Tuesday, August 4, 2009
The firemen’s riot of August 21, 1865
The boy hoisted the old straw mattress onto the roof, lit a match and quickly scampered down the way he had come. A few moments later a bell began clanging loudly, waking the neighborhood. The firefighters from Company No. 6 jumped into action, pulling on their boots, leather helmets and wool jackets and began hauling their pumper towards the scene of the blaze. And that’s when the fight broke out.
Their long-time rivals Engine Company No. 41 were waiting for them at Ridge Street, near the intersection with Delancey St. The fire had been a ruse to draw them out and settle their differences once and for all. This was to be achieved through guns, clubs, axes, fists and even the metal fire horns used to amplify the fire fighters’ voices during operations.
When Big Six, as they were known, reached Ridge Street all the gaslights had been extinguished. Suddenly No. 41’s pumper pulled up from behind them and stopped slightly ahead and to their right. “Give it to them! Kill the sons of bitches,” someone shouted and the sound of gunfire smashed the unnatural quiet. According to Anthony Burk, the foremen of No. 6, the shots came from near No. 41’s pumper. He was hit three times by bullets. One struck him near his right eye; another on the right cheek and a third grazed his ear. He claimed he hadn’t fired back, but several firemen from No. 41 said they had seen him with a gun that night, and they said, he started firing first.
The Metropolitan Police didn’t seem to be of much help that night. They allegedly stayed out of the fight until the shooting died down and there were enough of them to make a dent in the escalating fracas. Platoons began pouring in from all over the eastside. They poured in from Ridge, Delancey and Grand Streets surrounding the combatants. According to members of both fire companies, the police used their nightsticks with wild abandon to disburse the crowd, bloodying a number of firemen that morning.
Later in court the police were unable to say who or how the fight began. Officer Robert Gray arrived just before the fight broke out. “I heard a cheer,” he remembered,” but I don’t know from which company it came.” He did recall that the gunfire seemed to be coming from both companies, which was apparent when the smoke cleared 25 minutes later and two firemen from No. 41 lay dying, while others from both companies suffered from bullet wounds, knife slashes and head injuries. Mathias Bettman, a runner, lay with a bullet wound in his abdomen, while James Quigley, a bunker, suffered a bullet wound in his chest. Bunkers slept at the firehouse, while runners would come to the fires from their houses when the alarm sounded. Harry Howard, one of the last Chief Engineers of the volunteer fire department, had put the bunking system in place a few years earlier.
That spring the state legislature had passed an act creating a "Metropolitan Fire Department,” spelling the demise of the volunteer companies in New York City. The attorney general, John Martindale, believed the law was illegal and fought on behalf of the volunteers. It went before the State Supreme Court and was found constitutional just two months before the riot. Throughout this time the battles between rival fire companies continued to rage and in fact escalated, probably due to the pressures the men were experiencing as they became pawns in a political game between Albany and Tammany Hall, the political machine controlling the city. The companies were pushed to the breaking point and with tempers flaring violence was the outcome.
The month before the New York Times had railed against the territorial and sometimes politically motivated brawls that all too often erupted at fires, slowing down rescue operations and leading to more property damage. It was the insurance companies that first put forth the idea of a paid fire department. They were tired of paying out on blaze after blaze. From there it became a political chess game between the Tammany Hall Democrats who had deep ties with the fire companies and the Republicans in Albany who were interested in resting any kind of political control they could from Tammany.
Fire companies had been brawling each other for years, but this fight pushed the city over the edge and ended with a coroner’s inquest jury censuring the fire commissioners for “not being more efficient with organizing a proper fire department.”It wasn’t until 1866 that the new department was fully in place and it was the brave volunteers who had agreed to continue to battle blaze after blaze in the city until that time. These men made up the core of the new fire department that would eventually become the Fire Department City of New York.