The Riot of 1835: Washington, DC

The Riot of 1835

In the summer of 1835 Arthur Bowen was on his way home in the evening, when he reached the front door of his owner’s residence.  Bowen was about eighteen years old and he was owned by Anna Thornton, who was the widow of William Thornton—the first Architect of the Capitol.  Dr. William Thornton was born in the British West Indies and his proposed design for the U.S. Capitol was accepted by George Washington, in 1793.  He was awarded $500 and a lot in the city of Washington for his work.  He moved to the city in 1794 and George Washington appointed him to a position as one of the city’s commissioners.  Thomas Jefferson, later, appointed him head of the Patent Office, in 1802.

On the night of August 4, 1835, Arthur Bowen came to Anna Thornton’s home, picked up an axe he found, and went into her bedroom.  She was in the room with Arthur’s mom (who was also enslaved by Anna Thornton) and her own mother.  

Arthur stood in the doorway with the axe under his arm and Anna woke up to see him standing there.  She was shocked and ran to get help.  Arthur was reportedly drunk. 

Anna returned with neighbors and it was reported that Arthur was demanding that he had as much right to be free as Anna had (he had begun to attend meetings where anti-slavery topics were discussed).  

Elsewhere in Washington there were other problems brewing.  

In the Navy Yard, white workers were at odds with black workers—there were free black workers and enslaved people who worked at the Navy Yard.  White workers (who were of Irish and other descent) were called “Mechanics.”  At the time, the Mechanics were very dissatisfied with their working conditions and some felt that additional black workers were being used, by commanders, to break their strike.

Michael Shriner, an African-American man who was enslaved at the Navy Yard, kept a diary of his life.  Shriner noted that while all of the strife was going on about the working conditions in the Navy Yard a rumor began to spread about Beverly Snow.  Snow, as you may remember, was the African-American man who owned the popular restaurant called the Epicurean Eating House.  The rumor was that Snow had made some very disparaging remarks about the wives of Mechanics at the Navy Yard.

While all of this was going on, the word got out about Arthur Bowen.  Bowen was arrested and white Mechanics from the Navy Yard began to gather at the jail where Bowen was being kept.  

They vowed to hang Bowen without a trial or judge for attempting to harm Anna Thornton.  They were unsuccessful in their attempts to gain access to the jail, but they began to discuss the rumor about Snow’s alleged remarks. 

Snow’s business was not far away and a group of them walked to his restaurant.  Luckily for Snow, someone gave him a “heads up” about the impending danger and he escaped, but his business did not escape.   

Mechanics ransacked Snow’s restaurant, stole inventory and broke up his equipment.  The crowd then turned their attention to schools, churches, other businesses and homes owned by black people.

They completely destroyed the school operated by John F. Cook, Sr. and just about every schoolhouse for black children in the area was either destroyed or damaged.  

The Ensuing Trials

Arthur Bowen then went on trial for attempting to murder Anna Thornton.  Francis Scott Key was the district attorney in the area and was responsible for prosecuting Bowen.

In addition to Arthur Bowen, Dr. Reuben Crandall was arrested for circulating seditious libels (papers about the abolition of slavery) with the intent of inciting free and/or enslaved black people to violence.  Crandall had recently moved to the area and was well-known for his views about abolition.

Arthur Bowen’s trial came up first.  He was convicted and sentenced to death.  After the trial, however, Anna Thornton launched a campaign to save Bowen.  She wrote a long letter to the Vice President of the United States at the time, Martin Van Buren, and asked for his help.  President Andrew Jackson, eventually, pardoned Arthur Bowen.

Dr. Crandall would be tried next.   

It is important to note that Francis Scott Key was a member of the American Colonization Society (ACS).  The aim of the ACS was to provide an avenue for the voluntary transportation of free African Americans from the U.S. to Africa as a way of giving them the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of freedom and as a way of providing slaveholders with a pathway to free their slaves, without having to worry about the negative consequences of interacting with free African Americans.

The ACS did not see African Americans as equals, the did not seek an immediate end to slavery and many of its members were slaveholders, such as Sen. Henry Clay, President James Madison, and Francis Scott Key (author of the Star-Spangled Banner).

They felt that an integrated society would never work and that slavery had to be gradually eradicated, if it would ever be eliminated.

When Reuben Crandall’s trial was held, the beliefs of the ACS would also be discussed.  

Dr. Crandall, as we have mentioned, was on trial for circulating seditious libels (papers about the abolition of slavery) with the intent of inciting free and/or enslaved black people to violence.

During the trial, Francis Scott Key was forced to defend his stance on slavery, and that of the American Colonization Society.

Francis Scott Key argued that abolitionists (and their propaganda) were a threat to the safety and happiness of the entire slave-holding community.  He spoke of slavery as an evil, but said that emancipation was a far greater evil.

He argued that colonization from the United States to Africa was a safe and practical way of providing for the gradual emancipation of enslaved people—abolishing slavery however, immediately, would endanger slave-holding communities and their property.  He further characterized pamphlets about the abolition of slavery as being designed to appeal to the emotions of the slave (who were an “ignorant class of the population”) and they were not designed to appeal to the reason of slave owners.

He argued that men who gave out such pamphlets were doing so with dangerous goals and that if they were allowed to come to an area and to freely circulate such papers, then that would be an end to the protection of the “lives and property of the people of the South”.

Despite Key’s arguments, the jury deliberated for about one hour and found Dr. Reuben Crandall not guilty.

In addition, none of the Mechanics who committed the violence were ever arrested.


© 2017, Red and Black Ink, LLC.

Check out our book, Stories about Black History: Vol. 3, available on Amazon.

References:“Emancipation:  Ending Slavery in the District of Columbia.”

Library of Congress. Slaves and the Courts, 1740-1860, The trial of Reuben Crandall, M.D., charged with publishing seditious libels by circulating publications of the American Anti-Slavery Society.  New York:  H.R. Piercy, 1836.

Library of Congress.  Slaves and the Courts, 1740-1860,  A part of a speech pronounced by Francis S. Key, Esq. on the trial of Reuben Crandall, M.D. : before the Circuit court of the District of Columbia, at the March term thereof, 1836, on an indictment for publishing libels with intent to excite sedition and insurrection among the slaves and free coloured people of said district.

Morley, Jefferson.  ‘The Snow Riot’.  Washington Post,  Sunday, February 6, 2005, Pg. W14.


Danita Smith