The Dark, Forgotten Moments in America’s History


America has plenty of skeletons in its closet. Some of them like MKULTRA or the Salem witch trials are well-known. This is a look at the violent events that almost faded into obscurity.

10. The Dorr Rebellion, 1842

The Dorr Rebellion represents a strange part of Rhode Island’s history. It was an uprising that first tried to change things using the legislative route. When this failed, both parties took to combat, but the sides never actually fought one another.

In the mid 19th century, the state of Rhode Island was still governed by its colonial charter that was almost 200 years old. It stipulated that only land-owning white men were allowed to vote.

This wasn’t an issue in the 1600s but, as the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear, more men moved to urban areas and lost the right to vote because they did not meet the prerequisites. Others were recent immigrants who also did not qualify.

In 1841, the disenfranchised united under Thomas Wilson Dorr. At first, they tried to reform the system from within. They held an extralegal convention and drafted a new constitution. In 1842, the suffrage supporters known as dorrites held their own election and chose Dorr as their new governor. This was at the same time that Samuel Ward King was serving as Governor of Rhode Island.

An ardent believer in states’ rights, President John Tyler let the issue resolve itself. Therefore, on May 17, 1842, Dorr’s men besieged the Providence arsenal. They tried to open fire, but their cannons wouldn’t work, so they just left.

In June, Dorr again rallied a rebel force but, upon hearing that the state army was much bigger, disbanded his men and went into hiding. He was captured in 1843 and charged with treason.

9. The Ludlow Massacre, 1914

Labor union disputes were once a common and often violent problem in the United States. On more than one occasion, such conflicts resulted in fatalities but few were more horrific than the Ludlow Massacre.

The event took place during a coal miners’ strike in Colorado. On one side, we had the workers who wanted more rights, better pay, and improved working conditions. On the other, there was the giant corporation that didn’t want any of these. In this particular case, it was Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) which was owned by John Rockefeller Jr.

When the strike started, the organization’s first step was to evict the coal miners as most of them lived in company towns. The colliers relocated with their whole families to tent colonies right outside the mines. In response, Colorado Fuel & Iron hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to protect strikebreakers.

The agents were nothing more than hired muscle and roamed around in armored cars with mounted machine guns nicknamed the “Death Special.” They weren’t above opening fire upon the slightest provocation which is why most tents had pits dug under them for cover.

Escalating violence between the two camps eventually brought out the National Guard. However, Colorado governor Elias Ammons sent them in at the behest of Rockefeller. The Guard was there to end the strike once and for all.

On April 20, 1914, the fight broke out. Bullets were fired and tents were burned down. It’s hard to say exactly how many fatalities there were, but the most gruesome discovery was made later. Underneath one tent there were the charred remains of two women and eleven children who hid in a pit.

8. The Battle of Athens, 1946

During the 1940s, McMinn County, Tennessee, was ruled by the corrupt political machine of State Senator Paul Cantrell and Sheriff Pat Mansfield. It lasted for a decade before World War II veterans took up arms and besieged the county jail to ensure a fair election.

There was a fee system instituted for the sheriff’s department. This meant that deputies were paid per arrest and this led to numerous abuses, many of which turned violent. Primary targets for these mistreatments were veterans returning from the war. In 1946, the ex-soldiers formed the GI Non-Partisan League to put up candidates in the election to go up against Cantrell’s political machine.

Of course, there was legitimate concern over election fraud as there had been in previous years, but veterans assured people that their votes will be counted as cast and assigned GI poll watchers at all precincts. To counter this, Mansfield brought in hundreds of additional deputies to the county seat of Athens.

The violence started when a guard prevented a farmer named Tom Gillespie from voting because he was black. The deputy then struck Gillespie with brass knuckles and shot him in the back as he tried to run away.

Things degenerated quickly. Veterans began arming themselves as Cantrell’s gang started collecting ballot boxes and closing down voting precincts. Both sides took members from the opposite camp prisoner.

The rowdiest of the GIs were known as the “fightin’ bunch” and were led by one Bill White. They surrounded the McMinn County Jail where Cantrell gathered the ballot boxes to “count” the votes. They attacked the building with dynamite and secured the ballots until they could be certified by an outside party. Mansfield and Cantrell managed to escape in an ambulance, but lost the election as veteran Knox Henry was elected sheriff.

