Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1874: The Workingmen’s Fight

The Tompkins Square Park riot of 1874 happened on 13 January when American working men gathered in protest over the loss of jobs. It all began with a depression that started in 1873 when railroad owner Jay Cooke issued millions of dollars of worthless stock, investors panicked, and banks closed resulting in an economic collapse. Unemployed U.S. workers began demanding government help to ease the strain of the depression and suggested work programs to help them. Instead, charity was offered, but they refused because they wanted jobs.

Among the groups formed to help workers get jobs was the Committee of Safety in New York City. The committee was composed of socialists, trade union leaders, and labor reformers, who established themselves “seeking a remedy for the alleged wrongs of the laboring classes.”[1] Their attempts to meet with city official proved fruitlessly and hoping for success the committee then planned a demonstration on 13 January at Tompkins Square Park.* In addition, the committee and its members proposed to march from Tompkins to City Hall where they planned to demand that Mayor William Frederick Havemeyer establish a public works program to generate employment opportunities for unemployed workers.

William Frederick Havermeyer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On 5 January, a separate organization, headed by Patrick Dunn, called for a more militant approach. Dunn urged workers to use direct action if the government did not respond to their demands. Members of the Committee of Safety who attended Dunn’s protest tried to discourage workers from marching to City Hall, but protestors refused to comply. So, the Committee of Safety led the march and upon reaching City Hall one of their spokesmen claimed:

“[Demonstrator had] come ‘on the behalf of thousands of working men now on the verge of starvation to demand work and pay. If they could not get it the men would help themselves. Several of the men … [said] that they had nothing to eat and they would never submit to starvation. If their demand was not granted, the City Government should look out for the consequences.’”[2]

The Aldermen were somewhat alarmed by the threats. That was because many of the protestors were radical immigrants who had fled Europe during the 1848 revolutions that ended the July Monarchy with the overthrow of King Louis Philippe. The Aldermen feared what the protestors might do, and they therefore made a few faint promises hoping to disperse the crowd. It worked the crowd left but overall demonstrators were dissatisfied with the outcome and so the Committee of Safety members encouraged a second demonstration on 8 January.

This time over 1,000 protestors showed up in Union Square only to discover that police had sent a precinct full of reserve forces. Dunn then proposed demonstrators march on City Hall again. However, Dunn’s group was outnumbered by Committee of Safety supporters, who instead chose to march to Tompkins Square.

At the square demonstrators made several demands and voted in favor of an 8-hour workday. However, because of the vehemence of the orators and the many calls for action great fear was generated among authorities about what the demonstrators might do should they meet and organize further. Fear by authorities was further exacerbated when protestors were encouraged to return to the square on 13 January as that was the original day planned for the march organized by the Committee of Safety.

In the meantime, the Committee of Safety’s attempts to pacify the movement were not working. Many people were not supportive of the committee actions and newspapers were warning of the menace that the Committee of Safety represented. Moreover, there were rumors claiming that the committee had purchased weapons with jewels stolen in Paris by Communards, who had formed during the short-lived 1871 Paris Commune.

The Police Board also had objections and feared what protestors might do. Further, police did not want anyone marching to City Hall. The Committee of Safety therefore ultimately decided it was best to cancel the march and they instead opted to hold a series meetings at Tompkins Square Park as they had a permit that allowed them to hold such assemblages. Unfortunately, the night before the planned meeting, their permit was revoked by authorities because of fear about what might happen. Police claimed they told the Committee of Safety organizer Peter J. McGuire about the change. He maintained that he did not receive notice of the revocation because he was out when it was delivered. In any event, the revocation was made so late there was not enough time to cancel the demonstration and protestors were unaware the following morning.

Peter J. McGuire. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Tompkins Square Park riot began after the appearance of about 7,000 workers along with another 1,200 workers from the German Tenth Ward Workingmen’s Association. At the time there were no notices posted that informed the workers that they could not assemble or that the Committee of Safety’s permit had been revoked. Moreover, the demonstrators were likely unaware that roughly 1,600 policemen had been ordered to prevent their assemblage and were stationed in the surrounding area to keep the peace.

