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Rabbi Jacob Joseph’s funeral procession, 1902Public Domain/Wikipedia
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The Lower East Side Riot

More than a century ago, police officers beat a crowd of Jewish mourners during a rabbi’s funeral procession—an event the Yiddish newspapers described as resembling a Russian pogrom

Allan Levine
June 21, 2021
Public Domain/Wikipedia
Rabbi Jacob Joseph's funeral procession, 1902Public Domain/Wikipedia

The recent conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd put police brutality—particularly against minorities—back in the headlines. According to The Washington Post, since 2015 there have been more than 5,000 fatal shootings by on-duty police officers. And as the Post points out, Black Americans, who “account for less than 13% of the U.S. population … are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans.” A disproportionate number of Hispanic Americans are also killed by the police.

This is not a new phenomenon. Visible minorities have long been a target of police abuse, and nowhere more so than in New York City. More than 100 years ago, the city, with its towering skyscrapers, symbolized human progress and inventiveness. Yet in such areas as the congested Lower East Side, hundreds of thousands of German, Irish, Polish and, above all, Eastern European Jewish immigrants resided in crowded tenement housing and lived in unsanitary conditions amid poverty and crime. Abraham Cahan, the noted Jewish socialist newspaper editor and writer, depicted it as “the most densely populated spot on the face of the earth—a seething human sea fed by streams, streamlets, and rills of immigration flowing from all the Yiddish-speaking centers of Europe.”

The challenging task of maintaining order and combatting the crime and vice in the Lower East Side and elsewhere fell to the members of the New York City Police Department. For decades, the police were a law unto themselves, meting out justice as they saw fit, frequently with a wooden club, and giving suspects the so-called “third degree”; alleged perpetrators were brutally beaten and even tortured until they confessed to crimes they might or might not have committed. Police corruption and graft were widespread, as several official inquires held over the years determined.

Though many New York police officers in the early 20th century were of Irish Catholic descent, they still shared the anti-immigrant—at least when it came to Italians and other Southern Europeans—and antisemitic prejudices of the era. (Needless to say, then and later, Black New Yorkers were subjected to daily police harassment and were regular victims of injustice from police and the courts.) Like other New York residents, the police regarded the Lower East Side Jews—who did not speak English, ate strange foods, and practiced Byzantine religious customs—as unwanted “foreigners.” They were barely tolerated. Jews were often and without a cause roughed up on the streets by police officers; peddlers were extorted; and striking garment workers were assaulted. Compelled to investigate the harsh treatment of Jewish workers on the picket line in 1894, Inspector Alexander “Clubber” Williams—an officer with a well-deserved reputation for brutality—ignored them, claiming, “I shall not believe a Jew under oath.” The Jewish newcomers rightly feared the NYPD and considered police officers no better than the cruel Cossacks and czarist secret police officers that they had confronted in the shtetlach of the Russian Pale of Settlement.

Apart from the New York police, Jews equally faced taunting and received beatings from young thugs. In June 1904, for instance, Jews from the Lower East Side who had relocated to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, were “savagely attacked,” as The New York Times put it, by the local Rainmakers Gang, which invaded the Jewish neighborhood, terrorizing men, women, and children with bricks, stones, and sticks until they fled when the police finally arrived.

Less severe, but more consequential, as it turned out, the young workers at R. Hoe and Company, a mammoth printing press factory located on Grand Street in the heart of the Lower East Side, amused themselves during their lunch break by tormenting older Jewish men they encountered. The workers pulled the men’s beards and pushed them around, scaring many of them. Complaints were lodged with the company’s management, yet, according to Jewish community leaders, nothing changed, and “the insults and indignities continued.”

The confluence of the R. Hoe and Company’s indifference to their employees’ bullying and the NYPD’s usual abusive actions and bigotry toward Lower East Side Jews led to one of the worst riots in the history of Jews in New York, on July 30, 1902.

