Consider the so-called Panic of 1837, when an estimated one-third of factory workers lost their jobs. With food prices rising – and without any sustained government assistance – Americans took to the streets to demanded “bread, meat, rent, and fuel,” as protesters chanted. And when their pleas fell on deaf ears, they rioted.
In New York, a mob raided the store of a wealthy flour merchant. “Barrels of flour were tumbled into the street from the doors, and thrown in rapid succession from the windows,” one newspaper reported. Women filled their aprons with flour, “like the crones who strip the dead in battle,” the outraged paper added.
Twenty years later, amid the next great downturn, 15,000 unemployed protesters gathered in Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park, marched to Wall Street, and shouted, “We want work” as they paraded around the Stock Exchange. A mob would later occupy City Hall, until US marines forced them out.
But the greatest violence occurred on America’s industrial frontier. In Pittsburgh, for example, militiamen fired on crowds that had seized railroad switches during an 1877 strike. Twenty people were killed; in response, mobs burned over 100 locomotives and 2,000 railroad cars. Over the next quarter-century, the National Guard and the regular US Army were called out over 500 times to quell labor disputes.