Narrative of the Riots at Alton
Edward Beecher
Alton: G. Holton, 1838


  Let us proceed to the closing scene. Fully to understand the course of events, the division made of the community, in giving an account of the meeting, should be borne in mind; and to that division another class should now be added: the magistrates of the city.

  Mr. Lovejoy having decided on his course, the friends of law and order made their arrangements for the defense of his press. Personal violence or an attempt to murder him was not expected. It was supposed that the main effort, if any were made, would be to destroy the press as it was landed. We all felt that if once deposited in Godfrey & Gilman's store it would be safe. Great difficulty was encountered in obtaining a special constable to direct the friends of law in case of an attack, under the authority of the mayor. The mayor himself did not refuse to act; but as it might be inconvenient to find him when most needed, it was considered important to have one of the supporters of the press appointed as special constable on any sudden emergency. Though the mayor acceded to the proposal, it was from time to time delayed, and finally it was not carried into effect. The mayor, however, still consented to direct their movement when called upon.

  On Monday, Mr. W. S. Gilman was informed that the press was at St. Louis on board a boat which would probably arrive at Alton about evening. He immediately sent an express to the captain of the boat requesting him to delay the hour of his arrival until three o'clock at night, in order to avoid an affray with the rioters. This movement was successful. The spies of the mob watched for the arrival of boats for some time, but late in the evening seemed to give up the expectation of any arrival that night, and retired.

  Meantime the supporters of the press met at Mr. Gilman's store to the number of thirty or more; and, as before stated, organized themselves into a volunteer company according to law, and spent the night in the store. At the appointed hour the boat arrived, and the press was safely landed; the mayor being present. All arrangements had been made with such judgment, and the men were stationed at such commanding points, that an attack would have been vain. But it was not made. A horn was indeed sounded, but no one came.

  Shortly after the hour fixed on for the landing of the boat, Mr. Lovejoy arose and called me to go with him to see what was the result. The moon had set and it was still dark, but day was near; and here and there a light was glimmering from the window of some sickroom or of some early riser. The streets were empty and silent, and the sounds of our feet echoed from the walls as we passed along. Little did he dream, at that hour, of the contest which the next night would witness: that these same streets would echo with the shouts of an infuriate mob, and be stained with his own heart's blood!

  We found the boat there and the press in the warehouse; aided in raising it to the third story. We were all rejoiced that no conflict had ensued and that the press was safe; and all felt that the crisis was over. We were sure that the store could not be carried by storm by so few men as had ever yet acted in a mob; and though the majority of the citizens would not aid to defend the press we had no fear that they would aid in an attack. So deep was this feeling that it was thought that a small number was sufficient to guard the press afterward; and it was agreed that the company should be divided into sections of six, and take turns on successive nights. As they had been up all night, Mr. Lovejoy and myself offered to take charge of the press till morning; and they retired.

  The morning soon began to dawn; and that morning I shall never forget. Who that has stood on the banks of the mighty stream that then rolled before me can forget the emotions of sublimity that filled his heart, as in imagination he has traced those channels of intercourse opened by it and its branches through the illimitable regions of this Western world? I thought of future ages, and of the countless millions that should dwell on this mighty stream; and that nothing but the truth would make them free. Never did I feel as then the value of the right for which we were contending: thoroughly to investigate and fearlessly to proclaim that truth. O, the sublimity of moral power! By it God sways the universe. By it he will make the nations free.

  I passed through the scuttle to the roof and ascended to the highest point of the wall. The sky and the river were beginning to glow with approaching day, and the busy hum of business to be heard. I looked with exultation on the scenes below. I felt that a bloodless battle had been gained for God and for the truth; and that Alton was redeemed from eternal shame. And as all around grew brighter with approaching day, I thought of that still brighter sun, even now dawning on the world, and soon to bathe it with floods of glorious light.

