ingress and then the fun started. Initially, some twenty or thirty barrels were rolled into the street and broken open. Hart arrived with the police and for a while they were able to hold off the mob. The mayor then turned up to try and remonstrate with the crowd which was growing in numbers and soon had to beat a hasty retreat. By now barrels by the dozen were being thrown from the windows and those that did not break open on landing were smashed asunder. The street was allegedly knee-deep in flour and women occupied themselves by scooping up the flour and taking it away.
Then the cry, “Meech”, went up and some of the crowd made their way towards this flour store but as the warehouse of Herrick & Co was en route they attacked that and succeeded in removing some twenty or thirty barrels. But by this time the fire had gone out of their bellies, the authorities were eventually able to restore some form order and a few arrests were made, although all the ring leaders seemed to have escaped.
Flour prices didn’t come down and the depression continued until 1843. But the Irish had become a force to reckon with in New York politics.