In the spring of 1837, the worse financial panic in the nation’s history ruined banks from Natchez, Mississippi to Boston, Massachusetts. With businesses failing and unemployment on the rise, tension dominated cities across the country.
In Boston, tensions exploded on Sunday, June 11, 1837 with the collision of an Irish funeral procession and a Yankee fire company. The resulting riot involved roughly 15,000 people, about one-fifth of the city’s population, and virtually destroyed an Irish neighborhood.
At about 3 p.m. that afternoon, Engine Co. 20, known as “the Extinguisher,” had just returned from a fire in Roxbury. Tired and ready for a pint or two, the firemen stowed their engine in their engine house on East Street (now in Boston’s leather district but then largely an Irish residential neighborhood) and most of the small company went to a nearby pub. About the time they emerged, a funeral procession of about 500 Irish immigrants was making its way up East Street. The funeral was for John Copeland, whom the Boston Post called, “a very respectable man.”
Boston fire companies of that time were mostly volunteers, Protestant, American-born young men of modest means who resented the newly arrived Irish immigrants for a variety of reasons–primarily because they competed for jobs which were now growing ever more scarce. The firemen attempted to make their way along the sidewalks to their engine house but the dense crowd made it difficult for them to pass through. One of the firemen, nineteen year old George Fay, was smoking a cigar and one of the Irishmen demanded that he extinguish it out of respect for the dead. Fay allegedly refused, gave the Irishman a few choice words and a brawl ensued.
The small group of firemen were massively outnumbered. They retreated to their engine house, things quieted, and the procession moved on. Various newspaper reports and court testimony contradict as to what happened next (in fact, there are multiple versions of just about every aspect of this event). The upshot is, the foreman of the company, W.W. Miller, ordered the firemen to bring their engine out of the engine house and to ring the bell, sounding an alarm that would attract other fire companies as if there were a fire. Miller testified that he gave the order as some Irishmen attempted to get into the engine house and Miller feared for the lives of his company. Others argue that Miller was looking for revenge.
After his order was carried out, Miller went on foot to the nearby engine house of Company No. 8. According to the Boston Evening Transcript, a fireman (probably Miller) burst into the quarters of No. 8 shouting, “The Irish have risen upon us and are going to kill us!”
As church bells began to ring across the city, at least nine engine companies, and elements of others, converged towards East Street. Engine Company No. 14 came upon the procession at the intersection of Summer and Sea Street along the wharves, opposite what is now the location of South Station in present-day Dewey Square. Not realizing it was a funeral procession, the confused firemen supposed that a mob of Irishmen had gathered. Meanwhile, at the other end of the procession, Engine Company No. 9 came tearing around the corner of Bedford Street onto Summer Street and collided with the mourners, causing injuries. Again, accounts differ with the firemen alleging this was an accident and the Irish claiming it was intentional. Whoever was at fault, this instantly caused a tremendous melee.
The funeral procession fell apart, some fleeing, others fighting. Paving stones, bricks, clubs suddenly seemed to be everywhere. The riot escalated with Irishmen coming out of their houses to defend their families and Yankees arriving from adjoining neighborhoods. The Yankees pushed the Irishmen a few blocks northward until the Irish made a final stand in a section of Broad Street now known as Atlantic Avenue at the head of Foster’s and Rowe’s Wharves. Here the fighting reached its peak and the Irishmen eventually dispersed.
Victorious but still infuriated, the Yankees attacked the Irish neighborhood along Broad Street, breaking windows, destroying and looting contents. A correspondent, sympathetic to the Irish, wrote for the Boston Atlas, that the mob commenced pillaging, “barely suffering the women and children to escape—though not always without blows—but beating all the men whom they found in the houses, in a most barbarous manner, and turning them out into the street, to be again beaten and stoned by persons who called themselves spectators, and then to be seized and carried off to jail by these kind spectators.”
A reporter from the Boston Post wrote, “There is no reason whatever to believe that the houses thus assailed were occupied by the Irishmen who were engaged in the affray.”
Boston had no police department at the time. City Marshall Ezra Weston and his small group of city watchmen were utterly powerless to stop the riot and there are no indications that any such attempt was made. Two hours of chaos came to an end when Mayor Samuel Eliot ordered out the state militia. At least ten local companies responded including, ironically, the Montgomery Guards–an Irish company. The Mayor and the city Aldermen arrived on the scene escorted by the National Lancers, a cavalry company which played a key role in maintaining order throughout that night.
Although initially the papers reported several deaths, once the dust settled, none of these were confirmed. However, accounts describe many, many serious injuries. It seems probable that wounded Irishmen might have been brought home and died as a result of their injuries without any official report.
Fourteen Irish and four Protestant men were arrested. All four Yankees were found not guilty. Of the Irish, John Welsh and Barney Fanning were sentenced to two months hard labor and John Whaley was sentenced to four months.
In the wake of the Broad Street Riot, often referred to as the worst in Boston’s history, both the Boston Fire Department and Boston Police Department were established. Volunteer fire companies became a thing of the past.
 Jack Tager, Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001), 120.
 Peter F. Stevens, Hidden history of the Boston Irish: little-known stories from Ireland’s “next parish over” (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2008), 46.
 Stevens, 46.
 Boston Post, June 15, 1837, 2.
 Stevens, 47.
 Tager, 121.
 Boston Post, June 12, 1837, 2.
 Boston Atlas article re-printed in John England, and Ignatius Aloysius Reynolds, The works of the Right Reverend John England, first bishop of Charleston, (Baltimore: John Murphy & Co., 1849), vol. 5, 314.
 Boston Post, June 12, 1837, 2.
 John England, 323.