“The authorities, now quite alive to the dangers which threatened the peace of the city, determined to act with vigour … On the appointed morning, at an early hour, the square was filled with crowds of the unemployed workmen. The majority of these probably came with innocent intentions, but others were armed with stones, knives, hammers, and clubs. What they might have done had they been left to the guidance of the Committee of Safety can never be known, for before anything like an organisation of the assemblage had been attempted a strong body of police enter the square, penetrated to the centre of the crowd, and then, without giving the men an order to disperse or allowing them time to do so, they fell upon with such that in a few moments the people had fled in terror from the square, many of them bleeding from wounds inflicted by the clubs of their assailants, and leaving 30 of their number prisoners in the hands of the victorious police. As the latter marched off the scene of action with their captives, they were saluted by showers of stones from the windows of the neighbouring houses; but no attempt at rescue was made, nor was any one rash enough to attack the mounted officers who immediately afterwards took possession of the square.”[3]

Tompkins Square Park riot of 1874

Drawing of the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1874. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another variation of how the Tompkins Square Park riot happened was also reported in Britain. There the North British Daily Mail wrote of the event stating:

“[T]he disturbance commenced when the police made an onslaught on to the ‘Tenth Ward Working Men’s Association,’ who were led by three Germans. One of them, named Christian Meyer [sic], tarried a big foundry hammer, with which he ‘smashed the head’ of a police-sergeant, and after ‘fighting like a tiger, was beaten so badly that he fell on the ground an inanimate heap.’ The Germans, of whom there were many in the mob, made a desperate resistance, but after a sharp struggle the police were victorious, and having cleared the square, marched off with about forty prisoners, whom they conveyed to the police court with some difficulty; ‘clubbing furiously all the way.’ The prisoners were chiefly German French Communists, with a few Irish and Americans, and were either remanded or committed for trial at the special sessions. The affair seems to have created some sensation in New York, and it is anticipated from various signs in the principal cities of the United States that this Tompkins Park Square riot is only the first of other similar disturbances likely to be fomented by European revolutionists, who, in the absence of any occupation in this quarter of the globe, are trying to find amusement in America.”[4]

A third version about how the Tompkins Square Park riot began also appeared in the Wilkes Barre Times Leader. According to that paper:

“By 10 1/2 o’clock, Tompkins square was densely packed …. Many carried clubs and heavy sticks, which they flourished fiercely. It had been arranged to clear the square at 10.45, just fifteen minutes before the time announced for the beginning of the meeting. At that moment, to a second, Captain Walsh, with a small but compact body of twenty-four men, in double file, with drawn batons, marched rapidly through the western gates and did not pause till the centre of the space was reached. The signal ‘Halt’ was then given, and for a minute the men waited the arrival of the mounted squad.

It was a moment of impatience and excitement among the police and their officers. The crowd surrounded them on every side; yells and hisses filled their ears; an occasional missile fell in the midst of them; clubs and other weapons could be seen above the rough, angry faces, and, scarcely a block away, hung from the windows of several of the houses facing the square, the red flag of the Commune. It did not require many insults to arouse the ire of the little band, and when before their very eyes some daring ruffians sprang into a passing streetcar and attempted to rob its inmate the order was given to charge, although the mounted square was not in sight.

The crowd fell back with very little resistance, though occasionally a small body of men would refuse to move until they were soundly beaten with the policemen’s clubs. The division of eleven led by Sergeant [William C. F.] Berghold started toward Avenue B, and they had not reached the sidewalk before a body of about 75 men was encountered, who made a very decided resistance.”[5]

Tompkins Square Park riot - William C.F. Berghold

William C. F. Berghold. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Berghold reported that he faced an “ugly looking crowd” and told them to disperse “in peace.” Instead of doing so he maintained that a “grizzled fellow” named Joseph Hoefflicher, who was serving as the leader, called on the men to “stand firm.” An Officer Waldron then joined Berghold and struggled with Hoefflicher trying to get him and the workingmen to move back. Berghold then went to Waldron’s assistance. He claimed that is when workingman Christian Mayer hit him on the head with a heavy carpenter’s hammer. He was knocked senseless and blood poured from his head wound. It was at that point that an all-out melee ensued between police and protestors erupted. The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported the following:

