Henry F. O’Brien: The Colonel Murdered by the Mob

by Kelly Anne Reynolds, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University

© Kelly Anne Reynolds, 2018.  All rights reserved.

When the Civil War federal draft was called and published in local New York City newspapers over the weekend of July 11-12, 1863, the subsequent protests were sporadic and inconsistent until Monday, July 13th, when the organization and crowd size increased dramatically.  By Tuesday, July 14th, rioting became too much for the police to handle on their own and the Union Army as well as state militia were called in to assist.  Disturbances occurred all across New York City.  In the 21st Ward on Manhattan’s east side, it was an early morning at 32nd Street and Second Avenue when the local police were overrun and required military back up.

Colonel Henry F. O’Brien complicates the racial dimensions of the 1863 Draft Riots that characterize histories of this period in American history.  His story points out the significant class divisions behind much of the violence, so much so that even a fellow Irishman and neighbor would not be spared.  O’Brien was a local man who lived at 559 Second Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets.[1] Though the horrors and suffering of African-Americans that week cannot be judged on an equivalent scale, Colonel O’Brien’s demise at the hands of the mob is particularly graphic.  It illustrates the personal and vengeful nature of actions against individuals targeted during the riots.  He was not merely murdered but endured a slow, painful death through vicious torture, disfiguration, half-hanging, and mutilation before dying alone and naked in a backyard on Tuesday, July 14th, on only the second day of the Draft Riots.[2]

Colonel Henry F. O’Brien [aka O’Brian], n.d. New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, DigID PA.2000.0756.

Little of Colonel O’Brien’s personal history can be confirmed with absolute certainty.  He was born in Ireland in the 1820s, had lived in New York City for many years, and was married.[3] He likely first saw service with Company H of the 155th New York State Infantry, mustering in as a Captain in October 1862, under the command of Colonel William McEvily.[4] This regiment was part of Corcoran’s Legion, a famous Irish unit that spent an historic Christmas 1862 in Newport News, Virginia.[5]  O’Brien resigned in February 1863, and returned to New York, settling in the 21st Ward.[6] That June, he was promoted to Colonel and placed in command of the 11th New York State Volunteers [NYSV], a regiment that had disintegrated following the Battle of Bull Run. As such, he was charged with recruiting for the 11th NYSV, “required to raise 250 men by the 1st of August, 250 by the 1st of September, and 250 by the 1st of November” for what was to be known as the James T. Brady Light Infantry.[7]

This was an aggressive mandate, given the high casualty rates for Irish New Yorkers in the Union Army. The Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 reduced Meagher’s Irish Brigade to “a few hundred men, evoking charges that the [Lincoln] administration was willing to sacrifice ‘the heroes of the Green’ to the last man. When he was again refused permission to bring his men home [to New York ‘for rest and recruitment’], [Thomas Francis] Meagher resigned his command.” Gettysburg was yet another slaughter that increased the number of widows and orphans in New York, just days after O’Brien began recruiting in Manhattan.[8] This, combined with the sense of injustice over the $300 exemption clause in the Conscription Act, made Colonel O’Brien’s task difficult.

Detail, “New York — The Riot in Lexington Avenue,” NYPL DigID 809563.

The protests in New York City against the mandatory draft began on Monday, July 13, 1863 with thousands gathered in Central Park who then marched their way across town and downtown.[9]  Tuesday morning started slow but early, with a sense of disorganization as large crowds of protesters gathered in various neighborhoods at different times.  In the 18th Ward on Manhattan’s mid-east side, they started gathering on 14th Street; though they were quiet and unsure how to proceed, some men were armed.  In his retrospective account of the events, nativist journalist Joel Tyler Headley noted the “dirty, ferocious-looking women” scattered among the crowd.[10]

Around 8:30am telegraphs began pouring into the police commissioner’s office.  The Twenty-first Precinct learned that “a large mob was gathering on Second Avenue and 34th Street, and threatening to burn all property in that vicinity.”[11] Upon hearing that their neighbor, Colonel O’Brien, had offered his services to assist in suppressing dissent against the draft, some set upon his house in Second Avenue.  They warned the family to leave and afterwards gutted and sacked it; they stopped short of setting fire to the building after learning that O’Brien did not own it.[12]

