The Pittsfield Riot
Old Time Tales of Warren County


The Pittsfield Riot

One of the very few respects in which our modern days may truthfully and intelligently be said to be better than the old is in the disappearance of brutal fighting. From the day when Dan McQuay cut windows in the Holland Land Co's. little log storehouse in Warren and, with the kindly consent of that generous organization of Dutchmen, moved his family into the place, thus establishing the first permanent residence on the site of Warren, from that far day down to as late as thirty years ago, fighting was a highly popular indoor and outdoor sport in Warren County.

Fifty years ago it was impossible to have a ball game, public dance, a large picnic or even a religious camp-meeting without the absolute certainty of having at least one fight before the thing was over. At a ball game there would always be a fight by the fifth inning, and probably another by the ninth. The dance that went on till midnight without a slugging match was considered ominous, too quiet, it meant they were holding back for something serious.

Today, in the enlightened year of 1930 these things have changed, men don't fight anymore. Only the lowest sort of drunks, hangers-on about public dances or at road houses now indulge in the manly art of beating, kicking and gouging each other. Why have men quit fighting? One gentleman answers this question by saying it is because the girls are no longer worth fighting for. But this can hardly be true, since they don't all smoke cigarettes. Nor can prohibition claim much of the credit for this geat advance in the habits of younger men. Because there is still whiskey obtainable, and the sort available now is certainly far better calculated to cause conflict.

There is some larger, finer reason why fighting has gone out of style. Let us hope it is because men have developed sufficient brain to realize there is no glory in a stronger man abusing a weaker one, which is all a victor has to brag about in hand to hand conflicts.

In the lumber camps, on the river, in every town and village in the county there were wicked, brutal fights in days gone by. Thumbs were bitten off, ears Fletcherized, and, most horrible of all punishments, eyes were sometimes thumbed. Happily this is no more and, while automobiles now kill more people in the county in a year than fighting accounted for in fifty, it is possible to hold a Sunday School picnic without having a fight.

But in all the fistic history of Warren County, which boasted many bullies who "would rather fight than eat", and were not always cowards, either, the biggest fight ever pulled off within the county's boundaries was the famous "Pittsfield Riot" which was celebrated in deathless song, and sung across the continent, or at least a good part of the continent.

The story is told by John Long who was a twelve year old boy in Pittsfield in 1866, and saw both the circus and the riot. Also he has heard it recounted a hundred times since by others, older than he, who also witnessed the whole thing.

It happened this way. Late in July, 1866, Fitzpatrick's Show, an organization well known over the country, drove into the village of Pittsfield and pitched its tents within a stone's throw of the location of Robert Andrews' original log cabin, the one voting place in Warren County for seven years. Fitzpatrick's Show was an overland organization traveling in some twelve wagons drawn by mules which had seen service in the civil war and could illustrate the speed and force of a rebel cannonball with their treacherous heels. The show got in late, arriving dusty and hot in the middle of the afternoon, after showing Columbus the night before. Canvas men, drivers and performers were all a bit on edge, so much so they nearly all found it immediately necessary to adjourn to the four barrooms then doing business in Pittsfield to slake a deep and long-felt thirst.

The village boys, who had walked miles up the road toward Wrightsville to meet the show and escort it into town, riding on the big yellow wagons of the more friendly teamsters, now had a fine opportunity of sizing up the whole aggregation before a stick was unloaded, while all the men were in getting their drinks.

There was no need for any thirsty man with a little money to want for a drink in Pittsfield in 1866. Mrs. Julia Acocks had the well known tavern on the corner. William B. Dalrymple kept tavern just across the street. There was a beer saloon where only malt liquors were dispensed, farther east and still farther the Ross Brothers tavern, originally Jack Foster's tavern, offered the visitor in Pittsfield a fourth choice. Fitzpatrick's Show was careful to avoid partiality in patronage, it visited every bar.

Being well revived by fair whiskey at five cents a glass, and much better at ten cents, the showmen who wore leather boots and broad brimmed felt hats, unloaded the outfit on the lot, near the center of the village, between the highway and the railroad tracks. It was a good sized tent with a stage at one end. There were no animals with the show except a few dogs, although the bills had pictured roaring lions with wide jaws, about to swallow black African natives like licorice pills. Elephants had also been pictured. But this was the common custom of the day, shows bought stock paper and of course all show bills had to have lions and elephants. They were simply considered decorations, the animal pictures. This was explained to small boys in advance, to save disappointments, but boyish hope runs high and the arrival of Fitzpatrick's tawdry string of wagons, with no more terrible beasts than some long eared mules with government brands on their withers, must have been a let down for more than one lad.

