Saturday, September 5, 2015

Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844

The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844

Listen to this Post as a Podcast: Part 1 & Part 2.


In the spring and summer of 1844, Philadelphia was divided into two hostile camps.  The American born Protestant majority declared war on the Irish Catholic minority.  Dozens were killed, hundreds were left homeless and property destroyed. The events are often called the Nativist Riots, the Anit-Catholic Riots, or probably most commonly the Bible Riots of 1844.  
Riot in Philadelphia. July 7 1844. 
From Villanova University’s Digital Library: 
Pennsylvaniana Collection.
The Background

From its very beginning, Pennsylvania earned a reputation for being one of the most open and accepting colonies in North America. Unlike other colonies, it did not bar Catholic immigration nor diminish the political rights of its Catholic population.  William Penn’s charter guaranteed religious toleration.  Pennsylvania's first Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s in Willing Ally, was founded in 1733.  At the time, it was the only place in the British Empire that permitted the open celebration of the Catholic Mass.

The Catholic population remained relatively small. During the American Revolution the estimated population of Catholics in Philadelphia was only 1200-1500 people. Rome did not appoint a Bishop in Philadelphia until 1808.  In the early 1800’s, immigration began to increase the Catholic population in and around Philadelphia.  By the time of the Riots, estimates put the Catholic population at roughly 10% of the City's population of around 100,000. The bulk of these new immigrants were Irish Catholics, although there was a sizable German Catholic population as well.  Philadelphia natives including many Protestants of Irish descent, did not always welcome the new immigrants.

Some of the sentiment was the age-old fear of immigrants taking jobs away from natives, lowering wages, and increasing demands on city services.  Many Protestants of the time also feared a “Papist Conspiracy” where Catholics, bound to blind obedience to the Pope, would reach sufficient numbers to take over the country, forcing Catholicism on everyone.  Many remembered the centuries of wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants.  They feared those same divisions could lead to violence in America as well.

In November 1842, 100 Clergyman formed the American Protestant Association in Philadelphia.  It’s Constitution began with an expression of the anti-Catholicism of the day: "Whereas we believe the system of Popery to be, in its principles and tendency, subversive of civil and religious liberty, and destructive to the spiritual welfare of men, we unite for the purpose of defending our Protestant interests against the great exertions now making to propagate that system in the United States..."

Philadelphia had already been the setting of anti-Catholic violence.  In 1831, 400 Irish Protestants in the city paraded in celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, the battle in 1690 when King William defeated King James II in Ireland to secure English Protestant control of the island, with a still largely Catholic population.  Irish Catholics observing this clearly provocative parade marching past a Catholic Church attacked the men, leading to a massive riot in the streets.  Dozens were seriously injured.  Authorities were able to suppress the fighting, and most of the ringleaders were arrested and convicted.  The City returned to relative calm, but sectarian hostility remained below the surface.

Philadelphia’s Irish Catholic population was concentrated in the Kensington District.  The primary trade was weaving, which employed much of the population.  Over the years, the Irish had staged a series of labor strikes to protest cuts in pay.  Many of these strikes had led to violence against factories, scab workers, and even law enforcement officers.  All of this further divided the neighborhood residents from the rest of the city.

The Cause of the Riots

Despite its tradition of religious tolerance,  Protestant Christianity dominated the State of Pennsylvania. The Protestant King James Bible was required reading in all public schools.  Students were also required to learn Protestant hymns.  Some instructional documents used in the schools portrayed the Pope as the Anti-Christ.

The Catholic Church in the English speaking world used a different translation of the Bible, the Douay-Rheims Bible.  Catholic Bibles include several Old Testament Books rejected by most Protestants.  This preferred Bible also includes notes and commentary about the Bible verses themselves.  

Bishop Patrick Francis Kenrick
At this time, the First Amendment prohibitions on government establishment of religion, only applied to the federal government, not the States.  State and local governments were free to compel as much religion as they liked.

Catholics objected to the exclusive use of the Protestant Bible in the schools and the clear Protestant bias in the religious curriculum.  Philadelphia Bishop Patrick Francis Kenrick, for several years had been advocating a change that would allow options for Catholic students to read from the Douay Bible and learn Catholic religious studies rather than Protestant ones.  

In February 1844, Hugh Clark, a Catholic and a Director of Schools in Kensington responded to complaints by one teacher who objected to teaching Protestant curriculum to her Catholic students. Catholic students had been given the right to leave the classroom during the teaching.  Since almost all the students in this Kensington school were Catholic, almost everyone left the room.  The teacher found this process to be highly disruptive.  Clark authorized the teacher to suspend Bible reading in school until the board could develop a policy acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants.

