The Garrison Mob of 1835, Boston

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The site of The Liberator office in 1835 and the “Garrison mob.” The brick plaza was formerly a portion of Washington Street which extended to Dock Square and Faneuil Hall.

On October 21, 1835 at about 2 p.m., William Lloyd Garrison, the 30-year old editor of Boston’s antislavery newspaper The Liberator, made his way to a wooden building near the corner of Washington Street and Cornhill. A friend and fellow member of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, 25-year old Charles C. Burleigh, accompanied him. It was hot that afternoon—unusually so for an autumn day in Boston.

They were headed for Stacy Hall, a small meeting space about the size of a schoolroom which adjoined the Liberator office at 46 Washington Street. A meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society would be taking place there that afternoon. Garrison and Burleigh had arrived early, hoping to avoid trouble in the street. They were not quite early enough.

Over the past months, Bostonians had been growing increasingly furious with the abolitionists in their midst. In August, a massive meeting had been held in Faneuil Hall, organized and attended by Boston’s elite businessmen and politicians, to denounce the abolitionists and the notion of immediate emancipation. Their resolutions would have pleased any southern plantation owner. Over the ensuing weeks, newspaper editors printed shrill editorials, denouncing Garrison, The Liberator, and all of his followers. “These dangerous men must be met. THEY AGITATE A QUESTION THAT MUST NOT BE TAMPERED WITH. They are plotting the destruction of our Government.”[1]

It was rumored that British abolitionist George Thompson, more reviled than Garrison, would be speaking at the October meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. A widely held conspiracy theory argued that Thompson and other foreigners aimed to inflame the South with antislavery speeches and pamphlets and thus bring about the downfall of the Union. In actuality, Thompson was not in Boston, having been advised by his friends to stay away from the city. Garrison had agreed to speak at the meeting instead.

Thompson handbillBut thousands of Bostonians nonetheless believed that Thompson could be caught at The Liberator office that afternoon. Just hours before the meeting, James Homer, editor of the Boston Commercial Gazette, began running off handbills which read, in part, “A purse of $100 has been raised by a number of patriotic citizens to reward the individual who shall first lay violent hands on Thompson, so that he may be brought to the tar kettle before dark. Friends of the Union, be vigilant!”[2]

And so, that afternoon, as Garrison later recalled, “The whole city was wrought up to a pitch of insanity.”[3] Although he and Burleigh had arrived early, there was already a small crowd of angry-looking men outside the door of the Anti-Slavery office. Garrison and his friend went into the hall, taunted by the crowd but not harmed. Inside they found about 25 women had already assembled, including Maria Weston Chapman. Women continued to arrive, allowed inside by the growing crowd but loudly jeered. Two black women entering the hall were roughly pushed.[4]

Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879)

As the meeting began, the crowd managed to press into the vestibule of the building, which was separated from the small meeting hall by a relatively flimsy, temporary partition. It was now impossible for the abolitionists to leave the building unless the crowd allowed it. The shouting men nearly drowned out the voice of the Society president Mary S. Parker as she opened the meeting with a reading of scripture and a prayer. She behaved, Garrison recalled, “with complete serenity of soul.”[5] But with the mob only growing larger and louder out on the street, soon numbering in the thousands, the futility of the exercises soon became apparent. It was politely suggested that if Garrison left the meeting, the crowd might disperse. Garrison agreed.

He withdrew to the adjoining office of the The Liberator. Burleigh was there and later wrote, perhaps with some exaggeration, of Garrison’s perfectly calm demeanor as he sat down at his small desk to pen a letter. Meanwhile, the crowd was attempting to smash down the partition and gain access to the hall. They had nearly succeeded when Mayor Theodore Lyman arrived with a few constables (there was no police force in Boston at the time).

Mayor Lyman, a 43-year old lawyer, had presided at the August anti-abolitionist meeting. He was enormously popular in Boston, having been reelected mayor in January by a landslide. He detested abolitionism and indeed had contributed to the furor in the city that had created this mob. But as mayor, he wanted to avoid bloodshed in his city if possible. The crowd allowed Lyman to enter the hall. The constables stood guard at the door.

