August 'Snow-Storm' Brought Devastation To D.C.

Jul 5, 2012
Originally published on July 5, 2012 10:25 pm

In 1835, Washington, D.C., was a city in transition: Newly freed African-Americans were coming north and for the first time beginning to outnumber the city's slaves. That demographic shift led to a violent upheaval — all but forgotten today.

Few of the city's buildings from that time remain, but you can still sense what it was like, if you sit in a park by the White House, as NPR's Steve Inskeep did with writer Jefferson Morley.

"The White House was very much as it is today," Morley says. "In the summer of 1835 it was a little shabby because they were constructing a new driveway, and there were workmen's materials all over the place, and people thought that was a little not quite appropriate, but that's the way it was for a year or two."

The look was appropriate, in a way, because American democracy was very much under construction in the 1830s. And Morley brings to light a lost tale of that evolving society in his new book, Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 — a tale that begins in that very park by the White House.

"On Aug. 4, 1835, there was a young man loitering here with a friend," Morley says. "He was 19 years old, a black kid, his name was John Arthur Bowen. ... He was the property of a woman named Anna Maria Thornton." Bowen had just come from a meeting of the Talking Society, a group run by a local schoolteacher dedicated to educating slaves and working for their freedom.

It was not the kind of activity that made white people comfortable. A Virginia slave revolt a few years had spurred some Americans to call for slavery's abolition — and also infuriated slave owners. So it was a dangerous environment for a young black man to leave a political meeting, and go out drinking in a park beside the White House.

Morley says Bowen was most likely pretty drunk when he headed back to the Thornton home nearby at 13th and F streets NW. "He picks up an ax, and he goes upstairs ... and on the first floor is where his mother sleeps in the same room with Mrs. Thornton, the woman who owns him. And at about 1 o'clock in the morning, he opens the door to their room and walks in. And his mother and Mrs. Thornton wake up to this sight of this young man standing in the door with an ax in his hand."

Bowen made no move, but Mrs. Thornton screamed, ran to the front door, and began shouting for her neighbors. "And this story starts to spread that Mrs. Thornton has been attacked in her bedroom by a slave with an ax," Morley says. Bowen was arrested for attempted murder after the story reached the ears of local law enforcement.

"A lot of whites thought that [Bowen] attacking his mistress was the beginning of a slave rebellion," Morley continues — which led to a lynch mob gathering at the jail in D.C.'s Judiciary Square, where the young man was being held.

The idea that a black man had possibly attacked a white woman added to the story's power — even though Mrs. Thornton, once she had recovered from her shock, was quick to tell people that Bowen had not meant to hurt her. "And nobody wanted to hear that," Morley says, "least of all, the district attorney, Francis Scott Key."

Yes, the man who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1814 was, by 1835, a prominent lawyer. "In a lot of ways, he was really the prototype of the modern Washington lawyer-lobbyist," Morley says. "He had a nice house in Georgetown, he had nice neckties, he had a wine cellar, he had clients who paid big retainers." Morley calls Key a "political operator," who used his fame and his law practice as an entree into politics.

Key's political hero was President Andrew Jackson, who repaid his loyalty with an appointment as D.C.'s top law enforcement official. "So that is how Francis Scott Key came to prosecute Arthur Bowen," Morley says. "When this type of racially charged incident erupted, Key wanted to prove right away that he was in control, and that there was no threat to the slave order in Washington."

But Key couldn't control the fear and resentment of the white mob that had formed in the city. "And the mob just destroyed everything. The black schools, the black churches, the homes of the free blacks," Morley says. "They kind of ran wild, and the law enforcement was just nowhere to be seen. ... This went on for a couple of nights."

Washington hadn't seen that kind of destruction since the British invasion more than 20 years before. "Shock is hardly the word," Morley says. "This wasn't a foreign army that did the damage; this was Americans."

Morley says the riots of 1835 still resonate today — even though few people remember them. "The political debates about free speech, about property rights, about citizenship rights, those are actually still with us. And in fact, this is really when the formative moment of American politics really comes about, and you have this dynamic that we still have with us today: the red and the blue, right? The red states are conservative; the blue states are liberal. A lot was the same."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Next, we'll hear a little-known story of one of the nation's most famous cities. The city is Washington, D.C. A chain of violent events took place here in 1835.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Few of this city's buildings from that time remain, but you can still sense what it was like if you sit in a park by the White House, as we did with the writer Jefferson Morley.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: It had been landscaped, and there were paths just like this. There were a lot of residences on either side, but the White House was very much as it is today.

INSKEEP: We're looking over here at the White House. We can just see bits of it through the trees, and that facade was just as it was, the north front of the White House.

MORLEY: Yeah, in the summer of 1835, it was a little shabby, because they were constructing a new driveway. And there were sort of workmen's materials all over the place, and people thought that was a little not-quite-appropriate. But that's the way it was for a year or two.

INSKEEP: The look was appropriate, in a way, because American democracy was very much under construction in the 1830s. Morley examines a tale of America's evolving society in his new book, "Snow-Storm in August."

And you tell a story that effectively begins in this square and goes to some of the darker corners of this city and some of the darker corners of its history. What happened here in 1835?

MORLEY: On August 4th, 1835, there was a young man loitering here with a friend. He was 19 years old, a black kid. His name was John Arthur Bowen. He was a servant. He was the property of a woman named Anna Maria Thornton.