Many Philadelphia Protestants saw this act as a provocation.  New foreign immigrants had openly disobeyed State law, and were trying to remove the Bible from the schools.  Local papers and meetings misrepresented the incidence, telling their audiences that Catholic public school administrators were forcing teachers to stop all prayers and Bible readings in the schools.

A relatively new political party, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic “American Republican Party” (which was an early prototype of the  “Know-Nothing” Party of the 1850’s) staged number of public rallies around the city in favor of continued mandatory teaching of the Protestant Bible in public schools, and limiting the right to vote for immigrants  The party's platform saw growing political support in much of the City.

A Map showing the locations of Rioting in and around Philadelphia.
The First Act: Friday May 3, 1844

On May 3, American Republicans staged a “Save the Bible” rally in Kensington.  Unlike earlier rallies, this one was rather small, only a few hundred people.  What made it significant was that it was held in the heart of the Irish-Catholic community. Those sponsoring the rally knew they were going into an area where people would be hostile to their message. Some have argued they deliberately tried to provoke a violent response.

The rally took place in a schoolyard lot at the corner of 2nd & Master Streets. This was across the street from the Nanny Goat Market, an open air market where most of the Catholic community gathered for commerce and socializing.  It was also less than a block away from St. Michael’s Catholic Church, which served the local Catholic community.  The year before, the Sheriff had come to the market with a posse to arrest several locals for the destruction of property during a labor strike.  Locals beat the Sheriff and his posse, forcing them to flee the scene without making any arrests. Anyone familiar with the area knew the locals would not like this message and had a history of acting with hostility when confronted in their neighborhood.

The Protesters built a wooden speakers platform on a lot across the street from the Market.  The speaker was Samuel Kramer, editor of a new newspaper: the Native American.  He called for a 21 year residency requirement before anyone could be given the right to vote because immigrants wanted to “get the Constitution of the United States into their hands and sell it to a foreign power.” Presumably that was a reference to the Pope.  

Neighborhood locals began to heckle and yell at the speaker as he continued.  Soon a group rushed the podium and tore it apart. The outnumbered protesters were chased out of Kensington.  Attacks on the protesters themselves were relatively mild, mostly a few rocks or bricks thrown at them.  No one was seriously injured.  But the crowd demolished the speakers podium.  According to the Nativist protesters, the locals tore up and stomped on an American flag they had been carrying.

The Conflict Intensifies: Monday May 6

Over the weekend, Nativist outrage spread through the city in private discussions and at Sunday Church gatherings.  On Monday, the Nativists returned to the same field across from the Nanny Goat Market in greater numbers.  The rally began as planned at 3:00 PM. This second rally attracted many more people who may not have been hard core Nativists.  Broadsides had been posted all over the city urging Philadelphians to support the right of free speech and protection of the American flag:

A flag carried by the Nativist Protesters
“The American Republicans of the city and county of Philadelphia, who are determined to support the NATIVE AMERICANS in their Constitutional Rights of peaceably assembling to express their opinions on any question of Public Policy, and to SUSTAIN THE ASSAULTS OF ALIENS AND FOREIGNERS Are requested to assemble on MONDAY AFTERNOON, May 6th, 1844 at 4 o'clock, at the corner of Master and Second street, Kensington, to express their indignation at the outrage of Friday evening last, which was perpetrated by the Irish Catholics, in tearing and trampling under the feet of the American Flag, to take the necessary steps to prevent a repetition of it.”

Lewis Levin
Once again, neighborhood locals confronted the protesters, shouting and jeering at the speakers.  This time, however, the protesters had much greater numbers, estimated at 3000, and would not be chased away.  One local man pulled into the middle of the crowd and dumped a large load of dirt (some accounts say manure) among the protesters.  But this act did not incite any violence and he was allowed to leave.  Kramer gave the full speech that had been cut off days earlier.  Several other speakers gave addresses, including Rev. Lewis Levin, a Presbyterian minister and also an editor for the Philadelphia Sun began a similar speech with a strong anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic tone.  

During Levin’s speech, a sudden and heavy thunderstorm began to douse the crowd.  Many of the Nativist protesters ran into the Nanny Goat Market across the street, which provided them with shelter from the rain. The market itself was the unofficial political center of the Irish community.  Irish locals angrily demanded the protesters leave, but Levin stood up on a stall and attempted to continue his speech.    

The heckling and yelling soon turned to physical pushing and punching.  Some on both sides, anticipating violence, had brought guns with them.  One Nativist protester pulled a pistol and an Irishman dared him to fire.  The protester obliged and shooting on both sides began.  The outnumbered Irish were driven from the market, but continued to shoot into the market from outside. Four protesters were hit, one fatally.  Records of Irish casualties were not reported.

The protesters began to scatter, but were attacked as they ran, mostly by people throwing rocks and bricks.  Many fled the neighborhood, but only to go home, collect their guns and return.  

