In the 1830s, anti-Catholic attitudes inflamed by conspiracy theories were reaching a fevered pitch, especially in New York and Massachusetts where attacks on the homes of urban Irish immigrants occurred with some regularity.
In 1834 the bigotry turned particularly violent. Its greatest instigator was Samuel B. Morse who whipped his Protestant brethren into a fury.
Among the most popular anti-Catholic crusaders of the time, Morse returned from the trip to Europe that would help launch the single-wire telegraph in America agitated that Catholic monarchs were engaged in a conspiracy “against the liberties of the United States.” Early in 1834, he penned a series of widely republished letters in his brother’s New York Observer and was soon celebrated for exposing “a conspiracy against the liberties of this Republic… now in full action, under the direction of the wily Prince Metternich of Austria, who… is attempting to accomplish his object through the agency of an army of Jesuits.”
Morse was a professor of painting and sculpture at New York University and President of the National Academy of Design who campaigned against licentiousness in the theatre, but his letters warning of a Catholic take-over, signed Brutus, are really what made him popular with the American public. The New York Observer’s editors were joined in their hatred of Catholics by the editors of The Protestant Vindicator in Defence of Civil and Religious Liberty Against the Inroads of Popery.
The Protestant’s prospectus left no doubt it would combat “Monkish traditions,” Pope Pius IV and “Popish persecutors” of Protestant “martyrs.” The paper’s editor, Reverend W. C. Brownlee, was an organizer of anti-Catholic meetings. From these grew the New York Protestant Association, founded “to spread the knowledge of gospel truth and to show wherein it is inconsistent with the tenets and dogmas of popery.” It regularly denounced Catholicism. “Popery,” the association declared, “to be hated needs but to be seen in its true character, and if the American people can be induced to look the monster in the face, and observe his hideous features, they would turn from it with horror and disgust.” Meetings organized by the Protestant Association with titles like “Is Popery that Babylon the Great?” and “Is Popery Compatible with Civil Liberty” exacerbated religious tensions and resulted in a series of street skirmishes in New York.
The violence became a national disgrace when an American citizen was killed in a street fight in Samuel Morse’s hometown of Charlestown, Mass., in August of 1834. Some 500 nativists marched to the Irish part of town and ransacked and burned Catholic homes. Then broadsides began appearing on the streets. In Boston, the oft-repeated rumors of white women forcibly held against their will by immoral Catholic Priests were amplified by Rebecca Theresa Reed. She came forward to describe herself as an escaped nun confirming the wild stories and claiming she was about to be kidnapped to Catholic Canada. Rebecca Reed was denounced as a fraud by Catholics, not a sister at all, but a worker at the convent. Later when Elizabeth Harrison, a real Ursuline nun left the Charlestown convent and then returned on her own, the Protestant press and preachers howled that Catholics were holding her prisoner in the “priests’ prison.” Angry meetings were held to organize a response and for several days talk on the streets included plans to attack the convent. “The institution was a bad one… the nuns were kept there for a bad purpose; for a certain purpose,” one organizer is said to have argued. “Bishops and priests pretended to live without wives, but… the nuns were kept to supply the deficiency in this particular.”
The Protestant sermons that Sunday fueled the fires and Monday night, carrying banners reading “No Popery” and “Down with the Cross,” 40 or 50 men arrived at the convent to demonstrate. They lit a bonfire, which signaled the town’s firemen to sound the general alarm and some two thousand townspeople poured forth to witness the attack first hand. The Mother Superior pleaded, and then allegedly threatened that “the Bishop has twenty thousand Irishmen at his command in Boston.” The mob was enraged. The dozen sisters, three women servants, and 47 female students fled out the back and hid in the garden as the Protestants torched the convent and its farmhouse, threw pianos into the yard, and pried open a nun’s coffin – some while wearing the women’s clothing.
During the night, the nuns, servants, and students fled to Boston hiding in farmhouses to avoid the mob. The next night a second mob arrived to destroy the plantings and burn whatever was left, and were eventually turned away from a local Catholic church by armed militia. Rumors spread that the Irish in nearby laboring camps were organizing to attack Boston, students in Harvard Square posted guards, and a mob attacked an Irish shantytown and burned it to the ground – only the raising of a drawbridge keeping them from an all-out attack on the city’s Irish.
Samuel Morse’s inflammatory writings, and the widely reported attack on the convent led to more mainstream action as well. W. C. Brownlee published Letters in the Roman Catholic Controversy in 1834 and two years later Popery: An enemy to civil and religious liberty, and dangerous to our republic, two in a string of anti-Catholic treatises on Popery. Lyman Beecher’s A Plea for the West (1835) highlighted his fears of a plot to encourage Catholics to settle the west in preparation for the overthrow of American democracy. Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieuy Nunnery of Montreal (1836), which included lurid descriptions of illicit convent sex, was an American best-seller selling more copies than any other book until Lyman Beecher’s daughter Harriet wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).