By 9:30am reports that buildings had been set ablaze sent the police to Second Avenue and 34th Street.  A force of 250 policemen marched up Second Avenue from East 21st Street; as they passed 32nd Street, they were met with yells and taunts.  The intersection was surrounded by protesters who threw bricks, wood, kettles, and rocks from windows and rooftops down onto the police.  Most of the subsequent action was centered on Riley’s porterhouse on the corner of East 35th Street and Second Avenue. The police stormed the buildings in the neighborhood to get the resisters to retreat deeper inside, leaving few choices for escape.[13] Many then jumped from windows in an attempt to flee police, the force of the fall causing their deaths.[14]

In the midst of this chaos, military reinforcements from the 11th NYSV – about 150 men – under the command of Colonel O’Brien arrived on the scene and took command.[15] The 11th’s equipment included six-pound cannons which were easy to transport.  O’Brien’s first order to his men was to load their guns with blanks and fire high into the air, in an attempt to disperse the crowd. To onlookers, it appeared that the troops turned ‘howitzers’ on the crowd and that O’Brien, on horseback, fired his revolver, striking a woman holding a child.[16] The Metropolitan Police also took part in this confrontation, forcing their way forward with clubs.[17] Newspaper accounts said “bullets whistled through the air in every direction, shattering shutters and doors.” Two children looking down from upper story windows were hit; John Mulhare, age 8, was badly injured and two-year-old Ellen Kirk died.[18]

This was just one of several ‘battles’ along Second Avenue that morning — the most ferocious of which took place several blocks south at the Union Steam Works at East 22nd Street – but it is the event that directly led to the death of Colonel O’Brien.[19]

O’Brien’s widow made a public plea for support in the aftermath of his death that resulted in his body being reinterred in Calvary Cemetery but the grave still remains unmarked. New York Herald, January 30, 1864.

Narratives about O’Brien’s death vary only in minute details while overall maintaining a general consistency.  The main difference between these narratives is the question of how the Colonel ended up back in the neighborhood of Second Avenue and 34th Street, alone with a mob. Many accounts repeat the assertion that O’Brien simply got separated from his men, but these fail to consider why his armed troops and/or the police did not go back for him.  Another version, published in the New York Herald, has O’Brien dismounting from his horse once the crowds dispersed in order to get a refreshment from the corner drugstore, which would be a reckless action taken by a commanding officer in the midst of unprecedented civil unrest.

The most plausible narrative is supported by the New York Tribune, which reported that Colonel O’Brien returned home in the afternoon to check on his family, because of the threats made to them earlier that morning. Writing a decade later, Headley’s version elaborates on what happened after order had been restored:

O’Brien, with some twenty or thirty men, marched down to police headquarters, and offered his services to General Brown.  Colonel Frothingham thanked him, but soon saw that the Colonel was not in a fit state to have command of troops, and so reported to General Brown.  O’Brien appeared to comprehend the state of things, and asked to be excused on the plea of sickness.  He was excused, and rode away.  Whether he disbanded his handful of men, or they disbanded themselves, was not stated, but he was soon back again at the scene of the riot.  His residence was close by, but had been deserted that morning by the family, which had fled in alarm to Brooklyn.[20]

O’Brien likely went home to see if there was anything salvageable from his ransacked house.  The historian Adrian Cook suggests that even this interpretation was “brave to the point of foolhardiness.”[21] Perhaps he was also not thinking clearly because he was immediately attacked. He managed to drive his attackers away but was cut in the process.  This may explain why he sought relief from the drugstore, although Cook also found that O’Brien’s knee had been hit by a stone during the morning battle, causing an injury.[22]  While the Colonel was in the drugstore, a new crowd gathered out front; his earlier assailants had clearly spread word of his location and returned with reinforcements.  Headley explained their antipathy thus: “Although an Irishman, and well-known in that neighborhood, [O’Brien’s] sympathy with the Government had awakened more or less hostile feeling against him, which his conduct [that] day kindled into deadly hate.”[23]

The crowd transformed into a true mob as it tried to break into the drugstore, whose doors were locked.  Some tried to get in through the rear; someone threw a brick through the front glass window. Colonel O’Brien emerged to investigate and was struck from behind with a club. He swung around, pulling out his revolver, and was hit again.  He fell to the ground unconscious, but still alive, on the sidewalk in front of the drugstore.  He was quickly surrounded by young boys, women, and men who kicked and beat his body.[24]

