“This is the most gloomy period which New York has ever known. The number of failures is so great daily that I do not keep a record of them, even in my mind.” – Philip Hone
New York City was on rough times in the 1830s, visited in succession by plague, fire and famine. In 1832, nearly 4,000 people died of a cholera epidemic that lasted for months, causing half the population to flee the city and devastating the local economy. During the winter of 1835, a blazing fire went up on Pearl Street. The volunteer fire department, decimated in recent years by cholera, exhausted by a fire the previous night and working with frozen pipes, was helpless to put out the flames, which consumed 700 buildings, virtually all of downtown Manhattan. The insurance companies were bankrupted by the unprecedented damaged, with local banks following suit. The collapse of the banks froze business lending and helped spark the Panic of 1837, in which stock prices, the real estate market bottomed out and even crops were devastated by bad weather. It was the worst depression in American history until the Great Depression a century later.
Lamentations abounded. Horace Greeley’s new magazine, the New Yorker, implored young men, “Fly – scatter through the land – go to the Great West, anything rather than remain here…the West is the true destination.” Hence the expression, “Go west, young man.” With unemployment at about 30%, city official Gerrett Forbes complained that the rent was just too damn high and blasted “so many mercenary landlords who only contrive in what space they can to stow the greatest number human beings in the smallest space.” During this time New York’s greatest writer, Washington Irving, coined the phrase “almighty dollar,” regretting his own lack thereof.
Amidst this distress, a meeting was called to protest the price of flour and grain, which speculators had driven to twice their normal price. On February 13, 1837, a crowd of 6,000, mostly poor Irish, gathered to hear a series of speeches denouncing the rich. One speaker specifically called out Eli Hart & Co., a store that sold flour by the barrel, and demanded that the store provide flour at the old price of $8 a barrel. The crowd stormed the store, throwing barrels out the window and smashing the store, pelting the mayor and police with ice and bricks as they helplessly sought to intervene. Women collected the allegedly knee-deep spilled flour and wheat on the street, and the rioters took down a second flour warehouse, Herrick & Co, before being driven away by the national guard. A first-hand account of the fiasco is provided in Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States.
Some cast responsibility on the trouble-making Locofocos, a radical anti-capitalist political faction, before there was even such a term. They opposed the type of financial speculation that had caused flour prices to spike, and actually succeeded several years later in getting President Van Buren to end government banking. I just love the name “Locofocos.”
In the end, flour prices did not come down, and the depression continued until 1843. Rough times, but it got folks over at Tammany Hall thinking maybe it was time to bring the Irish in on the political take, to avoid future trouble…
There are many accounts of the Flour Riot, but my favorite is from Edward Robb Elliis’s Epic of New York City.