Fitzpatrick's World Traveled Show did not attempt to give an afternoon performance that day at Pittsfield. This of course increased the crowd at the evening performance. From up the valley and down the valley they came, and from the hills, people walking, driving in buggies, riding horseback to the show. Every barn was full of horses, the streets were lined with wagons, buckboards and buggies with horses hitched to the trees. So far as the memories of three men who saw the performance serve them, not one of the little boys who came to the show had on shoes and stockings, they were all barefoot boys with cheeks of tan, and they were certainly having a big night. A few of the little girls belonging to high toned families wore shoes and stockings.

Fitzpatrick's carried no cook tent, the men ate at the taverns. At seven o'clock there was a grand band concert on the four corners after which the band, which comprised a third of the entire company, ten men, led the eager, expectant crowd to the show grounds, as the Pied Piper led the children of Hamelin.

All the Pittsfield bars did a big business that evening. The occasion called for proper celebration. Shows the size of Fitzpatrick's did not visit Pittsfield every summer, in fact this was the largest and finest ever to visit the thriving little village at the junction of the two Brokenstraws. Men out of the woods and off the farms drank several glasses over the bar before the performance started, a number of provident ones provided themselves with pints and quarts to take into the show with them. Tolerably good whiskey could be bought for thirty-five cents a quart in Pittsfield in 1866, and the generous bartender would usually set up a glass of beer to the purchaser.

The big drum began booming inside the tent, horns tooted, the crowd literally swamped the ticket seller in its efforts to get good seats at the great and only Fitzpatrick's Show. Large oil torches which burned with a waving, flickering flame, filling the tent top with clouds of black smoke provided the only light for the evening performance. The torches were continually dripping blazing drops, which remained burning till they struck the ground, and after, having to be stamped out by canvas men stationed there for the purpose. Oil lamps of any sort being daringly new, an added thrill was provided all the nervous ladies present at no extra charge.

With the tent jammed to the roof and a third of the audience standing, the performance, advertised to begin promptly at eight, started about nine o'clock. It was a hot July night, what with the big torches and the packed crowd the air inside the tent was sweltering, a-reek with oil smoke, whiskey and the odor of a cheap, brittle candy sold among the seats and crunched with coarse, grinding sounds, by men and boys, like a hog eating coal. It was a big, big night for Pittsfield, and was to be even bigger than anyone imagined.

Fitzpatrick's Show offered a good performance, those who tell of seeing it agree on that. Nigger songs were popular, Fitzpatrick's gave the crowd plenty of them, with clever dancing and dialogue. The packed crowd roared at the comedians, whiskey bottles were liberally passed around. The big torches smoked, the band played "Johnny git yer gun", men worried for fear their bottles wouldn't hold out till the show was over, women, seated on the higher seats, worried for fear their ankles might show. There were several brief fights, ending in prompt ejection. The struggling combatants would be snaked along the grass and out the entrance, still kicking and striking at each other. Fitzpatrick's had plenty of sturdy bouncers who seemed to enjoy administering their office.

At eleven o'clock the crowd poured out of the sweltering tent into the cool, sweet night air which fills the Brokenstraw Valley. Everybody said it was a great show. As the men passed along the village street the taverns tempted them again. And a great many of the men ended the temptation in the quickest way, by yielding to it.

But the crowd had not all left the show tent. Back there the big torches still flared, lighting up the canvas with strange shadows. Word had been passed around that some interesting games would be played after the main performance, gambling games. And so, when the women and children had departed, men lingered or returned to flirt with the goddess of chance under the flickering flambeaux. There were several games going in the tent. Chuck-a-luck, on a small scale, a faro wheel and that dear old institution that has been identified with circuses and shows since Barnum made the great discovery that the public likes to be fooled-the time honored game of three card monte.

