The Anti-Irish Riots of 1854

Henry Wise, governor of Virginia, minister to Brazil and Brig.-Gen. in the Confederate army ran against a Know Nothing candidate for governor in 1855. Gov. Wise would say about the Know Nothing movement years later that it was “the most impious and unprincipled affiliation by bad means for bad ends.”  He compared the struggle of Irish Catholics in Ireland against the Protestant landlords to the struggle in America against Know Nothingism. The Know Nothing party, formally known as the American party, succeeded to the Whig party. Many Whigs transitioned to the American party when the Whigs disintegrated in the early 1850’s. But, some Whigs did not. [1]

One Whig who would not join the Know Nothing party was J.C. Prendergast, publisher and editor of the New Orleans Daily Orleanian. Prendergast, an Irish immigrant himself, widely sympathized with the Irish immigrants and with immigrants in general.  Prendergast suggested it was best if the “foreigners” refrained from voting for a time until the bonds of friendship might increase.  But, as long as some Irish would insist on casting their vote, the Know Nothings would not be satisfied. [2]

The Know Nothings believed the New Orleans police were rounding up Irish voters to proceed to the polls and cast their votes.  Whether true or not, they believed it. Even Prendergast, the erstwhile Whig, believed the Irish were being manipulated by the Democratic party in some way. [3]

March, 1854

During the March, 1854 elections, two New Orleans papers whipped up anti-Irish feeling. The Daily Crescent and the Delta accused the Irish immigrants of all the evils afflicting the city, “forever kicking up rows and breaking heads.”  Their societies were divisive and prevented assimilation.  At other times, the Crescent simply argued the Irish voters were the dupes of others, apparently meaning Democratic politicians. What the Crescent and even Prendergast seemed not to appreciate was that the Democratic party, unlike any other party, welcomed all immigrants, even the Irish. [4]

There were elections set for early October. Regardless of the cause, the Know Nothings resorted to violence. Ten days of riots broke out starting Saturday night, Sept. 10, 1854. A large riot broke out on Sunday night, around the St. Mary’s Street Market, a predominantly Irish neighborhood. It was said that a Mr. Grinnell of Leeds and Co., a large ship-building firm, John Mitchell, a foreman of Leeds, and a Mr. Green, a relative of Grinnell, were walking near coffee houses (which actually served anything but coffee) in the St. Mary’s neighborhood. The three men were challenged by customers within the coffee houses. The three man party insisted on their right to walk where they please. Violence soon erupted, resulting in injury to all three men. The Crescent suggested the Irish customers in the drinking establishments started the fracas. But, the Crescent was generally sympathetic with Know Nothingism. [5]

Prendergast reported that he understood Grinnell to be opposed to foreigners and was one of the leaders of an attack on Murphy’s coffee house a few nights earlier. [6]

St. Patrick’s Church

On the night of Sept. 11, Monday, rumors flew that the Americans, as they were known at the time, planned to sack St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, the church for the Irish. [7]

Dr. J.J. Meighen, a druggist, gathered with the crowd which was intent on protecting St. Patrick’s. The Americans came into the area and a general fight broke out. Two men were killed. Meighen was arrested, as was John Cavanaugh, Captain of the Louisiana Grays, a predominantly Irish militia. Cavanaugh denied he was involved in the defense of St. Patrick’s Church.  He said he was working late that night at the Crescent Steam Marble Yard on St. Joseph street.  He and his men worked until about 10 p.m.  They left work and proceeded to a coffee house on Tchoupitoulas street for refreshment.  So, it looked like he was leading a group of armed men, but not so.