Nativists soon gained the upper hand, and began invading and destroying a number of neighborhood homes, forcing the Catholic families to flee for their lives. The Nativist rioters turned their attention to a Sisters of Charity Seminary but were forced to cut short their assault after being fired upon by several Irish locals defending the area.  Violence and destruction continued well into the night with sporadic gunfire.

Rioters Renew Their Rampage: Tuesday May 7

By morning the neighborhood had returned to relative calm.  But tensions on both sides remained high and another round of violence seemed inevitable.

Nativists rallied on the square in front of Independence Hall at 3:30 PM.  The Broadside announcing the rally compared the previous day’s violence to St. Bartholomew’s Day, a centuries old event when the Catholic King of France ordered the slaughter of many thousands of French Protestants.

“Another St. Bartholomew’s day has begun in the streets of Philadelphia.  The bloody hand of the Pope has stretched forth to our destruction.  Now we call on our fellow citizens, who regard free institutions, whether they be native or adopted, to arm.  Our liberties are now to be fought for - let us not be slack in our preparation.”

The crowd listened to several speakers and decided to march to Kensington once again.  Men at the rally formed themselves into ranks and marched military style back to Kensington. They carried a flag which had been damaged in the fighting, along with a sign: "This is the flag which was trampled by the Irish Papists."  

Anticipating another attack, many of the Irish whose homes had not already been destroyed had packed up what belongings they could and fled the neighborhood.  Many armed men remained, prepared to meet the attacking mob.  They were greatly outnumbered and outgunned, and were forced to retreat. but not before killing or wounding more than a dozen Nativists.  The Nativists proceeded to burn the local volunteer fire house, then all of the Nanny Goat Market, along with many more neighborhood homes.

As the burning and looting of Catholic homes resumed, some Kensington residents saved their homes by hanging American flags from their windows or writing “Native American” on their doors.  Priests fled the city or went into hiding, in fear for their lives. Bishop Kenrick put out a broadside that evening trying to bring calm.  
Bishop Kenrick's Broadside

“The melancholy riot yesterday, which resulted in the death of several of our fellow beings, calls for our deep sorrow, and it becomes all who have had any share in the Tragical Scene to humble themselves before God, and to sympathize deeply and sincerely with those whose relatives and friends have fallen. I earnestly conjure you to avoid all occasion of excitement, and to shun all public places of assemblage, and to do nothing that in any way may exasperate. Follow peace with all men, and have that CHARITY without which no man can see God.” The Nativist rioters, however, were not moved by the Bishop’s words. By morning, they had torn down most of the broadsides. Many of the rioters folded them into hats which they wore during the for the following day of continued riots.

Where are the Police?

As thousands of civilians kill, pillage, and loot homes, one might reasonably ask why the police did not put a stop to this.  The short answer is that there were not any police in Philadelphia at this time. The modern professional Police Department as we know it today was established in the 1850’s, years after the riots, and largely in response to them.  In 1844 Philadelphia had a single constable in each district of the city.  This unarmed man’s job was primarily to keep vagrants from loitering and to keep an eye on things.  During the night, Watchmen walked the streets, as their name implied, to keep a watch over things, and also to keep the city’s gas lamps lit.  They too were unarmed.

When there was a serious crime, the sheriff was responsible to apprehend the criminals.  The Sheriff had the authority to create a posse of civilians to assist him in any necessary law enforcement actions. Members of a Posse were essentially volunteers who decided to help out with a single matter, and could quit at any time.

To make things even more complicated, Kensington, the center of the riots, was not part of the City of Philadelphia.  In 1844, the northern city limit was Vine Street, a good 15 blocks south of the center of violence in Kensington.  Philadelphia city authorities did not have jurisdiction there, even if they were inclined to help.  Kensington had its own locally elected Constable. But again, this was one unarmed man who could do little against a mob.  One former Kensington Constable who had tried to calm the situation in the market during the rain storm had been shot in the face.

The Sheriff, whose jurisdiction included all of Philadelphia County, had authority to intervene, but would have to form a posse to help.  Since any posse would be drawn from the same pool of men currently engaged in the violence, the ability to get volunteers for such a venture seemed highly unlikely.

In times of emergency, the state militia could restore order.  But again, many members of the militia were either participants in the mob, or highly sympathetic to the mob’s political views.  Col. Peter Sken Smith, a local militia leader had been one of the protest speakers on May 6.  Further, the Sheriff could not order the militia to do anything. Only the Governor could order the State Militia to act.

