How We Got Here: Philadelphia’s Bible Battles

Part two in a series on 19th Century Nativism; part one here

Rebecca Reed’s scandalous revelations (and the violence they inspired) triggered a slew of imitators. Perhaps the most absurd was Rosalind, a pseudo-memoir detailing Cuban priests conscripting white women into harems and grinding black slaves into breakfast sausage. Possibly the dumbest was The Spy in the Family, which claimed that Irish housemaids transcribed their Protestant masters’ every conversation for the benefit of Jesuit scholars. Arguably the most tasteless were children’s books like Edwin and Alicia, which introduced young Protestants to their parents’ hate. Nineteenth century readers indulged bottomless appetites for these lewd epics, projecting their darkest fantasies onto perverted priests and filthy foreigners.

Undoubtedly the most impactful was Maria Monk, whose Awful Disclosures owed its colossal success to Monk’s pornographic prose. (More tolerant, but equally voyeuristic 20th Century publishers reprinted her tome for adult bookstores.) Claiming to have escaped the Hotel-Dieu monastery in Montreal, Monk recounted orgies, torture of nuns with whips, gags and hot wax, and murder of illegitimate infants (after the nuns thoughtfully baptized them). After a priest impregnated her, Monk fled the monastery, attempted suicide and traveled to America, inspired to expose Papist perversity.

In reality, Monk was a prostitute who’d indeed been impregnated by a wayward priest, manipulated by Protestant evangelicals and confused by mental illness. (Monk’s mother claimed she had stabbed her brain with a pencil, triggering a personality disorder.) Though investigators quickly proved her a fraud, Monk not only published her book but toured the country, sometimes wearing a nun’s habit, spreading her sorry tale to tens of thousands of credulous listeners. Monk died in penury in 1849, but her toxic legacy long outlived her.

Maria Monk, exposer of Papist perversion

One of Monk’s exploiters, William L. Stone, became embroiled in another controversy in the early 1840s. Elected Superintendent of New York schools, Stone supported legislation demanding that public schools instruct students in the King James Bible. This caused complaints from Bishop John J. Hughes, ever-vigilant about Protestant efforts to curb Catholic rights. Many schools tried to compromise by removing Bibles from the school curriculum altogether. This secularization only exacerbated nativist fears; in their eyes, Catholicism was so ungodly they’d outlaw Christianity rather than tolerate Protestantism.

This outrage opened a new front in the burgeoning culture war. The Nativists began forming secret societies and political groups, from the American Protestant Association to New York’s American Republican Party. Nativists won local elections across the country, even sending several representatives to Congress. “The interference of foreign prelates in our schools” provided an issue more tangible than accusations of cloistered perversions in nunneries. Not only were priests corrupting Protestant women’s bodies, they were destroying our children’s souls.

Nativist sentiment turned an even uglier hue, imputing the Church’s perfidy to Irish and German newcomers. The American Protestant Society denounced “men of immoral character… ignorant of our laws and institutions” flooding into America. Others played on fears of foreigners taking American jobs; the Troy Whig accused Irishmen of “dump[ing] themselves into our large towns filling them with wretchedness, filth and diseases,” dismissing them as “mere marketable cattle.” Whigs and Nativists alike resented Irishmen’s attachment to the Democratic Party, whose leaders hastily naturalized urban Irish to secure their votes.

Fears of Catholic indoctrination

A showdown became inevitable, yet Philadelphia seemed a strange setting. Pennsylvania had been among the most tolerant American colonies, with William Penn refusing to institute the harsh anti-Catholic legislation of his neighbors. Nonetheless, Nativism arose even here, with John M. Scott winning the Mayoralty on an anti-Catholic platform. And the Lombard Street riot of 1842, where Irish mobs assaulted African-Americans, remained fresh in Philadelphians’ minds. Thus, the ugly issue that divided New York spawned violence in the City of Brotherly Love.

Here again, a Catholic bishop, Francis Kenrick, sought accommodation for Catholic school children. Rather than forcing Catholics to study King James, he wrote in a letter to the City Comptrollers in November 1843, why not allow the Catholic Douay Bible for non-Protestant students? It was a reasonable request, and after several months of debate, the city endorsed the proposal.

Angry Nativists held a meeting in Independence Square on March 11th, 1844. Orators demanded that “every man who loves his country, his Bible and his God, is bound by all lawful and honorable means to resist every attempt to banish the Bible from our public institutions.” Kenrick insisted that he advocated neither outlawing Bibles nor forcing Protestant children to accept the Douay Bible. This made no difference to reactionary Protestants, who viewed minorities asserting their rights as the majority losing theirs.

