The Irish and the English share a long legacy of conflict. Just before the English colonized America, they invaded Ireland and attempted to subdue its population of Catholic “savages.” Many Irish families were even forced onto reservations to make room for English settlers. When a wave of Irish Catholic immigrants began arriving in the U.S. in the 1820s, they found a bitter welcome among the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority. Newspapers described them as “Irish niggers” and “a mongrel mass of ignorance.” Many employers assigned Irish laborers to only the most menial and dangerous positions. Irish Catholicism was denounced with charges of superstition and perversion. In some cities, such as Philadelphia, anti-Catholic and anti-Irish hatred erupted into violence. Equally divisive as religious and ethnic differences, however, was the matter of immigration itself. In just half a century, native-born Americans had come to regard other newcomers as “them.”
In Pennsylvania public schools in the 1840s, daily lessons from the King James Bible were required by law. In the opinion of Philadelphia’s Protestant majority, this practice provided the moral underpinning of education.
To the city’s growing minority of Irish Catholics, however, the “Bible law” represented forced indoctrination into the Protestant faith. The Catholic Church recognized a different version of the Christian Scriptures, known as the Douai-Reims Bible, but Philadelphia authorities prohibited its use in the schools.
The mostly poor, working-class Irish immigrants of suburbs like Kensington and Southwark didn’t yet have much of a voice in Philadelphia politics. But the resolution of a similar controversy in New York City inspired Philadelphia’s Catholic bishop to petition the school board. Daily Bible reading was fine, Bishop Francis Kenrick wrote in November 1842, so long as Catholic students were allowed to use their own Bibles and were excused from Protestant devotional lessons. In January 1843, school officials granted the request.
The board’s action didn’t attract much notice at first. Eventually, however, a teacher lodged a complaint that the divided devotional was disrupting her classroom. When a Catholic board member and city alderman from Kensington named Hugh Clark advised the teacher to suspend all religious instruction until a better compromise could be reached, the issue threw Philadelphians into a face-off…
The Irish Catholics, on the other hand, felt that they were entitled to a voice in their children’s education and other areas of public life. Most of them had fled to the United States after Ireland’s potato crops began to fail in the early 1800s. The emerging factory system in the Northeast allowed them to begin new lives, if only on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.
This same system was taking jobs away from the skilled artisan class, to which most native Anglo-Saxon Protestants belonged. As a result, the ancient hatred between the English and the Irish quickly took root in American soil. Religious differences provoked open confrontation. In Philadelphia, as Boston, New York and most other large cities, anti-Catholic and “nativist” organizations opposed the integration of new immigrants into U.S. society.
One such organization was the American Republicans, a Protestant political party in Philadelphia that became heavily involved in the school Bible controversy. The party held a rally to demand the resignation of alderman Hugh Clark from the school board. Nativist leaders sponsored a referendum in the 1844 spring election asking the public whether Catholic students should be permitted to read from the Catholic Bible.
Various groups used the campaign as an opportunity to denounce Catholicism as an evil foreign influence. Newspapers alleged that the Pope in Rome was pursuing a secret plan to seize control of American schools. Political candidates joined the local press in opposing the naturalization of foreigners as U.S. citizens. Protestant voters soundly rejected the two-Bible policy.
Alderman Hugh Clark introduced before the city legislature a resolution to ban Bible reading in the public schools. Again, the nativists united to defend the old state law. Their victory so angered Clark that he walked into Kensington School one morning during devotional, grabbed the Protestant Bible from the teacher’s hands and proceeded to tear it page from page.
Events began to spiral out of control. As soon as word of Clark’s defiance reached nativist leaders, they scheduled a protest meeting in the heart of Kensington. Residents of the district warned that such a gathering would bring trouble. As the outdoor rally assembled on Friday evening, May 3, 1844, Irish Catholics darted in and destroyed the speakers’ platform. Onlookers began throwing bricks and rocks to disperse the crowd.
