The 1830s are not a well-known period in Washington’s history. Too late for L’Enfant and too early for Lincoln, they are a mystery to most residents. But hiding beneath the quiet surface were rising racial tensions, as vividly described in Jefferson Morley’s new book, Snow-Storm in August.
Morley brings the 1830s to life with an account of dramatic events that would ultimately contribute to the Civil War.
The book’s title derives from the so-called “Snow Riot” of August 1835, when a mob of angry young white laborers vandalized a restaurant at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW that was operated by Beverly Snow, a free black.
Compared to the large race riots of 1919 or 1968, the mayhem and destruction in 1835 was almost negligible. Nevertheless, it was a shocking event for many Washington residents, and the underlying tensions were as strong as at any time in the city’s history.
It all began when Arthur Bowen, a slave belonging to Mrs. Anna Maria Thornton, got drunk one night and seemed to be contemplating murder. He came home late that evening and entered the widowed Mrs. Thornton’s bedroom carrying an ax. Maria Bowen, Arthur’s mother, was also asleep in the room. She awoke and quickly restrained her son, pushing him out of the house through a back door.
Mrs. Thornton awoke as well and needless to say was terrified. She ran for help from neighbors, who returned to the house with her and heard, through the locked back door, the rantings of the inebriated young slave.
"I’ll have my freedom,” Arther shouted. “I’ll have my freedom, you hear me? I have as much right to freedom as you do.”
These were dangerous words for a slave in Washington in the 1830s.
Anxiety was running high in those days among slaveholders and white society in general. Just 4 years earlier the infamous Nat Turner slave rebellion had taken place in nearby Southampton, Virginia. Under Nat Turner’s mesmerizing leadership, slaves rose up and killed some 50 or 60 whites before their insurrection was brutally repressed by the authorities.
Even more troubling for many whites was the seeming flood of anti-slavery literature arriving on a daily basis from the staunchly abolitionist cities farther north. William Lloyd Garrison‘s influential weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, had begun publication in 1831 and was soon being sent south to win over hearts and minds.
It was against this backdrop that the young ax-wielding slave, Arthur Bowen, had threatened Anna Maria Thornton. Mrs Thornton wasn’t just anyone. She was the well-known and highly-respected widow of William Thornton, architect of the US Capitol.
It was plain to see, or at least so The National Intelligencer thought, that “incendiary publications” from the north were responsible for the “most ferocious threats” and “tissue of jargon” that Bowen had uttered. Bowen had initially fled in the night, but he was soon arrested. Crowds of angry laborers then gathered at the city jail demanding vengeance. It was these young white ruffians who attacked Beverly Snow’s restaurant, smashing dishes and furniture. They later burned a black boardinghouse and several schoolhouses.
Morley’s book evokes not just the tragedy of the Snow Riots themselves, but the complex stories of its key players, including Arthur and Maria Bowen, Anna Maria Thornton, and Reuben Crandall, a Georgetown resident with links to northern abolitionists who was swept up in the hysteria and accused of inciting insurrection.
It also brings to life Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem. Key was district attorney for Washington in 1835, and was responsible for arresting both Crandall and Bowen. The prosperous scion of a wealthy slave-holding Maryland family, Key seems to have been torn between conflicting values. Though temperamentally disposed to ending slavery, he vigorously prosecuted both Crandall and Bowen.
It would be up to the juries and ultimately the president of the United States to determine the fate of the two men.
Perhaps the most entertaining character in this entire drama is Beverly Snow himself, the namesake of the Snow Riot. Morley begins his book with a vivid and remarkably detailed portrait of the young black entrepreneur, who opened one of Washington’s first true restaurants in the early 1830s.
Snow had been born a slave in Lynchburg, Virginia and was granted his freedom when he came of age. He had learned the culinary arts at an early age but clearly had more extraordinary skills, including social dexterity, entrepreneurial drive, and ambition. He came to Washington to go into business for himself, and his Epicurean Eating House on Pennsylvania Avenue was highly successful.
Snow, of course, had no idea he’d be caught up in the fear-mongering that ensued from the Bowen incident. He fled the city after his restaurant was trashed and soon moved to Canada, where he started all over again in Toronto, with another restaurant that was as popular as his Washington eatery.
Snow’s story seems at once tragic and hopeful. It’s a shame that he was treated so badly in Washington, but inspiring in that he didn’t let the experience ruin his ambitions. The vividly portrayed struggles of Snow, Bowen, Crandall, Key, and Mrs. Thornton (who never believed Bowen really wanted to kill her and fought to have him released from jail) all make for a powerful portrait of a lost era in Washington history.
Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.