Addressing the Female Anti-Slavery Society, Lyman said, “Go home, ladies, go home.”

President Parker attempted to continue with the meeting. Lyman interrupted her, “Ladies, do you wish to see a scene of bloodshed and confusion? If you do not, go home.”

Several of them protested. Maria Weston Chapman stood, stating, “Mr. Lyman, your personal friends are the instigators of this mob.”

Lyman responded, “I know no personal friends, I am merely an official. Indeed, ladies, you must retire. It is dangerous to remain.”

Chapman answered, dramatically but, probably, with sincerity, “If this is the last bulwark of freedom, we may as well die here as anywhere.”

Lyman smiled, stating that they could not die here. “If you go now, I will protect you, but cannot unless you do.”[6]

The ladies voted to adjourn. As they went out, Chapman recalled, they did not disperse to their homes but marched out in an orderly procession, which only further infuriated the mob. They were met with a “roar of rage and contempt,” Chapman would later write. As they departed to resume their meeting at Chapman’s house, Chapman instructed them to integrate their ranks, marching two by two, white and black women together.

The men were, she observed, of the “so-called ‘wealthy and respectable,’ ‘the moral worth,’ ‘the influence and standing.'” Many others observed that the mob was made up of “gentlemen of property and standing” and “mobocrats in broadcloth.” This was Boston’s elite dealing with an unacceptable threat not only to political order but to their own social authority.[7]

With the women removed, Lyman attempted to disperse the mob by telling them that Thompson wasn’t there. They bellowed instead for Garrison. Lyman, who seems to have been able to keep the hall clear for a time, conferred with Garrison and recommended that he exit by a rear window and escape by a back alley known as Wilson’s Lane. Lyman would then tell the mob that Garrison was gone and, hopefully, they would go home. Garrison was reluctant to make such an ignominious exit but, under the circumstances, agreed. A young abolitionist named John Reid Campbell, who had somehow slipped into the building, agreed to go with him.

While Lyman tried to distract the mob, stating that the building had been searched and Garrison was gone, Garrison and Campbell dropped out of a rear, second floor window onto the roof of a shed. Of course, the mob had filled Wilson’s Lane as well and they were instantly seen. Hopping across the shed roof, they reached a window to the loft of a carpenter shop, and climbed in. The proprietor, sympathetic to abolitionism, urged Garrison to hide in the loft while he barred the door.[8]

It was a futile effort. The crowd broke down the door of the shop and found Garrison in the loft under planks that Campbell had piled over him. They tied a rope around his waist and lowered him out a second floor window down into the hands of the mob in Wilson’s Lane. Most of his clothes were torn off. They began to drag him towards Boston Common, some shouting for tar and feathers, others for a hanging.

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The site of the Garrison mob. Estimates range from 1,500 to 5,000 people. Garrison was held in the Old State House, shown here, by Mayor Lyman and his men.

At some point, about where Wilson’s Lane entered State Street, in the shadow of the Old State House (then City Hall), on the same ground where the Boston Massacre took place, Mayor Lyman and his constables intervened. They took Garrison into custody, and quickly ushered him into City Hall. Ellis Ames, a young attorney, recalled seeing Garrison go in. The mob gathered around the building, intent, Ames thought, on lynching Garrison.

Wendell Phillips, a Boston attorney with an office just up the street, came out and watched the mob in horror. He wondered why the mayor had not called out the militia. And then realized that most of the militiamen were probably part of the mob. Before that time he had no interest in abolitionism. After the Garrison mob, he became an ardent antislavery activist and the movement’s most gifted and famed orator.[9]

After some time, Ames observed a large coach pulling up to the door of City Hall followed by 30 or 40 thick-set, broad shouldered men in neat suits. Mayor Lyman, realizing City Hall would not be a safe location, had made arrangements to have Garrison arrested, convincing the Suffolk County Sheriff to write up a false oath stating that Garrison had disturbed the peace. As Lyman’s strongmen pushed Garrison into the coach, Ames watched, standing on a window sill of the Old State House, as the crowd rushed the carriage. They were beaten back and the team sprang off, taking Garrison to the Leverett Street Jail in West Boston.[10]

The incident says a great deal about the lengths to which Boston’s elite were willing to go to maintain control and deny the abolitionists of free speech. It was the largest mob, but it was certainly not the last in Boston to assault abolitionists. The movement had a long road ahead.

