ALMOST TWO CENTURIES ago, a major American city exploded into arson and murder, in a shocking episode of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic bigotry.
Although virtually forgotten now on both sides of the Atlantic, the Philadelphia Nativist Riots of 1844 had significant consequences for political and religious life in the United States, and bear an uncanny resemblance to events taking place in 2016.
This is the explosive, lost story of when hatred and fear of Irish Catholics set fire to an American city, and what we can learn from it today, 172 years later.
The whole thing started with a row over the Bible. Or rather, a Bible.
Philadelphia in the 1840s was a city in transition. The first capital of the United States until 40 years prior, it was the second-most populous city in America, after New York.
Like other north-eastern cities, it had seen a massive influx of immigrants from Germany and Ireland in the decades leading up to 1844.
Immigrants like the Clark family, Dubliners of Cavan origins, who came to Philadelphia en masse in the 1810s.
(This 1850 census entry shows 16 of them, from three generations, living in two adjacent houses in Philadelphia).
One of their four children, Hugh, was a weaver and manufacturer, who established himself as a leader in the Irish community, but worked within the overwhelmingly Protestant mainstream of Philadelphia society and commerce.
He learned German, to help forge professional bonds, and worked his way up to Alderman and director of the public schools system, rare positions of political power and influence for an Irish Catholic at that time.
In 1828, he and his brother Patrick bought property on the corner of Master and Fourth Streets, in the burgeoning Irish community of Kensington, in north Philadelphia.
The seller was Turner Camac, the Anglican Irishman after whom the Camac river (and bridge) on the south side of Dublin, are named.
At the same time as the Clark family embedded themselves in the lower-middle class neighbourhood of Kensington, another Dubliner was establishing himself in the city.
Francis Kenrick was born on 3 December 1797, at 16 Chancery Lane, near St Patrick’s Cathedral.
According to his biography, he was a pious young man, an excellent student, and fiercely proud of his religion and nationality.
At 18, he was selected to study at the Vatican, and went on to become a missionary priest and lecturer at a seminary in Kentucky. In 1830, he was sent to Philadelphia, and became Bishop of the Diocese by 1842.
He inherited a rapidly growing Irish community, and found himself caught in the middle of a seemingly trivial, innocuous dispute that exploded into violence in the spring of 1844.
In the Philadelphia public school system at that time, all children were required to be taught from the Protestant King James Bible.
In his first year as Bishop, Kenrick formally asked the city’s school board to allow Catholic (overwhelmingly Irish) children to read the Catholic Douay Bible.
In response, the authorities excused Catholic children from studying the Protestant Bible, but made it complicated for them read their scripture of choice.
Of course, Kenrick never asked for the removal of the King James Bible from Philadelphia schools.
However, that lie was energetically spread throughout the city by leaders from an emerging anti-immigrant movement who somewhat strangely called themselves “native Americans.”
In February 1844, Louisa Bedford, the principal of a girl’s school in Kensington, was having trouble coordinating Bible lessons in her classroom, given the messy instructions handed down for Catholic and Protestant children.
For advice, she turned to the director of the city’s school system, the Dubliner Hugh Clark.
He suggested to her that, given the confusion, it might be easier for her to gradually and quietly phase out all Bible lessons.
By the teacher’s own account, Clark never ordered her to throw out the Protestant Bible, or replace it with the Catholic version.
However, once again, this lie was spread by an increasingly organised Nativist movement in Philadelphia.
First, a foreign Catholic bishop had tried to remove the true word of God from the education of their children. And now, a foreign bureaucrat was ordering a helpless, female school teacher to do the same.
This propaganda was all the ammunition that the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American Republican party needed in order to whip up fear and hatred among ordinary Philadelphians.
And two months later, that powder keg exploded.
Friday, 3 May – ‘The missiles and shouts of the Irish’
In the heart of the mostly-Irish Kensington neighbourhood, an outdoor gathering of the local, anti-immigrant American Republican party took place.
We don’t know what was said, if anything, during the meeting at the Nanny Goat Market, on the corner of 2nd and Master streets.
It seems likely it was triumphalist in tone, and inflammatory in its location, however.
Local historian Kenneth Milano likens it to a “Ku Klux Klan rally in the middle of an African-American neighbourhood.”
A month earlier, the American Republicans, or “Native Americans,” had swept to success in elections in New York City.
The Philadelphia branch held a celebration in response, in which they expressed their “gratification”, sang patriotic songs and revelled in “martial music till a late hour in the evening,” according to one report.
In any case, here’s how one contemporary account describes that Friday evening:
The meeting had organised, and one of the speakers was addressing the crowd, when all at once, a rush from a concourse of Irish people, residing in that immediate vicinity, and who had surrounded the meeting, took place.
