Boston riots during the 18th century were so frequent you could have called the town Riot City.
Between 1700 and 1764, 28 riots broke out in Boston. During the same time, New York had only four, and Philadelphia had just six, according to historian Jack Tager.
The Boston riots encompassed all classes. Gentlemen and college students rioted, as did the poor. Women and children rioted for bread and meat. Bostonians protested against customs regulations, brothels and the impressment of sailors. Several Pope Day riots targeted Catholicism and led to the Stamp Act riot. Other Boston rioters attacked immigrants and union organizers. Sometimes the police rioted, but at least one rioted erupted when the police went on strike.
Michael Hindus studied Boston riots and reached a conclusion in a 1971 essay, A City of Mobocrats and Tyrants: Mob Violence in Boston, 1747-1863.
My study of rioting in Boston over an extended period has convinced me that too many types of people took to the streets for too many different reasons for any single formula to apply.
In other words, everyone seemed to riot in Boston.
The Boston Revolt
Tager counted 103 Boston riots from 1700 to 1976, or one riot every 2.76 years. But one man’s riot is another man’s revolt. In 1689, Bostonians engaged in actions the British government almost certainly viewed as a riot. Boston, however, called it a revolt.
King James II gave Bostonians a convenient target for their ire. He consolidated the northern colonies into the Dominion of New England and sent Sir Edmund Andros to rein them in. Andros cracked down on the forbidden activities of smuggling and trading with the French and Dutch. He also infuriated the Puritan elders by holding an Anglican service in a Puritan meeting house. The papist had to go!
So armed Bostonians and militiamen from nearby towns seized Andros and his people and threw him in jail. The Protestant William of Orange, meanwhile, seized power in England, and Boston got away with it. Andros went back to the United Kingdom.
Boston Riots Over Food
In the 18th century war and economic stagnation created chronic food shortages.
Boston riots first kicked into gear during Queen Anne’s War, which lasted from 1702 to 1713. The costs of the war fell heavily on Boston’s poor, who had to fight it in the north and cope with grain shortages at home. War profiteers hoarded grain to raise prices and gouge their customers, or else they shipped it to the Caribbean to feed the slaves on sugar plantations.
In 1707, poor women dumped out chamber pots on the heads of soldiers marching home from war. Then in 1710, Boston men tried to sabotage a grain-filled ship owned by war profiteer Andrew Belcher. The ship lay at anchor, about to depart Boston Harbor for the West Indies. One man rowed out and smashed the rudder; the next day 50 men rowed out and tried to force the captain to come ashore. Authorities had some rabble-rousers arrested, but didn’t charge them with anything because they had so much public support.
Riots and looting broke out the next year when a fire left 100 families homeless.
Then in 1713, Belcher once again shipped Indian corn to the Caribbean. Boston selectmen warned him against it, but Belcher refused.
Two hundred poor men broke in to Belcher’s warehouse, trashed it and wounded the lieutenant governor. Boston selectmen responded by passing a law that said grain could not be exported in times of food shortage. Grain also had to be sold at a set price to one of a group of 15 people. In 1714 the town established a granary where the poor could buy grain at below-market prices.
Another Boston riot over food broke out in 1737, when the price of meat skyrocketed. Rioters, including many volunteer firefighters, tore down butchers’ stalls.
More Food Riots
Merchant hoarding inspired 14 food riots in Boston during the American Revolution, including some led by women. Abigail Adams witnessed one and described it to her husband in a letter. “There has been much rout and Noise in the Town for several weeks,” she wrote.
During the Kosher Meat Riot of 1902, Jewish men, women and children led the battle against local butchers in the city’s poor neighborhoods. They were angry because the price of kosher beef suddenly rose to 18 cents a pound from 12 cents a pound.
The butchers blamed the Beef Trust in Chicago. Hundreds of Jews didn’t buy it or didn’t care. They formed picket lines outside the butcher shops, first in the North End, then a few days later in the West End. They smashed windows, threw rotten food at the shops and destroyed the product. Ten years later, history repeated itself with another meat riot.
Press Gang Riots
Bostonians rioted for three days against British press gangs in 1747. They’d had plenty of practice: they’d rioted twice in 1741 and once in 1746 against the press gangs.
The British Royal Navy had a predilection for capturing — or ‘impressing’ — random American seamen and forcing them to work aboard his royal majesty’s warships. King George’s War was on in 1747, and mariners knew life aboard ship in wartime was harsh and dangerous.