[1] The Boston Mob of “Gentlemen of Property and Standing”: Proceedings of the Anti-slavery Meeting Held in Stacy Hall, Boston, on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Mob of October 21, 1835, (Boston: R.F. Walcutt, 1855), 14.
[2] Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998), 201.
[3] The Boston Mob, 24.
[4] The Liberator, October 24, 1835, 3.
[5] The Boston Mob, 25.
[6] This exchange is recounted in a number of pamphlets, perhaps most fully in Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879; the Story of His Life Told by His Children, (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1894), 15-16.
[7] Weston quoted in Garrison and Garrison, 16.
[8] Mayer, 204.
[9] The Boston Mob, 32.
[10] Ellis Ames, “The Garrison Mob in Boston, Oct. 21, 1835,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, volume 18, (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1881), 342.

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

5 responses to “The Garrison Mob of 1835, Boston

  • John Aronson

    A few years ago I spent some time looking for any indication that slavery motivated enlistments in the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia about 1861-3 and I couldn’t find any such connection. It was all about preserving the Union and punishing the traitor. In fact the first secessionists I ran into were the abolitionist Garrison and Douglass.

    Later, I found “Papers on the Slave Power” by John Gorham Palfrey, which are a collection of editorials from The Boston Whig published between 1845-48.

    https://archive.org/stream/papersonslavepow01palf#page/n9/mode/1up

    Palfrey was a Unitarian minister, historian and a “conscience” Whig politician. He cast the central issue as being a political and economic struggle between the Free and Slave States. Although Palfrey stridently condemned slavery on moral grounds, his chief arguments advanced the idea that the political and economic strength of the Slave Power in the South, which had grown enormously since the Constitution was ratified in 1789, had become a threat to the sovereignty and economic prosperity of the Free States in particular and to the country in general.

    BTW, have you read Palfrey’s “History of New England” (1858)? Its in four volumes and roughly 2400 pages long. It is by far the best history of the colonial period I’ve come across. Palfrey is meticulous about tracking down original sources and correcting earlier historians of the period such as Hutchinson, Cotton and Prince.

    Here’s a link to volume 2. It begins just after the Pequot War and the formation of the Confederation of New England.

    https://archive.org/stream/papersonslavepow01palf#page/n9/mode/1up

    • Patrick Browne

      Hi John,
      Thanks for the comment. Preserving the Union certainly was the predominant reason for enlistment. I can, however, think of a good many individuals I’ve come across who enlisted for antislavery reasons. To get at this, you really have to read their letters or other personal papers. There were a good number of antislavery society members who enlisted, Thomas W. Higginson probably most famous among them. And I’m sure antislavery was a motivating factory for many in the three Massachusetts black regiments. I have not read Palfrey. Sounds very interesting. At 2400 pages, I might have to save it for summer reading!
      Best,
      Patrick

  • Early African-American Settlement at “Parting Ways,” Plymouth | Historical Digression

    […] newspaper, the Liberator. Burr claimed he was there in the Liberator office in 1835 when the infamous anti-abolitionist mob surrounded and broke into the building, captured Garrison and hauled him through the streets at the […]

  • Nancy Elizabeth Sewall

    Dear Patrick, I have been reading some family books on my ancestors Judge Samuel Sewall & Samuel E. Sewall. In one, “Samuel E. Sewall, a Memoir” by Nina Moore Tiffany, [Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1898] there is a letter (dated October 22, 1835) from Samuel to Louisa M. Winslow (who he would wed in 1836) regarding his involvement with the “Garrison mob” event. It was quite interesting to read of it and therefore I Googled the subject. The first article that came up was by you. I thought you might be interested in reading the account in this book. It sounded quite scary for most involved. Mercy! I don’t get onto email often but will provide it if you need more information on the book. Enjoyed your article. Sincerely, N. Elizabeth Sewall

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