  Brother Lovejoy, too, was happy. He did not exult: he was tranquil and composed; but his countenance indicated the state of his mind. It was a calm and tranquil joy, for he trusted in God that the point was gained: that the banner of an unfettered press would soon wave over that mighty stream.

  Vain hopes! How soon to be buried in a martyr's grave. Vain! did I say? No: they are not vain. Though dead he still speaketh; and a united world can never silence his voice. Ten thousand presses, had he employed them all, could never have done what the simple tale of his death will do. Up and down the mighty streams of the West his voice will go: it will penetrate the remotest corner of our land; it will be heard to the extremities of the civilized world. From henceforth no boat will pass the spot where he fell, heedless of his name, or of his sentiments, or of the cause for which he died. And if God in his mercy shall use this event to arouse a slumbering nation to maintain the right for which he died, he will look down from the throne of his glory on the scene of his martyrdom and say, It is enough: truth is triumphant; the victory is gained.

  We returned to his house, and before my departure we united in prayer. His wife, through weakness, had not risen. In her chamber we met in the last act of worship in which we were to unite on earth. I commended him and his family to the care of God. As I left her I cheered her with the hope that her days of trial were nearly over and that more tranquil hours were at hand. Cheered by these hopes I bade them and my other friends farewell, and began my journey homeward. On my way I heard passing rumors of a meditated attack on the store, but gave them no weight. The events of a few hours proved them but too well founded.

  Of the tragical catastrophe I was not a spectator; but after careful inquiry of eyewitnesses* I shall proceed to narrate the leading facts.

  From the statement of the mayor it seems that an attack was apprehended; and that the matter was laid before the common council, and that they did not deem it necessary to take any action on the subject.

  On account of the fatigue and watching of the preceding night, most of the defenders of the press who were in the store the night before were absent; and others took their place. The number was larger than at first intended in consequence of an increased apprehension of an attack. Their apprehensions were realized. An attack was commenced at about ten o'clock at night.

  In order to render the narrative more clear, it is necessary to say a few words concerning the structure and location of the store. It consisted of two long stone buildings, side by side, in one block, extending from the landing in Water Street back to Second Street, with doors and windows at each gable end, but with no windows at the sides. Hence it can be defended at the ends from within, but not at the sides. The roofs are of wood. The lots on each side being vacant, these stores form a detached block, accessible on every side.

  About ten o'clock a mob, already armed, came and formed a line at the end of the store in Water Street, and hailed those within. Mr. Gilman opened the end door of the third story and asked what they wanted. They demanded the press. He, of course, refused to give it up; and earnestly entreated them to use no violence. He told them that the property was committed to his care, and that they should defend it at the risk and sacrifice of their lives. At the same time they had no ill will against them, and should deprecate doing them an injury. One of them, a leading individual among the friends of free inquiry at the late convention, replied, that they would have it at the sacrifice of their lives, and presented a pistol at him: upon which he retired.

  They then went to the other end of the store and commenced an attack. They demolished two or three windows with stones and fired two or three guns. As those within threw back the stones, one without was distinctly recognized and seen taking aim at one within: for it was a moonlight evening, and persons could be distinctly seen and recognized.

  A few guns were then fired by individuals from within, by which Lyman Bishop, one of the mob, was killed. The story that he was a mere stranger waiting for a boat, and that Mr. Lovejoy shot him, are alike incapable of proof. He was heard during the day, by a person in whose employ he was, to express his intention to join the mob.

  After this the mob retired for a few moments, and then returned with ladders which they lashed together to make them the proper length, and prepared to set fire to the roof.

  About this time the mayor, having been informed of the riot, came on to the ground; but having few to sustain him, was unable to compel the rioters to desist by force. They requested him to go into the store, and state to its defenders that they were determined to have the press; and would not desist until they had accomplished their object; and agreed to suspend operations until his return. Attended by a justice of the peace, he entered and delivered the message of the mob.

  Suppose now it had been delivered up by its defenders and destroyed. How remarkable the narrative must have been, of a press given up to the mob to be destroyed by the agency of the mayor and a justice of the peace!