“The heavy hoofs of the trained horses and the drawn clubs of their riders, exercised a wholesome influence upon the crowd and they dispersed, though not with any great evidences of fear. Many disappeared into neighboring houses, saloons and alleyways, only to reappear when the chargers had passed, but the majority were driven before the horses, first to Avenue A and then to First Avenue, where two or three thousand people collected in the vicinity of the Seventeenth Precinct Station.”[6]

Mayer told police officers after his arrest that he had not eaten for ten days and was desperate. He also maintained:

“[H]e was ordered by the Tenth Ward Association to assault any policeman who molested him. … [It was then reported that] as soon as Meyer [sic] assaulted the officer, the policemen began a vigorous clubbing clearing the Square. The most intense excitement prevailed, and storekeepers made haste to put up the shutters and close the doors.”[7]

When news of the Tompkins Square Park riot broke New York citizens panicked. Rumors ran wild that protestors were planning terrible things. For instance, there were claims that the workers were going to burn down a school, which was then put under police protection. There were also allegations that workers were going to attack some churches. In addition, one Alderman maintained that to escape the riotous protestors he had to jump off a streetcar to ensure his safety.

It was not just protestors who were criticized. Samuel Gompers, a British-born American cigar maker, labor union leader, and key figure in American labor history who founded the American Federation of Labor and was a member of the anti-imperialist league like Mark Twain, reported the police behaved viciously:

“[M]ounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality. I was caught in the crowd on the street and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellarway.”[8]  

Samuel Gompers. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the end it was reported that forty-six workers were arrested, thirty-five of them being ringleaders. Mayer was among those arrested and charged with having committed assault and battery against Berghold. A week or so later the New York Daily Herald reported that when Berghold appeared at court he had his head bandaged. Ultimately, however, after hearing the case, the jury was unable to reach a verdict related to Mayer.** He did however eventually serve several months, as did Hoefflicher, although Mayer was pardoned by Governor Dix by the end of the summer.

After the Tompkins Square Park riot the workingmen’s movement lost its momentum. There were other efforts to organize a march for the unemployed, but it proved futile. There was also little support for any of the workers involved in the riot other than Mayer. Thus, the Committee of Safety soon floundered and dissolved into the Industrial Political Party, which then disbanded a year later.

The editor, John Swinton, of the New York Sun exposed the complacency of City Hall and denounce the underhanded tactics used by police against the protestors. He also made comments before the New York State Assembly’s Committee on Grievances requesting an investigation into police conduct and afterwards his comments and concerns were published in a pamphlet titled, The Tompkins Square Outrage. However, attempts undertaken to fire members of the Police Board for the Tompkins Square Park riot failed.

With that failure the New York Police Department felt more justified in their actions taken at the Tompkins Square Park riot. This then resulted in them stepping up their surveillance and harassment of political organizations that lasted for many years. They also began to intimidate landlords into evicting radical groups and canceling meetings on their premises. Rumors also began to circulate against the workingmen that they had started a church fire and that there was a Communist plot afoot to kill the mayor.

As to Tompkins Square, a few years later at a public meeting held on 24 June 1878 a resolution was passed to “restore” it and let it serve as a public park. Citizens requested that Alderman adopt the resolution and in July they did so stating that there would also be provided “a parade ground in said square.”[9] The mayor approved the motion on 20 July 1878.


*At the time although Tompkins Square had a wrought iron fence and some trees any further improvement and care had been squashed by the Panic of 1837. Therefore, many people described it as not really a square or a park but rather a “large and dreary” plot of land on the east side used for military purposes.
**Ten jurors voted for conviction and two for acquittal.

References:

  • [1] New York Daily Herald, “The Industrial Party,” January 29, 1874, p. 5.
  • [2] The Morning Post, “The Distress in New York,” February 6, 1874, p. 6.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] North British Daily Mail, “Dreadful Riots in New York,” January 30, 1874, p. 3.
  • [5] Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the Evening News, Wilkes-Barre Record, “How a Riot was Averted,” January 15, 1874, p. 2.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Nashville Union and American, “Tompkins Square,” January 14, 1874, p. 1.
  • [8] G. E. Stearns, Gompers (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1971), p. 23.
  • [9] Board of Supervisors, Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen 151 (New York: Board of Aldermen, 1878), p. 97.

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