Sheriff Morton McMichael
Sheriff Morton McMichael had arrived on the scene of the rioting on Monday, May 6 at around 5:00 PM.  His presence put an end to open fighting in the immediate area.  But he did not have the manpower to end the hostilities.  Fighting diminished for a short time but then continued once darkness fell.  McMichael asked his friend Gen. George Cadwalader, head of the City’s division of State Militia, to provide support to quell the violence.  Cadwalader refused, stating that he was concerned about mobilizing State militia without an express order from the Governor.  Gen. Cadwalader remained personally with Sheriff McMichael that night as an observer and adviser, but no troops would arrive to establish order.

Gen. George Cadwalader
The following day, Tuesday May 7, Cadwalader did assemble several companies of militia and ordered them to swear allegiance to the Sheriff, still without any input from the Governor.  But he did not make any attempt to stop the Nativist Rally that afternoon in front of Independence Hall, or to block the mob’s march on Kensington.  His troops marched up to Kensington after the violence had resumed on Tuesday evening.  Their mere presence caused most of the open violence to end. The troops could not be everywhere though.  Scattered incidences of shooting, arson, and looting continued overnight.

Destruction Continues: Wednesday, May 8

Militia troops remained on patrol overnight and into Wednesday morning.  Seeing the burning ruins of the neighborhood and the presence of militia patrols, many thought the worst of the violence had passed.  The militia, however, proved unwilling to take action against the Nativists.  Judging from newspaper articles of the time, most Philadelphians seemed to blame the Irish for the attacks.  It was, after all, the Irish who had attacked “peaceful assemblies” of protesters on both Friday and Monday. Great publicity was given to the deaths and injuries of Nativists, with less attention given to the destruction of the Irish neighborhoods.

Nativist groups returned to Kensington on Wednesday morning, forming “vigilance committees” to search Irish homes for guns.  As if breaking into private homes was not enough, the homes tended to catch fire and burn as soon as the search was complete.  The Militia saw this action but refused to prevent it.  A militia Captain called on a crowd of Nativists to disburse, but when they burned down a home anyway, the militia refused to act.  It soon became clear that the militia was there to observe, but would not use force to create order.

Militia had been assembled to protect St. Michael’s Church, just north of the Nanny Goat Market in Kensington.  On Wednesday afternoon, in broad daylight, the Protesters distracted the troops by setting fire to several houses around the corner.  Once the militia moved to investigate, Protesters set fire to the church and rectory.  The crows surrounded the church, playing protestant hymns on a fife and drum, as they prevented firefighters from putting out the fire.  No one was arrested for arson, although three were arrested for desecrating graves after the militia returned.

Burning of St. Michael's Church, on Wednesday afternoon, May 8
From: "A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia"
Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Next, the mob returned to the Sisters of Charity Seminary that had been attacked Monday night. This time, there was no resistance and the Seminary was burned, as were more homes and businesses. Included in the destruction was the home of Hugh Clark, the school administrator who had suspended Bible readings months before.

St. Augustine Church on Fire, 1844
Historical Society of Pennsylvania
More militia reinforcements arrived after St. Michael’s had burned.  But the destruction continued.  The main reason they began to subside was the lack of anything still worth burning in the area.  Undeterred, the mob marched south toward St. Augustine’s Church, just inside the Philadelphia city limits. 

Mayor John Morin Scott seemed more willing to defend property from mobs now entering the city.  Constables and volunteer patrols covered much of the city.  Scott himself, with the support of ward constables and volunteers stood in the defense of St. Augustine against the mob.  But thousands had surrounded the church as night fell and a tensions were high.  Somehow, a teenager entered the church during all this, cut a gas line and used it to start a fire.  The crowd prevented firefighters from approaching and cheered as the steeple fell into the fire.
Ruins in Kensington
from "A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia":
Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Order is restored: Thursday May 9

Gen. Robert Patterson
By Thursday, public opinion was beginning to turn.  Burning down Kensington was one thing, Setting fires in Philadelphia proper was another.  A crowd assembled that morning in front of Independence Hall, but this time to demand the city restore order and put an end to the violence.  That same day, the Governor had arrived from Harrisburg with Gen. Robert Patterson, the head of the Pennsylvania Militia, and additional soldiers. Martial law was declared. Curfews were established and armed soldiers put an end to the violence with a large show of force.  Canon were placed in front of St. John’s Catholic Church. Gen. Cadwalader now ordered his soldiers fire on any group that threatened the church.

Martial law continued for a week.  Bishop Kenrick suspended Sunday services in all surviving Catholic churches in the city in order to prevent any potential violence.  This show of force ended outright violence, but the tension between the Nativists and Catholics remained.

As one editorial at the time put it; “Such is a Sunday in the nineteenth century in the city of Philadelphia. Religious toleration enforced by loaded muskets, drawn sabers, and at the cannon's mouth--charity secured through dread of 'grape and canister.”

