Book Review: “Snow-Storm in August” by Jefferson MorleyPosted: September 1, 2012
by Dick Loftin.
“On Wednesday, August 12, 1835, Washington City went crazy… As a result, not many people of color were seen on the streets. The bondsmen sat tight in the company of their owners. The free Negroes went to visit kin in the country. The president was on vacation, and the white man was running wild.”
– Jefferson Morley, “Snow-Storm in August”
Beverly Snow wanted success. In Washington City in the 1830s, he was determined to make his way. Having won his freedom, he came to Washington City from Virginia to open an upscale restaurant with an impressive menu of turtle soup and oysters, among other specialties. His eatery, the “Epicurean Eating House” (the name coming from the Greek philosopher, Epicurus), thrived, serving the upper crust of Washington at a time when slavery was still the norm, but freed blacks outnumbered slaves for the first time.
Slavery was big business in Washington City in the 1830’s, but the forces of freedom were drawing near and it was only a matter of time before the force had to be reckoned with. Still, there were opportunities for free blacks in Washington—more than any other time—more than any other city outside of New Orleans, and Beverly Snow had the skill and determination to take full advantage of it.
He wanted customers in his restaurant, and advertised to get them, realizing that slave holder or not, a customer was a customer and they all had to eat. “No matter what words came out of the white man’s mouth, some food had to go in,” he liked to say. Like hospitality pioneer Fred Harvey, Beverly Snow recognized that a quality meal, with quality service, would bring customers back again and again.
At a time when people would dine at a common table, in a group, with meals served only a couple of times a day and service a variable depending on where you sat at the table, Snow brought a French style and presentation to his restaurant. He offered private seating with single servings, and a menu of choices. The price was right, the food was good and repeat customers were common at the Epicurean Eating House. Beverly’s restaurant was a hit and people liked him, no matter what color they were.
But despite Snow’s success and fortitude, slavery remained a cloud over Washington City. Blacks took the words of the framers literally; that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness included them, and that all men–all men—are created equal. Black dissent was growing. Disturbing accounts of uprisings in Virginia, with rebels taking to the streets, murdering white families in their homes, were being published in newspapers. White slave owners were getting nervous, and for good reason.
William Thornton and his wife Anna lived in a home on one of Washington City’s toniest addresses. Their Negro servants lived with them, were treated well, and kept the home running after William’s death in 1828. Dr. Thornton was a highly respected designer. His design of the U.S. Capitol building introduced him and Anna to powerful political figures of the period. They were neighbors of John Quincy Adams and his wife, and they were friends of George Washington.
Anna Thornton was skilled in business and it was the various property holdings that she and her husband owned and managed that kept her going after William’s death. One of her slaves, Maria Bowen, was particularly close to Anna and her mother, Ann Brodeau, who also lived at the Thornton home. Maria was the second-generation of Bowens to work for the Thornton’s. Maria’s mother worked as the Thornton’s servant when they came to Washington City in 1795. Maria had given birth to a boy, John Arthur, meaning now, a third generation of Bowens would work in the Thornton home. It is possible that Thornton was John’s father. Arthur, as the youth was called, was smart, learned to read and write, had a quick wit, and was soft-spoken, but would often run away to satisfy his taste for horse racing; a passion he shared with Dr. Thornton. Arthur was a free-spirit, hard to control, and was often fired when hired out to perform work for others. It was during this rowdy time that Arthur met John Cook. Cook introduced Arthur to the Philomathean Talking Society, a group that discussed slavery with passion and distributed newspapers on the subject. Arthur absorbed every word. One night at a Society meeting, Cook gave a talk meant to steel itself in the minds of young men like Arthur, saying, “[W]e are thrown into a revolution where the contest [is] not for landed territory, but for freedom… Let no man remove from his native country, for our principles are drawn from the book of Divine Revelation, and are incorporated into the Declaration of Independence, that all men are born equal.” It was a point difficult to argue, or deny young men like Arthur.
