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Five Points

The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum

All but forgotten today, the Five Points neighborhood in Lower Manhattan was once renowned the world over. From Jacob Riis to Abraham Lincoln, Davy Crockett to Charles Dickens, Five Points both horrified and inspired everyone who saw it. While it comprised only a handful of streets, many of America’s most impoverished African Americans and Irish, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants sweated out their existence there. Located in today’s Chinatown, Five Points witnessed more riots, scams, prostitution, and drunkenness than any other neighborhood in America. But at the same time it was a font of creative energy, crammed full of cheap theaters, dance halls, and boxing matches. It was also the home of meeting halls for the political clubs and the machine politicians who would come to dominate not just the city but an entire era in American politics.

Drawing from letters, diaries, newspapers, bank records, police reports, and archaeological digs, Anbinder has written the first-ever history of Five Points, the neighborhood that was a microcosm of the American immigrant experience. The story that Anbinder tells is the classic tale of America’s immigrant past, as successive waves of new arrivals fought for survival in a land that was as exciting as it was dangerous, as riotous as it was culturally rich.

Five Points 1


ON HIS WAY into the Laight Street Presbyterian Church on June 12, 1834, silk importer Lewis Tappan noticed a lone black man standing nervously outside the house of worship. Dozens of white parishioners stood by the doorway, chatting amiably among themselves, but casting suspicious glances at the man and then whispering to their friends. Incensed at the insensitivity of his fellow congregants, Tappan approached the man and recognized him as the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish, whom Tappan knew because both were active in the abolition movement. Cornish, who a few years earlier had co-edited the first African-American newspaper, had no congregation of his own. He had appeared at the door of the Laight Street Church that morning seeking a place for Sunday worship. Ignoring the looks of horror on the faces of the other parishioners, Tappan invited Cornish inside to attend the service and insisted that he sit in Tappan’s own pew toward the front of the church.

Tappan’s gesture was bound to create an uproar in 1830s New York, even within his relatively liberal congregation. Once inside, a number of parishioners complained loudly to Tappan and demanded that he never so embarrass them again. Observing the commotion, the church’s own minister, Samuel H. Cox, decided to make it the subject of his sermon that day. Condemning the intolerance of his parishioners, Cox told them that the peoples of the Holy Land were dark-skinned and would be considered “colored” by American standards. Jesus himself, Cox asserted, was therefore probably dark-skinned as well. Americans should thus have sympathy for all people of color.

In the press the next day, Tappan’s enemies seized upon Cox’s sermon as a means to discredit the entire anti-slavery movement. Reporting that Cox claimed Christ was black, anti-abolitionists wrote that such radical ravings proved that the abolitionists were “amalgamationists,” seeking intermarriage and social integration of blacks and whites. Two conservative journals, the Commercial Advertiser and the Courier and Enquirer, were especially vicious in their attacks, advocating violence to suppress abolitionism and the threat it posed to national unity.1

Coverage of the anti-abolition riot from the New York Transcript, July 14, 1834. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

The incident at the Laight Street Church might not have had significant repercussions had not anti-abolitionists in general, and the Commercial Advertiser and the Courier and Enquirer in particular, been engaged in a long-running feud with Tappan and his brother and business partner Arthur, also an active abolitionist. The bad blood between the Tappans and the city’s conservative press dated back to 1832, when the brothers leased the Chatham Theater, located just south of Chatham Square at the fringe of the Five Points neighborhood, and converted it into a chapel for the famed evangelist Charles G. Finney. According to Finney, the Tappans had selected the location because it was “in the heart of the most irreligious population of New York. It was not far from the ‘five points,’ and was a place of resort highly discreditable to the city.” Although designated by its founders the Second Free Presbyterian Church because it charged no pew rent (in hopes of attracting the poor into the evangelical movement), the house of worship became universally known as the Chatham Street Chapel. Under the leadership of Finney and the Tappans, the chapel became a popular venue for abolitionist meetings.2

The movement to abolish slavery was still considered quite radical in 1830s New York. Most of those willing to admit that slavery was an evil did not support its immediate abolition, but instead promoted the colonization movement, which sought to send voluntarily emancipated slaves to Africa. The Tappans had once been active in the colonization movement, but around 1830 converted to the abolition cause. In order to discredit colonization, Lewis Tappan in May 1834 conducted a public interrogation of a man recently returned from Liberia, the African nation set up by American colonizationists. The man painted a picture of licentiousness, drunkenness, and sexual debauchery in the new African state. Embarrassed colonization advocates (especially the editors of the Commercial Advertiser and the Courier and Enquirer) responded with scathing attacks on the Tappans. But the Tappans remained determined to expose colonization as a subterfuge by which those who really hoped to protect slavery diverted attention and money from abolitionism.

