Monday, 27 May 2013

The burning of Pennsylvania Hall

Pennsylvania Hall, a purpose-built abolitionist meeting place, was opened on 14th May, 1838, in Philadelphia. Four days later, it was burned to the ground by an angry white mob. As seen in the picture below, thousands gathered to cheer and take part in its destruction, beating the fleeing African Americans. Note also the fire company's hose directed at the adjacent building. I've been looking into this story as a subject for a song and I came across this interesting account in the diary of the New York merchant, Philip Hone:

"Friday, May 18. - Riot in Philadelphia. Our neighbouring city of Philadelphia was disgraced yesterday by a riot which ended in the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, a place of meeting for the discussion of Abolition questions. A meeting was held in the forenoon and speeches were made, which exasperated the mob; another meeting was to have taken place in the evening, but it was prevented by the interference of the mayor. The mob, still farther instigated, it is said, by the wanton outrage of public opinion in the exhibition in the public streets of white men and women walking arm in arm with blacks, assembled in greater numbers in the evening, broke into the hall, destroyed everything they could find, and set fire to the building, which was entirely destroyed by ten o'clock. The excitement was so great that the mayor and other officers were unable to prevent the outrage, and some of the number (particularly Mr. Watmouth the sheriff) were dangerously wounded. A large proportion of the Abolitionists assembled in the hall were females, of whom several harangued the meeting, and were foremost in braving the excited populace. This dreadful subject gains importance every day, and reflecting men see in it the seeds of the destruction of our institutions."

Feeding into another of my songs ('Paris of America'), Hone visits Philadelphia for a wedding a month later and takes an interest in the Fairmount Water Works:

"The grounds, gardens fountains, pavilions, etc., are all in beautiful order, and appeared at this season, when nature is clothed in all her loveliest attire, and the day unusually bright, to greater advantage than I have ever seen them. The walks were filled with well dressed and well behaved people, who appeared to be of the better sort of bourgeoisie. Groups of young persons, male and female, were seated on the grass, and in the different pleasant pavilions, and the whole scene reminded me of the suburbs of a French city on a fine Sunday afternoon."

1 comment:

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