Bishop Francis Kenrick, failed peacemaker

The first explosion came on May 3rd. A Nativist rally gathered in Kensington, a primarily Irish neighborhood of Philadelphia, with speakers denouncing Bishop Kenrick and Catholic indoctrination. Indignant Irishmen formed their own crowd and began heckling the speakers. Eventually words begat violence, with Irishmen attacking Nativists with clubs and fists, driving them off. Despite the obvious provocation, that Catholics drew first blood invited the Nativists to pose as victims.

The Native American, a leading Nativist periodical, proclaimed the violence “another St. Bartholomew’s Day” and called upon citizens to arm themselves and fight back: “The bloody hand of the Pope has stretched forth to our destruction.” Others couched the riot as an outrage against free speech, the violence against them “a flagrant violation of the rights of American citizens.” Another meeting was scheduled for May 6th.

That day, thousands of Nativists arrived in Kensington, meeting inside a market during a rainstorm. As orators gave inflammatory speeches, Catholics joined the assembly, many armed and spoiling for a fight. According to one account, violence started when a Nativist drew two pistols and threatened loudmouthed Catholics; dared to fire, he shot an Irish fireman in the face. Others blamed Irish snipers firing into the crowd outside from windows across the street. Either way, blood was shed, leading to several injuries and the death of George Shiffler, an eighteen year old leather worker who became the riot’s martyr.

George Shiffler, Protestant martyr

“On, on Americans!” someone shouted, rallying the Protestants. “Liberty or Death!” Fighting spilled into the street, with armed Nativists exchanging fire with Irishmen shooting from nearby buildings. More Catholics arrived and attacked the Nativists with fists, clubs and blunt instruments. Weight of numbers told, and the Nativists fled. The arrival of policemen prevented further violence that day. First round to the Catholics, but the violence had just begun.

The next day, a huge crowd advanced towards Kensington carrying a torn American flag painted with the words, “This is the flag that was trampled underfoot by the Irish Papists.” They shouted “Save the Bible!” and assorted anti-Irish epithets as they marched. Final attempts by the Mayor and Bishop Kenrick to sooth tensions proved futile; events were far beyond reason. Soon thousands of Protestants swarmed into Kensington, armed and seeking vengeance.

They returned, in thousands, to the scene of the previous day’s violence. They burnt the Hibernian firehouse to the ground, along with the market where the riot began. Soon Catholic homes came under fire, with up to 30 houses and tenements meeting the torch; Irish Philadelphians resorted to hanging signs reading “Native American” to avoid plunder. Catholics in the street were beaten or shot, including Joseph Rice, the riot’s first Irish fatality. Eventually, militia units arrived and the violence again subsided. A Nativist complained that “when the Natives had got their blood up and were fast gaining the ascendency, the peace officers thought it high to time to interpose the authority of the law.”

St. Augustine’s Church burns

May 8th proved that authority illusory. Mobs returned to Kensington and destroyed St. Michael’s Church on Second and Jefferson Streets. Nativists also attacked St. Michael’s Church on Fourth Street, with a library that included Bibles dating to the third century. Showers of stones and gunfire drove away priests, police and militiamen, and the mob trampled Mayor Scott (who despised Catholics, but hated violence more) as he tried to reason with them. The crowd set fire to the church, cheering as its cross toppled into the street.

This destruction climaxed the first round of rioting. Pennsylvania militia under General George Cadwallader occupied Philadelphia, declaring martial law for several days. The city awoke horrified by the bloodshed, which left fourteen dead, whole neighborhoods leveled and its reputation in tatters. “Who would not give worlds to wipe off the foul blot from the disgraced name of our city?” asked the Spirit of the Times. Many Catholics fled Philadelphia, while Bishop Ketrick closed Catholic churches. But the violence concluded… for now.

Tensions simmered over the next few months, expressing themselves in rumor and suspicion. Philadelphians interpreted a playbill announcing “Fortunio and His Seven Gifted Servants” as a coded incitement to violence. A crowd set upon an Irishman buying muskets for his business; Nativists held concerts raising funds for families of dead rioters. The Native American shouted that “the murderous assault on American citizens, the…tearing into shreds the American flag… is the cause, the origin of the whole trouble,” while a grand jury blamed violence on “the efforts of a portion of the community to exclude the Bible from the public schools.”