So it did not go over well when, on Nov. 16 and 17, British press gangs rounded up 46 shocked sailors and tradesmen along the waterfront. About 300 men retaliated by capturing a British navy lieutenant. The riot escalated when Gov. William Shirley tried to call out the militia, who refused to respond. Shirley characterized the rioters as “seamen and a great number of lewd and profligate persons.” In reality, the respectable upper-class militiamen supported them. Shirley called them “ill-minded.”
The impressment riot helped set the stage for the American Revolution. It taught Boston that authorities couldn’t do much to suppress large-scale uprisings, wrote Hindus.
Then in 1863, the Boston draft riot earned less notice than the draft riot in New York. The main actors were working-class white men who couldn’t afford the $300 to get out of the draft. They attacked an armory with women and children helping supply paving stones and ammunition. The women, fearing the poverty they’d suffer if the breadwinner went off to war, held up their children and dared militia to shoot them.
A century later, on April 9.1969 Harvard police rioted. Thirty students protesting the Vietnam War took over University Hall, driving out the office workers ‘under duress.’ One student physically carried a dean out of the building. Hundreds more joined them, until police stormed the building. They handled the students roughly and injured many of them.
In 1970, a protest against the draft and the Vietnam War at Northeastern University erupted into a riot.
Stamp Act Riot
Annual Pope Night brawls between North and South End gangs in Boston had escalated up until then. They began with raucous parades making fun of the Roman Catholic pope, then turned into brawls—or riots, if you prefer–and a celebratory bonfire.
John Hancock and Sam Adams wanted to stir up trouble, and they found a reliable ally in Ebenezer Mackintosh, the leader of the South End gang.
During the Stamp Act Riot of Aug. 26, 1765, a mob ransacked the mansion of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. Gov. Francis Bernard feared more violence a few months later on Pope Night, so he called out the militia from October 31 to November 6—the day before the Stamp Act took effect and the day after Pope Night. The militia stayed home.
That ushered in a penchant for riots that included the Liberty Affair in 1765, the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party of 1773.
Boston Riots Over Race and Slavery
In 1819 came a new wave of Boston riots, sparked by immigration, class-conflict and slavery.
Sixty African-Americans carrying clubs, knives and hatchets in 1819 confronted a group of white people who had captured a runaway slave. The whites fought off the rescuers and arrested 15, but not before one of them was injured.
During the 1829 Gentleman’s Riot, 1,500 members of Boston’s elite class, along with their clerks, rioted against abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Many had made fortunes in textile manufacturing, which gobbled up cotton harvested by slaves in the south.
When the gentlemen assembled, Mayor Theodore Lyman stood on a chair and asked them to desist. They didn’t, but marched to the Female Anti-Slavery Society to break it up, then went for Garrison. They tied him up and started to drag him through the streets, but two men rescued him. He holed up in the old statehouse. Then a coach provided by authorities took Garrison to jail and charged him with disturbing the peace. In the end, they let him go.
A smaller confrontation developed in 1843. “In Boston on August 27, 1843, sailors beat four blacks. When the victims defended themselves, a larger crowd gathered and assaulted every black person in sight,” wrote Paul A. Gilje in Rioting in America.
More Slavery Riots
During the Boston Slave riot of 1854, abolitionists led by Brahmin Thomas Wentworth Higginson armed themselves with axes. They attacked a courthouse in which fugitive slave Anthony Burns was held. They failed to free him, and the governor placed Boston under martial law.
Then in 1903, a speech by Booker T. Washington to the Business League at the African Methodist Episcopal Church turned into a battle between his African-American followers and those of William Monroe Trotter. Trotter thought Washington too much of an Uncle Tom, and his followers hissed and shouted during Washington’s speech. A melee erupted as Washington spoke. His followers provoked a melee in which someone threw red pepper and stink bombs. Twenty-five police showed up and arrested Trotter.
Many ethnic riots, but not all, started because the Yankee laboring poor feared losing their livelihoods to the cheap workforce arriving from Ireland. The Yankees developed a predilection for beating up the Irish and trashing their homes.
In 1823, Yankee workmen rioted against Irish immigrants, throwing stones through the windows of their homes.
That was only a prelude to the Brothel Riots of 1825, when Yankee firefighters, teamsters and mechanics tore down two notorious West End brothels, the Beehive and the Tin Pot. Michael Hindus notes that the teamsters, or truckmen, had become the ‘fellows to call when any game was on foot in those days.’ They seemed to like fighting for its own sake, sometimes rioting, sometimes suppressing riots.
During three days of rioting in July 1826, Yankee laborers nearly destroyed the Irish section of Boston. Hindus speculates the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on July 4 may have inspired a torrent of nativist feeling. The clear meaning of the Revolution was getting muddied by immigrants and their strange Catholic symbols and rituals.