The tensions between New York abolitionists and their adversaries had smoldered throughout early 1834. By early July, just a few weeks after Tappan had invited Samuel Cornish inside his church, they ignited into violence. And because both the Chatham Street Chapel and one of the city’s largest concentrations of blacks were located in or near Five Points, the neighborhood became the focus of much of the bloodshed. On Independence Day, an angry mob disrupted an abolitionist lecture at the Chatham Street Chapel. Outnumbered and intimidated, the opponents of slavery canceled their meeting. According to the Sun, the rioters then proceeded to City Hall Park “to act out their patriotism in knocking down the blacks . . . [and] commanding every man of color they met to leave the Park. . . . On seeing this Alderman [James] Ferris interfered, and the rioters knocked him down also.” Police eventually dispersed the mob and arrested six rioters.3

Three days later, violence erupted again as a group of African Americans gathered at the Chatham Street Chapel to celebrate the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in New York. When some members of the New York Sacred Music Society arrived for practice, not knowing that it had been canceled, they brusquely ordered the assembled blacks to leave. An argument flared, and the ensuing scuffle degenerated into a brawl that was “waged with considerable violence on both sides, and resulted in the usual number of broken heads and benches.”4

When the Courier and Enquirer announced inaccurately on Wednesday, the ninth, that another anti-slavery meeting would take place at the chapel that evening, anti-abolitionists mobbed it once again. Finding the church closed, they broke in and held a meeting of their own. Led by George “Legs” Williamson (“a most desperate character [who] would cut and shoot when in a tight place”), the crowd then stormed Lewis Tappan’s house at 40 Rose Street. Tappan and his family had gone to Harlem to escape the summer heat, so were not hurt by the flying glass when the rioters smashed some windows. The rioters’ next target was Five Points’ Bowery Theater, where the rioters forced the cast to abort a benefit performance for the playhouse’s English-born stage manager, who had supposedly made anti-American remarks. Still burning with resentment, the mob returned to Tappan’s house, broke in, smashed the crockery, tore down the blinds, and removed and burned all the furniture. Future Vice President Schuyler Colfax, then a boy of twelve, visited the scene the next day and later said that his disgust at the wanton destruction helped convince him to support the anti-slavery cause.5

On the following evening, Thursday, July 10, mobs seemed to be everywhere—at Tappan’s house again, at his store on Pearl Street, at Reverend Cox’s house, and at the Bowery Theater, among other places. And on the evening of the eleventh, the rioting degenerated into a full-scale racial pogrom, as crowds attacked African-American homes, businesses, and churches throughout the Five Points area. This time, the violence began at the Tappan store, where a mob of more than one hundred overwhelmed fifteen security guards and broke the shop’s windows. The rioters moved up Pearl Street to Five Points, where they attacked two or three houses on Mulberry Street just north of Chatham Square. Word soon spread throughout the neighborhood that the rioters wanted Five Points whites “to exhibit lights in the windows,” so the mob would know which houses not to attack. Meanwhile, most of the rioters moved northwest to the block of Orange Street just north of the Five Points intersection, where many Five Points blacks lived. There the mob attacked the African-American Mutual Relief Hall at 42 Orange Street, breaking all the windows and tearing down the sign. Around the corner at African-American John Rolloson’s porterhouse at 157 Leonard Street, “the mob rushed in, tore down his bar, threw his kegs of liquor into the streets, and carried them off, broke all the decanters and glasses, and carried off a clock and what money was in the drawer.” Rioters went upstairs and took almost two hundred dollars “in silver, 4 valuable watches, a set of silver spoons and jewelry to the amount of $100,—then destroyed the furniture in the basement,” until they were driven away by the “watch.” Still not satisfied, the mob crossed the street and burned all the furniture at 156 Leonard Street, including that of African-American Maria Willis, who “was robbed of everything she had in all the world.” The poor woman, who had four children and was pregnant with a fifth, had been widowed just two weeks earlier.6

