The Rioters Burning and Sacking the Colored Orphan Asylum

August 1, 1863, page 493

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We devote a considerable portion of our space this week to illustrations of the disgraceful and infamous Riot which took place in this city last week.  On page 493 will be found a picture of the burning of the colored orphan asylum, by which exploit the rioters, on Monday 13th, inaugurated their sway. This outrage is thus described in the Times:

The Orphan Asylum for Colored Children was visited by the mob about four o'clock. This Institution is situated on Fifth Avenue, and the building, with the grounds and gardens adjoining, extended from Forty-third to Forty-fourth Street. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands of the rioters, the majority of whom were women and children, entered the premises, and in the most excited and violent manner they ransacked and plundered the building from cellar to garret. The building was located in the most pleasant and healthy portion of the city. It was purely a charitable institution. In it there are on an average 600 or 800 homeless colored orphans. The building was a large four-story one, with two wings of three stories each.

When it became evident that the crowd designed to destroy it, a flag of truce appeared on the walk opposite, and the principals of the establishment made an appeal to the excited populace, but in vain.

Here it was that Chief-Engineer Decker showed himself one of the bravest among the brave. After the entire building had been ransacked, and every article deemed worth carrying away had been taken -- and this included even the little garments for the orphans, which were contributed by the benevolent ladies of this city -- the premises were fired on the first floor. Mr. Decker did all he could to prevent the flames from being kindled, but when he was overpowered by superior numbers, with his own hands he scattered the brands, and effectually extinguished the flames. A second attempt was made, and this time in three different parts of the house. Again he succeeded, with the aid of half a dozen of his men, in defeating the incendiaries. The mob became highly exasperated at his conduct, and threatened to take his life if he repeated the act. On the front steps of the building he stood up amidst an infuriated and half-drunken mob of two thousand, and begged of them to do nothing so disgraceful to humanity as to burn a benevolent institution, which had for its object nothing but good. He said it would be a lasting disgrace to them and to the city of New York.

These remarks seemed to have no good effect upon them, and meantime the premises were again fired -- this time in all parts of the house. Mr. Decker, with his few brave men, again extinguished the flames. This last act brought down upon him the vengeance of all who were bent on the destruction of the asylum, and but for the fact that some firemen surrounded him, and boldly said that Mr. Decker could not be taken except over their bodies, he would have been dispatched on the spot. The institution was destined to be burned, and after an hour and a half of labor on the part of the mob it was in flames in all parts. Three or  four persons were horribly bruised by the falling walls, but the names we could not ascertain. There is now scarcely one brick left upon another of the Orphan Asylum.

Another reporter of the Times says:

During the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum a young Irishman, named Paddy M'Caffrey, with four stage-drivers of the Forty-second Street line and the members of Engine Company No. 18, rescued some twenty of the orphan children who were surrounded by the mob, and in defiance of the threats of the rioters, escorted them to the Thirty-fifth Precinct Station-house. It hardly seems credible, yet it is nevertheless true, that there were dozens of men, or rather fiends, among the crowd who gathered around the poor children and cried out, "Murder the d -- d monkeys," "Wring the necks of the d -- d Lincolnites," etc.  Had it not been for the courageous conduct of the parties mentioned, there is little doubt that many, and perhaps all of those helpless children, would have been murdered in cold blood.

Supporters of emancipation, like Harper’s Weekly, reacted with horror at the atrocities committed during the draft riots. Cartoonist Thomas Nast used the image of the burning Colored Orphan Asylum, particularly in the presidential elections of 1868 and 1872, as a symbol of Democratic and Irish-Catholic treachery and racism.


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