Mobs, Riots, and the Complicated History of Race Relations in Philadelphia

Frank J. Webb’s novel The Garies and their Friends juxtaposes the lives of the Ellis family, a free black family living in antebellum Philadelphia, with the Garies, a family comprised of an amiable white slave owner whose technically enslaved, light-skinned “wife” persuades him to move to the North in order to ensure freedom for their children and to legally consummate their familial relationship. Throughout the novel, Webb illustrates a deeply segregated North that demands its citizens to abide solely within white or black communities; those who threaten the racial binary are shunned and ultimately punished through acts of racial violence. A review of the novel found in The Athenaeum, echoes the prejudice of the free states as depicted in the novel, describing that despite the North’s reputation as being racially progressive, within the region “black remains black, unpleasant to white” (1320). Those who perpetuated this pervasive societal racism were particularly wary of the infiltration of amalgamation into the sexual, social, or familial relations between races. Fear and anger toward those deemed “amalgamationists” and their friends, the abolitionists, erupted throughout the nineteenth century in the form of mobs and race riots that systematically terrorized and destroyed the homes, properties, and personal belongings of free black citizens, while also inflicting great physical and psychological damage to the free black community.

Crucial to an understanding of nineteenth-century Philadelphia, where Webb sets the majority of the Garies, is the tumultuous history of white racism, fear, and insecurity that directly contributed to the long streak of race riots and mobs that plagued the city throughout the 1830s and 1840s, and which inspired the mob scene in the novel (Knadler 77). Historian Sam Bass Warner Jr. explores how the histories of the riots and mobs are indicative of the tense cultural and political climate of Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s. He explains, “The successive riots from 1834-1849 show in a series of brief dramatic episodes the interaction of most of the important elements of the big-city era: industrialization, immigration, mixed patterns of settlement, changing styles of leadership, weakness of municipal institutions, and shifting orientations of politics” (Warner 125). Reading mobs and riots as opportunities to “both locate the stresses of the period and offer a crude measure of public attitudes,” this edition aims to engage a focused exploration of the racial tensions prominent in nineteenth-century Philadelphia and how those tensions function throughout the Garies.

Using Philadelphian mob history throughout the 1830s and 1840s as a historical moment in which we can ground our analysis of the several racial issues that permeate the novel, this edition explores the praxis between racial violence and underlying nineteenth-century cultural contentions, such as racism, the disruption that the abolitionist movement caused in both white and black communities, and the intensely fraught relationship between black and Irish populations. For example, an exploration of the burning of Pennsylvania Hall in 1838 exposes a great deal not only about the inefficacy of the city authorities to stop mob violence throughout the nineteenth century, but also about the fears and insecurities sparked by abolitionism in the white Philadelphian public. A closer look at the 1842 riot, in which large groups of Irish workingmen brutally attacked both black property and any black citizens in their way, invites an analysis of the tense relations between Irish immigrants and free blacks at this time. Finally, the California House Riot of 1849 emphasizes the rampant anti-amalgamation prejudices in the mid-nineteenth century. The same racial tensions uncovered in an exploration of Philadelphia’s mob history repeatedly reappear within the Garies. By examining the events leading up to the mob in the novel, the actual mob itself, and finally the mob’s aftermath in relation to mob history at this time, readers can uncover several historically accurate details of real-life mobs that Webb both manipulates and fictionalizes within the novel.

Perhaps the most famous, or at least one of the most sensational, instances of mob violence in Philadelphia can be seen in the burning of Pennsylvania Hall in 1838. An architecturally beautiful building, Pennsylvania Hall was designed as a public forum for intellectual thought in which organizations could hold meetings and host and attend lectures. While the hall was heavily used by abolitionist groups, famously housing the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, the building was used for a variety of other reform purposes as well, ranging from the meetings of temperance societies to speakers on “Indian Wrongs.” The hall was open for a mere four days before a mob, upset at the abolitionist meetings that were being held inside and offended when they saw a “a huge negro darken the door arm-in-arm with a fair Quaker girl,’” burned the hall down (Grimstead 36).