  However, they did not give it up. Mr. Gilman requested the mayor to call on certain citizens, to see if they could not prevent the destruction of the building. He said he could not: he had used his official authority in vain. He then asked him whether he should continue to defend the property by arms. This the mayor, as he had previously done, authorized him to do. The mayor and the justice were then informed that the press would not be given up, and the decision was by them communicated to the mob. They then proceeded to fire the roof; taking care to keep on the side of the store where they were secure from the fire of those within.

  It now became evident to the defenders that their means of defense, so long as they remained within, was cut off; and nothing remained but to attack the assailants without. It was a hazardous step, but they determined to take it. A select number, of whom Mr. Lovejoy was one, undertook the work. They went out at the end, turned the corner, and saw one of the incendiaries on the ladder, and a number standing at the foot. They fired and it is supposed wounded, but did not kill him; and then, after continuing their fire some minutes and dispersing the mob, returned to load their guns. When they went out again no one was near the ladder, the assailants having so secreted themselves as to be able to fire, unseen, on the defenders of the press as they came out. No assailants being in sight Mr. Lovejoy stood, and was looking round. Yet, though he saw no assailant, the eye of his murderer was on him. The object of hatred, deep, malignant, and long continued, was fully before him—and the bloody tragedy was consummated. Five balls were lodged in his body, and he soon breathed his last. Yet after his mortal wound he had strength remaining to return to the building and ascend one flight of stairs before he fell and expired. They then attempted to capitulate, but were refused with curses by the mob, who threatened to burn the store and shoot them as they came out. Mr. Roff now determined at all hazards to go out and make some terms, but he was wounded as soon as he set his foot over the threshold.

  The defenders then held a consultation. They were shut up within the building, unable to resist the ferocious mode of attack now adopted, and seemed devoted to destruction. At length Mr. West came to the door, informed them that the building was actually on fire, and urged them to escape by passing down the riverbank; saying that he would stand between them and the assailants so that if they fired they must fire on him. This was done. All but two or three marched out and ran down Water Street, being fired on by the mob as they went. Two, who were wounded, were left in the building, and one, who was not, remained to take care of the body of their murdered brother. The mob then entered, destroyed the press, and retired. Among them were seen some of those leading "friends of free inquiry" who had taken an active part in the convention.

  Before these tragic scenes were ended, the streets were crowded with spectators. They came out to see the winding up of the plot, but not to aid in repressing violence or maintaining the law. The vote to aid the mayor in suppressing violence they had refused to pass, because it was their duty to aid without it; and here we see how powerful their sense of duty was. The time of the conflict was from one hour and a half to two hours. During this time the bells were rung, and a general notice given; and yet none came to the rescue. It has been said, however, in extenuation of this inactivity that it was owing to a want of concert and arrangement among the citizens or by the police. No man knew on whom he might call to aid in suppressing the riot; and some who have professed that it was their desire to do so say that they were hindered by the apprehension that they might be only rallying the mob in the attempt to quell it.

  The feelings exhibited by the mob were in keeping with the deed on which they were intent. Oaths, curses, blasphemy, and malignant yells broke upon the silence of the night as they prosecuted their work of death. But even passions so malignant were not enough to give them the hardihood and recklessness needed for their work. To drench conscience, blind reason, and arouse passion to its highest fury by the intoxicating cup was needed to fit them for the consummation of their work. The leaders in this business were adepts; they knew what means were adapted to their ends, and used them without stint or treason.

  Thus closes a tragedy without parallel in the history of our land. In other popular excitements, there has been an equal amount of feeling: in some, blood has been shed. But never was there an avowed effort to overthrow the foundations of human society pushed to such bloody results: and that, on principles adapted so utterly to dissolve the social system, and plunge the nation into anarchy and blood.

* In addition to the mayor's statement, I have chiefly relied on Mr. Gilman and Mr. Weller.