The Whorehouse Riots of 1793
TWO NIGHTS IN MID-OCTOBER 1793, New York men of the lower classes demolished at least two houses of ill-repute. The Columbia Gazetteer reported: On Monday evening last, a large number of people collected near the corner of Chatham Row...
And there undertook the summary investigation of certain matters and things, in effecting which, it seems that one noted brothel was entirely leveled and all the furniture and feather-beds destroyed; another of like description, shared nearly the same fate. Several musket-charges were fired from the first assaulted house, by which some persons were badly wounded.
On Tuesday evening the business was renewed with a considerable re-enforcement; and after destroying another house near the fields. the army proceeded to the place called
CANVAS-T0WN where they took such liberties with the houses, furniture and feather-beds as it was thought necessary to over-rule.
Accordingly, in the support of good government, a large number of citizens repaired to Federal-Hall. A company of horse was instantly equipped and paraded, that, with the determined citizens, no sooner appeared in force, then the avengers of Canvas Town thought proper to retire. The magistrates, with the military, conducted the business with such decision, while the citizens displayed a laudable zeal for order and the law.
There were no other reports of gunfire and I've found no detailed description of the mob. The magistrates did make two announcements. They noted that "boys, apprentices and Negroes as well as Sailors, formed a great proportion of the persons concerned in the shameful riot Monday and Yesterday evening," and advised masters of same to keep them indoors. They also noted that many citizens observed the riots without helping to quell. They reminded them of their duty and not to stand idle when the law needed their aid.
A letter in an out-of-town newspaper (yet to be fished out of my old files), gave a reason for the riot. A gentleman accused of rape had recently been acquitted and the rioters formed the idea that the victim had been seduced with the design of driving her to work in one of the brothels. It bears noting that there were other reasons for class tensions at this time as an indirect result of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. To keep the contagion out of the city, the New York city government organized citizen patrols to prevent refugees from Philadelphia from entering the city.
With that mandate some patrols evidently took it upon themselves to discipline the lower classes in the city perceived to be in themselves possible sources of contagion. For example a citizen wrote to the newspaper: The Citizens of New-York are greatly obliged and much indebted to the
vigilance and conscientious care which the Corporation and Committee, who act in conjunction for the preservation of health, have uniformly manifested. Hitherto we have acted on general terms.
We now invite the Gentlemen's attention to Duke and mill-streets, where proper subjects present themselves for minute investigation. Let us take a view of the ruins and avenues that lead to and from the same, and then determine whether or not such places claim the attention of those who are invested with authority - Remedies there are and redress expected. The exposed state of some dwelling houses, and yards adjoining the ruins is unsafe, being liable at any time to the inroads and interruption of evil-minded persons.
In the main, the riots seemed to amuse New Yorkers. Elihu H. Smith wrote to Mason Cogswell on Oct 19, 1793, after relaying news of
Philadelphia, "nothing has occurred here, more than you will see in the papers. We have had a little riot here, two evenings in succession, in pulling down half a dozen houses of bad reputation. Two or three persons were hurt, but none dangerously. - I tell you this, for as such stories usually go, by the time the report
reaches Hartford, I suppose one quarter of New York will be down & half the inhabitants murdered.- But then a woman with literary reputation drew a moral from the riots that challenged the complacency of the city.
Justitia wrote in the October 19, New York Diary defending the rioters for taking the law into their own hands: The reduction of Mrs. Carey & Co.'s houses, it seems is matter of great grief to many of our male citizens, and indeed it is no wonder they should look upon it as a calamity, considering what comfortable hours they have passed in these peaceful abodes, far from the complaints of a neglected wife, or the very vexatious cries of hungry
It must be supposed that the unexpected issue of a late very important trial, was the principal cause of the "outrage" committed; for the protection of a wretch, whom "infamy would blush to own as his offspring;" whose character is too vile to be
portrayed - and the blasting of a spotless reputation, are serious things. Since law and equity go not
together, equity should be suffered at least.
But some say, "such reforms should be left to the magistrates." The magistrates indeed! Has it not been left to them for years, and what have they done? They have not corrected one single house of ill fame, nor
shown their disapprobation, but instead of it (so fame says) some of those honorable gentlemen (aye and married ones too) are pretty liberal contributors, to the support of these nunneries; since they are such advocates for good order, it is wished that their own exertions to ensure it, may prevent the people in future from taking such business into their hands.