New-York Historical Society

“They deliberately set fire to it … simply because it was the home of unoffending colored orphan children”: The New York Draft Riots and the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum

This post was written by Matthew Murphy, Head of Cataloging and Metadata.

The rioters burning and sacking the Colored Orphan Asylum. Harper's Weekly, August 1, 1863.

The rioters burning and sacking the Colored Orphan Asylum. Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the New York Draft Riots, one of bloodiest and most violent insurrections in American history. A perfect storm of social unrest, ethnic hatred, and class conflict led to the brutal and horrifying riots, which were popularized (and somewhat sensationalized) by Martin Scorsese’s film, “Gangs of New York” (2002). Lasting from July 13 to July 16, 1863, the draft riots were thought to have caused $1.5 million dollars in damage ($27,577,504.97 in 2013 dollars) and were thought to have resulted in the deaths of nearly a hundred New Yorkers, many of which were free African Americans, who were intentionally targeted by the mob. Of all the morally reprehensible events that took place during the draft riots, one particularly stands out: the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum.

The draft riots began on the morning of Monday, July 13, when hundreds of angry rioters stormed the office of the Ninth District Provost Marshal, which was located at Third Avenue and 47th Street.

Ruins of the Provost Marshal Office. Harper's Weekly, Aug. 1, 1863.

Ruins of the Provost Marshal Office. Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 1, 1863.

Provost Marshals were army officers that dealt with issues related to enlistment and desertion, and upon the passage of the draft laws, were tasked with drawing names for the draft.  Shortly after the pulling of names from the draft wheel began, The angry mob arrived and smashed the windows with cobblestones pulled from the street, and afterwards set the building aflame. Violence continued throughout the day; the Metropolitan Police were unable to quell the mob due to a lack of manpower, as most of the city’s militias were absent, having recently participated in the battle of Gettysburg ten days earlier.

The horrors of the first day culminated in the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was located on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Street. The Asylum, which was managed by the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, was a large 4 story building surrounded by grounds and gardens, and at any given time housed between 600 and 800 children.

Colored Orphan Asylum exterior, circa 1860-1861 (PR 065, Stereograph File)

Colored Orphan Asylum exterior, circa 1860-1861 (PR 065, Stereograph File)

The records of The Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, which are held by the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library of the New-York Historical Society, provide a window into the horrific events of that day.

It is not known what (if any) records were destroyed by the fire, but we are fortunate enough to have much of this organization’s records intact. Although there are no entries for July 13, 1863, the Minutes of the Board Meeting from July 25, 1863, several days after the riots ended, describes what occurred (below): “On the 13th July at 4 PM, an infuriated mob … surrounded the premises of the Asylum and 500 of them entered the house … they deliberately set fire to it … simply because it was the home of unoffending colored orphan children.”

Minutes of the Board of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, July 25, 1863 (MS 24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans Records)

Minutes of the Board of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, July 25, 1863 (MS 24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans Records)

In the Admission Records, which were used to track the admission, current status and discharge information of each child, there is a hastily scrawled entry, most likely made after the riots (below): “William H. Judson … admitted July 6, 1863. Left with us just after [i.e. before] the riot.”  One can only imagine the terror experienced by this child, having just entered a place of safety and care, only to be forced to flee.

Admission record for William H. Judson. July, 1863 (MS 24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records)

Admission record for William H. Judson. July, 1863 (MS 24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records)

The twenty-seventh annual report of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, which covered 1863 and was published in 1864, describes the events of the day in more detail, mentioning how a ruthless mob of several hundred men, women and children broke down the front door with an axe, and proceeded to ransack the building and set it on fire. The mob stole whatever they could, even baby clothes that were gifted to the Asylum. Thankfully, while the mob was focused on gaining entrance, the superintendent of the Asylum, William E. Davis, and the head matron, Jane McClellan, quietly snuck the children out the back.

The inner front cover of the Bible that was saved from the Colored Orphan Asylum (MS24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records)

The inner front cover of the Bible that was saved from the Colored Orphan Asylum (MS24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records)

The report states that before leaving the building: “One little girl, as she walked through the dining room, took up a large family bible … and looking up at the superintendent with a sweet smile … ‘See’, said she, ‘Mr. Davis, I’ve got the Bible.’ This dear child carried this treasured volume to the station house, and thence to Blackwell’s Island.”  This very Bible, (at left) though incomplete, is held by the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, as part of the records of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans.

While the staff and children were making their escape, a crew of firefighters, led by Chief Engineer Decker of Hook and Ladder Company No. 2, valiantly fought the flames and the mob at the same time. The twenty-seventh annual report of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans recounts the event: “On entering the building, Decker said to his men, ‘Will you stick by me?’ This they promised to do, and were immediately engaged in extinguishing some ten or fifteen fires … this was of little avail, for the mob had decreed its destruction … and Decker was told if he repeated this act, he should be killed. His men replied, ‘In that attempt you will have to pass over our dead bodies.’Though the firefighters fought the flames again and again, the building eventually succumbed to the mob.

Louis B. Rader, who had recently moved into a new home on 45th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, witnessed the burning of the Asylum, and he recounts this in a letter to his friend Don Alonzo, dated July 15, 1863: “Monday afternoon the mob burnt a hotel on my corner and the orphan asylum on the corner below … I left everything in my house … and moved backed [sic] to my father-in-law’s house in 30th Street near 8th Avenue for safety for my family …”

The children were taken to the Twentieth Precinct building which was located on 35th Street near 7th Avenue, where they remained safe until the riots subsided on July 16, 1863. Afterwards, they were moved to Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), along with many other African-American refugees whose homes had been burned by the mob, livelihoods had been ruined, and family members had been murdered in cold blood. The Association had to start from scratch—all had been lost in the fire, at an estimated value of $80,000 ($1,470,800.23 in 2013 dollars). All 233 children survived the riots, and after a short time at Governor’s Island, were moved to a residence in Carmansville, a village that existed within the present day boundaries of the Hudson River, West 158th Street, Broadway and West 142nd Street.

The Asylum was rebuilt in 1867 at 143rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and in 1907 was relocated again to the Riverdale section of the Bronx. In 1944, the Association’s name was changed to the Riverdale Children’s Association; it went through several moves and name changes until 1988, when the Westside Center for Family Services, as it was then known, merged with Harlem-Dowling Children’s Services.

Portions of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans records have been digitized and are available via the New-York Historical Society’s Manuscript Collections Relating to Slavery web site. 

2 Comments to “They deliberately set fire to it … simply because it was the home of unoffending colored orphan children”: The New York Draft Riots and the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum

  1. Stephen Kucharski's Gravatar Stephen Kucharski
    July 16, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I think this article and the one on Abraham Lincoln were great.

  2. Margot Burns's Gravatar Margot Burns
    April 22, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Nonsense. No one ever tracked down how or why it was burned. George Templeton Strong suspected Prof. McCulloh from Columbia, who soon afterwards went south to develop secret weapons for the Confederacy. Other locals suspected the property developers around Frederick Law Olmsted and the Union League. Along with the orphanage, several blocks of stockyards, refreshment houses and tenements were burned down during the so-called “draft riots.” And when money was raised to rebuild the Colored Orphan Asylum, the City refused to renew the lease (it was City property).

    All of this tends to point the blame at the real-estate investors, or “the Usual Suspects,” as like to call them.

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