Pausing of the peace

  • —Concord Public Library

For the Monitor
Published: 9/22/2020 11:57:20 AM

There are times in life when the overwhelming urge to defend yourself arises. This is simply human nature and emotions sometimes weigh a little heavier than common sense. An otherwise civilized person that you might pass along the street and exchange pleasantries with today might be your opposition tomorrow. When confronted with a somewhat debatable situation, emotions and opposing groups, the outcome is not always pleasant.

The old saying spoken by past generations, “cooler heads will prevail” provides some wisdom based upon many years of experience and offers a very common-sense approach. It was almost 160 years ago down on Main Street in Concord that our ancestors, fueled by strong belief, patriotism, emotions and certainly a good dose of adrenaline combated. The great Concord Democratic Standard Riot was very real, very dangerous and the result of two opposing groups with similar feelings supporting their beliefs.

Concord has always been a very pleasant town filled with people that care for one another. The early settlers helped each other and felt a sense of security with the many people that bonded together. Early opposition during the colonial period found the majority of people with common thoughts and objectives, all opposing excessive taxation, the British and control from across the sea. This unique thought process resulted in a sense of unity within the colonies and ultimately the birth of a new nation. There have been very limited violent uprisings in Concord, in fact, some of the earliest references to the establishment of our town even questioned the need for a police department, jail or prison. The early settlers in Concord did know that there are times when trained security is needed, perhaps for minor infractions, but it was needed.

There were two well-known early occasions when the Concord Police Department was urgently summoned to assist with violent uprisings. Both uprisings were referred to as riots and happened right here in Concord well over a century ago.

The first riot occurred in 1837 when George Thompson and John Whittier were forced to leave town after receiving a pelting of rotten fruit, stones and some clubbing. Both George and John were in town presenting a lecture on a subject they believed in, escaping with not much more than their own lives. They survived, but the uprising was met with much adversity from our ancestors. The topics fueling this uprising as well as additional smaller skirmishes on the streets of Concord always centered upon very serious issues such as abolition, prohibition and early tax opposition with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As long as there have been people there have been opinions, it was not different in our peaceful little New England village.

It was just 24 years later that our ancestors once again came together for yet another riot. In 1861, we find many battle-hardened soldiers returning to Concord after serving their country bravely on the field of battle. The overwhelming sense of relief found with returning safely to your home along with victory on the field of battle certainly fueled patriotism during this period. It was then that soldiers returning to Concord from the First New Hampshire Regiment celebrated somberly in the streets as they became reacquainted with civilian life in Concord. They spoke of war, heroics, freedom and some simply did not speak at all. They had witnessed violence so severely that they suffered still, the war would never end for some of these young men.

After the Civil War, people would simply tell other people that a person was shell shocked, when in fact it was a modern-day case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some people dealt with their conditions on their own while others were placed in the care of the New Hampshire State Hospital for extended periods, if not the remainder of their lives.

When the First New Hampshire Regiment marched into town the soldiers were certainly tired, some wounded or with disease, shell shocked and certainly patriotic and relieved to be home. As they celebrated in the various taverns along Main Street it was brought to their attention that the local newspaper was printing material they considered to be very disrespectful to themselves, as soldiers, and their country. They felt these words were not only disrespectful but very insulating and they were going to confront the town newspaper that was printed on Main Street on the third story of the Lows Block. The Democratic Standard was owned, operated and printed on a small press by John Palmer and Edmund Burke. The soldiers believed the comments to be antigovernment and gathered into a large group to confront the Palmer family as they printed their next edition.

The soldiers and the Palmer family exchanged words and the request to cease operations was declined by the Democratic Standard. The growing crowd, with both sides feeling they were in the right, turned violent. The newspaper office and staff were attacked by many and the presses were thrown onto Main Street, the office was ravaged and fists were thrown. A gun was discharged at some point with the Palmer family believing they were being fired upon by the growing crowd. In response, the Palmer family fired off five shots into the aggressive rioters wounding two recently returned soldiers.

The Concord Police Department was small in numbers in 1861 but made every effort to control the riot, they were soon overrun by the crowd. As more and more rioters entered the Lows Block ransacking the newspaper office the Palmer family and their newspaper staff barely escaped through a side door.

As the Palmer family and their staff distanced themselves and were safely away from the violent Concord riot they turned towards the scene, witnessing their printing press, newspapers, files and furniture burning in the middle of Main Street.

The next day the smoldering office and pile of debris littering Main Street served as a reminder of the night before. Both sides felt they were fighting for something they believed in. As time passed this riot remained a part of our local Concord lore for many years and was most certainly embellished time and time again at the local taverns. The people of Concord once again felt safe, as the old saying goes, cooler heads will prevail.

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