The prelude to the riot began two days earlier with the death of 62-year-old Jacob Joseph, the one-time chief rabbi of the Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations of New York City, which incorporated 18 East Side synagogues. In 1888, Joseph had been recruited by the newly formed association from his home in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, to serve as its religious leader. His main task was to institute regulations for kosher butchers and slaughterhouses in a business, which up to that point had been rife with infighting, collusion, and price gouging (objectionable practices that led to a boycott in May 1902, which forced kosher butchers to drop their prices).

The job proved challenging, to say the least. “The fancy title of chief rabbi,” wrote historian Moses Rischin, “was powerless to conceal the sterility of Joseph’s role.” He was unable to heal the sharp divisions in the community, and by 1895, his tenure had ended. He remained in New York with his family and earned a living as a mashgiach, or kosher supervisor.

Though the unity the rabbi sought to engender among the Orthodox had eluded him while he was still alive, his death, ironically, triggered a community-wide emotional outpouring of grief. Now, or so it seemed, the vast majority of religious Jews on the Lower East Side and beyond wanted to pay their respects.

Joseph’s funeral was set for Wednesday morning on July 30. The evening before, a member of the group arranging the funeral visited police headquarters. This individual spoke with Sgt. John Brady and signed the requisite permit for a procession from Joseph’s home on Henry Street through the Lower East Side to Grand Street to the ferry dock. The burial was to be at Union Field Cemetery in Brooklyn. It was estimated that at least 20,000 mourners would take part, and Brady agreed to dispatch 25 to 30 officers for crowd and traffic control. Several hours later, an unidentified journalist from a Yiddish newspaper contacted the police with new information that likely 50,000 or more people would be present for the funeral and procession. The police were urged to send more men to assist. Brady might not have received this message; in any event, it was ignored. Other ranking officers in the area, including Inspector Adam Cross and (possibly) Capt. William Thompson, head of the Seventh Precinct based on the Lower East Side, were not notified about the funeral.

The journalist’s prediction proved correct. Rabbi Joseph’s funeral “surpassed anything the East Side had ever witnessed,” The Evening Post reported. A crowd estimated at 50,000 to as many as 100,000 people showed up on the morning of July 30 near the rabbi’s home on Henry Street. They stood patiently, though crammed together, as the temperature reached nearly 80 degrees Fahrenheit. About 30 police officers were present.

A massive throng of mourners chanting psalms “in monotonous wailing tones,” as the Post described it, as well as curious spectators packed Henry Street and the adjacent streets as the pine casket was carried out of Joseph’s home. Close to 200 horse-pulled carriages were lined up to transport members of the family and visiting religious dignitaries. “In this, there was nothing of rowdyism,” added the Post, “nothing of curiosity, simply an overmastering eagerness to be near the vehicle within which the body of the rabbi lay.”

As the procession began, the police sergeant in charge decided that the street had to be cleared. The order was given, but many of the older Jewish men and others who did not understand English failed to move fast enough. The officers advanced into the crowd and reacted aggressively as was their practice.

The Evening Post described the chaos of what happened like this:

Men were flung down, women were dragged out by the arms and shoulders, and pushed headlong down the street. But the crowd fell back slowly and stubbornly. One might have thought the police were putting down a riot from the way they handled many of the unfortunate men and women, who chanced to be in front … In several instances those who were being battered back into the line by repeated pushings showed belligerent spirit, whereupon they were dragged out and sent stumbling off. It was somewhat difficult to reconcile this scene with the fact that these people had gathered there to attend a funeral, to show their veneration for a dead rabbi …

This one-sided altercation was merely the start of what would later be referred to as the “East Side riot.” By about 1 p.m., the procession reached the R. Hoe and Company factory near the intersection of Grand and Sheriff Streets. Many of the workers returning from their lunch break stood by the open windows above and began loudly jeering the mourners standing below them. As the hearse passed, some of the workers escalated their boorish behavior by pouring buckets of water on the mourners. This was followed by a hail of bundles of paper soaked in oil, small pieces of iron, blocks of wood, and other objects.

The mourners and others on the street were naturally furious at such rough treatment. Led by City Marshal Albert Levine, a small group entered the factory and spoke with company representatives. The mourners were angry but polite. The managers promised Levine that they would look into the matter. (On July 31, The New York Times reported that the company’s officials had insulted Levine and that one of them had pulled out a pistol and ordered him and the other mourners to leave. But this account was mistaken, according to the findings of a subsequent investigation.)

