Detroit's 1867 Paint Can Riot

When we think of Yom Kippur, we picture a day of great solemnity, meditation, and prayer. Jews of Detroit, as do Jews around the world, have tended to observe the Day of Atonement in this manner. There was one occasion, however, when a Yom Kippur Day in Detroit turned out to be anything but solemn and meditative.

This most unusual Yom Kippur occurred in the year 1867, when the Detroit Jewish community was still quite small. A group of Polish Jews, having no place to worship during the High Holy Days, contracted to rent the recently vacated former synagogue of Congregation Beth El (their congregational home from 1861 to 1867) from its new owner. The new owner, in the process of transforming the Rivard Street synagogue into a German theater, was approached by representatives of the Polish congregation. The owner consented to suspend work on the theater and to allow the congregation to use the synagogue for the High Holy Days provided they pay him rent. Everything was going smoothly until the rental time expired – on Yom Kippur.

The Polish congregation was in a quandary, for they could not conduct their religious services while noisy work was being done. To solve the problem, they agreed to pay the wages of the carpenters during the time their work could not be performed. The owner consented to this arrangement and both parties signed a written agreement to that effect. Additionally, the parties agreed that painters would be allowed to continue provided they worked in silence and a curtain was erected to separate them from the congregation.

The ensuing events are a subject of controversy. Below is the crux of the story as it appeared in the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune on October 10, 1867.

                “The members of the congregation were engaged in the afternoon in their devotional exercise in the body of the building. Behind the drop curtain, which completely hid them from view, were five scene painters at work. It is contended on the part of the congregation that the painters were making more noise than the terms of their contract allowed, while the painters contended that they were as quiet as they could be under the circumstances.

                Some of the leaders of the congregation, concluding that the workmen had broken the agreement, decided to put them out, and a war of extermination ensued. Pieces of lumber, sticks, bricks, and other implements were used on both sides quite freely. The painters being very largely in the minority were compelled to beat a hasty retreat. Three of them succeeded in reaching terra firma by the aid of ladders, and two were unceremoniously bundled through a second story window, by which process glass and sash were broken. As if to give “color” to the proceeding, their paint pots and brushes were sent in the same direction.

                The wildest possible confusion prevailed. Ladies and children quitted the place as fast as the limited means of egress permitted them, and the more thinking male portion of the audience also rushed into the street, while others remained behind, for what purpose can probably be imagined. The building was cleared, and the religious observances were, for the timebeing, interrupted.

                Policeman Learned, hearing of the difficulty, was soon at the scene of the disturbance and found himself surrounded by a mob that would have disgraced a bar-room. A messenger was dispatched to the nearest telegraph station, and in a few moments a posse of men arrived and put an end to the disturbance. The police declined to make any arrests, on condition that no further trouble should be attempted."

 Following the riot, the theater owner brought a suit against certain members of the congregation for malicious trespass, while the painters also sued them for assault and battery. The members of the congregation were not idle and brought suits of their own for assault and battery, and disturbing public worship. On October 25, 1867, the Detroit Free Press reported the numerous suits were ‘amicably adjusted by the withdrawal of the complaints by all parties and payment of accrued costs.’”

So ended the saga of one of the liveliest Yom Kippur days in the history of Detroit.


Photo:  RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist via Unsplash

Adapted from: Rockaway, Robert A. “Detroit's Yom Kippur Day Riot.” Michigan Jewish History (January 1969): 21-23.

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