Boston, MA, opened one of the first professional fire departments in 1837 - and it was all because of a riot. These facts about the Broad Street Riot prove just how deep bigotry against Irish immigrants ran in Yankee Boston. When a volunteer fire company came across an Irish funeral procession on June 11, 1837, firefighters rang the alarm and called out all the fire companies in the city to battle the Irish.
Ironically, it wasn't the first time Yankees and Irish Catholics fought about a funeral. A few years earlier, the Yankees tried to ban the Irish from burying their dead anywhere near Boston, declaring that their funeral processions carried disease. And when a Protestant mob burned down an Irish Catholic convent, the Yankee firefighters refused to put out the blaze. Tensions mounted between the two groups until they spilled over in 1837.
Although the Broad Street Riot allegedly ended without any loss of life, relations only got worse between the two groups after the Irish famine brought a wave of immigrants from Ireland to the United States in the 1840s.
On Sunday, June 11, 1837, the volunteer firefighters of Boston's Engine Company 20 battled a fire in Roxbury before returning to their neighborhood on East Street, in an Irish residential area. Many of the firemen visited their local pub, even though bars weren't legally allowed to sell alcohol on Sundays at the time.
As the firemen returned to the engine house, they ran into an Irish funeral procession. The encounter might have ended without violence if not for George Fay, a 19-year-old firefighter who had reportedly "lingered longer than his comrades over his cups." Fay insulted or shoved the Irishmen, triggering a fistfight that quickly devolved into a riot.
When violence broke out between the firefighters and the mourners, the outnumbered firefighters retreated into their engine house. The conflict might have ended there, as the funeral procession continued toward the cemetery. But Third Foreman W.W. Miller decided that instead of barring the door to prevent more violence, he would escalate the conflict.
Miller quickly rang an emergency alarm that alerted every fire company in the city, and instead of staying in the engine house, Miller ordered the firemen to roll out their wagon to attack.
One of the firefighters even ran to a nearby engine company, shouting, "The Irish have risen upon us and are going to kill us!"
After the initial confrontation near the engine house, the funeral procession continued on its way to the Bunker Hill Cemetery. The 500 mourners did not realize the firefighters were in pursuit, waiting for an opportunity to strike. Before the coordinated attack, one of the firefighters shouted, "Let the Paddies go ahead, and then we'll start!"
As the funeral procession continued, the mourners ran into a second engine company that had been alerted by W.W. Miller's citywide alarm claiming the Irish were uprising. A third engine company steered its horse-drawn engine into the funeral procession, hitting women and children.
With a horse-drawn fire wagon knocking down women and children, the Irish began to defend themselves. Soon the firefighters were surrounded by hundreds of people, many armed with sticks, knives, and bricks. Some mourners fled to safety, while others snatched up anything they could find to hurl at the fire wagons.
The clash between hundreds of mourners and dozens of firefighters attracted attention in the neighborhood, as both Irish and Yankees came to defend their side, rapidly increasing the size of the mob.
At least nine engine companies responded to W.W. Miller's alarm and took part in the melee. Many of them had no idea the firefighters of Engine Company 20 had interrupted a funeral procession.