What was the Brotherhood of Thieves Riot?

The Brotherhood of Thieves Riot refers to riots that occurred in the streets of Nantucket in the summer of 1842. The unusual sign that hangs over The Brotherhood restaurant on Broad Street serves as a reminder. Central to the sign is a man with horns sprouting from his head. A closer look reveals that the man is wearing a clerical collar. Thus, the image is of a minister portrayed as the Devil, a provocative message then and now. In the minister’s right hand is an enslaved mother and child; in his left hand is a sack of money. The background shows Nantucket with a windmill, skyline, and ship.

Photo of sign on front of door, Brotherhood of Thieves.
P16905. Photo of sign on front of door, Brotherhood of Thieves.

The sign reminds us of a time when the question of the abolition of slavery dominated national politics. Closer to home, a more divisive issue over race split Nantucket, one that was incendiary enough to cause a mob to take to the streets.

The controversy began in 1839 when 17-year old Eunice Ross passed the required entrance examination for admission to the brand-new Nantucket High School. Her admission was rejected by the school committee on account of her race. At the time, the island’s black students were confined to a one-room schoolhouse on York Street whose curriculum Ross had outgrown.

The school committee stood steadfast against Ross’s admission and the issue was brought before a town meeting in 1840 by Edward M. Gardner who moved to “see if the Town will instruct the School Committee to permit coloured children to enter all or any public schools.” His motion failed and school segregation continued, although not without a lot of activism on the part of the abolitionists.

Two years later, in February 1842, black leaders from New Guinea, the area of town now known as Five Corners, met at Zion’s Church to discuss the town’s continued refusal to integrate the schools. They wrote an Address to the School Committee and Other Inhabitants of the Town of Nantucket, referring to themselves as “an injured portion of the community,” invoking the Constitution as a basis for their civil rights. Their address elicited no response from town officials.

Because their address was published both on and off island, the issue about Nantucket’s school segregation began to the garner the notice of nationally-known abolitionists.

It was against this backdrop that the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society Convention came to town in August 1842. The group was led by William Lloyd Garrison, who gave the keynote address talking about his familiar theme that the Constitution was a “Covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell.” C. Lenox Remond told the audience that he believed that rifles would be necessary to end slavery in the United States. These were inflammatory issues.

However, it was Reverend Stephen S. Foster’s “Brotherhood of Thieves” speech that was blamed for inciting the riots. Foster singled out the clergy as “pimps of Satan” and the churches as part of a brotherhood complicit in maintaining slavery. He singled out specific churches on Nantucket – the Methodists, Episcopalians and Baptists.

The following day an unruly mob gathered outside the Atheneum. The men claimed they were there to defend the local clergy. As the abolitionists continued their discussion inside, the situation outside deteriorated, but the mob eventually dispersed. The next evening, however, the mob was larger and some men pushed their way into the building shouting at the abolitionists. Those outside hurled rotten eggs and other projectiles into the hall hitting one woman with a brick.

The trustees of the Atheneum, fearing damage to their building, told the abolitionists they would have to find another meeting place. Over the course of the next few days, the abolitionists moved to two different buildings, but were followed by the angry mob. The abolitionists decided it was wise to adjourn and the off-island speakers departed.

Forty years later, a different story emerged from a series of letters to the editor. Three eyewitnesses took issue with the conventional view that the Brotherhood of Thieves speech was to blame. They claimed that the riots had been premeditated well in advance. They claimed that Foster’s inflammatory speech had conveniently provided them with an excuse to men who had no interest in protecting the clergy, but whose real intent was to keep Eunice Ross and other black children from integrating the school system. The mob action, one wrote, “grew out of the question of admitting a girl of African descent to the High School.”

Note: The schools were integrated in 1846 after years of rancorous debate and resulted in a change in state law ensuring “any child” equal access to the public schools in the Commonwealth.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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