The native Americans, so fiercely were they assailed by an overpowering force, were driven from the staging they had erected, and fled in all directions, pursued by the missiles and shouts of the Irish.
Monday, 6 May – ‘A fearful disturbance and loss of life’
Incensed by the break-up of their gathering, and no doubt fuelled by rumours that the Irish had stolen an American flag and destroyed it, the natives planned another rally for Monday, 4 pm.
It was held at the same corner as Friday’s meeting, and it didn’t take long for it to explode into violence.
The group’s leader, Lewis Levin, was discussing the perils of “Popish interference” in American democracy, via “their minions of the poor degraded slaves of the church,” when a sudden rain storm forced them to move to the nearby market.
Then, as contemporary local writer John Perry reported:
A commotion occurred from some cause or other, and some 12 or 15 persons ran out of the market, on the west side, pursued by about an equal number.
A scuffle ensued: two desperate fellows clinched each other, one armed with a brick, and the other with a club, and exchanged a dozen blows, any one of which seemed severe enough to kill an ordinary man.
There was a flurry of stones thrown, along with some pistol shots, as the next day’s Philadelphia Inquirer recounted:
The scene for a time was appalling. One or two thousand persons must have been in the immediate vicinity, and as may well be imagined, most of them in a state of high excitement.
Amid an exchange of rocks, the Americans were sent running by “two or three discharges of a musket carried by a grey-headed Irishman who wore a seal-skin cap.”
In the chaos, a 19-year-old tanner named George Shifler was shot and killed. The first casualty of the riots, he became a martyr for the nativist cause, as this widely-circulated print shows.
The natives then went on a rampage throughout the Irish neighbourhood, attacking residents and ransacking their homes.
They destroyed the houses of Irish families like the Develins, Bradys, Quinns, Lavertys, Browns and Reillys, and many others were forced to flee their homes.
But the worst was still to come.
Tuesday, 7 May – ‘Avoid all occasion of excitement’
With tribal tensions beginning to boil over in Philadelphia, Bishop Kenrick did his best to calm things down.
He posted placards throughout the city, imploring Catholics to show some sympathy with the riot’s victims and their families, and not to make things worse.
I earnestly conjure all to avoid all occasion of excitement, and to shun public places of assemblage, and to do nothing that in any way can exasperate.
According to several accounts, though, the nativists tore up the posters on their way to a heated gathering in the centre of Philadelphia, at the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Whipped up into a frenzy by speeches there, between 2,000 and 4,000 men set out once again, for Ground Zero of all that week’s trouble – the corner of Second and Master streets in the heart of Catholic Philadelphia.
They set fire to 60 Irish homes, a Catholic named Joseph Rice was shot dead, and they also targeted the Hibernian Hose House, an Irish-run fire station and important symbol of the Irish community in that part of Philadelphia.
By this time, around a dozen Americans, and an unknown number of Irish, had been killed in the riots.
Wednesday, 8 May – ‘A heap of ashes’
Terence Donaghoe, born in Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone in 1795, came to Philadelphia as a Catholic missionary in 1823.
During the deadly cholera outbreak of 1831/1832, Donaghoe is said to have ridden his horse throughout the city, bringing vulnerable victims of the epidemic back to the house of Fr Michael Hurley, and caring for hundreds, very few of them Catholic.
In the decade before the riots, he helped build St Michael’s church and a convent for the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), close to the site of the first night’s disturbances.
He did this, coincidentally, with the help of another Aughnacloy man, Fr John Hughes – whose aggressive defence of Irish Catholics earned him the nickname “Dagger John”, and who went on to become the first Archbishop of New York.
But in May 1844, all their work was left in a heap of ashes, as this account describes:
At half-past two on Wednesday afternoon, May 8, 1844, St Michael’s Church, although under the protection of the military, was set on fire together with Fr Donaghoe’s house.
While the church was burning, a shouting mob surrounded the building, and when the cross fell from the roof, three vociferous cheers were given, the streets rang with shouts of derision, and the fife and drum corps played The Boyne Water.
These particular arsonists, it appears, weren’t of English extraction, like many of the nativists, but rather Irish Protestants.
By this time, Philadelphia Sheriff Morton McMichael had gathered posses, and was putting together a somewhat belated protection of Irish properties in Kensington, along with the head of the Pennsylvania state militia, General George Cadwalader.
A slow response, and jurisdictional wrangling were later blamed for much of the death and destruction caused by the riots.
However, the local military had been able to ghost Fr Donaghoe out of his house on Second Street, before St Michael’s Church burned to the ground, 90 minutes after the start of the fire.
