On Friday, August 18th, 1871, “The Riot at Ogdensburg” was the New-York Tribune’s title for its detailed review on the rapid rise of an Irish mob three days earlier – which the paper labeled “a formidable riotous element” – in the small, quiet port of Ogdensburg on the St. Lawrence River.
For two days, the mob’s threat of violence, and violence itself, was so intense that the mayor deputized nearly 100 men to restore law and order.
The rioters were incensed by the contentious content of a traveling speaker who rented the city’s Lyceum Hall for two nights, and in their view freedom of speech was voided by the speaker’s dissection of Catholicism. Circulars were distributed which described the lectures’ inevitable anti-Catholic theme.
The circulars also asserted that the lecturer was a former priest but this was widely disputed, and research has not offered an answer if he was or was not an ex-clergyman. His name was Andre Massena but in the 1850s when he spoke in the British Isles he adopted a professional, or stage name, Baron de Camin. Even before emigrating in the 1860s to Canada and America, he generated a fiery anti-Catholic, anti-Irish posture and reputation.
Recently, two researchers have broadened the understanding of growth of Irish immigration to the Empire State. John Warren’s insightful three part series in the New York Almanack in 2021 examined the growth and spread of anti-Irish sentiment that arose through the 1830s. At the Frederick Remington Art Museum in 2018 in Ogdensburg, SUNY Canton Professor Sean O’Brien participated in the annual Art Highlights and Tea lecture series by presenting “Irish Settlement Roads: Nineteenth-Century Stories of Migration to the North Country.” The expansion of Irish settlers into the St. Lawrence Valley provided de Camin with a suitable setting for anti-Catholic diatribes. Although no evidence has been found that de Camin chose Ogdensburg due to its religious and ethnic demographics, these factors resulted in the community confrontation.
Even before de Camin’s arrival, preparations were formulated based on his long reputation of denouncing Popery and nativism against Irish-Americans. The city’s two Catholic priests knew what to expect from the Baron — nonstop poisoned insults. During their Sunday services, Father Mackey of St. Mary’s Irish Catholic Church and Father Jannotte of the French Catholic Church counseled members of their respective congregations to keep away from the Baron’s lecture, and, according to The Ogdensburgh Republican on August 22nd, “in every way refrain from anything that should tend to disturb or interfere with his meeting. The advice of both was very proper and commendable.”
The press said little about the Baron’s arrival at the venue, or his opening remarks. “Tuesday evening the speaker went to the Hall and commenced his lecture,” was all the Watertown Daily Times wrote the following day. But soon the quiet setting would change. There was no published estimate on the size of the audience but suddenly, and dramatically, it increased by nearly three dozen boisterous Irishmen who sat the front row seats. After briefly stomping their feet, they charged de Camin while yelling threats on his life.
The New York Times aptly and succinctly pictured the fast moving situation in its issue on August 17th. The Baron’s “remarks being offensive to Roman Catholics present, he was vioently assaulted and the meeting broken up. He was carried away in a carriage guarded by Police.” Soon the Mayor was called to the scene to restore order. In addition, there was more for law enforcement to do – three rioters were arrested and later indicted including the alleged planner and leader, Thomas Daly along with Edward Cunningham and Patrick O’Reilly. They waived examination, and were held for a court appearance a few days later. Overall, the newspaper reportage on the disposition of their cases differs. However, the Utica Daily Observer on August 28th listed $30o fines for O’Reilly and Cunningham, and a $5,000 fine for Daly (an immense sum for riotous behavior at the time).
There was a more compelling result of the riot which would impact events the following day when the Baron was scheduled at the Lyceum for his second lecture. The Tribune described this result in a summary article on August 19th that focused on the developing situation immediately after the riot because it “created the greatest degree of excitement among the Protestant portion of the community, and hundreds who would not otherwise have given the Baron an ear, determined to attend the second lecture, if for no other purpose than to vindicate the right of free speech.”
Ogdensburg was becoming religiously divisible, and the Baron’s next decision did not relax it. De Camin issued a handbill addressed “To The Protestant Citizens of Ogdensburg” (as reprinted in The New York Times, August, 17th) in which he strongly stated, “… in this country, where liberty of speech is guaranteed …. but I was prevented from delivering last night [the 15th] by a mob, who broke up my meeting and personally assaulted me…. As I am to lecture again this evening in Lyceum Hall, I appeal to you as citizens of the United States and Protestants of Ogdensburg… that I shall not be robbed of my liberty.” However, not only did he not speak at Lyceum, but he did not address any audience at all.
On August 18th, The Times reported that de Camin did not speak as scheduled at the Hall because “a formidable riotous element” of Irish awaiting his arrival. In addition, the Manager of Lyceum would not unlock the doors, out of fear of damage resulting from another riot. For the second day in a row, de Camin was again taken to Police Headquarters where another large mob assembled. Immediately, authorities called for volunteers which spurred a large number of Protestants to respond to police headquarters where they were sworn in as special policemen. The enhanced police force – later determined to be 130 – cleared the streets enough to return the Baron safely to his boarding house. Wednesday the 16th ended quietly but what would occur the next day?
Compared with the previous two days, the 17th developed without fury and anger, and by the end of the day, the Baron would present his second lecture which would vindicate the right of free speech. In his dramatic Proclamation, Mayor William Proctor guaranteed that freedom of speech would be secured, and the Common Council promised that the militia would be called upon as needed. The Baron circulated uneventfully throughout the downtown — no mob assembled to confront him, and at one point he asked if the Mayor if he could lecture at City Hall but this request was turned down.
Eventually, he arranged to speak at the city skating rink to approximately 200 listeners, many of whom asked him to delay his departure so that he could lecture again. The Mayor’s answer was negative. But in 1871, extremism tested freedom of speech. Fanaticism was protected in a small city on the St. Lawrence River, although the riot impacted at least one future lecture series.
The Troy Daily Times noted this impact on Friday, August, 22nd observing that “de Camin won such notoriety by stirring up an Irish riot in Ogdensburgh that he drew an audience of twenty-nine souls at his lecture in Syracuse Wednesday evening.”
Photo: Andre Massena Baron De Camin article from the Ogdensburg Daily Journal, August 19th, 1871.