INSKEEP: A slave.

MORLEY: Yes. He was a slave. And they lived over on 13th and F Streets. And so on the afternoon of - evening of August 4th, 1835, he had come from a meeting of what they called the Talking Society. It was called the Philomathean. And it was run by a schoolteacher. And he would gather the young black men who were enslaved and he would teach them, you know, here's how to get your freedom, you know, learn to read and write. Don't drink, you know; read these abolitionist newspapers. And so it was a little talking group to try and build the morale and the education of these young black men.

INSKEEP: This was not the kind of activity that made white people comfortable. A Virginia slave revolt a few years earlier had spurred some Americans to call for slavery's abolition, and also infuriated slave owners. So it was a dangerous environment for a young black man to leave a political meeting and go out drinking in this park beside the White House.

MORLEY: So he's hanging out here, and he's probably talking with his friend about, you know, how do you get your freedom, and they're drinking. And he walks home over to 13th and F. He goes in the back door, and he's pretty drunk at this point.

INSKEEP: This is just a few blocks away from here, now. OK.

MORLEY: Yeah. He picks up an ax, and he goes upstairs from the basement where he's entered. And on the first floor is where his mother sleeps in the same room with Mrs. Thornton, the woman who owns him. And at about 1:00 in the morning, he opens the door to the room and walks in. And his mother and Mrs. Thornton wake up to the sight of this young man standing in the door with an ax in his hand. He's totally inebriated, and he doesn't do anything. Mrs. Thornton screams, runs out to the front door and starts shouting for her neighbors. And this story starts to spread that Mrs. Thornton has been attacked in her bedroom by a slave with an ax.

INSKEEP: Just to be clear, even though he was drunk and holding an ax, no one was actually attacked. No one was actually injured.

MORLEY: No. And he was arrested, then, for attempted murder.

INSKEEP: Because the story had spread to the law enforcement officials, who just bought it.

MORLEY: Right. And because of this ferment and all these, you know, this anti-slavery agitation, the whites were very fearful. A lot of whites thought that Arthur attacking his mistress was the beginning of a slave rebellion. And so this crowd gathers - a huge crowd of whites gathers and goes to the jail in Judiciary Square and tries to lynch Arthur.

INSKEEP: Was part of this not only that it was a confrontation between master and slave, and not only black and white, but black man and white woman?

MORLEY: Oh, yes. And this added immensely to the shocking quality of this story. But Mrs. Thornton, she's very devoted to her servant, who's Arthur's mother. And once she got over her shock, she told people: He did not mean to hurt me. And nobody wanted to hear that, least of all the district attorney, Francis Scott Key.

INSKEEP: Francis Scott Key.

MORLEY: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light...

INSKEEP: Yes, the man who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1814 was, in 1835, a prominent lawyer. He'd become the capital's top law enforcement official under President Andrew Jackson. And he was a central figure in the story, as told by Jefferson Morley.

MORLEY: In a lot of ways, he was really the prototype of the modern Washington lawyer lobbyist. He had a nice house in Georgetown. He had nice neckties. He had a wine cellar. He had clients who paid big retainers. He was a political operator, and he used his fame and his law practice for political connections and to become politically involved for his hero, Andrew Jackson. And Andrew Jackson rewarded his loyalty by appointing him to be the district attorney for the city of Washington. So that is how Francis Scott Key came to prosecute Arthur Bowen.

INSKEEP: So this explosive case lands in his lap.

MORLEY: Yes. And when this type of racially charged incident erupted, Key wanted to prove right away that he was in control and that there was no threat to the slave order in Washington.

INSKEEP: Even as the prosecutor, Francis Scott Key, is going about prosecuting this man, whom even the supposed victim doesn't seem to think is guilty of anything, what's happening in the streets of Washington?

MORLEY: Well, there's fear of another insurrection. There's resentment of the abolitionists. And the mob just goes wild. And they just take off across the city. And the mob just destroyed everything - the black schools, the black churches, the homes of the free blacks. So they kind of ran wild, and the law enforcement was just nowhere to be seen. There was no protection whatsoever. And so this went on for a couple of nights. And Washington woke up to, I mean, shock is hardly the word. Washington had not been trashed that way since the British invaded in 1814, 21 years before. But this wasn't a foreign army that did the damage. This was Americans.

INSKEEP: We're in a city that's changed so much. We're in one of the few locations where you can still see some of the buildings that were around in 1835. And we're in a country, of course, that has changed enormously. But is there something about this story that's still in the American DNA?

MORLEY: Absolutely. While technology, clothes and all that changed, other things are very much the same. You know, there were arguments about, you know, who could be a citizen. You know, we argue about illegal immigration today. So the political debates about free speech, about property rights, about citizenship rights, those are actually still with us. And, in fact, this is really when the formative moment of American politics really comes about. And you have this dynamic that we still have with us today: the red and the blue, right. The red states are conservative. The blue states are liberal. A lot was the same.

INSKEEP: Jefferson Morley is the author of "Snow-Storm in August." Thanks for coming out to Lafayette Square here to talk with us about it.

MORLEY: Thanks.

INSKEEP: By the way, the slave who was put on trial for attempted murder was convicted and sentenced to death, although he was ultimately pardoned by President Andrew Jackson. You can see the newspaper ad for his capture, as well as sketches of what Washington, D.C. looked like in 1835 at npr.org.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.