Tompkins Square Rally

views updated

Tompkins Square Rally

United States 1874


On the morning of 13 January 1874, some 7,000 unemployed New Yorkers gathered in Tompkins Square in New York City to demand public aid and employment during a time of economic depression. The Committee of Safety, a group of socialists, trade union leaders, and labor reformers, called the meeting after one with city leaders in late December failed. The press and the police were on high alert and denounced the committee as a body of vagabonds and communists. The police force was set on swiftly dispersing the meeting. Men, women, and children scattered when the police suddenly charged into the crowd and started indiscriminately clubbing people. Several German socialists decided to resist the police action and engaged in fights. When the square had been cleared, Police Commissioner Abram Duryee ordered mounted police to forcefully disperse all people from the side streets. By dusk, Tompkins Square was calm and 46 workers were in jail.


  • 1854: Republican Party is formed by opponents of slavery in Michigan.
  • 1859: American abolitionist John Brown leads a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His capture and hanging in December heighten the animosities that will spark the Civil War sixteen months later.
  • 1864: General William Tecumseh Sherman conducts his Atlanta campaign and his "march to the sea."
  • 1867: Establishment of the Dominion of Canada.
  • 1870: Beginning of Franco-Prussian War. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1872: The Crédit Mobilier affair, in which several officials in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant are accused of receiving stock in exchange for favors, is the first of many scandals that are to plague Grant's second term.
  • 1874: As farm wages in Britain plummet, agricultural workers go on strike.
  • 1874: Discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
  • 1874: Norwegian physician Arrnauer Gerhard Henrik Hansen discovers the bacillus that causes leprosy. This marks the major turning point in the history of an ailment (now known properly as Hansen's disease) that afflicted humans for thousands of years and was often regarded as evidence of divine judgment.
  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act, a treaty between the United States and China, provides for restrictions on immigration of Chinese workers.
  • 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first skyscraper.

Event and Its Context

The Committee of Safety

In scope, the Tompkins Square "riot" was a minor incident, but it revealed much about class divisions in urban America. At a time of rapid and often bewildering change, Americans of all walks of life struggled to cope with forces outside their control. The workers' demand for public responsibility in times of hardship was a response to the depression, but after 13 January, the Tompkins Square rally became a symbol of class antagonism in a supposedly classless America.

Once described by Harper's Weekly as "the grand plebeian plaza of New York City," Tompkins Square is situated in the northern part of Manhattan's Lower East Side, a working-class district inhabited by a large immigrant population of mostly Irish and German workers. The panic of September 1873 caused a widespread economic depression that wreaked havoc among working people in the cities. By the winter of 1873-1874, one-fourth of New York's workforce had lost their jobs, and hunger and homelessness were spreading at an alarming rate.

Reformers, labor leaders, and socialists immediately lashed out at the financial system and the "moneyocracy." They demanded that New York provide public works, relief for distressed families, and an end to winter-time evictions. A meeting at the Cooper Institute on 11 December 1873 appointed a 50-member Committee of Safety that included German, French, Irish, and American delegates. The committee's task was to organize the unemployed in ward clubs and set up a meeting with city leaders. After the latter refused to meet, the committee called for a large rally in the 10-acre park in Tompkins Square on 13 January, followed by a march on City Hall. They also demanded that the city make available $100,000 to a Labor Relief Bureau. The committee received permission from the Department of Parks and the Police Board to meet in Tompkins Square, but the latter strictly prohibited any demonstration near City Hall, a decision that flew in the face of free assembly according to labor leaders such as John Swinton and Peter J. McGuire.

From the start, the mainstream press and most well-to-do New Yorkers vilified the Committee of Safety. Despite its no-violence pledge, some leaders such as McGuire made it clear that, unless relief was forthcoming, workers had the right to take food. Such a program was radical and perceived as a threat by respectable society. The press too was particularly eager to discredit the workers' plea. The Paris Commune of 1871 formed the backdrop for the formation of an anti-labor attitude and anxiety among the public. Newspapers printed stories of allegedly smuggled weapons and jewelry to aid the communists in America. At the same time, public opinion branded the jobless as lazy, undeserving, and dangerous.