The City Reacts to the Disorder

If the purpose of the Nativists was to stir up public sentiment against the Irish or Catholics in order to improve their own popularity, they failed miserably.  The overwhelming reaction in the following weeks was a general outrage against mob violence.  While many held the Irish responsible, the Nativists were not seen as innocent victims.  They too bore much of the responsibility, especially for the last two days of rioting.  Sheriff McMichael also suffered in the court of public opinion for his relatively weak and feckless attempts to restore order in Kensington.  Mayor Scott and Gen. Cadwalader also received criticism for the weak or delayed actions.

Many continued to blame the Irish.  A Grand Jury issued a report focused blame on “efforts by a portion of the community to exclude the Bible from the Public Schools.”  It called the Nativist protests in Kensington a “peaceful exercise of sacred rights and privileges guaranteed to every citizen by the constitution and laws of our state and country.”  Of course, the Grand Jury contained no one with an Irish name.  Two of the jurors were members of the American Republican Party, and one was the son of one of the Nativist rioters injured in the violence. No Irish were called to testify before the Grand Jury.

Lewis Levin, the speaker on May 6 when the violence erupted, decried the violence of the riots but also indicated he believed a Catholic conspiracy was the cause of it:

“splendid rifles and warlike munition not appropriate to their condition have been found in the possession of Irish Catholics of the lowest grade of poverty, clearly showing that the chief actors or instigators of this bloody assault on peaceable Americans are yet behind the scenes, and that they are person of wealth, thus clearly indicating the deep-laid schemes of conspirators by heads as clear and as their hearts are black.”

He concluded by calling the nativists “persecuted martyrs defending our lives and liberties.”  

The American Republican Party continued to hold rallies throughout the summer, focusing primarily on the Nativists killed during the riots and trying to turn the narrative to one of dangerous armed Irish Immigrants threatening American freedom.  Their efforts led many to believe that while the Nativist reaction had gone too far, the Irish had started the violence by attacking a peaceful political meeting.

Sheriff McMichael and militia leaders, sensitive to the criticism that they had reacted too slowly and meekly to the May riots, ensured that plans were in place among militia and volunteers to prevent any violence predicted during the July 4 celebrations.  While the celebrations were unusually large, and had a strongly Bible theme in an apparent direct provocation to the Irish Catholics, the day passed with no unusual disturbances.  Throughout the summer, quick deployment of troops defused several potential conflicts.

Irish Catholics, however, remained concerned and on alert for the next possible attack.  In the Southwark District, just outside the City’s southern border, the Catholic Church St. Philip Neri feared possible violence during the July 4 celebrations based on rumors that had been passed along to them.  The Church received permission from the State to form a militia company, and was issued weapons by the State to be stored in the Church.  Nativists learned that the Church contained weapons and were determined to disarm the Catholics, by force if necessary.

All parties seemed to enter July with new points of view in light of the May Riots.   The American Republican Party was still working to shed its image as a bunch of “church burners” and sought to move its image back to one of respectable American Protestants.  The Irish were much more cautious about engaging in violence, knowing full well that they were a minority and the the vengeance of the majority for any violence could be devastating.  The Sheriff and Militia leaders were determined to meet any signs of violence with much faster and more overwhelming force to prevent any actions from getting out of hand.

The Riots Reignite: Friday, July 5, 1844

On July 5, the word of an armed group of Irish with a secret arsenal in St. Philip’s Church spread around town when witnesses saw replacements for five defective weapons taken into the church that day. Thousands of Nativist activists surrounded the church that evening and demanded removal of all weapons.  Sheriff McMichael was made aware of the disturbance and headed to the scene, but first stopping to consult with Gen. Patterson at his home nearby.  It was at that time that Patterson informed him that the church was in lawful possession of the weapons as an authorized state militia unit.

St. Philip Neri Church
The Sheriff then went to the Church and got the Catholics inside to agree to let him remove the five guns that the Nativists had seen arrive that day.  He would tell the crowd all the guns had been confiscated and leave the remaining twenty militia guns with the Catholics inside the church.  Unfortunately, the mob did not trust the Catholics and demanded the search the church themselves.  

Eventually the Sheriff brokered a deal to allow a group of twenty unarmed Nativists to inspect the church.  The group ended up finding not only the militia weapons, but a total of 53 muskets and rifles, as well as 10 pistols, stashed in various places throughout the church.  McMichael was concerned that the sight of the weapons would enrage the mob and possibly lead to another church burning.  Nativist leaders, still smarting from the public reaction of the May riots did not seem to have any desire to see the church burned either.  The men agreed to stay in the church with the weapons until morning.  In the meantime a company of militia moved in place to defend the church and disburse the mob outside.

