What local historians have called the “Meriden riot of 1837” was a tea party compared with the disorder which wracked the city Saturday. [Members of the Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan rallied at City Hall on March 21, 1981, under escort by state police, and Meriden police in full riot gear. — Ed.] But the two disturbances, both marked by racial overtones, overlapped in principle, in particulars, and even in place.
In 1837, as in 1981, Meriden was pretty much a status quo town. The existence of Negro slavery disturbed few of its citizens. Only a handful of them recognized slavery as the iniquity it was and as the great national issue it would become. The Civil War was still almost 25 years in the future.
In Meriden in 1837 an Anti Slavery Society had only recently been formed. When it was proposed to bring a Mr. Ludlow [an abolitionist minister from New York City] to lecture on the evils of slavery in what is now the Center Congregational Church, many citizens were adamantly opposed. But the sponsors, including Fenner Bush and Julius Pratt, partners in the ivory comb manufacture, insisted that the lecture proceed.
Dr. C.H.W. Davis in his “History of Wallingford and Meriden” noted that there was a strong feeling in Meriden against the Abolitionists. They were, he said, for the most part “men of property and influence. They thought that slavery was a monstrous sin. If others doubted it, so much more they needed enlightenment.”
Among those who did doubt it and who opposed the scheduled lecture was James S. Brooks, a prominent citizen, after whom Brooks Street is named. He sought to prevent the holding of the lecture, but when the sponsors refused to yield, those who opposed the speech organized to disrupt it with the help of local sympathizers and other brought in from Wallingford, Southington and Berlin.
The stage having been set, the confrontation was not long in coming. In those days, the basement of the church was used for public meetings, it being the largest room available in the town. The room was well filled when Ludlow began his talk, but there were rumors of trouble brewing outside. The door of the meeting room was locked and benches were placed against it. The crowd outside threw stones against the door to no effect. Then two men named Thompson, according to historian Davis, carried a log from the woodpile of R.H. Beckley at the tavern where the Mobil gas station now stands [in 1981; now it is part of the Stop & Shop property] and with the log they battered down the door.
Thus exposed, the lecture audience was spattered with rotten eggs. Several women fainted. Luther Beckley, sexton of the church, who was present only as a spectator, was accosted by a man whom historian Davis identifies only as “J.Y.” The man drew a knife; he and Beckley struggled, but Beckley finally broke free.
The crowd waited outside, and when persons who attended the lecture emerged, they were pelted with eggs and stones. Among the targets were Harlow Isbell, a strong anti-slavery man, Stephen Seymour, and Zena K. Murdock. Blows were struck and general confusion prevailed. Several men were arrested, among them the Thompson brothers, who were fined $50 and imprisoned for six months.
It took a long time for feelings within the community to quiet down. On Feb. 24, 1838, Fenner Bush offered a resolution at a church meeting in support of the Rev. Mr. Granger, who had allowed the use of the church for the meeting.
The resolution was referred to the Consociation of Congregational Churches, which inquired into the “riot” and issued a finding that the pastor “exercised his right to plead a case against which the hand of violence had been raised. We consider that he would have been an unfaithful watchman if he had not lifted up his voice in defense of a privilege which is dearer than life itself.” It upheld the pastor’s right to speak upon the subject of slavery from the pulpit and adjured members of the congregation.
“We entreat you, brethren, remember to be kind and courteous, forbearing one another and forgiving one another, if any man have a ground against any. Forget not your relations to Christ, to one another, and to your Minister.”
In the wake of the Consociation’s judgment, the Rev. Mr. Granger preached a sermon which, he said, “had been occasioned by a humiliating scene — a scene that will be incorporated into the future history of our hitherto quiet and peaceable town. ...”
But this quiet and peaceable town flared into violence again Saturday [March 21, 1981], in a more dramatic replay of the “riot of 1837.”
The latest disturbance echoed some of the issues it inherited from the earlier confrontation.
A particular irony invests the latest disturbance. About five years ago, when the city was caught up in the jubilation of the nation’s Bicentennial, a wag erected a neat sign on the brick building at 489 Broad St., opposite the Center Church.
The sign, which is still in place [in 1981], reads:
“On this spot July 4, 1776, not a damn thing happened.”
It may well be that nothing happened on that spot on July 4, 1776, but a lot has happened since.