Category: Archive

Mob rule in Manhattan

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In turn, protesters and bystanders were shot by the military and the police. A citizens committee made house-to-house searches for escaping soldiers or those sympathetic to them. They found only an army surgeon and beat him senseless, but opted not to hang him. These working-class people were Irish Catholics. It wasn’t Belfast in 1970, though. It was Manhattan in the summer of 1863. And at the top of the pyramid of hated authority was Abraham Lincoln.
The range of the targets chosen by those protesting the draft for several days from Monday, July 12, made it an unusual event, more like the revolutionary street violence that Europe had seen 15 years before than the race riots with which America was familiar. Draft offices were assaulted at first. Then the attackers moved to other symbols of Federal authority and anything associated with the Republican Party, including the private property of its supporters. Railway tracks were pulled up, while telegraph poles and lines were taken down.
On Monday, the superintendent of the Metropolitan police, John A. Kennedy, was pummeled beyond recognition by a mob and subsequently rescued by a Tammany Hall politician, John Eagan. Col. Henry O’Brien was savagely beaten by protesters over the course of Tuesday afternoon and then killed. Much the same fate awaited black sailor William Williams, who asked for directions after he’d disembarked his ship. But lynching, often accompanied by mutilation and burning, was the preferred method of killing African Americans. Crippled coachman Abraham Franklin and James Costello, a shoemaker, were among those whose lives ended that way.
In “Paradise Alley,” Kevin Baker’s fictional account of those bloody few days, journalist Henry Willis Robinson observes: “The City lies split open on its back, like some broken beetle on the pavement. The mob springs up instantly on every block. Men, women, and children, swarming onto the street, looking for something to vent their fury or their pleasure upon.”
Robinson is involved with another major character, Maddy Boyle, a prostitute. Among her neighbors on Paradise Alley in Lower Manhattan are Irish immigrants Ruth Dove, a rag picker, and Deirdre O’Kane, a housewife whose husband, Tom, has been wounded recently at Gettysburg. County Clare-native Ruth was brought to America by Deirdre’s brother, Dangerous Johnny Dolan, a psychopathic brute. Both were teenagers who’d seen their families decimated by the Famine.
Johnny, with red boils on his skull and rotten teeth, is one of the most unprepossessing villains to appear in quite a while. Dorian Gray, clearly he’s not. Before they were long in New York, Ruth fell for the considerably more presentable Billy Dove, an escaped slave. Around that time, back in the late 1840s, Tom O’Kane spirited his embarrassing brother-in-law out of the picture after he’d murdered a businessman. Of course Johnny, with his boils, his teeth and his crab-like gait, is picture perfect for mob rioting and he finally makes his way back to New York in July 1863.
In contrast, his haughty and narrow-minded sister is at the lace-curtain end of the social spectrum. Baker, however, cleverly subverts the stereotype. Deirdre’s piously Catholic worldview is almost as hard won as her station in life. And it’s precisely because she’s worked through her ideas, because she’s capable of introspection, when those around her mainly are not, that she emerges as the most interesting character. On the other hand, the eighth perspective offered, that of Finn McCool, a Tammany operative on the way up and a generally unpleasant fellow, is wasted. Through him, Baker might have detailed better some of the complexities of the Draft Riots.
For those, we must turn to the sources he recommends, notably labor historian Iver Bernstein’s “The New York City Draft Riots.” Bernstein shows that industrial workers, however bigoted, left their black neighbors alone and focused their rage on the Republican Party and the rich. Laborers, on the other hand, were more mobile and more likely to target African Americans.
Some elements, German artisans, for instance, took part in the militant protest on the first day but, thereafter, defended their streets from rioters. Surprisingly, the poorest workers, those in Tammany-controlled wards like the “Bloody Sixth” and the “Irish Fourteenth,” did not participate in the week’s events.
It’s hard, certainly, for the writer of serious historical fiction to please all of the people all of the time.
For the most part, though, Baker has avoided the genre’s pitfalls. He holds the plot together well for 650 pages, even if the book isn’t riveting throughout. His first novel, the well-received “Dreamland,” was set in Coney Island in 1911 and he’s convincingly made the transition to a very different New York a half century further into the past. But he’s stronger on some aspects than others. His source on the Civil War is “a lifetime of reading.” And it shows. His scenes depicting Tom O’Kane’s life with the Fighting 69th are the book’s most atmospheric.
The horrors of the Famine are described well. But his touch is less sure on the finer detail here. In some areas, he falls back on what he imagines, wrongly, to be generically Irish. For example, West of Ireland people for generations referred to their parents informally as “mamma” and “dadda,” or maybe “pappa”; they never said “me ma” or “me da.” Also, too many characters are given names that while popular today simply weren’t used in the mid-19th century. And is it possible to have something written about old Ireland that doesn’t have a Colleen? Babies with that fine name first saw the light of day in 20th century America.
One might think that Baker has, more generally, walked into the minefield of ethnic sensitivities. He need hardly worry. The subjugation historically of blacks in Northern cities is something whites would rather not discuss, much less have a row about.
We can see this in the treatment of Noel Ignatiev’s book “How the Irish Became White.” His excellent narrative is much cited and patronized but never discussed. And there’s much to argue over; his thesis is flawed in crucial respects. But his basic idea, that racial oppression has wrongly been treated as a minor theme in immigration and labor history, is correct. Perversely, some who’ve borrowed from Ignatiev, usually in the service of a fundamentalist nationalism, have kept race in its traditional place.
Baker has no such agenda. For this reason, and others, “Paradise Alley” is recommended.

PARADISE ALLEY, by Kevin Baker. Harper Collins. 676 pp. $26.95.

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