7. The Bonus Army, 1932

On July 28, 1932, President Herbert Hoover sent in the military to deal with a group of World War I veterans who marched on Washington dubbed the Bonus Army.

Eight years prior, despite the veto of then-President Calvin Coolidge, the United States government passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act. It granted bonuses based on days served in the war, but only small amounts were paid immediately. Anything over $50 was issued as a Certificate of Service only redeemable in 1945.

This caused a problem when the Great Depression hit as people did not want to wait decades to collect their compensation. In 1932, veterans started protesting and demanding immediate cash payment of their bonuses.

It is hard to tell exactly how many vets were involved. At first, only a few hundred were rallied by a former Army sergeant named Walter Waters. But they grew into thousands and, later, into tens of thousands. It is estimated that around 20,000 veterans and their families descended on Washington at the height of the movement and settled in shanty towns.

President Herbert Hoover had no intention of giving in to their demands. At first, he sent the police to disperse them. Tensions soon turned violent and two marchers were killed. Later, he sent in the army to permanently clear away the shanty towns.

A force commanded by General Douglas MacArthur used tear gas and bayonets to evict the marchers and then destroyed their camps. Hundreds more were injured but there were no more fatalities.

Four years later, Congress passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act which granted immediate bonuses for veterans in the form of Treasury Bonds.

6. The Doctors’ Riot, 1788

One of the first incidents of civil unrest to occur in the United States following the American Revolution was the Doctors’ Riot. Despite the name, physicians were not the ones rioting, but rather the cause of the rampage due to the practice of body snatching for anatomical studies.

In New York City, the theft of corpses for dissection by so-called “resurrectionists” was considered vile by the public and authorities, but many turned a blind eye to the proceedings. Officials were content to ignore the problem as body snatchers primarily targeted a cemetery for black people outside the city, where today the African Burial Ground National Monument sits. Even when a group of freedmen petitioned the city council for help dealing with the issue, their plea went ignored.

Tensions ran high in the black community. There are different stories of what finally triggered the riot, but many involve a group of boys who saw something distressing while playing outside New York Hospital. In the most dreadful version, it is said that a surgeon waved a severed arm at the children, claiming it belonged to the recently-deceased mother of one of them. The boy told his father who gathered an angry mob and marched on the hospital.

The rioters completely ransacked the building. The next morning, the mob grew larger and ran around the city looking for the physicians who went into hiding. Eventually, it clashed with the militia which resulted in, at least, six and up to 20 fatalities.

The following year, New York City passed an act to stop body snatching and allowed executed criminals to be used for dissection. It did little to curb the practice, though, as demand greatly exceeding supply.

5. The Astor Place Riot, 1849

Staying in New York, we look at the Astor Place Riot. While it was one of the bloodiest uprisings in the city’s history with dozens dead and hundreds more injured, it is also notable for its unusual cause. Ostensibly, the riot was born out of a rivalry between two Shakespearean actors who ended up serving as proxies for a class war between New York’s elite and the working class.

Bizarrely, back then theater riots were relatively commonplace. When people wanted to protest a certain policy or actor, they would go to the show and cause a bit of a ruckus. They would throw eggs or tomatoes on stage, maybe a few chairs, then everybody would go home and life would go on.

Not this time, though. The protesters, mostly working class, supported American actor Edwin Forrest. However, his rival, British thespian William Charles Macready, was playing Macbeth at the Astor Opera House. The building itself was seen as a symbol of elitism as it had high prices and a strict dress code and was, therefore, available only to the city’s upper class.

Macready’s first performance was met with a pelting of rotten food and insults. Afterwards, Forrest supporters handed out pamphlets that said “WORKING MEN, SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE IN THIS CITY?”

For his encore performance, over 10,000 people gathered outside the Astor Opera House. Hundreds of soldiers were waiting for them and, when the clash became inevitable, they started firing into the mob.

4. The Red Summer, 1919

We recently marked a hundred years from the start of the Red Summer, a violent part of U.S. history noted for numerous race riots and lynches. In just a few months, there were dozens of instances of white-on-black violence in numerous cities and towns that claimed the lives of, at least, 165 people and injured hundreds of others.

