clock menu more-arrow no yes

A Riotous Architectural Walking Tour on Nantucket

View as Map

Here now, a riotous architectural walking tour, mobacity included. In the 1840s, Nantucket was a prosperous whaling community as well as a hotbed of the abolitionist movement. No, really. Obviously, not everyone on the island was down for the cause and when abolitionists held a major convention on the island in 1842, things got ugly. We decided to take a stroll around town, checking out the architectural sites from this historic moment.

The Brotherhood of Thieves Riot of 1842 took place in mid-August during a six-day anti-slavery convention at the Nantucket's Atheneum Hall. Attendees included both nationally known abolitionists - Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lenox Redmond, and Rev. Stephen S. Foster - and locals - Thomas Macy, Nathaniel and Eliza Barney, Absalom Boston, Edward J. Pompey, David Joy, and Anna Gardner. The previous convention in 1841 had gone off without a hitch, but then again, Rev. Foster had not made a speech anything like the one he was about to give.

According to Frederick Douglas, Rev. Foster never failed to "to stir up mobocratic wrath" and he did not disappoint that weekend at the Atheneum. His address, which would be subsequently turned into a pamphlet, was presented following the convention's passage of an anti-clerical resolution. Rev. Foster, not one to mince words, was deliberately inflammatory and insisted that slavery was aided and abetted by the church, proclaiming it the "Bulwark of Slavery," the clergy "a designing priesthood," and its membership a "Brotherhood of Thieves" (and much more). Word quickly spread across the island, in a pre-Twitter sort of way, that somehow Rev. Foster was calling the people of Nantucket all types of unsavory names. Cue the angry mob, "hooting, screeching, [and] throwing brick-bats and other missiles." The Atheneum was worried about their insurance premiums asked the convention to find new digs, or to pay for the inevitable damage. Thus, over the following days, the abolitionists would head to Franklin Hall, Town Hall (only to get booted out) and the "Big Shop," all the while being chased by the venomous rabble with their rotten eggs, sticks, and stones. By Monday evening, "fearing . . . from developments apparent, that the meeting would again be assailed by the mob, stimulated by their passions to deeds of lawless violence," it was "deemed expedient" to "give up the meeting."

The Great Fire of 1846 would destroy nearly half of downtown Nantucket, so some of the architecture is altered from the original, but the walk is very much the same, minus the mobocratic wrath. Best of all, our tour concludes at the riot's eponymous restaurant, The Brotherhood of Thieves, for a toast to the abolitionists.


· The Brotherhood of Thieves Riot of 1842 [Nantucket Historical Association]
· Nantucket and the Abolitionist Movement [Nantucket Atheneum]

Read More

1. Atheneum Hall

Copy Link
1 India Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

Founded in 1834 as a sanctuary of learning and culture, the Nantucket Atheneum hosted the Anti-Slavery Convention. As the mob broke windows, the proprietors requested that the convention organizers locate new digs.The first Atheneum was destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt in 1847 with ionic order classical Greek columns.

2. Town Hall

Copy Link
16 Broad Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

After being forced from the Atheneum, the convention was refused the use of Town Hall. They headed to Franklin Hall on Water Street, but the mob arrived after dark, breaking up the meeting. On Sunday, the convention tried the town square, but it began to rain. Thus, they were reluctantly allowed into Town Hall. Alas, the town fathers revoked that offer once the mob arrived, accusing the convention of "perceiving the rampant developments of the mobocratic spirit." The current Town Hall was built in 1964 and like much of the commercial district post-Great Fire, it's built of brick.

3. George & Reuben Coffin's Big Shop

Copy Link
Saratoga Lane
Nantucket, MA 02554

On the last day of the convention attendees “were consequently obliged to avail themselves of the liberal offer, by its proprietor, of a large boat-builder’s shop, on the outskirts of town,” called Big Shop. The building fell to the wrecking ball many moons ago, but if you want to get some exercise/re-enact the mobocratic spirit, stroll on over to Saratoga Lane. In the 1840s, the George & Reuben Coffin's shop hosted boat building by day, anti-slavery meetings by night and was located about 100 yards north of Milk Street on the west side.

4. Home of Thomas Macy

Copy Link
99 Main Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

According to the Library of Congress, the abolitionists' home was "Typical of the way many Nantucket houses grew, the Swain-Macy house began as a small eighteenth century lean-to house and then was enlarged and remodeled with Federal details in the prosperous whaling days of the 1830's."

5. Home of Nathaniel & Eliza Barney

Copy Link
100 Main Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

Built in 1800, 100 Main Street was the home of abolitionists Nathaniel and Eliza Barney after their marriage in 1820. By the early 19th century, the island's architecture shifted towards classical detail, particularly the Federal style, although 100 Main Street pre-dates the sea captains' and merchants' penchant for bling.

6. African Meeting House

Copy Link
29 York Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

"Erected in the 1820s by the African Baptist Society (of which Captain Absalom Boston was a trustee), it is the only public building still in existence that was constructed and occupied by the island’s African Americans during the nineteenth century."

