The 1830s, the setting for Jefferson Morley's absorbing new book Snow-Storm in August, are one of those lost "in-between" periods in the history of both Washington and the nation at large. Too late for the Revolution or even the War of 1812 and too early for the Civil War, the 1830s are a mystery to many people. Morley brings this era to life, vividly portraying the tinderbox of racial tensions that would ultimately lead to civil war.
The book's title derives from the so-called "Snow Riot" of August 1835, when a mob of angry young white laborers vandalized a restaurant at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW operated by Beverly Snow, a free black. Compared to other great civil disturbances such as the race riots of 1919 or 1968, the mayhem and destruction in 1835 were almost negligible. Nevertheless, it was a shocking event for many Washington residents, and the underlying tensions were as strong as at any time in the city's history.
It all began when Arthur Bowen, a slave belonging to Mrs. Anna Maria Thornton, got drunk one night and seemed to be contemplating murder. He came home late that evening and entered the widowed Mrs. Thornton's bedroom carrying an ax. Maria Bowen, Arthur's mother, had also been asleep in the room, and she awoke and quickly restrained her son, pushing him out of the house through a back door. Mrs. Thornton awoke as well and needless to say was terrified. She ran to get help from neighbors who returned to the house with her and heard, through the locked back door, the rantings of the inebriated young slave. "I'll have my freedom," Arther shouted. "I'll have my freedom, you hear me? I have as much right to freedom as you do." These were dangerous words for a slave to utter in Washington City in the 1830s.
Anxiety was running high in those days among slaveholders and white society in general. Just four years earlier the infamous Nat Turner slave rebellion had taken place in nearby Southampton, Virginia. Under Nat Turner's mesmerizing leadership, slaves rose up and killed some 50 or 60 whites before their insurrection was brutally repressed by the authorities. Even more troubling for many whites was the seeming flood of anti-slavery literature arriving in Southern cities on a daily basis from the staunchly abolitionist North. William Lloyd Garrison's influential weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, had begun publication in 1831 and was soon being sent south to win over hearts and minds.
It was against this backdrop that the young ax-wielding slave, Arthur Bowen, had threatened Anna Maria Thornton—the well-known and highly-respected widow of William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol. It was plain to see, or at least so The National Intelligencer thought, that "incendiary publications" from the North were responsible for the "most ferocious threats" and "tissue of jargon" that Bowen had uttered. Bowen had initially fled in the night, but he soon was arrested, and crowds of angry young laborers (known in those days as "mechanics") gathered at the city jail demanding vengeance. It was these young ruffians who attacked Beverly Snow's restaurant, smashing dishes and furniture, and later burned a black boardinghouse and several schoolhouses.
Morley's book evokes not just the tragedy of the riots themselves but the complex stories of the Snow Riot's key players, including Arthur and Maria Bowen, Anna Maria Thornton, and Reuben Crandall, a Georgetown resident with links to Northern abolitionists who was swept up in the hysteria and accused of inciting insurrection. Also brought to life in a way rarely seen is Francis Scott Key, whom we usually remember only for his authorship of the national anthem. Key was district attorney for Washington in 1835; it was he who responded to the mayhem by arresting both Crandall and Bowen. The prosperous scion of a wealthy slave-holding Maryland family, Key seems to have been torn between conflicting values. Though temperamentally disposed to ending slavery, he vigorously prosecuted both Crandall and Bowen. It would be up to the juries and ultimately the president of the United States to determine the fate of the two men.
Perhaps the most entertaining character in this entire drama is Beverly Snow himself, the namesake of the Snow Riot. Morley begins his book with a vivid and remarkably detailed portrait of the young black entrepreneur who opened one of Washington's first true restaurants in the early 1830s. Snow had been born a slave in Lynchburg, Virginia and was granted his freedom when he came of age. He had learned the culinary arts at an early age but clearly had more extraordinary skills—social dexterity, entrepreneurial drive, and ambition. He came to Washington to go into business for himself, and his Epicurean Eating House on Pennsylvania Avenue was highly successful.
Snow, of course, had no idea he'd be caught up in the fear-mongering that ensued from the Bowen incident. He fled the city after his restaurant was trashed and soon moved to Canada, where he started all over again in Toronto with another restaurant that was apparently as popular as his Washington eatery. His story seems at once tragic and hopeful—a shame that he should be treated so badly in Washington but inspiring in that he didn't let the experience ruin his ambitions. The vividly portrayed struggles of Snow, Bowen, Crandall, Mrs. Thornton (who never believed Bowen really wanted to kill her and fought to have him released from jail), and Key all make for a powerful portrait of a lost era in Washington history.
Snow-Storm in August is scheduled to be released July 3, 2012.
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