All went smoothly for a time, the hard working residents of Pittsfield township were being rapidly relieved of their spare cash when, about twelve o'clock a fight suddenly started in the tent. The whole thing happened so quickly it was just like an explosion. It started with Obed Dalrymple kicking over the faro table. In a few seconds a full sized riot was under way. Men who have seen a lot of fighting in their day say they never witnessed anything like this. Some fierce impulse seemed to sweep through the men like an oil well fire. Suddenly they were all ablaze with fury, hitting, kicking, smashing, fighting wickedly and to a finish.

Half the showmen were at Acock's Tavern. Someone rushed the word to them and "out they swarmed, two abreast," to use the words of an eye witness, John Long. With the cry of "hey rube," the showmen summoned all their forces and assailed the townsfolk. Armed with clubs, stakes, anything they could seize on they ran amok, hitting every head that didn't look as if it belonged to Fitzpatrick's Show.

But it is not to be supposed that the town was completely at the mercy of the murderous showmen. Pittsfield had some men well capable of caring for themselves in a free-for-all. Also there were raftsmen and sawmill men in town that night who could lick their weight in wildcats and were all primed up and feeling just right for the fray. It was the biggest hand-to-hand combat ever fought within the peaceful borders of Warren County, a midnight battle which began at twelve and lasted, with sudden later upflarings, half the night.

The life of no one outdoors was safe. Non combatants, caught in the fighting area, climbed shade trees and hid among the leafy branches till morning. Peaceful citizens of Pittsfield who had lingered on the streets after the show for one reason or another suddenly found themselves in the midst of a mad mob composed of two factions which ran through the streets, knocking down anyone who happened along. The showmen were looking for towners, the laymen were laying out the showmen, where possible. The main street of the village looked like a battle field, with stunned men lying here and there. Showmen carrying clubs ran through yards and alleys, looking for victims. Some citizens, unable to gain the sanctuary of their homes, hid in woodsheds till morning. The night was full of yells and curses, groans from the bruised and battered. Two men would meet in the dark, assail each other without waiting to discover whether they were friends or enemies.

The fighting lasted as long as the darkness. Fortunately the dawn came early. The coming daylight found a terrified village, every door double-bolted, bureaus and tables pushed against them. Even when the sun was well over York Hill few people dared venture forth on the streets. By a miracle none was killed in the melee, but a number of the combatants wished they had been. One young man, who lay in the street all night, was so terribly beaten his mother did not recognize him.

Honors were about even, or perhaps a little in favor of the Fitzpatrick forces. The showmen, being well toughened, seemed to stand the battle better. All the doctors of the countryside were called into service, stitching and bandaging. It was a sick, sore and sorry Pittsfield that ventured forth after its night of terror and took stock of itself.

Fighting is so foolish, it always has to be paid for afterward. Sheriff Robert Allen had been sent for. A number of arrests were made and the prisoners hailed before Justice of the Peace John Long who had an office upstairs, across from Acocks' Tavern. Fines were assessed combatants on both sides. It was very difficult to get evidence.

The Pittsfield Riot all but broke up Fitzpatrick's World Traveled Show. The organization was compelled to remain a week in Pittsfield, settling fines, waiting for the injured members of the troup to recover. While the battered, disorganized show was tarrying in Pittsfield for repairs, one of the company composed a song in celebration of the riot. Later, when Fitzpatrick's Show went on its way, the song was sung across the country.

"The Pittsfield Riot" as sung from east to west from the movable stage of Fitzpatrick's Show is a long, narrative ballad which, like all ballads of its nature is almost nothing without the music and the singer. There are more than twenty verses, well remembered by more than one old resident. Here are the first, fifth and last verses.

The Pittsfield Riot

O listen to my story
And I will let you know
About the awful riot
At the great Fitzpatrick Show.
'Twas in the town of Pittsfield
That we recall so well
That happened all this trouble
That I to you will tell.
The show was out and over,
The crowd had left the ground,
At the three card monte table
Some men had gathered 'round.
Soon someone said "He's cheating,"
Another cried "You lie,"
The cards they all were scattered
And soon the fists did fly.
Long years will we remember
That fight of great renown
That was fought in Pennsylvania,
'Way back in Pittsfield town.
And so my song is ended,
The song you all should know
Of the famous Pittsfield riot
At the great Fitzpatrick Show.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 271-280: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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