In March, 1835 what’s believed to have been the first nativist political organization was established in New York when American-born citizens of the 14th Ward nominated a nativist ward ticket. That year there was a nativist candidate for Congress in New York, James Monroe, nephew of the President. James Watson Webb, editor of the Courier and Enquirer, took an interest and supported the movement in his paper. He would later take credit for the organization of the Native American Democratic Association, the first national nativist political organization, organized that summer.
That fall Whigs gave nativist candidates their tacit approval by not running any candidates as some Whig meetings endorsed nativists instead. At election time the nativists polled 39 percent of the vote. The next year Samuel Morse attempted to propel himself from Catholic hater to Mayor, and received the nativist nomination, but was soundly defeated. In the spring of 1837, the Native American Democratic Association of New York met at the Howard House “to express its approbation” of the nomination of Aaron Clark for Mayor. This meeting made Whig Alderman Ira. B. Wheeler its president, and its vice-presidents and secretaries were all noted Whigs. Whigs would try to assume the mantle of protecting Irish immigrants for the rest of their party’s life, but after the 1830s it was clear that Democrats were the defenders of the Irish in the American political arena.
In the arena of the streets, the Irish were on their own. In the Bowery in 1835 a saloon keeper announced plans to organize the O’Connell Guards, and nativist went wild, claiming it was “a foreign armed force stationed among us.” On June 21, 1835 the American Guards fought the Irish at Chatham Square and attacks on the Irish spread around the city. A year later nativist organized to finally rid themselves of the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but the Irish were forewarned and turned the building into a fortress, complete with musket loops cut into the newly built garden walls. Cobblestones were hauled to rooftops and Irish took to the streets armed with whatever they had. The nativists coming down the Bowery thought better of their plan and violence was averted.
The movement against Irish Catholics spread beyond the city of New York. Nativist societies were organized in New Jersey, Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, in New Orleans, and in Washington, D.C., where 700 men of all political parties met. In Albany County the Whigs grafted nativism onto their local platform. Even in remote Washington County, the rural county north of Troy that was hardly a hotbed of Catholic immigration, nativist residents petitioned the House of Representatives to investigate if there was “a plan in operation, powerful and dangerous, under the management of the Leopold Foundation, for the subversion of our civil and religious liberties, to be effected by the emigration of Roman Catholics from Europe, and by their admission to the right of suffrage with us in our political institutions.” In Troy, nativist hung Irish effigies around the city each St. Patrick’s Day, to remind newly arriving Irish about their place in society.
The Irish did more than defend themselves in the street. A Hibernian Benevolent Society was founded in Montreal in 1823. It cost 10 shillings to join and a shilling and three pence per month dues, in advance, to remain a voting member. Officers were elected to fill their roles on St. Patrick’s Day each year. Members were required to good moral character, but were accepted “without national or religious distinction.” In New York the Ancient Order of Hibernians made their first headquarters at the newly built St. James’ Church. Hibernian Societies were founded in Albany, Troy, Utica, and Rochester in the early 1830s.
In 1835, the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Troy celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at the inn of one Riley, where “excellent music” and a “sumptuous dinner” gave way to more than 40 toasts. “The festivity was kept up with a variety of other sentiments and some excellent songs were sung on the occasion, which gave great amusement to the company,” the Troy Daily Whig reported. “At an early hour they all separated and return to their respective homes.”
Later that year the Troy Hibernians marched together in the city’s Fourth of July Parade, beginning a long-standing tradition. The leading lights of the Hibernians in the late 1830s were Patrick Purcell, Dennis Glennon, and Billy Wallace. Their headquarters was on Fourth Street. In the 1840s, the Hibernian Society of Troy would turn toward temperance and new Irish associations would be founded, notably the Shamrock Benevolent Society, The Friendly Sons of Erin Association, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
In the 1830s however, the Hibernian Benevolent Society stood largely alone against anti-Irish sentiment in Troy – that sentiment flared to violence in 1837. More on that next time.
Illustrations: “Ruins of the Ursuline Convent, at Charlestown, Massachusetts” (1834) from the collection of the Charlestown Historical Society; cover of Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States by Samuel F.B. Morse, 1835 edition; “Instrument of Torture In Use In The Convent” from Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieuy Nunnery of Montreal (1836); and a late nineteenth century St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Scotland.