Minutes later, a second group of mourners who were more agitated walked into the building shouting in Yiddish. They were followed by many more men eager to defend themselves against the attacks from the upper floor. Hoe employees confronted this mini mob and were able to push them back outside behind an iron gate. From one of the open windows, Hoe workers, possibly following orders from their supervisors, used fire hoses to spray the mourners on the street. At this point, the Hoe workers and the mourners both began throwing stones and broken bricks at each other. The workers also flung large iron bolts and nuts at the Jews. Nearly every window on the first and second floors of the factory was broken.

By this time, another 200 police officers, under the command of Inspector Adam Cross, showed up with their clubs at the ready. Without determining what had transpired between the mourners and the workers, the police, on Cross’s orders, brazenly and brutally attacked the Lower East Side Jews. As the Times noted of this action, the police “slash[ed] this way and that with their sticks, shouting as they waded through the dense gathering, and shoving roughly against men and women alike, they soon got possession of the street.” Several mourners who tried to flee were clubbed, and two of the 11 who were arrested claimed they were choked inside a patrol wagon. Hundreds in the funeral procession were injured, and many required medical attention. Only one of the Hoe employees, who had aimed a fire hose at a patrolman, was arrested and charged.

In the aftermath, there was a lot of finger-pointing. Representatives of R. Hoe and Company blamed the mourners for being “combative and disorderly.” So, too, did Cross, who without evidence stated—absurdly, in hindsight—that the attack on the Hoe factory had been “prearranged” as retaliation for previous bullying some Jews had received at the hands of the company’s workers. And he said the mourners had brought buckets of stones and bricks with them to use in the attack. (New York Police Commissioner John Partridge was not impressed with Cross’s actions or his comments and transferred him to a precinct in the Bronx.)

The mourners and several Yiddish newspaper editors described the riot as akin to a Russian pogrom. The Times, no fan of the NYPD, deemed that “it appears that the police, or a considerable proportion of them, regard the Jews of the lower east side [sic] not as claimants for protection but as fit objects of persecution.” A group of Jewish professionals led by Dr. Julius Halpern, along with support from the Educational Alliance, which assisted Jewish immigrants, organized the East Side Vigilance Committee to investigate the riot and determine what legal action could be taken.

Halpern and his associates also lobbied New York Mayor Seth Low to appoint a committee to examine the events of July 30. Low, who had received much support from Lower East Side Jews, was happy to comply. The four-man committee—which included two Jewish members, prominent lawyers Louis Marshall and Nathan Bijur—conducted six weeks of public hearings and issued its report in mid-September. The committee determined that the primary reasons for the riot were the actions of the Hoe employees, which was compounded by the “roughness of language and violence of manner” displayed by the police on the scene. Adding that “many complaints have also been laid before us that the police have for a long time been insulting and brutal in their treatment of the Jews of the lower [sic] East Side … We find that instances of uncivil and even rough treatment toward the people of this district by individual policemen are inexcusably common.”

Whether the riot was the result of virulent Irish antisemitism on the part of the Hoe workers and the police, as some Jewish historians have suggested over the years, however, is another matter. In a 2007 reassessment of the riot, historian Edward T. O’Donnell argued that though antisemitic attitudes among New York’s Irish, including some members of the NYPD, “flourished,” the violence of July 30 was not ultimately caused by such sentiments (most of the Hoe workers implicated were German, not Irish). He suggests that the zealousness exhibited by the police in quashing the riot and in their vicious assault of the crowd was the consequence of “common police practices” of the time—though, arguably, also fed by the NYPD’s general xenophobic disdain of certain unwelcome immigrant groups.

In the end, a few of the mourners were fined, but the R. Hoe and Company workers and the police escaped any real punishment for their actions. Few lessons were learned by the NYPD from the turbulent events surrounding Rabbi Jacob Joseph’s funeral. In fact, a century later, the incident is scarcely remembered at all.

Historian and writer Allan Levine’s most recent book is Details Are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder.