The Broad Street Riot occurred in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on June 11, 1837. The riot began when a company of Yankee firefighters met with an Irish funeral procession on Broad Street. Fire Engine Company 20 was returning from a fire in Roxbury. Many of the firefighters went to a saloon nearby. Afterwards, while traveling back to the firestation, George Fay either insulted or shoved members of a passing Irish funeral procession. The Irish and firemen began to fight, but under the orders of W.W. Miller, the firemen ran to the station. Miller sounded the emergency alarm, calling all of the fire engines in Boston. Although many of the Irish had left the scene, the fire companies continued to come as called. As the fight continued, local Yankees and Irishmen joined the row. Eventually 1000 people were included in the melee, though no one was killed. Several houses were broken into and vandalized, and the rioters launched rocks and other missiles at each other. The fight was broken up when Mayor Samuel A. Eliot commanded 10 companies from the military to patrol the neighborhoods surrounding Broad Street.
On June 15, 17 people were forced to pay reparations of three hundred dollars, and to attend the nearest term at the Municipal Court. Mark Adams was held to bail, as witnesses reported him for breaking into homes. Fourteen Irish and four Protestant men that had participated in the riot were put on trial. Only three of the Irish men, John Whaley, John Welsh, and Barney Fanning were assigned hard labor in the House of Correction. John Whaley was sentenced four months, while John Welsh and Barney Fanning were sentenced two months. All four of the protestants were found innocent.
The following Monday, June 18, military forces were located outside of the armories. When engines returned from duty, hissing and hooting was heard. Many people attempted to start brawls throughout the day; however, none were successful. The Broad Street Riot is still considered the worst riot of Boston’s history.
Boston was a main place for immigrants to arrive in the United States due to its large seaport. Tension between Irish and English Americans was high, and led to the Broad Street Riot.
References in Popular Culture
The riot was used as the basis of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones song “Riot on Broad Street.” The narrative from the song differs from the facts as presented on the Celebrate Boston website. According to the website, the riot commenced between an engine company returning from a fire, and an Irish funeral procession. In the song, however, the firefighters are described as being on the way to stopping an on-going fire at a brownstone. The song further describes the frustration of the firefighters halted by a funeral procession moving “way too slow.” The song concludes with a lyric that the “brownstone lay in ashes,” implying that the riot prevented the company from putting out the blaze.
But, regardless of the specifics of the particular element that sparked the riots, the basic underlying tensions between the Catholic Irish mourners and the Protestant Yankee firefighters was represented the same by both accounts.