The Committee of Safety also struggled to maintain unity among the disaffected workers themselves. When the 13 January rally was announced, a rival organization captained by bricklayer Patrick Dunn dismissed the event and criticized the committee for being dominated by socialists. He quickly scheduled a gathering in Union Square for 5 January. Despite the impatience of the workers, committee member McGuire was able to persuade them to support the initial gathering on the 13th. In the days leading up to the rally, the committee streamlined its organization and won the support of the Sociétéde la Commune, a small group of French radicals.

Confusion prevailed on the day before the rally. After appealing unsuccessfully to New York Governor John A. Dix, the Committee of Safety accepted the alternate parade route offered by the Police Board (from Tompkins to Union Square). Later in the evening, however, the committee canceled the Union Square march and focused solely on the Tompkins Square gathering. Meanwhile, the Police Board expressed second thoughts and in a last minute decision forced the Parks Department to cancel the permit to meet in Tompkins Square. No announcements were made to the committee or ward clubs, and no placards were posted in Tompkins Square to inform the workers.

Dispersing the Crowd

By 10 A.M. on 13 January 1874, several thousand workers and their families had assembled in Tompkins Square. Huddled together, they braved freezing temperatures and conversed in different languages about the effects of the meeting. In the northeast corner, 1,200 members of the German 10th Ward Workingmen's Association arrived while committee members moved about the silent mass delivering news sheets. Several hours earlier the Police Board had mobilized a sizeable army of officers: some 1,600 men assumed positions in the area between Tompkins Square and City Hall.

When the crowd had swelled to 7,000, Police Commissioner Abram Duryee, flanked by officers with drawn batons, marched into the crowd and raised the tension level of an otherwise uneventful gathering. Duryee urged everyone to go home, but without warning, the police charged into the throng with excessive force and left dozens wounded. Several German workers resisted and attacked the officers. Among them was Joseph Hö fflicher, who hit a patrolman with his cane while Christian Mayer used a hammer. Justus H. Schwab, a socialist saloon-keeper, further defied authorities by marching onto the square holding a red flag while chanting the Marseillaise. Soon they were all apprehended and within minutes the square was empty and sealed off. Duryee then ordered the surrounding streets swept clean of thousands of people who fled in panic or jumped into cellar ways to escape the horsemen. The clubbing lasted for hours, and the mê lée spread to streets leading to City Hall. Astonished by this brutality, members of the Committee of Safety called on Mayor William Havemeyer for protection from the police, but to no avail.

By the end of the day, 46 workers were jailed including 24 Germans and 10 native-born Americans. The rest consisted of French, Polish, Italian, Irish, and Swedish immigrants. The German resisters, however, fared worse: Hö fflicher and Mayer were imprisoned on assault and battery charges, and Schwab was accused of inciting to riot and "waving a red flag."

The conduct of the police unleashed strong emotions on both sides of the class divide. Organized labor and many radical groups attacked the police and city authorities for their behavior, which, in their opinion, had no place in a democracy. German socialists contended that even in despotic monarchies one would not encounter such fierceness. A few liberal papers such as the New York Sun and the New York Graphic condemned the police riot as a serious violation of civil liberties. They interpreted the suppression as an attack on republican values and institutions.

Despite the vigor of these arguments, the overwhelming majority of public opinion applauded the actions of the police and the city leaders. Major papers felt relieved that an imminent danger by the foreign element had been firmly quelled. Again, the memory of the Paris Commune was invoked by such print media as the Philadelphia Inquirer and Harper's Weekly. Others were furious at the labor leaders for corrupting American hospitality and for abusing the precious gift of free speech. The public's hostility effectively crippled the movement for relief.

The Aftermath

Immediately following the debacle, police detectives launched an early example of a "red scare." They shadowed labor organizations as well as socialist meetings, which kept workers from attending them. The police set up a smear campaign when they warned against church burnings and bomb attacks by foreign communists. When the police found a useless pile of grenades that had been acquired by a French patriot for his government during the war with Prussia but never shipped, the police presented it as new evidence of a French communist connection. Most likely these actions reflected a desire on the part of the law enforcement community to justify their behavior on the 13th.

The labor and reform community also launched an ambitious campaign to oust the Police Board. Again, German workers and free thinkers played a crucial role, as evidenced by John Swinton's praise for their exemplary role in the fight for workers' rights. Eventually, a protest meeting convened at Cooper Institute on 30 January. With the exseption of John Swinton's address, all speeches were in German. Everybody denounced the double standard practiced by police when dealing with meetings of workers as opposed to those by captains of industry, and Swinton eloquently defended the principle of free speech. In February petitions circulated against the police and labor proponents solicited affidavits from witnesses. Still, the workers lacked broad public support. The campaign slowly withered away. By March the Tompkins Square incident had faded from the minds of the middle and upper classes.

