Pro-Slavery Demonstrators Destroy Pennsylvania Hall

Pennsylvania Hall Association, History of Pennsylvania Hall, which was destroyed by a mob, on the 17th of May, 1838 (Philadelphia: Printed by Merrihew and Gunn, 1838). Graphic Arts Collection (GAX) Hamilton 1295

“It is with reluctance we come before the public with the story of our wrongs,” begins the final chapter of History of Pennsylvania Hall. “Were we to consult our own feelings, we should draw a veil over the disgraceful transactions we are about to disclose.”

Pennsylvania Hall opened its doors on Monday, May 14, 1838. The building was constructed to provide a safe place for organizations to meet and discuss the abolition of slavery. By Thursday evening, the building was demolished.

The first group to meet in the Hall was the Female Anti-Slavery Society and the next morning, a group of pro-slavery demonstrators began posting placards around Philadelphia, urging citizens to interfere, forcibly if they must, with further meetings. When the Society met again on Wednesday, demonstrators yelled and threw bricks through the windows.

On Thursday, the Society sent a letter to the mayor of Philadelphia, asking for his protection. A series of letters went back and forth all day and around sunset the mayor addressed 15,000 demonstrators who had gathered outside the Hall. He told them he would not stop them, in fact he said, “I look upon you as my police, and I trust you will abide by the laws, and keep order.” With that, the mob attacked the building and set it on fire.

The History is illustrated with three views of the Hall: a color lithograph frontispiece before the fire (top); a mezzotint by John Sartain depicting the fire (bottom); and a wood engraving of the ruins, drawn by John Archibald Woodside, Jr. and engraved by Reuben S. Gilbert (not shown here).