There were multiple factors that led to the growing racial resentment. It was the beginning of the Great Migration that saw millions of black people move from the south to the developing urban areas of the northeast. Black soldiers came from serving overseas and were more determined than ever to fight against oppression. Red fear mongers presented them as the perfect medium for bringing Bolshevism to the United States.

The most notable event of the Red Summer was the Chicago riot at the end of July. It started after a black teenager named Eugene Williams was stoned and drowned after swimming in an area of Lake Michigan reserved for whites. Violence broke out after police refused to arrest the culprit. Around 40 people were killed, 500 more were injured and 1,000 black families were left homeless.

The bloodiest episode occurred in Elaine, Arkansas. Hundreds of soldiers arrived from nearby Camp Pike with orders to shoot any black person who didn’t surrender immediately. They teamed together with local vigilante groups and gunned down at least one hundred, perhaps over two hundred people.

3. The Battle of Blair Mountain, 1921

Although the Ludlow Massacre was horrific, it was not unusual for that time. Miners were determined to get better pay and working conditions and organized strikes all over the country. West Virginia went through a nine-year period dubbed the West Virginia coal wars between 1912 and 1921 that culminated in the largest uprising in United States history since the Civil War.

It started with the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912. The scenario was almost identical to that in Colorado. Instead of meeting any demands, the mine companies evicted the workers from the towns they owned and hired Baldwin-Felts agents to act as strikebreakers. They kept on provoking the miners and, eventually, the situation descended into violence.

Fast forward a few years and the same thing happened in Matewan, Mingo County, in 1920. Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield was on the side of the striking miners. As reprisal, Baldwin-Felts agents assassinated him in front of a courthouse.

This proved to be the catalyst necessary to finally mobilize the miners. Around 10,000 of them planned to march on Mingo County but had to pass through Logan County first. That was where a staunch anti-union sheriff named Don Chafin organized a force of 3,000 state police, deputies, and militia to fight the miners.

After trading a few shots, the heavy fighting started on August 31, 1921, and lasted for three days. After a million fired shots and up to 100 fatalities, President Warren Harding sent in the army and most miners surrendered or scattered home.

2. The Orange Riots, 1871

Sectarianism has frequently been a source of dissent and violence throughout the history of the United States. In 1871, a conflict between Irish Protestants and Catholics escalated into a bloody brawl on the streets of New York City that killed 60 people and injured hundreds more.

The Orange Order is a Protestant organization established in Northern Ireland. Perhaps its most well-known tradition is the Orange walk, a yearly parade which celebrates “The Twelfth.” The Orangemen, as they are known, take to the streets to mark the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. Even in modern times, the march is not always well-received, especially when it ventures into neighborhoods with a heavy Catholic presence.

Given the large number of Irish immigrants to America, new lodges of the order eventually opened across the pond. On July 12, 1870, the Orangemen went on their walk. Predictably, they fought with the Irish Catholics and, even with police interference, eight people died in the conflict.

The following year, the Orange Order planned to march again. Initially, their request was denied, but eventually approved by New York Governor John T. Hoffman with the promise of a National Guard escort to keep the peace.

Thousands of people walked, protected by 1,500 policemen and guardsmen. Violence erupted even faster than the previous year. As the mob pelted the marchers with stones and bottles, the Guard opened fire into the crowd. With scores dead and hundreds injured, the event became known as the “Slaughter on Eighth Avenue.”

1. The California Indian Catastrophe

“The interest of the white man demands their extinction.” Those were the words of John Weller a few years before he became the fifth Governor of California in 1858. By then, the state had already embarked on a concentrated effort to eliminate California’s indigenous people which saw its Indian population dwindle from 150,000 to 30,000 in less than three decades.

In 1850, the state legislature, more or less, removed any kind of legal protection from anyone with “one-half of Indian blood” or more. They were not allowed to vote, serve as jurors or attorneys, or give evidence in a trial involving whites. A decade later, the indenturing of Indians became legal.

At its worst, the government sponsored dozens of militia expeditions that committed massacres. The lack of any repercussions inspired vigilantes to kill thousands more. It is estimated that up to 16,000 people were murdered in cold blood while the rest died from disease, starvation, and the lack of any kind of social services.

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