At the coffee house, Cavanaugh saw Gen. Lewis, the commander of the New Orleans militia.  He went out to talk to the commander.  Lewis asked him to persuade the men to disperse.  Cavanaugh tried to send them home, but some refused.  They wanted protection for their lives and property.  Capt. Cavanaugh then went home himself.  He emerged from his home later that night when he briefly thought the marble yard was on fire.  Dr. Meighen told Gen. Lewis he was a naturalized citizen, but that he would “un-naturalize” and protect himself. In the end, the only persons arrested were Capt. John Cavanaugh, captain of the Irish militia, the Louisiana Grays, Stephen O’Leary, and Dr. J.J. Meighen

A witness would testify in court a few days later that the crowd did not appear to be organized and there appeared to be no leader.  The charge against Cavanaugh was later dismissed for lack of evidence. [8]

That night on the 11th, Dr. Meighan strode up and down the streets with a sword in his hand, which was inscribed “Liberty or Death.”  Later that night, Meighan claimed to have been wounded, even though he sustained no visible wound.  One witness described the druggist as a “damned fool.”  No record appears regarding any trial for Dr. Meighan. Perhaps, the court took into account his odd behavior that night. [9]

Duffy’s Coffee House

On the night of Sept. 12, the coffee house of Tom Duffy, located at No. 58 New Levee Street, was attacked. Duffy and the customers initially resisted the intrusion.  But, the attackers persisted, gained entry and destroyed the place.  They found a man named John Kane, who had recently arrived from Louisville.  The mob of some 20-30 men dragged him outside,. They demanded he answer their question, “Are you American or Irish?”  Scared for his life, he answered “American.”  Kane then ran off, but was chased and shot down. Another man named Boylan was shot in the leg.  A man named James Porter, a clerk at a lumber yard on Tchoupitoulas street, was shot in the head. According to the Daily Picayune, the mob of 20-30 men attacked Porter quietly and stealthily and then disappeared.  Porter was a Dublin native. [10]

Also on the night of Sept. 12, it was rumored that the Americans planned to attack two coffee houses owned by Irishmen – Murphy and Falvey – at the corner of Julia and Tchoupitoulas, an Irish neighborhood.  They also planned to attack the nearby marble yard of the stone mason, John Cavanaugh – Cavanaugh, the captain of the Louisiana Grays. Prendergast believes this was one of many false rumors, but it reflects the great fear then reverberating through the Irish community. [11]

Special Police

By Sept. 16, Mayor Lewis called for special police from citizens willing to patrol the streets. Dozens so volunteered.  They were organized by Capt. Forno, one of the militia unit captains.  Forno was not Irish. But, the militia commanders generally carried a good deal of informal authority, even though they were not actual employees of any government. Prendergast lamented that several able-bodied citizens intended to serve as a special policemen, but withdrew their names when they saw that many of the volunteers were Irish. [12]

The nightly patrols stopped the attacks, because they stopped the intrusions into Irish areas by the Americans.  But, the Know Nothings were just getting started. They would terrorize the city for the next several years.  They did succeed in suppressing the Irish vote in the next round of elections in 1856.

For more about the Know Nothings, see Smithsonian site here. The Know Nothings opposed immigration by all groups. The two principle groups of immigrants in the 1850’s were the Irish and the Germans. But, the Know Nothings reserved the full force of their thuggery for the Irish.

Notes:

[1] David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 110-112.

[2] New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Aug. 22, 1854, p. 1, col. 2

[3] Earl F. Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), p. 86, citing Daily Orleanian, Sept. 11, 1854

[4] Irish in New Orleans, p. 88

[5] N.O. Daily Crescent, Sept. 12, 1854, p. 3, col. 2

[6] Daily Orleanian, Sept. 13, 1854, p. 1, col. 2

[7] Daily Orleanian, Sept. 13, 1854, p. 1, col. 2

[8] Irish in New Orleans, p. 90; Daily Picayune, Sept. 27, 1854, p. 2, col. 5; Daily Picayune, Sept. 16., 1854, p. 2, col. 5, 6

[9] Daily Picayune, Sept. 16., 1854, p. 2, col. 5; Daily Crescent, Sept. 16, 1854, p. 4, col. 1

[10] Daily Orleanian, Sept. 14, 1854, p. 1, col. 1

[11] Daily Orleanian, Sept. 14, 1854, p. 1, col. 1

[12] Daily Orleanian, Sept. 17, 1854, p. 1, col. 1

2 thoughts on “The Anti-Irish Riots of 1854

  1. Well Irish we really haven’t progressed all that much as a nation have we. The same positions are still held by some in our country although we don’t have riots…..yet. And we do have a group comparable with the Know Nothings that continue to inflame or democracy with their lies and conspiracy theories. take care
    Rick

    Like

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