This particular instance is discussed in detail in a publication printed by the owners of the hall, History of Pennsylvania Hall Which was Destroyed by a Mob, on the 17th of May, 1838, in which they seek compensation for the damages done to the hall after receiving little protection from the mayor and the sheriff of Philadelphia despite explicit warning signs that an attack was brewing. The History of Pennsylvania Hall pairs particularly well with a discussion of the mob in The Garies and their Friends. While Webb certainly drew inspiration from the mobs of the 1840s for his own fictional violence, The History of Philadelphia Hall’s repeated accusations of the mayor’s and the sheriff’s failure to protect the hall and to prevent the attack despite explicit warning signs is particularly reminiscent of Webb’s novel. Mr. Walter’s inability to garner support from the mayor despite overwhelming evidence that a mob was going to attack his community strikingly recalls the circumstances preceding the burning of Philadelphia Hall. An exploration of the inefficacy of authority figures to both prevent and control mob violence in The History of Philadelphia Hall and The Garies illustrates contemporary nineteenth-century fears and frustrations of mob violence.

The fury of the mob, the disinterest of Philadelphia’s authority figures, and the destruction of private homes in freed black communities closely parallels the mob scene in The Garies and their Friends. Mr. Walters details the increasing violence toward his tenants to Kinch’s father, worrying, “the authorities don’t seem to take the least notice of them, and the rioters appear to be having it all their own way” (Webb 196). After obtaining the slip of paper that Kinch found listing the homes to be attacked by the mob, Mr. Walters visits the mayor and announces the planned attack. When asked if he knew of the “very serious disturbances” that had lately occurred in the freed black section of the city, the mayor flippantly replies, “Yes, I’ve heard something respecting it…but I believe they were noting more than trifling combats between the negroes and the whites in that vicinity” (Webb 202). Mr. Walters asserts that the attacks “were anything but trifling…there is an organized gang of villains, who are combined for the sole purpose of mobbing us coloured citizens; and, as we are inoffensive, we certainly deserve protection” (Webb 202). The mayor of the novel takes a similar position to that of the mayor of Philadelphia in 1838, claiming, ““I really don’t see how I’m to prevent it, Mr. Walters… I can send two or three police for your protection if you think it necessary. But I really can’t see my way clear to do anything further” (Webb 202). Like the managers of Philadelphia Hall, Walters is outraged by the mayor’s insulting suggestion, seething, ““Two or three police! … They would scarcely be of any more use than as many women” (Webb 202). Despite Walters’ comparison of the police force to women, the Ellis sisters, Caddy and Esther, become indispensable to the defense of Walters’ home, ultimately creating an unbreakable union between the two black families and further emphasizing the inefficacy of the police force and of the proper (male) authorities to control the ruthless rioters.

Although instances of mob violence are markedly different in the two texts as The History of Pennsylvania Hall focuses on the destruction of property while in the Garies Webb’s characters are violently and physically attacked because of their race, the same fear and frustration regarding mob violence pervades both texts. Reading The History of Pennsylvania Hall in tandem with the Garies illustrates that Walters’ inability to obtain support from the government despite his proof of an upcoming attack was not only part of a racial critique of the prejudices inherent in freed black communities of nineteenth century Philadelphia, but also part of an ongoing contemporary conversation regarding the government’s inability to protect its citizens in the wake of mob violence. The authors’ focus on the mob’s ability to completely overtake the city in The History of Philadelphia Hall historically grounds the frenzied tone found throughout the mob scene in Webb’s novel and that is later reflected through the rants of Mr. Ellis. The History of Pennsylvania Hall dramatically contextualizes the historical events that, at least in part, inspired Webb’s portrayal of the mob in his novel, providing useful background information on both government’s and the citizens’ response to mob violence in the nineteenth century.