The Sisters of Charity BVM had started out on North Ann Street in Dublin, but came to Philadelphia en masse in 1833, specifically to help and educate the surging wave of Irish immigrants in the city, whose “souls were in peril.”
After meeting Fr Donaghoe, they operated a school and convent in Kensington for 10 years, but packed up once again and headed to Iowa, where their headquarters remain today.
In May 1844, however, there were still three women left in the convent on the corner of 2nd and Phoenix St (now Thompson St) – two Irish girls, Elizabeth Sullivan and Jane O’Reilly, and an “intrepid little English lady” named Mary Baker.
It was surrounded by a furious mob, clamouring for the destruction of the “Irish nuns.”
The miscreants first set fire to a high board fence surrounding the enclosure, then burning brands were thrown through the windows.
The three young women were terrified at the sight of the fire within and without.
Mary Baker opened the front door to confront the assailants, demanding to know whether they were “brutal enough to burn to death three helpless women.”
She was met with a brick fired directly at her head, fell unconscious, and was dragged back inside.
Soon afterwards, a “band of stalwart Irishmen” broke up the mob and rushed the women through the garden and into a safe house set up for Fr Donaghoe.
Moments later, the convent was a “heap of ashes.”
At 6pm, according to Perry’s account, the Nativists targeted the Clarks, burning to the ground Hugh and Patrick’s homes, where three generations of the Irish family lived.
[They] have entirely gutted it out. The windows have been demolished, the furniture thrown out of the windows, the beds cut open and the feathers scattered about in the wind.
…The corner house was occupied by his brother, Patrick Clark, as a tavern and dwelling, and his furniture has also been destroyed.
Later that night, the mob turned their attention (and their torches) to St Augustine’s Church, already a landmark in Catholic America, after its opening in 1801.
The church had been conceived and built by Fr John Rossiter, from New Ross, and Fr Matthew Carr, who had run the Augustinian Centre on John’s Lane in Dublin, before emigrating to Philadelphia in 1795.
Among those who provided initial funding for the project were Wexford man Commodore John Barry – a Revolutionary War hero and “Father of the American Navy” – and George Washington himself.
The country’s first President personally invested $50 in the building of the church, located just half a mile from where he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
On the evening of 8 May, rumours were rife that gangs of nativists were out to destroy as many Catholic churches as they could, and by 6.30 pm a large crowd had gathered outside St Augustine’s.
The mayor, John Scott, issued an order for “all good citizens” to “resist all invasions of property, and to preserve the public peace.”
The request fell on deaf ears, and at around 9.50 pm, a 14-year-old boy is said to have started a fire in the vestibule of St Augustine’s.
By 10.20, the cross had fallen from the steeple, to loud cheers, and by 10.30 the steeple itself collapsed onto the street.
The heat, during the height of the fire, was so intense that persons could hardly look at the flames…
As the blaze subsided into the early hours of the morning, a mob of nativists ransacked the parochial residence, which contained an enormous, irreplaceable library, and piled hundreds of books on the streets, setting fire to them all.
Amid the chaos, an urn containing the ashes of Fr Michael Hurley, who had made his home a hospital for 367 mostly non-Catholic cholera victims in 1832, was destroyed.
John B Perry’s (hardly pro-Irish) account describes a “truly sickening” scene across the burnt out Irish community of Philadelphia, immediately after the attacks.
Men with their wives, and often six or seven children, trudging fearfully through the streets, with small bundles, seeking a refuge they knew not where.
Mothers with infants in their arms, and little ones following after them, carrying away from their homes whatever they could pick up at the instant, passing along with fearful tread, not knowing where to turn.
Within two days, Bishop Kenrick had taken the unprecedented step of calling off all church services for that Sunday, 12 May.
And as the military finally began to take control of the streets of the city, there was a period of relative calm.
There are several accounts of priests disguising themselves in civilian clothing, or going into hiding, and Irish residents of the city displaying American flags outside their homes and businesses, for fear of further violence.
In July, arms were stockpiled at the St Philip of Neri Catholic church in South Philadelphia, after rumours of an imminent nativist attack.
The nativists, in turn, saw an armed church as a threat, and an Independence Day celebration gave way to a mob assailing the church.
A four-day stand-off between “native Americans” and the military, ended relatively peacefully, and the destruction of yet another catholic church was avoided when the weapons were removed from the church.
The violent episode prompted Bishop Kenrick to give up any hope of integrating Catholics into the Philadelphia education system, and led to the establishment of the city’s Catholic schools.
The Nativist movement, a precursor to the more famous Know Nothings of the 19th Century, enjoyed a boost in popularity from the riots.
But in the long term, the lawlessness and violence seen in Philadelphia that spring only undermined their cause.
