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June 2: Lord George Gordon and the Gordon Riots

June 2, 2013

220px-LordGeorgeGordon2The Gordon Riots, also known as the Great Proletarian Gin Festival, broke out in London on this date in 1780 when Lord George Gordon, a fanatical anti-Catholic, led over 50,000 people to the House of Commons with a petition for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. Within a few days the protest grew into an anti-Catholic pogrom and a mass worker insurrection that destroyed every major prison in the city, freed more than two thousand incarcerated people, set fire to churches, and attacked homes of the wealthy as well as the offices of the Bank of England. King George III ordered in soldiers to quell the riots, and more than three hundred people were killed. (Charles Dickens described these events in Barnaby Rudge.) Twenty-five of the rioters were executed. Lord George himself was arrested for high treason but acquitted. He was arrested again the following year for defaming Marie Antoinette and the French ambassador to England; he fled to the Netherlands, but was returned to England and imprisoned for five years in Newgate. Meanwhile, in 1787, at the age of 36, he converted to Judaism and took the name of Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon. Gordon lived in prison as an Orthodox Jew and only permitted pious Jews to visit. In 1793, at a court hearing at the end of his sentence, he refused an order to remove his hat in court and, since he had brought as his character witnesses and guarantors two Jews, whose testimony the court would not hear (Jews were not given full civil rights in England until the middle 1800s), he was remanded to prison, where he soon after died of typhoid fever.

“He appears with a beard of extraordinary length, and the usual raiment of a Jew . . . his observance of the culinary laws preparation is remarkable. . . . He was surrounded by a number of Jews, who affirmed that his Lordship was Moses risen from the dead in order to instruct them and enlighten the whole world . . .” —Bristol Journal, December 15, 1787