On the night of August 4, 1835, Arthur returns home from a night of meeting with Cook at the Society. Arthur and a friend talked and drank well past the curfew—10pm. Authorities were well-aware of recent disturbances from newspaper accounts, but did not notice Arthur lingering around until well past 1am.
He finally makes it to the Thornton house and upon climbing the stairs, picks up an axe, holding it under his arm. In the darkened home, with the floor rocking back and forth from his inebriated condition, he approaches two doors. He opens one—to Anna Thornton’s room, which included Arthur’s mother and Anna’s mother, Mrs. Brodeau.
The opening door awakened Anna and Arthur’s mother right away. There Arthur stood, drunk, with an axe in his hand, his intentions unknown. They could only assume the worst after hearing of stories of families being murdered by rampaging blacks in Southampton and Mississippi.
Maria Bowen goes straight for her son, pushing him out of the room. Anna runs out of the house, screaming for help, thinking certainly someone—her mother, perhaps—had been killed. Two neighbors appear and find Anna’s mother and Maria safe, but Arthur was gone—a runaway. A runaway with an axe. A black runaway with an axe. He most certainly would be captured and immediately hanged by a mob.
Rumors were flying about Arthur Bowen and mobs were forming, incensed by the incident at Anna Thornton’s home, and the activities of Reuben Crandall, for “exhibiting and circulating dangerous and insurrectionary writings … attempting to excite an insurrection.” Crandall was wanted for distributing anti-slavery pamphlets. He had a trunk full: The Emancipator, The Anti-Slavery Reporter, a sheet called Human Rights, and others. Crandall denied distributing the pamphlets, but held his position that he was “in favor of immediate emancipation” of the slaves. Happening days after the Thornton incident, authorities arrest Crandall. Between Arthur Bowen and his axe and Reuben Crandall and his pamphlets, crowds formed, hangings demanded.
In this environment, Beverly Snow found himself in yet another controversy. An off the cuff, unlikely, and “coarse” remark about white women, the “ladies of Washington,” attributed to Snow set the town’s excitement to a hard-to-imagine level. No one knew exactly what Beverly “said,” but no matter, they believed he said something, and that was good enough. A mob heads toward the direction of the Epicurean Eating House. Here is a man with a successful business, with regular clientele—white clientele—he was friendly, hospitable, his only concern was to provide hospitality and a great meal in his restaurant. The best restaurant in town. Why on earth would someone in Beverly’s position, being a black man, say something that would insult the ladies, his customers, everyone? Hard to say, but no matter. Beverly escaped the mob. But the hunt was on. A hunt involving pistols—and ropes.
These events, which lead to the “Snow Riot,” or “Snow-Storm,” are the intriguing and fascinating triangle of this book. Francis Scott Key, the author of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” is the District Attorney in Washington City during the period. But even Key, the author of the most beloved song in American history, isn’t the shining figure in the book. It is Beverly Snow. At a time when freed blacks are numerous, while others remain slaves with only a hope of being free, the issue of emancipation is a touchy one. Many people, even Key, seriously favored colonization; gathering up the slaves and shipping them off to Africa. Preposterous. And even though Snow is eventually captured and expected to be hanged, he perseveres, even challenging his accusers to investigate him. “What is life without character?” he asks. “It is worth nothing; it is a burden to me.” Snow’s character is well-defined in the book.
Beverly Snow is the hero of “Snow-Storm in August.” He eventually moves to Canada, setting up another Epicurean restaurant in Toronto. When it burns in a fire, he builds yet another. He prospers. He endures. People with talent, spirit and gumption always do. If I could meet Beverly Snow—and I wish I could—I would gladly shake his hand. And treat him to a nice meal.
Additional Reading and Source Material:
Background material on the Snow Riot, Here.
A piece on the Epicurean Eating House as the site of the Snow Riot, Here.
“Snow-Storm in August” and Jefferson Morley’s Facebook Page, Here.
“Snow-Storm in August” Random House, Inc. page Here.
“Snow-Storm in August” page from NPR Books, which features an interview with Jefferson Morley, Here.
Jefferson Morley’s website, Here.
Image of “Snow-Storm in August,” from goodreads.com. Visit goodreads.com, Here.