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The Muncy Abolition Riot of 1842 – a sign of the times

By Staff | Feb 7, 2019

Editor’s Note: The following is a recap of Muncy when the town was facing racial tensions in the mid 1800s as we pay homage to Black History Month.

MUNCY – The small quiet Susquehanna River community of Muncy became a focal point of racial tensions over 175 years ago, a violent sign of the times and a flashpoint over an issue that already had begun to divide the nation.

The incident over the abolition of slavery involved a mob eruption that came to be known as the Muncy Abolition Riot of 1842.

An account of the riot is chronicled in several publications, including “Riots, Rumors, and Stories: The Underground Railroad Period in Pennsylvania’s Heartland” and in the April 1942 edition of “Now and Then” by Marshall Reid Anspach.

In those years before the Civil War, the question of slavery ignited no shortage of debate and emotions throughout the North as well as the South.

Enter Enos Hawley, a Quaker and one of the community’s most prominent citizens, who invited a speaker, whose name has been lost to the annals of history, to come talk to townspeople.

What is known about the speaker is that he, like Hawley, was a fervid abolitionist.

Unfortunately, the greeting the two men received from some angry townspeople when they showed up at a schoolhouse in April of that year for the anticipated speech was not a welcome one.

More than a dozen men pelted the schoolhouse with rocks and other objects, damaging the building and injuring Hawley and the speaker. The two then were chased by the mob to Hawley’s house at Main and High Streets where they continued to be assaulted with eggs.

Eighteen rioters eventually were charged and then put on trial in September of that year. Thirteen of the 18 members were convicted, but only after going back and forth among the jurors.

One member of the jury, Abraham Updegraff later described the secret deliberations, noting how an initial ballot came back 11 for acquittal and one for guilty.

Updegraff, reportedly an abolitionist, later convinced other jurors to reconsider their ballots for acquittal. Eventually the jury reached a decision to convict.

However, in a rather unusual move, Gov. David Rittenhouse Porter stepped forward just days after the trial, making a decision to annul the convictions.

He noted that the prosecution was the result of accomplishing political ends rather than to serve the cause of law and order.

He also blamed the abolitionist speaker for causing the disorder as his words were “notoriously offensive to the minds of those they were addressed.”

For his decision to overturn the jury verdict, Porter earned the derisive nickname, “The Pardoning Governor.”

Many other events of the period demonstrated just how emotional the question of slavery was at the time.

According to “Riots, Rumors, and Stories,” mob violence against abolitionists increased in the years just prior to the Muncy incident.

Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, a site of abolitionist meetings, was set afire, and William Lloyd Garison, an abolitionist speaker, was attacked in Boston and dragged through the streets.

Other attacks of abolitionists reportedly occurred on trains.

One of the most famous examples of violence occurred when abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was attacked and assassinated, becoming in effect the first great martyr of the anti-slavery movement.

As written in “riots, Rumors and Stories”: “This period in the history of abolitionism is significant because it demonstrates that the anti-slavery movement of the late 1830s had, in the perception of many Northern whites as radicals who were going to create disorder.”

The slavery question continued to create tensions throughout the nation, eventually causing a deeper rift between the North and South where slavery was allowed.

Finally, the Civil War otherwise known as the War Between the States, started in 1861. The four year war between the North and the South would become the bloodiest in the nation’s history.

Before it officially ended in April 1865 with the surrender at Appomattox, roughly 2 percent of the nation’s population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the line of duty.