Rochester's Spirit of Hate
The vigilante justice of lynching was not confined to the South as is commonly believed, and race relations in the North, before and after the war, were not as harmonious as abolitionists and accounts of the mythical underground railroad claimed.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865
Rochester’s Spirit of Hate
“After his Rochester, New York, home was burned to the ground by incendiary on June 1, 1872, Frederick Douglass expressed his anger in his weekly New National Era: “Was it for plunder, or was it for spite? One thing I do know and that is, while Rochester is among the most liberal of Northern cities, and its people are among the most humane and highly civilized, it nevertheless has its full share of the Ku-Klux spirit . . . It is the spirit of hate, the spirit of murder.”
Race relations were often contentious in Rochester due in part to Douglass’s strong civil rights voice. By 1870, although Rochester’s African-American population was minute – just 427 out of a total population of 62,386 – racial tension, especially over employment, prompted concern by whites.
On Saturday, December 30, 1871, the [Rochester Daily] Union’s third edition published the city’s first report of the rape of an eight-year-old German girl by a black man after she had returned from a church event. News of the crime “spread like wild fire” after the child was returned to her parents. She had been brutally beaten but described her attacker to the police who began a frantic search for him.
Early Monday morning officers arrested William Edward Howard, and he was identified as the rapist by the girl at her home. Her father later “apologized to [a] reporter for not having killed the Negro when he was in the house.” Howard was not a stranger to the city’s police. In early 1871, he was arrested for voting illegally, and he served six months in jail. At the time of his arrest for rape, there was a warrant for his arrest for stealing from a local German woman.
Douglass’s son, Charles, who worked with his father on New National Era, wrote to his father on January 20: “That Howard boy was in my company in the 5th Cavalry. He came to the regiment as a [paid] substitute, and asked to be in my Co. I had to tie him up by the thumbs quite often. His offence was stealing.”
Outside the jail an agitated mob assembled . . . composed mainly of Germans, was intent on taking the law into its own hands, and the jail became Howard’s fortress. The [Rochester Daily] Union’s reportage was most descriptive: “Threats were made to lynch him and matters looked serious . . . four or five hundred people in the assemblage . . . [and cries of] “kill the nigger, give us the nigger” were loud and frequent.” [Judge R. Darwin Smith pronounced] “The sentence of the Court is that you be confined to Auburn State Prison for the period of twenty years at hard labor. The law formerly punished your crime with death.”
At the prison entrance, Howard turned toward [an angry crowd of several hundred men] and with his free hand placed his thumb on his nose and waved his fingers to mock them. Once in jail, Howard renounced his guilty plea, and professed his innocence.”
(The Spirit of Hate and Frederick Douglass, Richard H. White, Civil War History, A Journal of the Middle Period, Volume 46, Number 1, March 2000, pp. 41-47)