Philadelphia during this era lacked a police force capable of handling a large public disturbance. Only the sheriff of Philadelphia County had jurisdiction over the entire city, and his force was too small to concentrate in one troubled district. In the absence of effective law enforcement agencies, the nativists announced their plan to return to Kensington the following Monday.
Several thousand people heeded the call. In the middle of one of the opening speeches, an unexpected downpour swept over the area, scattering the multitude through the streets to find shelter. Most found their way to Nanny Goat Market, a pavilion large enough to accommodate the meeting.
Just as the speaker resumed addressing his rain-soaked and restless audience, someone fired a gun. A number of witnesses blamed a sniper from the nearby station house of the Hibernia Hose Co., an Irish fire brigade; others claimed that an argument within the crowd had sparked the shooting. Either way, one of the nativist protesters, and 18-year-old named George Schiffler, lay gravely wounded.
The assembly erupted in pandemonium. Nativists by the hundreds stormed through the neighborhood, dislodging cobblestones to hurl through the windows of Irish stores and homes. Four men carried George Schiffler to an apothecary shop, where he died within an hour. Back at Nanny Goat Market, a band of Kensington residents attacked the remaining protesters with brickbats and pistols. One old Irishman in a sealskin cap took potshots with a musket.
The Irish and nativist factions regrouped on opposite sides of the market, skirmishing periodically throughout the evening. Philadelphia County Sheriff Morton McMichael arrived with several of his marshals during a lull around 7 p.m. and saw no need to exercise his authority.
By 10 o’clock, however, the nativists had swelled their ranks and were surging down Second Street toward the Female Roman Catholic Seminary. Faced with a rampage, Sheriff McMichael ordered his men to fire their rifles over the heads of the crowd. An assault on the seminary was averted, but angry nativists roamed the streets past midnight.
The next morning — Tuesday, May 7 — Philadelphians awoke to an uneasy calm. The Native American newspaper appeared with its front page banded in black for mourning. The guns were quiet, but on street corners around the city the usual commerce was punctuated by spontaneous anti-Catholic harangues. Bishop Kenrick issued a formal statement condemning Catholic participation in the turmoil and had copies posted in all districts. Within hours, the nativists had removed these notices and folded them into paper hats.
Nativist leader Thomas Newbold announced a meeting to be held at 3 o’clock that afternoon in Independence Square, a downtown location that still symbolizes Philadelphia’s role in the American Revolution. There, the protesters passed voice-vote resolutions asserting their right to gather peaceably and charging Catholics with attempting to drive the Bible out of the schools. Despite the pleadings of several leaders, the group elected to march once again into Kensington.
The Irish neighborhood was located about a mile and a half north of Independence Square. Along the way, the marchers shouted nativist slogans and waved a tattered American flag that they said had been trampled by Irishmen. With minimal warning, Kensington residents prepared to defend their homes and themselves. A distant roar and the shattering of windows announced the approaching mob.
No sooner had the market area begun to fill with nativists than a shot rang out from a house across the street, instantly killing one marcher. The crowd’s attempt to charge the house was halted by a volley of gunfire from rooftops and windows. In sporadic confrontations over the next hour, three more marchers died. Still refusing to disband and flee, the nativists sent a small party to torch a building in which several snipers were hiding. The fire quickly consumed that structure and spread along the block. Within minutes, nearly 30 buildings were in flames, including Nanny Goat Market. As soon as the Hibernia and Carroll fire brigades arrived on the scene, the rioters attacked them. Two engines and four carriages were destroyed.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Cadwalader, commander of the Pennsylvania militia, had had his men on alert since the day before. At 9 p.m. Tuesday, at the height of the market fire, Sheriff McMichael called for Cadwalader to station his troops on the outskirts of Kensington. Around midnight, the order came to occupy the ravaged district. The soldiers succeeded in intimidating the mob without further violence by setting up loaded cannons in the streets. Under military escort, the fire companies hosed down the smoldering ruins.