Cavalry arriving in the city

This atmosphere wasn’t conducive to healing, and July 4th saw further provocation. A crowd, later estimated at 70,000 strong, marched through the city, carrying the widows and orphans of those slain in the riot along with anti-Catholic banners. Worse, word spread that Irishmen were stockpiling arms at the Church of St. Philip Neri in Southwark. Indeed, Father John Patrick Dunn, hearing rumors of a Nativist attack, requested from authorities the right to procure muskets for self-defense. Mutual fears of an incipient massacre proved self-fulfilling.

On July 5th, thousands of Nativists marched on the church. They demanded to inspect it for arms; Sheriff Morton McMichael led his deputies into the church, finding a dozen muskets. A second search party found more guns. The authorities tried keeping these discoveries from the mob, but word spread anyway. July 6th saw another confrontation, with an Irish militia company, the Hibernia Greens, forcing the mob to disperse at gunpoint. The militia detained Charles Naylor, an ex-Congressman and career rabble-rouser, alongside less illustrious troublemakers.

So far, this second round of confrontations hadn’t generated violence. But on July 7th, a huge Nativist mob returned, carrying two cannons commandeered from local ships, demanding Naylor’s release. This was granted, as was the demand that the Hibernia Greens leave the church. The Greens, however, were assaulted by the mob as they decamped, leading to a skirmish which left one militiaman and several rioters dead. The Battle of Southwark began.

The mob returned to St. Philip and battered down the front doors; only the hasty intercession of leading citizens prevented its destruction. The Nativists melted back into the streets, allowing time for General Cadwallader to arrive with a company of regular troops with cannon and fixed bayonets. Another company of soldiers, marching down Queen Street, encountered another mob which exchanged fire with the troops. Angered to a fever pitch, the Nativists massed for a head-on assault.

General Robert Patterson, Cadwallader’s superior, reported that his men were “attacked by showers of missiles by an infuriated mob. Self-preservation, if nothing else, rendered necessary that the soldiers should open fire.” Fire they did, killing or wounding dozens of Nativists. The Nativists were well-armed themselves, however, responding with a shower of musket and cannon fire. The fighting lasted for hours, soldiers and Nativists deadlocked until a cavalry company charged the rioters, scattering them with lances and sabers.

As the mob reeled from the mounted assault, reinforcements reached the Church, bringing fresh ammunition and an additional regiment’s worth of soldiers. Now facing an entire brigade of regulars, the Nativists lost their taste for violence. Though scattered attacks continued on Catholic homes and churches throughout the city (one culminating in a bayonet charge by Marines defending St. Mary’s Church), the worst was over.

General Robert Patterson

Two soldiers and at least twenty Philadelphians were killed, with scores more injured and massive property damage. Nativists tried focusing outrage on the Catholics, who weren’t blameless at least in the initial outbreaks. Congressman Lewis C. Levin, speaking to the House of Representatives, praised the rioters as “freemen [who] stood armed only with moral power” (cannons being the highest moral power of all). New York’s American Republican called for Americans to “stay the bloody hand of tyranny” and encouraged further violence.

New York’s Bishop Hughes mirrored these sentiments. He chided Philadelphia Catholics that “They should have defended their churches” and decided to lead by example. As Philadelphia reeled under mob rule, Protestant mobs menaced Irish workmen in Brooklyn and threatened a rash of church burnings. Hughes announced that “if a single Catholic Church were burned in New York, the city would become a second Moscow. The Bishop’s threats stymied the nascent pogrom, limiting violence to scattered outbreaks.

The Philadelphia riots soured mainstream Americans on militant Nativism. The horrors of an American city succumbing to sectarian bloodshed persuaded sober Americans that anti-Catholic extremists might be more dangerous than the Pope’s bloody hand. Nativists may well pronounce May 6th as a “day… enshrined in the hearts of Native Americans,” but the country wasn’t ready to endorse them. It took a fresh wave of immigrants to reignite the Know-Nothing fire.

Sources and Further Reading:

Books: Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know-Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (1992); Carleton Beals, Brass-Knuckle Crusade: The Great Know-Nothing Conspiracy, 1820-1860 (1960); David Harry Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the Birth of the New Right in American History (1988); Ray A. Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (1938); Gustavus Myers, History of Bigotry in the United States (1960).

Articles: The Church of St. Philip Neri, “The Nativist Riots: Southwark 1844“; George J. Holmes, “The Anti-Irish Riots of Philadelphia 1844” on Phillygangsters; Melissa Mendel, “The Kensington Riots of 1844” on PhilaPlace; “Truth Seeker,” “The Philadelphia Bible Riots” on Unlearned History.

Part III will discuss the Astor Place Riots in New York City