In 1834, a group of anti-Irish Know Nothings burned down an Ursuline convent in Charlestown.
In 1837 came the Broad Street riot. That year, a financial panic caused hard times throughout the country and economic uncertainty for Yankee laborers. Irish immigrants fought mostly volunteer Yankee firefighters on Broad Street. Ten thousand spectators egged on the 800 combatants, and the melee didn’t end until Mayor Samuel Eliot called in the state militia.
1917 Anti-Union Riot
On July 1, 1917, union members and socialists organized a peaceful parade of men, women and babies through the streets to a mass meeting on Boston Common. Mother’s League, Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Labor League 20 and the Lithuanians of Boston. Soldiers and sailors attacked the marchers, trampled their banners and burned their pamphlets in the street. After an hour and a half of fighting, the police intervened.
A fight also broke out in Scollay Square, after the police superintendent revoked a peace advocate’s permit to speak.
Ghetto Riots of 1967-68
Boston had a relatively small African-American population until the 1950s, when many migrated north for better jobs and opportunity. But Boston grew increasingly inhospitable to its black population. Urban renewal destroyed neighborhoods and the local government offered little economic or political advancement.
In June 1967, a dozen women calling themselves Mothers for Adequate welfare locked themselves into a welfare office in the Grove Hall section of Roxbury. Police tried to eject them, and a fight broke out. The fight escalated into a large scale riot, as angry young people stoned police cars, smashed windows and set fires. Police arrested 30 rioters, while dozens of on both sides went to hospital with injuries.
That Boston riot mirrored African-American uprisings throughout the United States, riots that continued after an assassin killed Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4.
Immediately after King’s death, James Brown agreed to let his concert at Boston Garden be televised to keep young African-Americans at home. The hardest working man in show biz did keep many young African Americans rooted to their TV sets. But others stoned cars on Blue Hill Avenue, looted liquor stores, burned a furniture store and beat up some white people. The Boston riot, however, was more contained than those in Washington or Chicago or Detroit.
1972 Puerto Rican Riots
New England’s Puerto Rican riots have been largely forgotten. But three days of Boston riots erupted in the South End in July 1972 during a Puerto Rican Day celebration.
The Boston Globe reported the fight grew into a confrontation between bystanders and more than 100 policemen. Mostly young Puerto Ricans set buildings on fire, damaged police cruisers and stoned passing cars. The police were criticized for aggravating the situation.
Luis Palmarin, a South End resident, told the Globe: “The cop arrested me when I tried to stop him from beating a man who was bleeding badly. He threw me in the car, grabbed a soda bottle from the floor, called me a spic and hit me in the face with the bottle.”
Boston City Councilman Albert “Dapper” O’Neil made the situation worse by ordering the police to “club those maggots and leeches out of the park.”
Economic hardship followed the boom years of World War I and unions ramped up their organizing efforts. On May Day, a day to celebrate international labor solidarity, socialists held a meeting in Roxbury at the Dudley Street Opera House.
Boston’s Roman Catholic churches had railed against socialists to their Irish parishioners. The Opera House meeting erupted into a brawl between the socialists on one side and police and weapon-wielding onlookers, including soldiers and sailors, on the other. When the hourlong brawl ended, police arrested 113 people and put them in crowded cells, their walls splashed with blood. Two police officers and a civilian were shot and dozens injured. In the end, two died.
Four months later, the police themselves went on strike for better wages and shorter hours. Young men ran wild, smashing shop windows and looting the merchandise, throwing rocks at streetcars and overturning street vendors’ carts. Gov. Calvin Coolidge called out the militia, who, along with Harvard students and upper-class volunteers, tried to quell the violence. The militia restored peace at the cost of eight lives, and Coolidge replaced the striking police with strikebreakers.
Anti-Busing Riots of 1974-76
Nearly everyone knows about the Boston riots against school desegregation from 1974 to 1976. The ferocity of opposition to busing set Boston apart as the Little Rock of the North.
In 1974, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Garrity, Jr., came up with a plan to bus schoolchildren between black and white neighborhoods in order to comply with the Racial Imbalance Act of 1965. In response, Boston School Committee Chair Louise Day Hicks formed Restore Our Alienated Rights, and the group led demonstrations, prayer vigils, marches and sit-ins.
Sporadic violence broke out on both sides. A white youth tried to beat a black lawyer with an American flag, and a black teenager stabbed a white teenager in South Boston High school. The school closed down for a month, and Garrity fired the principal and took control himself. Five hundred police officers guarded South Boston High every day in 1975.
With thanks to Jack Tager, Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence. This story was updated in 2021.