Some children lit papers on fire and stuck them under his head.  Men took turns grabbing his legs and dragging him back and forth across the street. The Tribune reported that men also grabbed O’Brien by the hair and likewise pulled him.  The Herald reported that “his inanimate body was taken up in the strong arms of the crowd and hurried to the first lamp-post, where it was strung up by a rope.  After a few minutes the body was taken down, he being still alive, and thrown like as much rubbish in the street.”  According to a later account, “for some four hours did he thus lie, subjected to infamous outrages, among them the occasional thrusting of a stick down his throat when gasping for breath.” [25]

“New York — The Rioters Dragging Col. O’Brien’s Body Through the Street.” The Union Drug Store was at 553 Second Avenue, corner of East 34th Street. NYPL DigID 809556. Originally published in Headley, p. 187.

This half-hanging was reported in various newspapers but, unlike the lynching of African Americans in New York during the Draft Riots, Colonel O’Brien’s was not racially motivated.[26]  However, it may have been a consequence of thwarted racism in the area; African Americans who lived on East 35th Street were evacuated from their homes by Captain Walling and hidden in the Twentieth police precinct house to prevent them from being harmed.[27] This was not far from the intersection where O’Brien and his men encountered resistance.  While there is no way to connect the assailants of the Colonel with those who would have attacked their black neighbors, the rapidity with which the mob resorted to hanging is suggestive, even though a white Irishman was ultimately their victim.[28]

Perris fire insurance map of the Second Avenue block between East 34th and East 35th Streets, New York City, 1857. Von Briesen’s Union Drug Store and the home of Colonel Henry O’Brien were on the west side of the block. Reilly’s porterhouse was opposite, on the northeast corner. Plates 73 and 74 assembled by Kelly Anne Reynolds, NYPL DigIDs 1268362 and 1268363.

According to witnesses, Colonel O’Brien was a big, strong man.  This was used to explain how he survived so long before succumbing to his injuries.  He did not die easily and this seems to have frustrated his determined assailants.  As O’Brien lay in the street, beaten beyond recognition but still breathing, a few people attempted to intervene.  A young girl screamed for them to stop torturing him as he lay dying; she was chased away, caught by the mob and beaten.  The boarding house she lived in was sacked and its contents burned in the street.  The drugstore owner, a man named Von Briesen, tried to give Colonel O’Brien a sip of water while he lay injured; the mob prevented this too, chasing him away, then sacking his business for good measure.[29] Van Briesen’s drugstore was only three doors down from the O’Brien home, so it must have been very difficult to be unable to help his neighbor.

The account of Colonel O’Brien’s death in the local Irish press generally conforms to the facts in the mainstream media. However, the length of time he suffered before death, the extent of his torture by his neighbors, and the timeline of Fr. Clowry’s ministry, remain ambiguous. Irish American, July 25, 1863, p. 2.

The mob continued to torture the dying Colonel for hours.  Somebody sent for a priest from St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church on East 36th Street to administer the sacrament of last rites. The crowd allowed Fr. William H. Clowry to bring Colonel O’Brien into a nearby house and watched in silence.  Fr. Clowry, a native of County Carlow, told them to leave O’Brien alone as he was dying quickly. [30]  But once the priest left, the mob grabbed his limbs and again dragged his body from place to place, sporadically beating it further into an unrecognizable mass of flesh.  O’Brien was eventually dragged into his own backyard, stripped of most of his regimental uniform, and beaten again.[31]

“New York – Receiving And Removing Dead Bodies At The Morgue” during the Draft Riots of 1863. NYPL DigID 809555.

New York Times, July 16, 1863.

It is believed Henry O’Brien died at 8pm.  Headley described it as “with one convulsive movement of the head, and a deep groan, the strong man yielded up his life.”[32] An hour later, Fr. Clowry returned with another priest and a wheelbarrow to bring his body to nearby Bellevue Hospital.  On July 16th the New York Times confirmed “that the body of Col. O’Brien is at the dead house.”[33]  He was buried in a pauper’s grave.[34]

In describing the tense situation in the industrial East Side neighborhoods where the attack on Colonel O’Brien took place, the historian Iver Bernstein determined that

