Riots and Readers in Melville's New York Society Library
Herman Melville’s visits to our building on Broadway at Leonard Street resembled the experience of visitors in the 21st century in a few ways. Many of the books he borrowed are still here, and we’ve always had an elegant and spacious building located on a major thoroughfare. But from 1840 to 1852, the Library’s home on Broadway was in the 6th Ward, on the doorstep of the most notorious slum in the nation. The heart of the neighborhood known as the Five Points was Paradise Square, just two blocks from the Society Library at the intersection of Anthony, Orange, and Cross Streets (today’s Worth, Baxter, and Park). The Tombs, an infamous prison known for its criminal inmates and administrators, occupied the city block in between. Frequent escapes by prisoners and scandals in the courtrooms there were well publicized in the local papers.
Library members, staff, and visitors will all agree that today's Upper East Side location, with the Met and Central Park around the corner, adds value to our already rich institution. In Melville's day, members wouldn't have felt that way about the Library's surroundings. Church Monthly described the Five Points in 1858 as "the most notorious precinct of moral leprosy in the city, ...a perfect hot-bed of physical and moral pestilence, ...a hell-mouth of infamy and woe." In 1873, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper wrote "FIVE POINTS! ... There is Murder in every syllable, and Want, Misery, and Pestilence take startling form and crowd upon the imagination as the pen traces the words. What a world of wretchedness has been concentrated in this narrow district!" In 1850, the Health Warden of the 6th Ward reported that 63 buildings housed 769 families, or 4, 721 people. It's difficult to imagine how so many people crammed themselves into the wooden, two-story buildings that dominated New York City's housing stock during this period. In 1857, only 25% of the entire city had sewer lines, and few, if any, antebellum tenements had toilets or bathtubs. It also absorbed the vast majority of immigrants that began pouring into the United States; 89% of the neighborhood residents were born in Ireland and Germany (immigrants from elsewhere mostly lived in other neighborhoods). Between 1830 and 1850, the population of the 6th Ward increased from 19,343 to 24,698 residents, most of whom arrived too poor to improve the already deplorable living conditions and simply wanted out. Local and national papers reported on the neighborhood predominantly in connection with criminal activity, court cases, murders, muggings, disease outbreaks, prostitution, gambling, gang activity, and the neglect of children. It was crowded, rough territory, and the Library was in its backyard. In The Devil's Own Work, Barnet Schecter wrote "Broadway, for all its glittering lights, was the border between two realms and was itself divided between its affluent 'dollar side' on the west, and the eastern 'shilling side' that touched the slums." (52) The Library was on the east side of the street.
The Five Points was also well known as a hotbed of political corruption, and home of the Tammany Hall machine. Born in Albany, Tammany operator Isaiah “Captain” Rynders moved to New York in 1837, and devoted himself to gambling, horse racing, boxing, and politics; he was a sporting man and his territory was the 6th Ward. On May 10, 1849, he packed the audience of a performance of Macbeth starring the English actor William Macready at the new, affluent Astor Place Opera House with Bowery street brawlers. (Five Pointers and working class New Yorkers were loyal supporters of the American actor Edward Forrest, and they protested Macready’s casting as elitist and Anglophilic. It was a major issue of the day.) They shouted the actor down throughout his performance, clobbered him with rotten produce, and drove him from the stage. Melville was well aware of the incident, and presumably of Rynders’ role in it: the author signed a petition encouraging Macready to return to the stage for another performance, and he surely followed newspaper coverage of the event, which pinned Rynders as the instigator. Despite local intimidation, Macready agreed to a second performance, but Rynders had him beat again. He printed and distributed inflammatory fliers all over the city, and a mob of 10,000 gathered in protest outside of the theater, shouting “Burn the damned den of the aristocracy!” There was a bloody confrontation between rioters and police that night.