Another societal issue that can be gleaned from a study of the burning of Pennsylvania Hall is the deep-rooted animosity felt by white citizens toward abolitionists. Historian David Grimsted writes at length about the stigma that Southerners attached to those who engaged in abolitionist reform work. Because Philadelphia was particularly close, both geographically and ideologically, to its slave-state neighbors, frequent attacks by Philadelphian mobs on abolitionists throughout the nineteenth century served as “proof that the North really sided with the South against abolitionists in deed as well as word” (Grimsted 22). Grimsted notes how the characterization of abolitionists became increasingly vilified in both Southern and Northern culture, explaining, “After 1835 Southern ideology put one category of person, abolitionists, farther beyond the human pale than even their ambiguous chattel … The abolitionist became … Evil and the Enemy” (114). Abolitionists gradually assumed a “mythic quality” in which their wickedness continued to grow and which could be used to negatively label nearly any person who even remotely deviated from pro-slavery beliefs (Grimsted 115). People could be accused of being abolitionists for virtually any characteristic at all, allowing “Southern anti-abolition mobs to be especially arbitrary in their choice of victim…” (Grimsted115). In fact, mobs frequently attacked people completely innocent of abolitionist leanings, ultimately using the “crazy arbitrariness” of labeling people as abolitionists as another way for mobs to gain societal control and, through fear and violence, “quiet all questioning of slavery” (Grimsted 117).

The problematic forceful labeling of abolitionist identities can be read throughout the Garies, as Webb repeatedly uses language of disease and contagion in reference to the movement, particularly between white characters who use the term to insult or threaten each other. The threat of the abolitionist movement to white characters can be read most clearly, perhaps, in the justification of Mr. Stevens’ mob plot on the basis of needing to quell abolitionist leanings in the city. Stevens argues to Mr. Morton, “You know as well as I that a very strong feeling exists in the community against the Abolitionists, and very properly too; this feeling requires to be guided into some proper current” (Webb 166). By zeroing in on abolitionists as a reason for enacting violence on the free black community, Stevens displays the irrational fear of abolitionism and the resulting violence that was used to “quiet all questioning of slavery” (Grimsted 117).

Abolitionism is also portrayed as a disease or mental illness that can be caught within the novel. Characters repeatedly label beliefs or sympathetic attitudes toward the black community as contagious, as if their “abolitionist” beliefs could infiltrate and infect the dominant social norms. The contagion mentality can be seen in a conversation between the servants at Mrs. Bird’s house, who are horrified that she takes her meals at the same table as Charlie Ellis. One of the servants complains, “Drat the old picture- what has come over her I wonder- she’ll be asking old Aunt Charity, the black washerwoman to dine with her next. She has either gone crazy or turned abolitionist, I don’t know which; something has happened to her, that’s certain” (Webb 146). The insecurity felt by Mrs. Bird’s servant that their mistress might “tur[n] abolitionist” (Webb 146) recalls the fear of the “mythic quality” of the abolitionist that represents societal change fearful to many citizens in the nineteenth century (Grimsted 117).

Characters also use the abolitionist title to threaten characters sympathetic to the black population within the novel, but who fear the societal consequences of such sympathies, as can be seen in the character of Miss Jordan, Clarence’s and little Em’s schoolteacher. When Mrs. Stevens threatens Miss Jordan to discharge Clarence and little Em because of their race, Ms. Jordan initially resists, pleading that their skin tones allow them to pass as white as convincingly as all of the other white students. Mrs. Stevens chides the teacher, however, threatening, “It is generally supposed that you are cognizant of the fact that the Garies are coloured; therefore you see the necessity of doing something at once to vindicate yourself from the reproach of abolitionism” (Webb 159). In this instance abolitionism is viewed as a societal threat that can be used to ruin the reputations of respectable people. Although neither Mrs. Bird nor Miss Jordan have any ties to the abolitionist movement, the Webb clearly depicts how white citizens manipulated the phobia of abolitionism to enact fear and violence not only to individual people, but to the entire white community as well.

