Gilsey House in the Tenderloin
A lone streetcar slowly wound up 8th Avenue in the early hours of Monday, August 13th, 1900. New York City was in the midst of a particularly oppressive heat wave. The Tenderloin District, which had seen outbreaks of violence that summer, was unusually still. There were no signs of what was to become the worst riot in New York City history since the infamous 1863 Draft Riots. Voices and cigar smoke escaped McBride’s saloon, at 41st Street and 8th Avenue. May Enoch was patiently waiting outside for her companion, Arthur Harris, when she was approached by plainclothes policeman Robert J. Thorpe.
Thorpe, thinking that Enoch was a prostitute, arrested her on charges of solicitation. Hearing Enoch’s cries, Harris flew out of the saloon and confronted Thorpe, who he didn’t recognize as a policeman. Heated words were exchanged and Thorpe told Harris to back down. Harris refused and Thorpe hit him about the head with his billy club. Harris, afraid for his life, grabbed his pen knife and stabbed Thorpe three times in the abdomen. Thorpe plummeted to the curb in agony as a panicked Harris fled.
Thorpe was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, where he succumbed to his wounds the next day. The body was taken to his sister’s house on 37th Street and 9th Avenue. A large group, including many of Thorpe’s fellow police officers, gathered outside, just a few blocks from where he was stabbed. They held vigil there, and mourners peacefully lined up to pay their respects throughout the day.
As night approached, liquor and racial slurs flowed freely about the crowd and they became agitated. Tensions in the neighborhood were at an all-time high, as it was more cramped, miserable and prone to unrest than ever. Policeman Thomas Healy, a friend of Thorpe’s, got into an altercation with Spencer Walters, who pulled out his revolver and fired off a shot in self-defense. The shot missed its mark, but immediately set off the frustrated mob, sparking the Tenderloin Race Riot, an event fictionalized in the first season of Cinemax show, The Knick.
Hundreds of frenzied rioters, including neighborhood policemen, surged through the streets of the Tenderloin, screaming bloody vengeance for Thorpe’s murder. They lashed out at any black people they saw, tearing clothes, breaking limbs and slashing faces to tatters. Innocent bystanders, men and women alike, were attacked and pelted with clubs and brickbats. Every 8th Avenue streetcar was halted and boarded, the hoard dragging their targets out into the streets and mauling them.
Just past midnight, the mob threw stones through the windows of Walcott’s saloon on 31st Street and 9th Avenue, terrorizing those inside. A squad of police reserves managed to beat the crowd back, and many retreated to area establishments to regroup. Police Chief William Devery, scrambling to maintain composure, ordered all of the Tenderloin saloons closed for the night and started to clear the streets. The rioters reluctantly retreated as heavy rain began to envelop the city.
Residents awoke Thursday morning to a violent, roaring crowd materializing on 8th Avenue and chasing down a terrified man. He barely escaped their clutches, protected by a neighborhood woman who fought the rioters off with a large knife. As the day wore on, the hot, hazy streets became a fierce battleground. Patrolman John Kennedy got into a scuffle with Lloyd Lee on the corner of 37th Street and 7th Avenue. Lee stabbed Kennedy in the jaw, to which Kennedy responded by shooting Lee in the cheek. Nearby policemen beat Lee into unconsciousness and he was taken to Bellevue in a sorry state.
Several blocks away, mourners gathered outside Thorpe’s sister’s house to pay their final respects. A hundred policemen, including a recovered Kennedy as pallbearer, escorted the body to the 23rd Street ferry, where it proceeded to Green-wood Cemetery.
When the news broke that Arthur Harris had been arrested in Washington D.C., the mob once again amassed. Rioters hollered racial slurs and threats, instigating the seething crowd. An 8th Avenue streetcar was stopped and Alexander Robinson pulled out and furiously beaten as rioters hoisted a rope up a lamppost with the intention to lynch him. Several policemen elbowed through the crowd and rescued him, but they failed to arrest anyone involved.
A couple of blocks away, another throng was rioting in front of McBride’s saloon. Vincent Street pulled a club on James Shane, provoking the ire of the mob. They were on the verge of pulling Street to pieces when a large contingent of police arrived to completely shut down 8th Avenue. Hundreds of cops spread out in the Tenderloin, arresting rioters and clubbing people into submission. With that, just as quickly as it had started, the Tenderloin Race Riot, the worst riot in New York City history since the infamous 1863 Draft Riots, was over.
Miraculously, there were no fatalities, but reports soon streamed in about rampant instances of police brutality. Chief Devery brushed these accusations off, claiming to have protected all of the residents of the Tenderloin equally. Folks recounted being accosted by policemen in the street, while others reported being clobbered in the halls of police stations. Many spoke of police officers that stood idly by as people were pummeled in front of them. A reporter heard an officer admonishing others for hitting a prisoner while they could be seen doing so.
Over the next month, charges were brought against city police officers, as well as several people arrested for inciting the Tenderloin Race Riot (some of whom were victims). Chief Devery himself was accused of instigation, but all charges against him and his fellow officers were eventually dropped. Not a single police officer was punished for any instances of police brutality during the Tenderloin Race Riot. Arthur Harris was sentenced to life in prison and spent the remainder of his days in Sing-Sing prison.
In true New York fashion, the seedy character of the Tenderloin would soon change, its name (which originally referred to police corruption) fading into disuse as its turbulent past was forgotten. The site of the future (and now demolished) Pennsylvania Station was squarely in the middle of the district, and many residences would soon be converted to businesses or demolished to make way for soaring midtown skyscrapers. Many area residents affected by the riot moved uptown to San Juan Hill (now the Lincoln Center complex) or Harlem, but they would certainly not forget the horrors of the Tenderloin Race Riot.
Next, check out 10 NYC Film Locations for the Cinemax show, The Knick. Get in touch with the author @Discovering_NYC.