One last hope arose when the petitioners, represented by Swinton and two Germans, were allowed to plead their case before the New York State Assembly's Committee on Grievances in Albany on 25 March 1874. Swinton's speech reminded the lawmakers of the sanctity of free speech and respect for dissenting opinions. His appeal was later published as a pamphlet called The Tompkins Square Outrage.

During the summer, socialists in New York organized a campaign to free Christian Mayer, who had just been sentenced to an additional six months in prison. A group calling itself the Committee of Citizens, which included Swinton and many German trade unionists, formed to plan another Tompkins Square rally for 31 August. This rally proceeded in an orderly fashion. On this occasion Governor Dix decided to pardon Mayer. The meeting itself attracted little attention, but for some it signified a vindication of the January affair. In the end, however, the Police Board remained intact.

On the surface the Tompkins Square affair seems to have been merely a matter of over-zealous police officers, but it also reveals the fault line of the classes in an urban society unaccustomed to the process of industrialization and the effects of freewheeling capitalism. Urban life fostered extreme antagonism between patrician urbanites and the swelling masses around them. Urban workers, many of them foreign, fought as much for their dignity as for bread. Like other Americans, urban workers resisted the whims of a global economy and its leaders and struggled to maintain control over their own lives.

Key Players

Havemeyer, William F. (1804-1874): Wealthy businessman and mayor of New York. As a member of Tammany Hall and an able manager, Havemeyer was elected mayor in 1845 and again in 1848, after which he returned to private life. After the Tweed scandals he made a comeback as Republican mayor in 1872.

McGuire, Peter J. (1852-1906): Labor activist of Irish immigrant parents. McGuire attending courses at Cooper Union and became a journeyman carpenter. His involvement in the Tompkins Square campaign cast him in the spotlight of labor activism. He founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and helped establish Labor Day as a national holiday in 1882.

Schwab, Justus H. (1847-1900): German-American socialist and beginning in 1880 an anarchist. He owned a First Street saloon, which became famous as the meeting place of international radicalism. He was a founding member of the New York Social-Revolutionary Club that invited Johann Most for a lecture tour in the United States in 1882.

Swinton, John (1829-1901): A labor leader and journalist, Swinton was apprenticed as a printer, immigrated to Canada in 1843, and arrived in New York in 1850. He was active in the abolitionist movement before entering journalism as a writer for the New York Times and Sun. The Tompkins Square affair started his career as an activist. In 1883 he launched his own John Swinton's Paper, but he later returned to the Sun as editor until his death.

See also: Panic of 1873; Paris Commune.



Burrows, Edwin G. and Wallace, Mike. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Swinton, John. The Tompkins Square Outrage. Appeal of John Swinton, addressed to the Legislature, through the Committee on Grievances, and delivered in the Assembly chamber at Albany, 25 March 1874.


"Defeat of the Communists." New York Times (14 January1874).

Gutman, Herbert G. "The Tompkins Square 'Riot' in New York City on January 13, 1874: A Re-Examination of Its Causes and its Aftermath." Labor History 6, no. 1 (winter 1965): 44-70.

"A Tompkins Square Rioter Sentenced." New York Times (23January 1874).

Additional Resources


Auble, Arthur G. "The Depressions of 1873 and 1882 in the United States." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1949.

Feder, Leah H. Unemployment Relief in Periods of Depression: A Study of Relief Measures Adopted in Certain American Cities, 1857-1932. New York: Arno Press, 1936.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor. 2 vols.New York: E.P. Dutton, 1925.

Lynch, Denis Tilden. The Wild Seventies. New York, London: Appleton-Century, 1941.

Pinkerton, Allan. Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives. New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., 1878.

Ringenback, Paul T. Tramps and Reformers 1873-1916: The Discovery of Unemployment in New York. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973.


Cherry, George L. "American Metropolitan Press Reaction to the Paris Commune of 1871." Mid-America 32 (January 1950): 3-12.


United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America,

Union History. "The Story of a Remarkable American and Trade Unionist" [cited 15 August 2002]. http:// .

—Tom Goyens