March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
A Five-day Battle for New York Reveals the Birthing Pains of Our Democracy
Kevin Baker, our “In The News” columnist, has just published a historical novel called Paradise Alley . The book has itself been in the news: Among other plaudits, it has appeared on the cover of The New York Times Book Review , where Geoffrey C. Ward called it “a triumph.” We asked Kevin if he would say something about how he came to write it.
∼ The Editors
Paradise Alley is set during the fateful month of July 1863, and it is about both the Irish immigrant experience and one of the lesser-known but most critical episodes in our history, the New York City draft riots. Riots may be a mild word to describe them. As an observer said at the time, it was not so much a riot as a revolution, a five-day pitched battle in the streets for control of the city itself, with the fate of the Union hanging in the balance. It is generally considered the worst civic disturbance in our history. Before it was over, at least 119 people were dead, millions of dollars’ worth of property had been destroyed, and the city had been subjected to a display of savagery rarely equaled even on the battlefield.
The ferocity of the rioters was such that they seem nearly possessed. One mob burned the city’s Colored Orphans’ Asylum to the ground, while chanting, “Burn the niggers’ nest!” Another tortured a state militia colonel in the street for hours before finally killing him and setting the corpse on fire. Rioters beat New York’s superintendent of police, a man named John Kennedy, into unconsciousness and left him for dead; still others mutilated and lynched any African-Americans they could get their hands on. Even when infantry and artillery showed up, hastily summoned from the battlefield of Gettysburg, the mobs did not desist. Men armed largely with clubs and bricks repeatedly charged into the guns, urged on by women shrieking, “Die at home!”
Who were these people, and what could possibly have put them into such a rage? How can we recognize them as our fellow Americans? And how can it be that we have so expunged those terrible days from our national memory?
It is pretty much an axiom of the human condition that those who have been brutalized will make the best brutalizers. Sad to say—particularly for your (mostly) Irish-American correspondent—the bulk of the rioters were Irish immigrants. Many of them were people who had endured the potato famine of the 1840s, something that sounds almost quaint to our ears now, like green beer on St. Patty’s Day, but that was a very real catastrophe, killing some one and a half million people out of an Irish population of eight million. The survivors had made a harrowing passage across the Atlantic in the notorious “coffin ships” and arrived in America only to find themselves despised for their language, their customs, their poverty, and, above all, their Catholic faith.
They were leery about the war from the start. It was run, after all, mostly by Protestant, Anglo-American Republicans, many of whom had been members of the virulently anti-Catholic Nativist party just a few years before. Nor were the Irish eager to see millions of freed slaves making their way up North; clinging precariously to the very bottom rung of white American society, they had forcibly taken most of the local menial and domestic jobs away from African-Americans on their arrival in New York.
Nonetheless, the Irish had signed up by the hundreds of thousands to fight for the Union—only to be slaughtered in droves, all too often thanks to incompetent “political generals” drawn from the ranks of those same Protestant Republicans. Back in New York, their families were destitute, overwhelmed by wartime inflation and all but abandoned by a city that considered an adequate relief system to be the assignment of upper-class women to visit them in their homes and read aloud from Benjamin Franklin’s essay on economy.
The imposition of the nation’s first military draft was the last straw. Particularly galling was the provision that allowed any man to buy his way out of the war by paying $300 for a “substitute”—a sum equivalent to a full year’s wages for an average workingman. When the draft office opened on its second day, a mob led by the “Black Joke” fire company attacked the provost marshal and his men, beat them up, and set both the draft office and all the draft records on fire. The riot was on.
The natural drama of this story has always seemed obvious to me. If anything, I found a surfeit of material to work with, which is one of the great advantages of writing historical fiction. The actual events of the past, particularly the American past, are more amazing than anything one could invent.
Even the most incidental details tell a great deal about a place and a time. Residents of Civil War New York, for instance, included both the young Billy the Kid and Winston Churchill’s grandfather Leonard Jerome, then part-owner of The New York Times , who spent the riot perched behind a Catling gun in the window of his newspaper’s offices. Or there was the fact that New York’s sewers were so poorly constructed that the lightest rain would fill the gutters with butcher’s offal, and small boys could be seen sailing paper boats in pools of blood.
Then there were the pigs. They ran loose on the streets of New York at the time, disgusting well-bred visitors and residents alike. Here, though, is where our perceptions of history are liable to interpretation. It occurred to me that pics running wild must have looked entirely different to immigrants. To men and women who had been through the famine, and for whom slaughtering the treasured family pig was the last, desperate measure before facing starvation, the pigs must have made it seem as if the streets were paved with gold.
Therein lies the paradox of the immigrant experience. For all the pent-up fury of the mobs, for all the atrocities they committed, it was also their fellow immigrants who suppressed the uprising. Many of the troops who were hurried back to the city were Irish-Americans themselves, including the fabled “Fighting 69th” regiment. So too were most of New York’s police; this would be their finest hour, keeping the city in the Union by the strength of their locustwood clubs, against overwhelming odds. For all they had been subjected to, for all that they could have stooped to lawlessness and depravity, enough immigrants found America worth preserving, even if it meant fighting their friends and neighbors in the streets.
How, then, to put a human face to this epic story? Again, I was lucky in what the historical record had left me. Paradise Alley has many characters, male and female—a New York City fireman turned soldier, a hack journalist, an attendant at the Colored Orphans’ Asylum—but it is centered on a trinity of Irishwomen living in the squalid Fourth Ward, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Deirdre Dolan is one of the “lacecurtain Irish,” based closely on the countless young women who came to this country to work as domestics, aspiring to a house and a home and middle-class respectability of their own. Maddy Boyle is modeled on a real-life prostitute of the time, an Irishwoman named Mary Burke who, when the mob came after her for the great crime of having black clients, fired a pistol at them and cursed them for “Irish sons-of-bitches!” To understand what she meant is to know truly what it means to be Irish. The third woman, Ruth Dove, is also based very closely on a real person, a Mrs. William Derrickson, of Worth Street—an Irishwoman who was married to a black man. Her husband was not at home when the uprising started, and when the rioters came, she went out into the street herself to defy them and to try to save her teenage son from being lynched.
For this is the immigrant story too. It is one of monumental courage, the courage not just to survive and endure but also to embrace the new country and rise above the past. Intermarriage was not prevalent in antebellum New York, but it was not uncommon either, and while the draft riots were first and foremost a racial tragedy, there were also whites—most notably the police—who sheltered and defended African-Americans against the mobs. This was just one small measure, one cautious step forward, toward realizing the freedom and dignity that America had always promised but was so tardy in delivering.
It is already a great story. I just hope I have given it the book it deserves.