Gen. Patterson sent a company of militia to clear the street in front of the church.  The crowd obeyed militia orders and pulled back without any violence.  The crowd dwindled overnight, but remained vigilant and demanding the Irish Catholics not be allowed to remain armed (despite the fact that there were no laws preventing the possession of such arms). Around midnight, the remaining arms were removed from the church, but military and nativist leaders remained in the church and the mob remained outside.

Deadly Violence Narrowly Avoided: Saturday July 6

As Saturday morning wore on, the crowd grew back to about one thousand, with the small militia company still in control of the area immediately in front of the church and with the 20 man posse of nativists still in the church along with a group of Catholics.  

Early in the afternoon, Gen. Cadwalader arrived on the scene with more militia.  Apparently desiring to counter his laid back performance in Kensington.  He demanded the crowd disperse and told them that the Church had a legal right to the guns in their possession.  The crowd refused to move and the General left the scene to make plans to remove them by force.

Another militia General Hubbell arrived during the afternoon to inquire about the Catholic militia unit that had been created at the church. Gen. Hubbell demanded that the company's commander, Capt. Dunn hand over his commission papers and disbanded the company. This was announced to the mob outside but was not enough to disperse them.

That evening, Sheriff McMichael returned to the scene with a posse of 150 men, armed only with clubs and batons.  The Sheriff ordered the street closed to everyone but residence and was able to get the crowd to move off the block without any violence.  Gen. Patterson sent over additional militia to relieve the existing force and ensure calm overnight.

Then around 11:00 PM, Gen. Cadwalader returned to the scene with his militia, as well as three canon.  He decided to clear all protesters from the blocks surrounding the street, and to arrest anyone that put up any resistance.  He had his men fix bayonets and charge into surprised crowds who quickly retreated.  After several charges, the crowds had been pushed back several blocks but were now in a far angrier mood.  They began throwing rocks and paving stones at the soldiers.  Cadwalader, angered by the resistance, said he would fire on the crowd if they continued.  Angry shouts from the crowd dared him to fire.

Cadwalader had had enough.  He ordered his troops to fire by platoon.  They took aim against the crowd and prepared to fire.  At the last second, Charles Naylor, a member of the Sheriff’s posse and a former Congressman, stepped out in front of the crowd and said “My God, don’t shoot, don’t shoot!”  The soldiers hesitated and did not fire, which only seemed to anger Cadwalader even more.  He had Naylor arrested for inciting mutiny among the soldiers.

The crowd, however, realized that Cadwalader meant business and was intent of firing on them. They took the time from Naylor’s distraction and arrest to disperse.  The rest of the night remained calm.

The Final Showdown: Sunday July 7

Shortly before dawn, Cadwalader dismissed the posse and most of the militia.  He left two companies in place to defend the church.  The two companies combined only totaled about three or four dozen men.  More importantly, the large company was the “Hibernia Greens” a militia made up of Irish Catholics wearing green uniforms.  Early in the morning, the smaller company, Markles Rifles, was dismissed to go find breakfast.  They were supposed to return, but took several hours, meaning they were absent for the following events.

As morning broke, the crowd now demanded that the twenty member posse, still in the church, be released.  Many in the crowd thought they were being held as prisoners by the Catholics.  They were released.  But Charles Naylor was still held under arrest in the church.  The crowd demanded his immediate release, and otherwise threatened to storm the church and release him by force.  To back up their demand, the crowd brought up a small cannon that had been on a ship in the docks

Militia commander Capt. John Colahan of the Hibernia Greens was under direct orders to hold Naylor for prosecution.  He immediately sent for reinforcements from Gen. Cadwalader.  Around noon, the Markles Rifles Company returned from breakfast.  Their Captain, Thomas Saunders was a nativist and trusted by the crowd.  He brokered a settlement with Capt. Colahan to release Naylor.  Absent any reinforcements arriving, Colahan was forced to agree to the release.

The crowd, however, was still not finished.  The cannon was taken to the back of the church and fired.  A church window was blown out as well as minor damage to the brick wall.  The protesters had not brought extra ammunition for the canon, but pulled it back to the wharf, reloaded, returned to the church and fired again.  Again, no real damage was done, but those inside the church were justifiably alarmed.  A second canon also soon arrived, but was not fired.

Inexplicably, militia reinforcements still failed to arrive.  Even more surprising, the voice of calm and reason at this point turned out to be Lewis Levin, the man whose speech began the July 6 riots and who continued to write and publish regular newspaper articles sounding the alarm about armed Irish conspiracies.  Levin and a few other leaders of the American Republican Party arrived on the scene and pleaded for calm.  They did not want the Party to be blamed for the destruction of yet another church.

