Know Nothing Violence in New Orleans

Political violence, unfortunately, is not new in America. In the 1850’s, political violence was far too common.

Know Nothings

In the 1856 Presidential election, the Know Nothings nominated Millard Fillmore for President and Andrew Jackson Donelson, nephew to former Pres. Andrew Jackson. The ticket failed miserably. They won just one state, Maryland. From that election, the Know Nothings started to decline. Most Southerners voted for the Democrat, James J. Buchanan.

But, at the city level, the Know Nothings were winning mayoral elections in Richmond, Memphis, Mobile and New Orleans. In Mobile, a traditional Whig city, the Know Nothings embraced the anti-Catholic plank. But, in New Orleans, with a long tradition of Catholicism, they minimized the anti-Catholic fervor. Indeed, in New Orleans, many of the leading Know Nothings were French Creoles, ostensibly Catholic, but native born for generations.


In Mobile, some ruffians attacked a Jesuit priest who was returning from Spring Hill College, a Jesuit college, to Mobile. The Priest barely escaped with his life. The Sisters of Charity operated a hospital, as they did in many cities. The Mobile Know Nothings accused the sisters of advocating “sectarian principles” at the hospital by removing Protestant bibles and preventing Protestant ministers from praying with the sick. When the city council appointed new commissioners to the hospital, the sisters all resigned. The council also passed new ordinances appointing electoral inspectors who would regulate the foreign vote.

New Orleans

In New Orleans, with the largest Irish population, could be found the most virulent anti-Irish fervor. In March, 1854, persons opposed to French Creole and Irish influence formed an “Independent party.” In a largely Catholic City, the Independents accepted Catholicism, but focused on immigrants. Independent thugs clashed with City officials, and policemen, many of whom were Irish. Bloody fights would erupt when the Independents would challenge a vote. At one precinct in the Creole First Municipality (roughly equivalent to today’s French Quarter), they attacked several policemen, including the police chief, Stephen O’Leary. Chief O’Leary survived. But, two Irish policemen were killed.

In the First Municipality, of the 150 policemen, 98 were Irish born.

Irish v. Irish

In New Orleans, there developed a distinction between the old Irish immigrants and the new. The newspaper publisher, J.C. Prendergast, was critical of the new immigrant. He saw in them a backward, extremely poor representative of the Emerald Isle. J.C. Prendergast was one of the “old” Irish immigrants. He lived in the working class area known as the Third Municipality district.

Orestes Brownson, the New England intellectual and writer, visited New Orleans in the 1850’s. He wrote several articles about the city. He generally praised the Irish immigrants. But, he described the poor Irish immigrants as hanging loosely on the skirts of the Irish as “a miserable rabble, unlike anything which the country has ever known of native growth – a noisy, drinking and brawling rabble.” The good Irish, said the writer, would support a radical, such as John Mitchel, if the radical was Irish. The Irish, he said, would not conceal their vices, but make them public.

Yet, some observers found the Irish to be hard-working and happy. They worked for the lowest wages, yet remained generally happy. That showed they lacked concern for material disadvantages, it was claimed. They were seen as dirty. The only water they valued was Holy Water.

Critics knew the Irish were susceptible to national flattery. Politicians, wrote Mr. Brownson, knew to appeal to Irish voters by praising Ireland. A related concern was the tendency of the Irish to find a national connection to any public person. Any person of public prominence had some Irish connection in Irish eyes, further exposing them to ridicule.

Violence Increases

In the September, 1854 election, the violence was even worse. The Independents kept up a chatter all Summer. So, the Irish formed bands of patrols, seeking to protect St. Patrick’s Church and the nearby St. Mary’s Street market. Riots erupted which lasted ten days. The Independents saw themselves as “Regulators.” They would march about and shoot up Irish coffee houses (which actually sold everything but coffee). Their motto was “Shoot yourself an Irishman.”

In the 1854 New Orleans election, the Know Nothings gained every city office, except the mayor’s office and three judicial posts. In response to this overwhelming victory, thousands then flocked to the now open banner of Know Nothingism.

Violent clashes broke out between the Irish and Know Nothings in the working class Third Municipality district. By the November, 1854 election, the Irish vote had been curtailed. In the 1855 election, the Know Nothings took control of the city council. After the 1854 and 1855 elections, the Know Nothings acquired control of the police force in New Orleans.

Know Nothings Win

In the June, 1856 election, the Know Nothings won in a landslide. Pro-American party newspapers crowed that the Irish were afraid to vote. “Thugging” became the order of the day. Know Nothings would attack without provocation. Even prominent citizens would be attacked. Dennis Corcoran, an Irish born journalist, was attacked as he left the St. Charles hotel. Fr. Mullon, the widely respected pastor at St. Patrick’s wrote a friend in Maryland that the health of the city was good, except it is an “abandoned” city. Know Nothings, nightly assassinations, blasphemous representations at theaters, all constituted the reality, said the Irish born priest.

In this way, the nativists came to dominate the police force and the “street scarpers.” Losing these public jobs was a blow to the Irish community. The Irish were also forced out of public schools and replaced by native teachers. In some districts, Irish children comprised half the enrollment. Parents complained their children were taunted as “Paddies” by the new teachers.

But, the worm would soon turn.

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 89-94

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 113-115.

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