Despite an official inquiry into the riots, a grand jury found the Irish community in Kensington responsible for death and destruction.
However, dozens of Irish residents, including Hugh Clark’s 64-year-old mother Bridget, originally from Co Cavan, sued the authorities for damages.
Dozens, if not hundreds of houses were burned to the ground, destroyed, or damaged. The names of their owners paint a clear picture:
Hugh and Patrick Clark from Dublin, Joseph Corr, Owen (John) Daly, John McAleer, Barney Rice from Tyrone, Francis McCreedy, Patrick Magee, James Loy, John Lavary, John Carroll, Patrick Murray, Thomas Sheridan, Michael Keenan, John Lafferty, Patrick McKee, John Taggert, John Dougherty, and others.
The number of Irish casualties is harder to estimate.
Newspaper accounts from the time, heavily biased against the Catholic community, were scrupulous in listing the names of dead Americans, their occupations, and the location and manner of their deaths.
When it came to the Irish, however, only two were identified – Joseph Rice, and a man named only as Johnson.
Perry’s account, which carefully detailed the deaths of nativists, and named their suspected Irish killers, downplayed the damage done by the rioters, but admitted “a number [of Irish] were seen to fall.”
The extent of their loss could not be ascertained, as it was impossible to approach them without being in danger of being fired upon.
Philadelphia historian Kenneth Milano, who wrote a definitive account of the riots, told TheJournal.ie that he estimates “around 23 or 24 were killed in total.”
There were about 14 or 15 other Irish Catholics who were said to have been killed – either shot or burned to death, but their names are not known.
As his book, The Philadelphia Nativist Riots, describes:
The casualties are low estimates, particularly for the Irish wounded, as Philadelphia officials and newspapers at that time were not keeping track of Irish Catholics wounded, nor were the Irish reporting them.
As a fairly new immigrant community, they were somewhat insulated from the Protestant society at large.
Days after the riots ended, authorities were still pulling bodies from the burned Irish Catholic homes.
History repeating itself
The fear and hatred shown to Irish Catholics in Philadelphia in 1844 has manifested itself again and again over the last 172 years of American history.
In 1928, Al Smith – the Democrat Governor of New York and grandson of the Mulvihills from Westmeath – became the first ever Catholic candidate for President.
Although his eventual defeat cannot solely be attributed to religious prejudice, Smith was was viciously targeted for his Catholicism, especially in the largely Anglo-Saxon Protestant South.
The Ku Klux Klan ran a relentless propaganda campaign against him, and cartoons like this one appeared, repeating the fear that Catholic politicians, if elected, would be under the control of Vatican hierarchy:
And in an attack that could easily have emerged from Philadelphia in 1844, the school board of the city of Daytona Beach, Florida sent every parent a letter, warning:
We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the Presidency. If he is elected President, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.
Many of these fears were revived in 1960, when John F Kennedy ran for the White House.
Although he would eventually win, of course, he was forced to explain the role of his Catholicism, in a now-landmark speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which he famously said:
…Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.
I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.
And in the last year, the Know Nothing nativism that set fire to Philadelphia in 1844, has once again come to the fore, in the Republican presidential primary.
Frontrunner Donald Trump has drawn countless comparisons to the xenophobia of that movement, with his inflammatory claims about Mexico sending rapists and murderers into the United States, and his call for a complete ban on Muslim immigration after the San Bernardino massacre, last month.
(In an uncanny twist of fate, the Al-Aqsa mosque in Philadelphia, where a severed pig’s head was left in December, after Trump’s announcement, is right in the heart of the old Irish neighbourhood of Kensington – just yards from St Michael’s church.)
As Laura Reston wrote in the New Republic:
The rise of the Know Nothings, an episode in American history often brushed under the rug or simply forgotten, demonstrates that Trump is a part of a tradition dating to the earliest days of the Republican Party.
The fear of immigrants has long driven American politics, bringing together coalitions that have propelled even the most unlikely candidates to the halls of American political power.
If nativist sentiment continues to rise, just as it did in 1854 when the Know Nothings swept Congress, Trump could be a candidate to be reckoned with.
However, here’s a historical footnote worth mentioning.
Two years after that election, 12 years after they murdered Irish Catholics, burned them out of their homes, and destroyed their places of worship in Philadelphia, the nativist surge came to a head with the candidacy of Millard Fillmore for president.
He lost every single state, bar one, and the Know Nothings entered a rapid political decline that they still haven’t emerged from.
In May 1844, it took the Irish Catholics of Kensington just four days to rebuild St Michael’s Church.
And 172 years later, it’s still standing. The parish priest, Fr Arturo Chagala, is from Mexico. Mass in Spanish is every Sunday, at 11.30 am.