The crowd agreed to stop the attack if the Hibernia Greens left the church.  Levin reached an agreement with Cap. Colahan that he and a number of other American Republican party leaders would remain to protect the Church.  During the discussions, a mob broke down a door to the church and attempted to enter.  The Markles Rifles Militia was able to keep the group from entering the church.  Capt. Colahan was convinced now that his position was untenable.  He tried to convince the nativist militia to stay, but Capt. Saunders insisted that the crowd wanted him to accompany the Hibernia Militia away from the church. This left Levin and the American Republicans in control of the church.

As the militia retreated, they were harassed by the mob and pelted with stones.  At one point, the soldiers fired, apparently firing high to scare the protesters as no one was hit.  But these shots only inflamed the mob who pursued the soldiers with new fury.  They scattered, seeking shelter in various houses and remained in hiding.  One soldier was caught and beaten nearly to death by the mob.

Meanwhile, back at the church, the 40 or so American Republican leaders were unable to keep the mob from entering the church.  Hundreds filled the building, doing mostly minor damage.  It seems like the height of irony that the Nativist American Republican leaders were now the primary defenders of a Catholic Church.  Their defense was mostly successful.  There were two separate attempts to set the church on fire, but both were quickly extinguished.  The more troublesome intruders were expelled from the church.  By around 6:00 only about 80 American Republican men remained in the church, all apparently focused on preventing further damage.  They then called on those still outside the church to go home as everything had been resolved.  It seemed that excitement was now over and people began to leave.

Then, Gen. Cadwalader arrived back on the scene with a large number of militia.  He reignited the situation by demanding the American Republicans leave the church and turn it over to the militia.  They complied and returned to the street with the remaining protesters.  The Sheriff also arrived on the scene at the same time, after hearing rumors that the church had been set on fire.  Gen. Cadwalader, however, remained in control of the scene.

The crowd showed great hostility to the soldiers, recalling that they had almost fired on them the night before.  Some began hurling paving stones and rocks at the soldiers again. Cadwalader next ordered his men to clear the street.  They began with a bayonet charge into the crowd.  A fight between soldiers and protesters ensued.  As the soldiers pulled back, Cadwalader ordered another unit to fire into the crowd.  Two were killed and four injured.  The casualties apparently would have been higher, but many soldiers deliberately fired too high or too low to hit the intended targets.

This act further enraged the nativists.  They could not stand against the soldiers in the street, but began firing from rooftops and house windows along the street.  As darkness fell on the city, protesters brought back the two cannon from the wharf and fired on the soldiers.  Two soldiers were killed and several wounded.  The soldiers who had a canon of their own, returned fire from where they saw the flash and wounded three protesters.  The firing continued for about two hours.  The protesters had muffled the wheels of the canon, so they could fire and then move silently in the dark before the soldiers could respond.  Small arms fire also continued from houses.  At least a dozen soldiers were shot.

Gen Cadwalader asked for a cavalry troop that could charge the canon much more quickly.  Around Midnight, Gen. Patterson sent a cavalry unit to assist.  But the protesters had apparently heard the horses and made plans.  When they fired their cannon and the cavalry charged, the soldiers were knocked off their horses by a rope that the protesters had tied across the street.  They then attempted to fire on the fallen soldiers at point blank range, but the cannon misfired.  The soldiers then charged the canon, killing two protesters and capturing the gun.

Fighting mostly ended by around 2:00 AM, with about 25-30 casualties on each side.  Protester casualties are uncertain as many were not reported.

Order is Restored: Monday July 8

By Monday morning hundreds of soldiers patrolled the streets.  All meetings were banned any anyone saying anything inflammatory was arrested.  Residents were clearly hostile to the soldiers.  They kept their doors closed to them and refused to provide any water as the soldiers marched through the hot July streets of Philadelphia.  

Gen. Patterson leading Militia
By early afternoon, city leaders decided the soldiers should be withdrawn and replaced by civilian volunteers.  The volunteers were generally able to keep order.  There were a few beatings, and a thwarted attempt by some boys seen rolling a cannon toward another Catholic Church.  But the violence had been dissipated and order restored.


Police: The most significant change following the riots was the modernization of the Philadelphia Police force and the political unification of the city. In 1845, less than a year after the riots, a new law raised funds for hiring a real police force, which included at least one policeman for every 150 inhabitants in Philadelphia and surrounding districts. This force would be led by elected superintendents. The Sheriff was also given the power to call up the Militia to help handle large groups of people threatening to riot. Several additional reform laws were enacted over the next few years, culminating in the 1854 State law that finally unified Philadelphia with the surrounding districts, all under an elected mayor and city council. .

Sheriff Morton McMichael had been a successful newspaper editor in addition to being Sheriff. After the riots, he joined the Native American Party and won reelection, but then left public office in 1846. After the Civil War, he was elected Mayor as a member of the new Republican Party. Later, he served as president of the Fairmount Park Commission from 1867 until his death in 1879.

