Philadelphia has had a long standing immigration of Irish citizens. The highest immigration of Irish into Philadelphia however was during the 19th century. The central cause of this spike in immigration was due to the failed potato crop in Ireland, which later became known as the Great Famine. Over a million Irish people died of starvation, while nearly another two million emigrated. A large portion of this plight landed in America, primarily to the Eastern coast cities, because copious amounts of them were extremely poor.
The Library of Congress explicates that the Irish “In the 1840s… mprised nearly half of all immigrants to this nation” (Immigration). The majority of these Irish immigrants followed the Catholic religion, while previous generations of Irish immigrants were predominantly Protestant. This enormous immigration caused quite a stir in the local population of Philadelphia. More specifically in the local African-American and Protestant Scotch-Irish population. Both of these populations gave rise to issues involving labor competition with Irish-Catholics, who were known to work for substandard rates. The 1840’s were plagued with a period of conomic depression, which only made matters worse.
These 19th century social and economic conflicts gave way to some of the earliest riots in Philadelphia. In 19th century Philadelphia, Irish immigrants and African-Americans lived in the same general area and strived for the same housing and unskilled labor jobs. Both groups cleaved to the lowest step of the economic ladder and regularly collided in their attempts to rise up it. These groups equally felt that their basic rights as human beings were being taken away and that their hard won, though scanty, economic and social gains were continually threatened.
These economic and social tensions led to the first riot that broke out in August of 1842. A black temperance society was organizing a parade “to promote temperance and celebrate Jamaican Emancipation Day, a flag they carried depicting a slave breaking his chains and the rising sun of freedom was misinterpreted and offended white, in particular Irish, bystanders” (Grubbs). Hostilities quickly arose as the parade approached a local market at Sixth and Lombard Streets, where a fight broke out and black marchers were pursued through the city.
This conflict became known as the Lombard Street Riot. The angry mob “torched an abolitionist meeting hall and the Second African Presbyterian Church on St. Mary’s Street” (Grubbs). The riot lasted three days, during which the mayor called in seven militia companies, whom the Irish also tried to fight. Eventually order was reestablished, however many black citizens fled from the city and the outlook of the Irish population in Philadelphia was now severely tarnished. Conflicts reached a fever pitch by 1844 when what was known as the ‘Nativist’s Riots’ broke out.
Many of the local Irish Protestant inhabitants supported or were art of the movement known as the ‘Know Nothings’, which was part of the Native American (Nativist) political party. Hurst notes that “Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment fueled the growth of the Know-Nothings as general apprehension led to a downright fear of foreigners, ignited by the public perception that this massive influx of immigrants was contributing to the spread of pauperism, crime, and public drunkenness, while driving wages down and rents up” (350).
Before the riots of the summer of 1844 broke out, many factors contributed to the accumulation of tensions in the city. During this time period the King James version of the Bible was read every day in public schools and other religious activities of the faith were practiced. This was a point of contention for local Catholics of the city. Reading the King James version of the Bible went against the religious beliefs of Catholics, many of whom did not want their children reading it. Though trying to alleviate this conundrum, “Archbishop Francis P.
Kenrick precipitated further controversy by efforts to prevent public schools from requiring Catholic children to read the Protestant King James Version of the Bible” (Clark 21). Catholics were not trying to stop the Bible from being read in schools, neither were they asking for their version of the Bible to be read by everyone. Nonetheless, this caused a huge stir in the Protestant community of the city, who had fears that the Irish-Catholics followed the dictates of the pope in Rome.
The Philadelphia school board determined that Catholic students did not have to read the King James version of the bible, nor did they have to partake in any of the affiliated religious activities. This added to the slowly melting pot. Further agitating matters a local teacher started complaining about the isruption Catholic students made when having to leave the class during Bible-reading. Hugh Clark “a Catholic school board member told her to suspend the classes altogether, until a better solution was found” (Ivey).
Clark’s statement was utterly taken out of context by the protestant ‘Know Nothing movement, who took these comments as the Bible shouldn’t be read in school at all, furthering their anti-Catholic sentiments and viewing them as evil. Though this anger and hatred had been growing for a long time, this incident was the last straw for local protestants. Soon after the Nativist’s “held a march and ally on May 3 to 2nd and Master streets in Lower Kensington… Bricks soon were flying and the nativists driven out” (Avery). Three days later however Nativist’s “deliberately staged a political rally directly across from the Nanny Goat Market.
The nativists knew that the Irish would regard the rally as an invasion of their turf” (Mandell). Dreadfully soon “Words turned to blows and soon clubs, bricks and ultimately pistols and muskets came into play.. To counteract the initial advantage of Irish snipers, the nativists used a new weapon –arson. Whole blocks of Catholic homes were consumed by fire” (Avery). The Mayor tried to restore order, but was knocked unconscious by a brick. Furthermore, two Catholic churches were burned to the ground “St. Michael’s at Second Street and Master and St. Augustine’s at Fourth and Vine” (Schrag).
Because Kensington was considered a suburb of Philadelphia and there was no local police force at the time, Martial Law had to be declared and “Only a flood of new forces-including citizen posses, city police, militia companies arriving from other cities, and U. S. army and navy troops-ended the violence by May 10” (Schrag). By the end of the riot there were almost sixty homes and stores estroyed, “sixteen deaths”, and “Refugees streamed out of the riot-torn Kensington area” (Clark 21).
Eight weeks later in July “Pastor J. Patrick Dunn of St. Philip Neri Church in Southwark was warned of an imminent attack on his church. With permission from Gov. David Rittenhouse Porter and Gen. Robert Patterson of the Pennsylvania militia, the pastor secured arms to protect the church” (Poxon 25). Conversely, on Friday July 5 an anti-immigrant parade of thousands surrounded the church and demanded that the weapons be brought out. Shortly after the “sheriff was sent for who promptly repaired to the scene, took ossession of the church-searched it, and found twelve unloaded muskets, which he caused to be removed” (Riots at Southwark).
The crowd of Nativists weren’t convinced. Consequently, the church was searched again and “seventy five new muskets were found, most of them heavily loaded” (Riots at Southwark). The state militia was then called in. Major General Patterson, Col. Pleaston, and Brig. Gen. Cadwallader were in charge of the military and artillery, while the “sheriff’s civil force was on the ground endeavoring to disperse the crowds and quiet malcontents. At dusk the military took