Back on Orange Street, still other rioters were smashing doors and windows near the Five Points intersection. According to the account in the New York Transcript, “they were about to pull down the Arcade,” a saloon at 33 Orange, and the Swimming Bath bawdy house at 40 Orange, when a street inspector named McGrath “addressed them, and assured them that every negro should be out . . . by twelve o’clock the next day; they then gave three cheers, shook hands with the officer, and left . . . without disturbing a plank.” Moving north, the rioters attacked 56 and 561/2 Orange, where they “broke all the windows [and] furniture, abused the inmates, and carried off property to the amount of $100.” Next, they stormed Thomas Mooney’s barbershop at 87 Orange. But Mooney, armed in preparation for the onslaught, fired three times at the mob, injuring one person and convincing the rest to spare his business. The rioters then moved westward. They attacked St. Philip’s African Episcopal Church on Centre Street around 11:00 p.m. “and demolished it almost entirely, including a fine organ.” Up and down Centre Street the crowd attacked the homes of African Americans, smashing windowpanes and wrecking furniture. From some residences the mob even “took the clothes of gentlemen, which the colored people had taken in to wash.” Finally, the mob arrived at Anthony Street and broke the windows of the African Baptist church and a few other buildings, including those of the porterhouse operated by African-American Robert Williams. In anticipation of the violence, Williams had closed his saloon that afternoon and moved his valuables, “as did several other black families whose dwellings were attacked.” Only after venting their rage at virtually every manifestation of African-American life in the neighborhood did the rioters disperse.7

In terms of wanton destructiveness, the Five Points anti-abolition riot was the most devastating in New York history to that point. “In thirty years’ acquaintance with the city,” insisted the Post, “nothing has ever happened to compare with it.” Surveying the damage in the riot’s aftermath, the Sun remarked that it appeared “as if the angel of destruction had swept his bosom over the land.” Many black Five Pointers were “seriously wounded,” and the casualty list would have been longer had many more not fled the city altogether. The riot left the Five Points African-American community devastated, both physically and emotionally. “It is enough to sicken the heart of every one not destitute of humanity,” commented the Sun, “to see weeping fathers and mothers sobbing over the ruins of all they possessed, the effects of years of toil, with their little children around them crying for bread.”8

What had motivated this tremendous outpouring of hatred? On one level, the mob undoubtedly sought to emphasize its opposition to the abolition movement and its implied message that blacks were the equals of whites. Yet the breadth and intensity of the attack against black Five Pointers indicate that members of the crowd, either consciously or unconsciously, harbored some deeper resentments. Signs of African-American economic independence clearly galled them, for while the black-occupied hovels of a particularly decrepit alley known as “Cow Bay” were left untouched, the few black-owned businesses in the neighborhood were devastated. Finally, by literally tearing the roofs off black-occupied buildings, the mob sent perhaps its most emphatic and unmistakable message. The rioters sought not merely to injure black-owned or -occupied property, but to make their homes and businesses permanently uninhabitable.9

The Five Points anti-abolition riots were not isolated incidents of violence in an otherwise peaceful community. In 1834 and 1835 alone, two other significant riots would rock the neighborhood. The scope, ferocity, and deadliness of these three episodes of unrest were unprecedented, not merely for Five Points but for the entire city. They revealed racial, ethnic, and religious fault lines that New Yorkers had previously recognized but preferred to ignore. Over the next sixty-five years, Five Pointers would often find themselves at the epicenter of these struggles—ones that would help shape modern New York.
Photograph © Anne McLeer

Tyler Anbinder is a professor of history at George Washington University. His first book, Nativism and Slavery, was also a New York Times Notable Book and the winner of the Avery Craven Prize of the Organization of American Historians. He lives in Arlington, VA.