Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Snow Riot of 1835

By Michelle Shocklee

As the Bible says in Ecclesiastes 1:9, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (NIV) Sadly, that wisdom-filled statement is true when it comes to racial division, particularly in the United States. As I write this blog post, our country is experiencing violence, riots, protests, and hatred aimed at police following the senseless and horrific murder of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, by a police officer. Like many of you, I'm praying for peace and protection of everyone involved, for Mr. Floyd's family, and for our nation.

Twenty-five years before the Civil War erupted, the capital city of Washington DC experienced riots of its own. In this case, it was white residents who rampaged through the city of approximately 20,000, terrorizing black residents. The difference between this riot and the ones taking place today, however, is they were not based on an actual crime. The basis for the Snow Riot of 1835, Washington's first race riot, was fear, rumor, and hatred.

A little back story.
Washington DC in the 1830s

Many free blacks lived in Washington DC, with some owning businesses, including Beverly Snow.

Mr. Snow was born a slave around 1799 in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was owned by Captain William Norvell. Norvell's will left Snow to his daughter with the provision that Snow would be freed at age thirty. Until then, he was allowed to run a small oyster house and keep some of the profits. In 1829, Snow received his freedom papers, and he and his wife moved to the District of Columbia, Washington City, escaping the severe restrictions on freed blacks in Virginia. Snow set himself apart as he was educated, wealthy, and an entrepreneur. Once in Washington, he opened an oyster restaurant, the Epicurean Eating House, which became very popular. This popularity lead to resentment from the pro-slavery white population.

Numerous factors left the city ripe for an outbreak of violence:

  • The Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia in August 1831 was still fresh in the minds of Washington DC residents. 
  • There was heightened tension in the city between abolitionists and people defending slavery.
  • The Nation's first labor strike by federal employees began. The strike is known as the Washington Navy Yard Strike. 175 white workers went on strike and through intimidation forced black workers to join them.
Like a match to a powder keg, it only took one drunken man and one unfounded rumor to set the whole city aflame--figuratively and literally. 

Late on the night of August 4, 1835, 18-year old Arthur Bowen, a slave owned by Mrs. Anna Maria Thornton, arrived home after a night of drinking and political discussions with free blacks. According to Arthur (and later Anna herself), he found an ax lying on the basement steps and carried it inside. For unknown reasons (he was quite drunk), he went to the bedroom of his mistress where she, his mother, and Anna's elderly mother slept. Anna woke to find him standing in the doorway with the ax. She was able to get past him and went to the neighbors for help. By her own account, Arthur had not threatened her, and by the time she returned with a male neighbor, Arthur's mother had disarmed him and sent him away. However, word of the incident quickly spread, and Arthur was arrested on August 8. 
Epicurean Eating House owned by Beverly Snow
With the city in an uproar over the supposed attempted murder of a prominent white woman by a black man, slavery defenders pounced on it as an opportunity to rid themselves of anyone opposing them. On August 10, Reuben Crandall, a white physician, Quaker, and abolitionist, was arrested on charges of "seditious libel and inciting slaves and free blacks to revolt." Crandall was nearly killed by the angry mob and was only saved when the mayor called for the milita. The mob wanted Crandall hanged, but the mayor refused and a trial date was set. Denied a lynching, the mob turned their anger onto the blacks in the city, free and slave. 

Beverly Snow got caught up in the storm. It was rumored that he had made disparaging remarks about the wives of the striking naval yard men, and they sought to make him pay. When Snow heard the mob was coming for him, he and his wife made their escape, eventually settling in Toronto, Canada. His restaurant was completely destroyed, but not before the rioters drank all his whiskey and champagne. 

Like a terrible tidal wave, the rioters moved on. Ostensibly looking for abolitionist literature, they attacked and burned homes, businesses, and churches--all owned or associated with free black citizens. They vandalized all-black schoolhouses, destroying completely those operated by Mary Wormley and John F. Cooke, a black man who escaped to Pennsylvania on a horse provided by a white supporter. The rioting lasted a week, and it took an act by President Andrew Jackson to bring the violence to an end. The riot became known as the Snow Riot because it was Beverly Snow's restaurant that was first attacked.

When things finally settled down, the black community as a whole would continue to suffer. There was no compensation given for the destruction of their homes and property. Black Codes, restrictive legislation limiting the rights of free blacks in the city, became increasingly harsh.

A question that continues to resound in my heart and mind is, why haven't we learned from history that violence and hatred never win?

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at or visit her Amazon page

Releasing 9.8.20; Available for PREORDER!

Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena’s banker father has retreated into the bottle, her sister is married to a lazy charlatan and gambler, and Rena is an unemployed newspaper reporter. Eager for any writing job, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena.

As Frankie recounts her life as a slave, Rena is horrified to learn of all the older woman has endured—especially because Rena’s ancestors owned slaves. While Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions about slavery, it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. But will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?


  1. Thanks for posting. Too bad the accomplishments of Mr. Snow got overrun by the violence.

    1. Yes, very sad for Mr. Snow. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Thanks for sharing. God created us to all be different. Why can we not accept those differences and learn to live and work together?

    1. You're so right, Betti! The world would be rather boring if we all looked, acted, spoke, etc. the same. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Thank you for sharing this part of history with us.

  4. Thank you for sharing this bit of history Michelle. I just heard of the Snow riot and have been looking at several sites to learn more. There seems to be some inconsistencies between these sites as to the exact trigger for this riot (Bowen's drunken actions or Snow's alleged remarks of the mechanic's wives), but I think your presentation makes it more clear that it was very likely multi-layered with several factors coming together for the perfect storm. Your synopsis of the Bowen event is also the 1st I've seen that mentions Mrs. Thornton had 2 other people sleeping in her room besides herself, which includes his own mother. Though we may never know the actual reason for Bowen entering the bedroom, I would speculate on some different very logical ideas:
    * it might only have been that he was seeking to speak to his mother
    * it was simply a drunken mistake in getting mixed up on which bedroom was his
    * or his drunkeness lifting inhibitions and desiring to challenge Mrs. Thornton on his status as a slave (he had been out that night engaged in political discourse with freed black men).

    His true motivations are likely lost to history because of the simple fact that everyone assumed of Bowen the worst possible motive for entering Mrs. Thornton's bed chamber while carrying an ax. Wasn't there a recent incident (or rumor) prior to this event that would lead people down that path of thought? (Several escaped slaves moving north and having killed 50 white people, with axes? Whether true or not, it seems that it would have been easy for people to assume Bowen's motives were on the murder of his master.)

    1. Thank you for sharing your insights. I continue to pray for peace, especially as the Floyd trial begins.
      Blessings to you and yours,