By Wednesday morning, only three men — all Irish — had been arrested for their role in the disturbance. Following his arraignment for murder, John Taggert was escorted by several deputies to Northern Liberties Jail, thought to be a safe distance from Kensington. Along the way, a band of nativists seized Taggert, brutally beat him and got his neck in a noose before the deputies returned with enough help to save him.
Early in the afternoon, nativists began making their way back toward Kensington. The smell of smoke still hung in the air. Here and there, speakers railed against the Pope and demanded vengeance for the deaths of their comrades. Anticipating a replay of the night before, Irish Protestant and nativist residents of the district hung American flags and signs reading “Native American” in their windows. Some simply tacked up copies of the newspaper by that name. Each display drew a cheer from the passing throng.
Militia units patrolling the area were unable to quell the unrest. As momentum gathered, marchers forcibly entered Irish homes to search for weapons. New fires, deliberately set, destroyed or damaged several more blocks by late afternoon. Emboldened by these exploits, the nativists broadened their aim and struck out toward downtown Philadelphia.
Mayor John Morin Scott, summoned from his daughter’s birthday party, met the mob as it reached St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, at the corner of Fourth and Vine. The mayor spoke from the church steps, calling for reason and calm and denying a rumor that the building contained stored weapons. With this he explained that he himself was carrying the key.
Suddenly, a hurled stone hit the mayor in the chest, knocking the breath out of him. Police guards hurriedly bundled him away. The rioters, now confident that the church was undefended, lifted two boys over the fence to begin the destruction. The youngsters broke in through a window and set fire to curtains and furnishings. According to plan, someone ruptured the building’s gas line, and the leak ignited just as the intruders escaped. Again, the crowd blocked firefighters’ access to the blaze.
Similar assaults that afternoon destroyed St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, from which the priest barely escaped, and the Female Seminary that had been spared two days earlier. The mob roared as the burning steeples toppled. The fires produced columns of smoke that were visible for miles. As the flames diminished, the fury of the nativists also seemed to subside. In a final flare-up, a remnant of the mob ransacked the home of Alderman Hugh Clark. The streets were empty before sundown.
In crowded and barricaded rooms in Kensington, many Irish Catholic families made plans to leave Philadelphia. Others argued that only by standing their ground could they ever make a home in America.
On Thursday morning, May 9, Mayor Scott convened a meeting in Independence Square to begin the process of restoring the public peace. In the three days of upheaval, 20 people had been killed, scores more injured and two Catholic churches and more than 50 Irish homes destroyed.
By acclamation, those present — many of whom had participated in the rioting — agreed to the appointment of special police units to patrol each neighborhood. Even the editors of the Native American voiced shock and regret: “No terms that we can use are able to express the deep reprobation that we feel for this iniquitous proceeding; this wanton and uncalled-for desecration of the Christian altar.”
Despite the general contrition and heightened security, isolated groups and individuals continued the campaign of anti-Catholic vandalism. Bishop Kenrick cancelled Sunday Mass throughout Philadelphia to avoid further confrontation. When posters boldly printed with the words “Fortunio and his Seven Gifted Servants” began appearing around the city, a rumor circulated that the strange slogan was a secret message from the Pope ordering Catholics to take up arms. The rumor died when a businessman revealed that the signs advertised a play coming soon to a local theater.
The nativist/Catholic conflict erupted again in Philadelphia later that summer. Organizers of the city’s annual Independence Day celebration staged a procession honoring the widows and orphans of nativists who had died in the riots. The display rekindled bitter memories, and soon new suspicions arose that the Catholics were planning an uprising in the suburb of Southwark. Again the militia was called in, and the fighting that broke out was as fierce as that in Kensington. This time, the death toll reached 13.
Several months after these episodes, Philadelphia County complied with state law by repaying Catholics for damages incurred to their property in the mob violence. The riots of 1844 damaged the public image of the nativist movement, which would later seek new legitimacy in the political system. The establishment of a separate Catholic school system in Philadelphia solved the Bible problem but did little to heal the rift between the two communities. That process would take place some years later as nativists and Irish immigrants and soldiers of all stripes joined forces to preserve the federal union.