Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Boston Riots

By Kennedy, Lawrence W. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Boston Riots


Kennedy, Lawrence W., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Jack Tager, Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Boston Riots, Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 2001.

Jack Tager's narrative of communal social violence over three centuries of Boston's history is a welcome addition to the abundant literature on this extraordinary city. It notes that Boston was the most riotous town in eighteenth century America and third in the total number of riots in the nineteenth century. Boston Riots treats both these eras as well as the twentieth century. Tager concludes with several chapters on anti-busing violence in the 1970s where the reader sees that anti-busing rioting had little to do with buses and a great deal to do with feelings of powerlessness, as did most of Boston riots.

Throughout Tager's fascinating narrative it becomes apparent that widely diverse episodes of Boston violence, popularly remembered as grain, brothel, police or ghetto riots, often shared a certain characteristic. Angry, powerless people turned to communal social violence when they felt there was no legal recourse available to them. Boston Riots offers a great deal of insight about the economic and social conditions and grievances that explain the origins of many riots. The work, while never condoning violence, unfailingly pays attention to the real and perceived problems of lower working class people who lashed out against people and property.

This highly readable book successfully draws upon the available historical research to portray the commonalities in these various riots and explores the significance of famous and not-so-famous events. Tager leaves aside American Revolutionary era riots that aimed at political change and focuses on the lower working classes riots when the goals were explicit social and economic objectives. He does include, however, the famous anti-abolitionist riot of 1835 which threatened the life of William Lloyd Garrison and was so unusual because it was undertaken by "men of property and standing." The book's accounts of prerevolutionary era riots opposing such things as price gouging, customs taxes, elite rule, Catholicism, or military conscription do much to put the tactics of the incipient independence movement in its proper context. …

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