Despite the threats and unflattering language used to represent abolitionists among characters in the novel, however, Webb’s portrayal of an actual abolitionist in the novel becomes problematic as well. When Charlie seeks a job at abolitionist Mr. Blatchford’s engraving business, Mr. Blatchford, despite his abolitionist leanings, is ultimately unable to offer Charlie the position as his other employees threaten to quit if forced to work with an African American. That the one abolitionist physically present in the novel cannot even tackle the racial prejudices in his own business suggests that Webb ultimately prefers to promote a self-sufficiency within the free black community; a position that, though it doesn’t necessarily criticize or blame the abolitionists, suggests that the community doesn’t need their help, either. As the mob repeatedly cries “Down with the Abolitionist!” throughout the mob scene despite their attacks on free black homes and persons, it seems that the black community, at least in the novel, might be better off without the abolitionists (Webb 221).

Another issue closely imbibed with abolitionism in the novel is the prejudice toward amalgamation. The 1849 California House riot, the race riot which eventually sparked the Philadelphia Consolidation Act of 1854 that gathered all of the municipal districts under the single head of the Philadelphian government in order to better control police forces and public authorities in the event of a mob or riot, was sparked by violence toward an interracial couple. A tavern owned by a black man who was married to a white woman was burned to the ground before further violence ensued in the surrounding black ghettos. Although the fear of amalgamation both within white and free black communities pervades the novel, the prejudiced consideration and the brutal murders of Mr. and Mrs. Garie perhaps most clearly illustrate the frenzy to which people feared and judged interracial relationships, or amalgamation, in the nineteenth century. Because abolitionists generally espoused the progressive view of practicing racial integration as well as freeing the slaves, the two issues often became inseparable in racial violence, as seen in both the California House Riot and in the novel (Warner 131). Stevens, though extremely prejudiced to all non-white citizens, as can be seen in his hateful comments regarding Mr. Walters, speaks with particular vitriol against the interracial relationship of Mr. and Mrs. Garie in the novel, linking abolition and amalgamation in his description of Mr. Garie as “one of those infernal Abolitionists, and one of the very worst kind; he lives with a nigger woman- and, what is more, he is married to her!” (Webb 179). Amalgamation and abolitionism are also linked by the mob in the novel as they cry throughout the streets, “Down with the Aboltionist- down with the Amalgamationist! give them tar and feathers!” (Webb 221).

Finally, the race riots of 1842 illustrate yet another tension in industrial Philadelphia that is further explored in the novel through the villanization of Stevens’ Irish partner in crime, McCloskey. The race riots of 1842 aptly depicted the deep racial tensions between black and Irish communities in the mid-nineteenth century in one single event. Irish gangs, frustrated at the lack of jobs and living space in the city for which they competed with attacked the free black population, attacked a group of black citizens marching in a parade celebrating the West Indian Emancipation. The riot lasted for two nights and ended with a physical skirmish between the Irish and the police, marking the first time in the city’s riot history in which native American officials engaged in physical violence with the immigrant population.

Although the novel never acquires an explicitly anti-Irish tone, Webb’s implication of McCloskey in a line of shady dealings ultimately serves to heighten the comparative nobility and respectability of hard-working moral black characters such as Mr. Walters and the Ellis family. Webb makes use of the drinking stereotype of Irish culture, including several scenes that depict Irishmen implicated in drink, as can be seen when Stevens sneaks into a bar shortly before the mob to find “the bar-room crowded with half-drunken men, the majority of whom were Irishmen armed with bludgeons of all sizes and shapes” (Webb 185). Webb seemingly uses the drunken Irishman stereotype in order to emphasize the virtue of the novel’s heroes, recalling the events of the 1842 race riots in which the Irish mob of attacked a black temperance society of free blacks. Aside from employing the stereotype of the violent, red-faced, drunken Irishman, however, the novel doesn’t criticize the Irish class as much as demonstrate how the black community was consistently and brutally abused by the Irish.

This edition of The Garies and Their Friends is designed to trace the mob history of Philadelphia from its violent beginnings in 1834 to the passing of the Consolidation Act in 1854. Additionally, each section includes several relevant historical documents that both depict and complicate a historical understanding of the events. Each section includes a brief historical overview detailing the events of each mob in addition to a more careful exploration of the larger cultural issues uncovered by and enveloped within each unique race riot. The sections conclude with discussion questions that are aimed to further thinking and discussion on how mob history can be both traced, deepened, and complicated through a reading of Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends.

Meaghan M. Fritz