7. Home of Anna Gardner

Copy Link
40 Orange Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

This private residence was once the home of abolitionist Anna Gardner. The property was built in 1850 during the Golden Age of Nantucket and the style is "indicative of local sea captains' and merchants' wealth. The most outstanding buildings are situated on Orange and Main Streets where sea captains commonly built two-story dwellings with white clapboard siding and views of the harbor."

8. Home of David Joy

Copy Link
43 Center Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

Built in 1764, the David Joy House is currently on the market with a $4.5 million price tag. Home to the abolitionist co-founder of the Nantucket Atheneum, the property pre-dates the go-go whaling era, featuring little ornamentation and detail.

9. The Brotherhood of Thieves

Copy Link
23 Broad Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

We conclude our tour where all walking tours should end, with good food & spirits. If you can't tell from the logo, this 1840s whaling bar is named for the riot of 1842. According to the Nantucket Historical Association, "The sign depicts a minister with devil's horns. In one hand he holds a weeping slave in chains; in the other, a bulging bag of money; behind him, a ship plies the ocean waters. She is probably a slaver, suggesting the furtive activities that some maritime historians believe made Massachusetts "the nursing mother of the horrors of the middle passage.""

1. Atheneum Hall

1 India Street, Nantucket, MA 02554

Founded in 1834 as a sanctuary of learning and culture, the Nantucket Atheneum hosted the Anti-Slavery Convention. As the mob broke windows, the proprietors requested that the convention organizers locate new digs.The first Atheneum was destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt in 1847 with ionic order classical Greek columns.

1 India Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

2. Town Hall

16 Broad Street, Nantucket, MA 02554

After being forced from the Atheneum, the convention was refused the use of Town Hall. They headed to Franklin Hall on Water Street, but the mob arrived after dark, breaking up the meeting. On Sunday, the convention tried the town square, but it began to rain. Thus, they were reluctantly allowed into Town Hall. Alas, the town fathers revoked that offer once the mob arrived, accusing the convention of "perceiving the rampant developments of the mobocratic spirit." The current Town Hall was built in 1964 and like much of the commercial district post-Great Fire, it's built of brick.

16 Broad Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

3. George & Reuben Coffin's Big Shop

Saratoga Lane, Nantucket, MA 02554

On the last day of the convention attendees “were consequently obliged to avail themselves of the liberal offer, by its proprietor, of a large boat-builder’s shop, on the outskirts of town,” called Big Shop. The building fell to the wrecking ball many moons ago, but if you want to get some exercise/re-enact the mobocratic spirit, stroll on over to Saratoga Lane. In the 1840s, the George & Reuben Coffin's shop hosted boat building by day, anti-slavery meetings by night and was located about 100 yards north of Milk Street on the west side.

Saratoga Lane
Nantucket, MA 02554

4. Home of Thomas Macy

99 Main Street, Nantucket, MA 02554

According to the Library of Congress, the abolitionists' home was "Typical of the way many Nantucket houses grew, the Swain-Macy house began as a small eighteenth century lean-to house and then was enlarged and remodeled with Federal details in the prosperous whaling days of the 1830's."

99 Main Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

5. Home of Nathaniel & Eliza Barney

100 Main Street, Nantucket, MA 02554

Built in 1800, 100 Main Street was the home of abolitionists Nathaniel and Eliza Barney after their marriage in 1820. By the early 19th century, the island's architecture shifted towards classical detail, particularly the Federal style, although 100 Main Street pre-dates the sea captains' and merchants' penchant for bling.

100 Main Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

6. African Meeting House

29 York Street, Nantucket, MA 02554

"Erected in the 1820s by the African Baptist Society (of which Captain Absalom Boston was a trustee), it is the only public building still in existence that was constructed and occupied by the island’s African Americans during the nineteenth century."

29 York Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

7. Home of Anna Gardner

40 Orange Street, Nantucket, MA 02554

This private residence was once the home of abolitionist Anna Gardner. The property was built in 1850 during the Golden Age of Nantucket and the style is "indicative of local sea captains' and merchants' wealth. The most outstanding buildings are situated on Orange and Main Streets where sea captains commonly built two-story dwellings with white clapboard siding and views of the harbor."

40 Orange Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

8. Home of David Joy

43 Center Street, Nantucket, MA 02554

Built in 1764, the David Joy House is currently on the market with a $4.5 million price tag. Home to the abolitionist co-founder of the Nantucket Atheneum, the property pre-dates the go-go whaling era, featuring little ornamentation and detail.

43 Center Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

9. The Brotherhood of Thieves

23 Broad Street, Nantucket, MA 02554

We conclude our tour where all walking tours should end, with good food & spirits. If you can't tell from the logo, this 1840s whaling bar is named for the riot of 1842. According to the Nantucket Historical Association, "The sign depicts a minister with devil's horns. In one hand he holds a weeping slave in chains; in the other, a bulging bag of money; behind him, a ship plies the ocean waters. She is probably a slaver, suggesting the furtive activities that some maritime historians believe made Massachusetts "the nursing mother of the horrors of the middle passage.""

23 Broad Street
Nantucket, MA 02554