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In his diary entry for 21 October 1835, Bradley Newcomb Cumings, a clerk in a dry goods store in Boston, describes the mobbing of William Lloyd Garrison: “Our City was such a scene of tumult & confusion this afternoon as has not been witnessed before for many a year…”
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Boston became a center of the national antislavery movement, and in 1831, William Lloyd Garrison, “all on fire “ for the cause, began publication of The Liberator, the country’s leading abolitionist newspaper. There was strong resistance to the radical movement, however, not only in the slaveholding South, but among Northerners as well. In October 1835, George Thompson, an English abolitionist, was scheduled to speak to the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, but an enormous throng of opponents, estimated by Cumings to number two or three thousand people, gathered outside of the Anti-Slavery Society’s headquarters at 46 Washington Street to prevent Thompson from speaking. Mayor Theodore Lyman assured the angry crowd that Thompson was not present—or even in Boston—but the rumor spread that Garrison, an even more vehement abolitionist, was present and, according to Cumings, the aroused populace “roughly handled” anyone who even resembled him. Only quick action by his friends and “the mayer” (as young Cumings describes Lyman) saved Garrison from being tarred and feathered—or lynched. Although he was the victim of a mob attack, many blamed the outspoken Garrison for the tumult and he “was conducted to jail for safekeeping.”
Abolitionists in Boston and elsewhere learned the hard lesson that their crusade would be met with violence not only by Southerners, but by their Northern opponents as well. Garrison briefly retreated to “Friendship’s Vale,” the family farm of his wife, Helen Benson Garrison, in Brooklyn, Connecticut, where he girded himself again for the struggle and welcomed the birth of a son named, appropriately enough, George Thompson Garrison.
Bradley Cumings (contemporary members of his family and most descendants spell their name “Cummings”) was born in Boston in 1811, the son of Bradley and Delight Newcomb Cumings. In 1828, sixteen-year-old Bradley, who already had been working as a clerk in a dry goods store for more than three years (he later would become a partner), began a journal of “passing events, interspersed occasionally with Poetry, Anecdotes, &c.” The two-volume diary of more than 500 large pages describes the main sources of free or inexpensive entertainment for a young workingman in early nineteenth-century Boston: sermons, lectures, fires, and riots. The diary continues for almost twenty years (1828-1847), but is most detailed through 1836. Cumings had married Susan Tuckerman Wells in 1835, and thereafter, perhaps, had other duties to occupy his time. He became a partner with his employer Aaron Hobart in the firm of Hobart, Cumings & Co., and continued in the dry goods business for almost fifty years until his death in 1876.
On 22 February 2013, the Massachusetts Historical Society will open a new exhibition, ”Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land”: Boston Abolitionists, 1831-1865, featuring manuscripts, photographs, artifacts—including the imposing stone for The Liberator—and portraits related to the abolitionist movement in Boston, including Bradley Cumings’ diary and other documents that describe the 1835 attack on Garrison. The exhibition will be open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM, through 24 May 2013. For the dates and times of gallery talks and events related to the exhibition, please check the MHS Events Calendar.
“The Journal of Bradley N. Cumings.” M.H.S. Miscellany. Number 52 (Autumn 1992). Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1992), 5-6.
Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Papers Relating to the Garrison Mob. Theodore Lyman, 3rd., ed. Cambridge: Welch and Bigelow, 1870.
Wach, Howard M. “’Expansive Intellect and Moral Agency’: Public Culture in Antebellum Boston.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Volume 108 (1995). Boston: Published by the Society, 1996, 30-56.