Gen. George Cadwalader went on to serve actively in both the Mexican War and Civil War, before retiring from service in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. During the Civil War, he is remembered for his role in the US Supreme Court case of Ex Parte Merryman when he refused to comply with a wirt of Habeas Corpus ordered by Chief Justice Roger Taney. After the war he helped found the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. He spent the rest of his life living quietly in Philadelphia, where he died in 1879.

Gen. Robert Patterson also served honorably in the Mexican War, where he was wounded in battle. He grew wealthy investing in Sugar and Cotton mills and remained active in Pennsylvania politics. Patterson received a commission to fight in the Civil War, but after receiving blame for his part in the disastrous failure and retreat at the First Battle of Bull Run, the 69 year old General was mustered out of service shortly thereafter. Both his son and son-in-law rose to the rank of General during the War. Patterson remained in Philadelphia where he died in 1881.

Nativist Party: In the months following the riots, the American Republican party saw some significant electoral victories.   The Party renamed itself the Native American Party in 1845 with continued success, and eventually became the American Party (also called the "Know-Nothing" Party) in 1854.  In the following decade or so, it was an important player in Philadelphia politics as well as the rest of the region. Nativists elected two of their own to Congress, as well as officials controlling the local school boards. They also took positions responsible for hiring police for the new enlarged force, and also regulating bars and other businesses, thus making life generally miserable for the Irish Immigrants subjected to these laws.

The party saw some electoral success as it expanded and joined with similar groups in Massachuetts and New York, but never took hold in Pennsylvania at the State level. Eventually the party divided on the issue of slavery after the 1857 Dred Scott decision. The Anti-slavery faction joined the Republican Party with others supporting the Constitutional Union Party in 1860. The party vanished completely by the time the Civil War began.

Lewis Levin served several terms in Congress before a failed attempt for the US Senate, which ended in a bribery scandal. He became a founding and leading member of the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. This party was deeply opposed to immigration and Catholicism. He never held office again. After an 1856 diatribe against Republican Candidate John Fremont, which ended in a violent scuffle, he was committed to an insane asylum. He died in an asylum in 1860.

Irish Catholics: The labor movement in Kensington was sufficiently cowed by the destruction of the Riots.  Labor actions over the next few years were less violent and far less effective.  In 1846 a strike among weavers failed miserably and wages were cut. The impoverished weavers became more objects of pity than a threatening force. Eventually hand weaving was replaced by machines and the community dispersed to find other jobs.

Despite the conditions, Irish Catholic immigration only increased in the following years - primarily a result of the Irish Potato Famine.  By the Civil War, the Catholic population of Philadelphia had grown to an estimated 30% of the population, up from the 10% at the time of the riots. The majority of these were Irish. Irish became more organized politically and began to take elected offices away from the nativists. While the Irish were not a majority of voters, they had to be taken seriously and accommodated by those seeking election.

St. Michael and St. Augustine were rebuilt in the years following, along with dozens more churches in the decades that followed, to accommodate the growing population. Both of these churches, as well as St. Phillip Neri, continue to serve the Catholic community in Philadelphia to this day.

Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick saw his diocese grow rapidly as a result of immigration. The number of churches grew from 22 in 1830 when he took office to 92 in 1850.  After the riots he ceased lobbying for and end to the Protestant instruction in public schools. Instead he created the separate Catholic parochial school system that continues to this day. In 1851, he became Archbishop of Baltimore where he expanded the parochial school system to other dioceses He died in 1863.


Philadelphia never again saw religious riots like 1844. Public schools in Pennsylvania maintained mandatory Protestant Bible Readings until the US Supreme Court ordered an end to the practice in Abington School Dist. v. Schempp in 1963. Catholics abandoned the public school system almost entirely, remaining in their separate parochial school systems. Philadelphia elected its first Catholic Mayor also in 1963, when John Tate was elected after succeeding to the position when his predecessor resigned to run for Governor. Today Catholics and the descendants of Irish Immigrants are woven tightly into the fabric of Philadelphia.

Listen to this Post as a Podcast: Part 1 & Part 2.

For More Reading

I am most grateful for a number of online resources that have provided research and media for this post.

For more in depth reading, I recommend the following books:

The Philadelphia Riots of 1844 by Michael Feldberg (1975)

The Philadelphia Nativist Riots by Kenneth Milano (2015)

A full and complete account of the late awful riots in Philadelphia by John Perry (1844)


  1. Thank you for this excellent article! Been looking for info on the Know-Nothings and this incident in particular and this is the best resource I've found.

  2. I am a student working on a school project, and this bib is great for other reasources

  3. Has there been a movie made about this period, and these riots?

    1. I'm not aware of any movies, not even a TV documentary! The closest movie is probably "Gangs of New York" which deals with immigrants and nativists fighting in New York City about 20 years later.