The Republicans who suffered the largest share of violence on the Upper East Side were draft officers, soldiers, and policemen.  Women led the rioters’ week-long crusade to drive from the factory districts all armed representatives of the Republican government…. The participation of working-class wives suggests these events were not merely the outgrowth of the male workplace experience and may have relied as well on the neighborhood networks of poor Irish women.  No rioter announced that his or her attacks on policemen and soldiers were inspired by hostility to the Republican Party. Yet there is reason to suspect that the city’s immigrant poor did associate such armed authority with Republicanism.[35]

Bernstein concluded that the six-hour ordeal O’Brien suffered

presaged the entrenched style of conflict soon to characterize the fighting in this neighborhood….industrial workers and their families now became intensely local in their thinking…When the wives of Upper East Side workingmen enjoined their husbands to ‘die at home’ on Wednesday and Thursday, ‘home’ meant the dozen or so square blocks in which these families lived and worked.[36]

After the Draft Riots, it was difficult to hold people accountable for the horrific murders and other crimes that had been committed that week in the summer of 1863.  The mob of assailants who killed Colonel O’Brien threatened those who witnessed his long attack, intimidating anyone from coming forward to press charges.  The New York City Board of Supervisors authorized a $500 reward “for the arrest and conviction of the murderers of Colonel O’Brien.” Patrick Keegan and Patrick O’Brien were indicted for O’Brien’s death in early August but the charges were dropped; Henry Tilton, a native of England who owned a grocery story on East 32nd Street, was accused by a neighbor, Mrs. A. M. Matthews and jailed for months for the murder but his case was then dismissed by a grand jury.[37]  No one individual ever was, in fact, found responsible since so many were complicit, including his Irish neighbors.


[1] “Henry O’Brien, officer,” Trow’s New York City Directory (1863), Ancestry.com

[2] “Henry O’Brien,” U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865, Ancestry Library.

[3] He does not appear in census or city directories before 1863.  For his birth in 1825, see Find A Grave Memorial no. 176165469, memorial page for Henry F. O’Brien (1825–14 Jul 1863), citing Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, Queens County, New York, USA. FindAGrave.com. His wife was Anna F. O’Brien, New York Herald, January 30, 1864; their children predeceased Colonel O’Brien.  “Obituaries, United States, July 14, O’Brien, Colonel Henry T. [sic],” Appletons’ Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events: Embracing Political, Military, and Ecclesiastical Affairs; Public Documents; Biography, Statistics, Commerce, Finance, Literature, Science, Agriculture, and Mechanical Industry (New York: D. Appleton, 1869), p. 712. Colonel O’Brien’s history is further complicated by the sheer number of men named ‘Henry O’Brien from Ireland living in New York and enlisted in New York regiments during the Civil War, as well inconsistent ages and birth years.  Also, Damien Shiels, “Irish Colonels: Henry F. O’Brien, 11th New York Infantry,” irishamericancivilwar.com

[4] “Henry O’Brien,” U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865, Ancestry.com; “Henry F. O’Brien,” Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year … : Register of the 155th Infantry (1893-1905), p. 1335. This source gives his birth year as 1820; Muster roll for “Colonel Henry F. O’Brien, Co. H, 155th Regiment, New York State Volunteers” in A record of the commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates, of the regiments which were organized in the state of New York and called into the service of the United States to assist in suppressing the rebellion, caused by the secession of some of the Southern states from the Union, A.D. 1861, as taken from the muster-in rolls on file in the Adjutant-General’s Office, S.N.Y. (1864-1864), p. 404, HathiTrust.org.

[5] Edward K. Spann, “The Irish Community and the Civil War,” The New York Irish, eds. Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 200; Kevin O’Beirne, “Christmas in the Union’s Irish Brigades Part 2 of 2: In Corcoran’s Legion and After 1862,” The Wild Geese, November 20, 2013.

[6] “Hanry F. O’Brien [sic], 155th Infantry,” New York, Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, 1861-1900, Ancestry.com

[7] Extract re: “11th Infantry Regiment Civil War Ellsworth Zouaves; First Fire Zouaves; First Regiment New York Zouaves; U.S. National Guard” from Frederick Phisterer, New York in the War of the Rebellion (3rd ed., Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912) reproduced by the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs; “11th Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry Historical Sketch From The 3rd Annual Report Of The Bureau Of Military Statistics,” The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center; Anna F. O’Brien, New York Herald, January 30, 1864; “Brady, James T.,” The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography: Being the History of the United States as Illustrated in the Lives of the Founders, Builders, and Defenders of the Republic, and of the Men and Women who are Doing the Work and Moulding the Thought of the Present Time, Volume 3 (J. T. White Company, 1893), p. 387.

