The year was 1857 and the world was on shaky ground as major earthquakes struck Naples, in what is now Italy, killing over 12,000 people, and Fort Tejon, California which was estimated at 7.9 on the Richter scale, but with only two known fatalities.
Britain and France declared war on China in what is commonly known as the â€œSecond Opium War.â€Â At the same time, there were rebellions in Northern and Central India aimed at British occupiers. The rebellion is largely considered to be a War of Independence in India.Â
There were also changes at home in Britain. Prior to the passage of the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 divorce was only possible through a lengthy and complicated process which culminated in Act of Parliament, which would allow for re-marriage. While the Act did grant women some additional protections, it still favored men in that they only had to prove adultery, whereas women needed to prove adultery and in addition to incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion. (More information)Â
In the U.S., the question of slavery was a hot-button issue and in 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court sent down a ruling in the eleven year court battle of Dred Scott and his wife Harriet.Â The couple had petitioned for their freedom based on time spent living in Illinois and Wisconsin (both of which prohibited slavery), but the court ruled that because they were black they were not citizens and therefore not permitted to sue in U.S. courts. The ruling also overturned the 1820 Missouri Compromise, making slavery legal in U.S. territories.
In addition to the tension between northern and southern states, the failure of the New York branch of the Ohio Life and Trust Co., the sinking of the C.S.S. Central America in a hurricane with its cargo of over a million dollars worth of gold destined for banks, the subsequent bank failures, railroad failures which wreaked havoc in land speculation combined to trigger the Financial Panic of 1857. The Panic led to a depression which would last for three years ruining many and creating widespread unemployment.Â
In New York, the Metropolitan Police Act combined the police of New York, Kings, Westchester, and Richmond, a move which didnâ€™t sit well with the Tammany Hall affiliated mayor of New York City. Mayor Fernando Wood retained his own police force in defiance. Upon a dispute over the appointment of a street commissioner, the governorâ€™s appointee went to City Hall, backed by a contingent of the new Metropolitan Police Force, where he was met and refused entrance by police loyal to Wood. The clash between the two forces injured twelve policemen. On July 1st, a Court of Appeals upheld the Metropolitan Police Act ending the Police Riots, but more trouble was on the horizon.
On the evening of July 4th in the notorious Sixth Ward, the street gang called the Dead Rabbits (supporters of Fernando Wood, and the Bowery Boys (who opposed Wood) began a riot that would later include the Metropolitan Police and several other New York City gangs. (Click on the newspaper clipping above to enlarge it and read the account from the Hornellsville Tribune (Hornellsville, New York), 09 July 1857.)
On the lighter side, 1857 was also the year that Jingle Bells was written, by James Pierpont.