A year later, Herman Melville joined the Library for the second time, and shortly thereafter Rynders and his gang made an appearance there, on May 8, 1850. The predominantly Protestant and Whig American Anti-Slavery Society held its annual meeting at the neighboring Broadway Tabernacle on May 7, and in the Library's auditorium on May 8. Both events, like the Astor Place Opera House, were packed with a huge mob of toughs and hecklers, lead by Rynders and encouraged in print by the New York Globe and Herald. On Tuesday the 7th, the Captain himself interrupted speeches by William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and also insisted that a racist "scientist" called Professor Grant be given time at the podium. (Horace Greely, also a Library member, "wryly reported that the audience was convinced that if anyone was a 'dull orangutan' it was Grant and that if anyone was the first cousin of a 'very vicious monkey' it was Rynders.") The next day, the Library's auditorium was filled to capacity (it contained about 800 seats) and Rynders appeared again with his mob. They hollered at the speakers and caused such a disturbanced that the Anti-Slavery Society cancelled the remainder of the program, concluded the meeting in the Library's private conversation rooms, and thereafter held its annual convention in Syracuse. When things began to get out of hand, organizers called for police protection but Rynders made it clear that the law was, effectively, on his side.
We lack undeniable evidence that Herman Melville attended the meeting and witnessed Rynders in action, but we know that on May 7 his brother Allan borrwed William Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, a series of sketches in which the author popularized the stereotype Irishman. Was his choice inspired by the events that took place that day, just down the street from the Library? Did he witness what went on that day before the meeting closed at 2 o'clock? Considering the fact that Rynders' Five Points was a well known Irish neighborhood (Rynders himself was Irish-German), and both the Tabernacle and the Library itself were so nearby, Allan Melville may well have identified the rowdy anti-abolitionists as Irish residents of the 6th Ward. Did he borrow Carleton's two-volume work to better understand them?
Furthermore, if Allan was there, was Herman with him? Did the Melvilles witness Frederick Douglass as he eloquently silenced Rynders’ mob at the Tabernacle? We may never know for sure, but the younger Melville’s choice of reading that day suggests that he was well aware of the political and ethnic tensions simmering in New York in the antebellum period, much in the same way as Herman’s signature suggests his awareness and attitudes toward the conflicts in May 1849. Herman surely kept up with Rynders’ malfeasance and bigotry, and scholars have suggested that Frederick Douglass’ speech at the Tabernacle inspired some of the actions and attitudes of the character Babo in Benito Cereno. Allan’s visit to the Society Library on May 7 is no further proof, but the book he borrowed on that day is another suggestive clue to the Melvilles’ interest in and engagement with the tensions mounting around the dominant issue of their day. It is also a testament to the value of the Library’s records as a source for literary historians: reading is revealing.
No mention of this event appears in the Society Library’s records: not in the minutes for the June Trustees’ meetings (the May meeting was, coincidentally, held on May 8), nor in the Librarian’s papers, nor in any correspondence from members. In the June meeting, however, the Trustees passed two noteworthy resolutions. They read as follows:
“On Motion of Mr. [James de Peyster] Ogden It was Resolved that Whereas it is deemed advisable for the best interest of the Library that the Institution should change its location to the upper part of the City provided the present site and building could be advantageously disposed of,
Resolved that a Committee of three be appointed with power to dispose of the site and building for the sum of $95,000, and that the Committee report progress to the Trustees of their proceeding and prospects.” (Minutes of the Trustees’ Meeting, June 5, 1850)
In 1852, the Library building was sold to Samuel F. Appleton, and the building became the home of Appleton’s Book Shop. The Library moved temporarily to Astor Place, and was open as usual on the second floor of the Bible House until it moved to 67 University Place in 1856.
The Library’s new neighborhood was exactly that: a brand new neighborhood. In 1850, local papers listed auctions of empty lots in the area by Library member Anthony Bleecker, and the development of what would become the neighborhood of New York’s elite was still ongoing. Reports of crime were infrequent; the most commonly discussed news items in the 15th Ward were Whig party activities, and the construction and funding of a local school. The local connection with the Whig party is significant, as this was the party of the wealthy professional class that seems to have dominated the roster of the Society Library, and was also at odds with men like Rynders and other Tammany operators in the Democratic party during this period. These tensions – social, economic, racial, ethnic – finally boiled over during the Civil War draft riots in the Five Points in 1863 and 1867. Less than a decade earlier, Herman Melville’s New York Society Library was at the center of it.
Want to learn more about Herman Melville's New York in 1850? Our Pop-Up exhibition, Herman Melville's New York, 1850 remains open through November 7.