[8] Spann, “The Irish Community and the Civil War,” p. 203

[9] For a chronology of the Draft Riots, see Joel Tyler Headley, “Draft Riots of 1863,” in The Great Riots of New 14 York:1712-1873 (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004, reprint of 1970 edition); Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1990); Adrian Cook, The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 (Lexington:The University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

[10] Headley, p. 145.

[11] Cook, p. 101.

[12] “The Riot Continued,” New York Tribune, July 15, 1863, 1.

[13] Cook, p.100; Headley, pp. 145-146; “The Riot Continued,” July 15, 1863. New York Tribune, p. 1.  “Riley” is probably Hugh Reilly, a native of Ireland who operated a liquor store at 568 Second Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets, and lived around the corner at 174 East 35th Street.  In 1860 he was 29 years old with a personal estate valued at $2,000; employed 18 year-old Phillip Flynn as a barkeep; and was a single father to 3 year-old Elizabeth Reilly. “Hugh Reilly, liquors,” Trow’s New York City Directory for 1863, HathiTrust.org; “Hugh Reilly, liquor dealer,” Ward 21, District 5, New York County, 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Ancestry.com

[14] Headley, p. 146.

[15] Headley, p. 146; Cook, p. 101.

[16] Cook, p.101; Headley, p. 147; “Deluge of the Military,” The New York Times, July 15, 1863, p. 1; “The Riot,” New York Tribune, July 15, 1863, 1 “Right Side”.  Excerpts from the New York Herald’s reporting on July 15th (reprinted in the Manchester Guardian) also support this, that the New York Eleventh Volunteers brought “two small field pieces” but also referred to them as ‘Howitzers.” “The Riots in New York,” The Manchester Guardian, July 27, 1863, p. 3.

[17] Bernstein, p. 37.

[18] “The Riot Continued,” New York Tribune, July 15, 1863, 1; Cook, p. 101.

[19] “The Riot in Second Avenue,” The New York Times, July 15, 1863; Cook, p.101.

[20] Headley, p. 147.

[21] Cook, p. 118.

[22] Cook, p. 118.

[23] Headley, p. 147.

[24] Cook, p. 118.

[25] “The Riots in New York,” The Manchester Guardian, July 27,1863, p. 3; “The Reign of the Rabble,” Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1863; “Testimony of Mr. Hutchins,” Report of the proceedings and debates of the Convention for the revision of the constitution of the State of New York, 1867 – 68, Volume 4 (NY: Weed, Parsons, 1868), p. 3039.

[26] Bernstein, p. 36.

[27] “Onslaught on Negro Dwellings,” The New York Times, July 15, 1863, p. 1.

[28] “The Body of Col. O’Brien,” The New York Times, July 16, 1863.

[29] Cook, pp. 118-119.

[30] Headley, p. 148; Remigius Lafort, S.T.D., Censor, The Catholic Church in the United States of America: Undertaken to Celebrate the Golden Jubilee of His Holiness, Pope Pius X. Volume 3: The Province of Baltimore and the Province of New York, Section 1: Comprising the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn, Buffalo and Ogdensburg Together with some Supplementary Articles on Religious Communities of Women.. (New York City: The Catholic Editing Company, 1914), p. 374; “The Rev. William H. Clowry,” New York Tribune, June 13, 1884, p. 5.

[31] Headley, p. 148.

[32] Headley, p. 148.

[33] “The Body of Col. O’Brien,” New York Times, July 16, 1863.

[34] “The Late Colonel O’Brien,” New York Herald, January 30, 1864.

[35] Bernstein, p. 37

[36] Bernstein, pp. 38-39

[37] Cook, pp. 243, 248, 254; “Accidents and Offenses,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 8, 1863, p. 14;“The Murder of Colonel O’Brien,” New York Times, August 9, 1863, p. 3; “The Murder of Col. O’Brien: Arrest of the Alleged Murderer,” New York Times, July 4, 1867; “Another Arrest in the Colonel O’Brien Murder Case,” New York World, 1 August 1863; “Henry Tilton, grocer,” Trow’s New York City Directory (1863), Ancestry.com.