Fr. Mullon, the Bravest Man

Fr. James Ignatius Mullon was one of those extraordinary priests in an extraordinary time. He was born in 1793 in Derry (Londonmderry), Ireland. Fr. Mullon came to the U.S. as a boy with his family. They came to Maryland. The young James Ignatius served in the American navy during the War of 1812. He was ordained in Cincinnati and served there as a teacher until coming to New Orleans in 1834. He served as pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in New Orleans from 1834 to 1866. [1]

At St. Patrick’s in New Orleans, he conducted 53 baptisms in 1835. That number increased to 163 in 1840 and then to 337 in 1845. The Irish population was booming and the new Father was ready for it. The church itself was a mess. Construction of St. Patrick’s started in 1835, but the tower started leaning in the soft soil. The parties agreed to take the dispute to arbitration. The construction company balked. James Gallier, an Irish architect, was called in. He succeeded in getting the church completed. [2]

See this website for a picture of St. Patrick’s Church here.

Selling the Church Pews

Paying for the brick church became difficult. The parish tried to take out a mortgage. The church tried selling pews, but that did not raise enough money. The trustees took out bonds secured by the mortgage.

This was a time of significant strife for the Catholic faith. It would have been very  embarrassing if the newest church – and the only church serving Irish immigrants – failed.

By 1834, the debt load on the church had risen to $56,000. By one estimate, that would amount to $620,000 in 2019 dollars. Fr. Mullon was excluded from these financial decisions by the trustees of a corporation responsible for the financing. The church could not pay the interest on the bonds. One of the bond holders sued and won. The sheriff sold the church pews for non-payment of the interest. Other bondholders and note holders began to press for payment.

In 1842, Fr. Mullon formed the Church Debt Paying association. Its members paid 25 cents each week. Fr. Mullon’s “two bits a week” association paid for the improvements to the interior of the church. But, the overwhelming notes and bonds remained outstanding.

In 1845, the sheriff seized the church for sale. Later, that year the bishop, Antoine Blanc assumed the debt for $40,000. The Bishop saved the church. [3]

Friend of Jews and Protestants

Fr. Mullon was a friend of Jews and Protestants, at a time when such friendships were rare. He also owned two slaves. It is easy to judge the Father now. But, we do not know the circumstances of his slave ownership. It was not unheard of for persons of good-will to purchase slaves for positive reasons, such as keeping slave families together or close by. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson purchased two slaves for those very reasons. Starting in 1837, Fr. Mullon let the German Catholic immigrants use the church. He was a friend to theater people. The father was a forceful, eloquent speaker. He generally had standing room only when he celebrated Mass. Many non-Catholics attended his Mass. [4]

St. Patrick’s Day Parades

Fr. Mullon did not support St. Patrick’s Day parades. He believed those parades only caused censure and criticism. The Irish were handy targets for the nativists. Fr. Mullon would say Mass and then urge his flock to go home and eat a good dinner with family on St. Patrick’s Day.

In 1837, the bishop invited Fr. Mullon to deliver the homily at St. Louis Cathedral to mark the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. The solemn Pontifical Mass was attended by legislators, judges, and civic officials. Fr. Mullon took the opportunity to lambast the nativist sentiment then growing. He criticized the “anti-American principles” of the Nativists. His sermon drew the attention of the Nativists. In 1839, Fr. Mullon looked in on a meeting of the Native American Association at the elegant St. Charles hotel. He was surprised to see a friend there. He asked his friend what drew him there. When he heard the response, Fr. Mullon told him that if he joined the Native American party, their friendship would end.

Fr. Mullon was a very athletic man when he was young. Sometime in the late 1830’s, he found himself in a dispute over rent at a tenement. The short, Jewish proprietor struck the father. But, he did not respond. J.C. Prendergast, editor of the Daily Orleanian and a fellow Irishman, taunted the Father for not responding. Fr. Mullon asked Prendergast what would he have Fr. Mullon do, he being a man of the cloth? I could tear him to pieces, said the priest, but a minister of the meek Savior must remain a non-combatant. [5]

The Know Nothings

Fr. Mullon stood up to the Know Nothings. The American party members were known as Know Nothings. It was a nativist party which opposed immigration, especially Irish Catholic immigration. In 1854, there were riots, mob brawls and beatings between the Know Nothings and the Irish. The Irish were generally on the losing end of these fights. These Nativist sentiments likely kindled for Fr. Mullon memories of the severe sectarian strife in Ireland. In 1854, a large group of Irish left the St. Mary’s market, the center of the Irish neighborhood, marched down the street toward St. Patrick’s. On the way they met a mob of Know Nothings. A large brawl broke out. Fr. Mullon deplored the violence erupting across the city. But, St. Patrick’s church was never harmed. [6]

When the Civil war broke out, the father blessed many banners and flags as the Irish troops marched off to war.

The Yankees

Fr. Mullon did not care for the Yankee occupation. The Union authorities ordered that prayers for the Confederates in churches cease. The churches, instead, must substitute prayers for the Union forces. Yet, every New Orleans church had dozens of parishioners fighting in the Confederate military. Fr. Mullon exploded in the pulpit, excoriating this attack on religion and conscience. Gen. Butler summoned Fr. Mullon. Fr. Mullon eventually substituted silent prayer.

Another time, Gen. Butler summoned the priest. He accused him of refusing to bury a Union soldier. Fr. Mullon replied that he would be happy to bury the entire Union army, including Gen. Butler, whenever the opportunity would arise.

The Bravest Man He Ever Met

Gen. Butler had ordered that all church bells be sent up north to be melted down and turned into cannon balls. Fr. Mullon told the general to come and get the great bell – if he dared. Gen. Butler liked Fr. Mullon. He said the feisty priest was the bravest man he had ever met.

Many of the Federal troops on duty in New Orleans were Irish Catholics. And, back in Massachusetts, Gen. Butler had been a politician who relied on support from Irish voters. So, the Federals generally left Fr. Mullon alone. [7]

Fr. Mullon passed away in 1866. It was the end of an era. His body lay in state for two days in the church. He was laid to rest in the church in a tomb which he himself had built.

Notes:

[1] Earl F. Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans 1800-1860 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), p. 99-100.

[2] Charles Dufour, ed., St. Patrick’s of New Orleans, 1833-1958 (New Orleans: A.P. Laborde & Sons 1958), p. 63-75.

[3] St. Patrick’s of New Orleans, pp. 63-75

[4] St. Patrick’s of New Orleans, pp. 63-75

[5] New Orleans Daily Orleanian, March 8, 1850, p. 2, col. 2

[6] St. Patrick’s of New Orleans, pp. 63-75

[7] Chester G. Hearn, When the Devil Came Down to Dixie (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1997), p. 174.

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

Fr. Mullon, the Bravest Man

Fr. James Ignatius Mullon was one of those extraordinary priests in an extraordinary time. He was pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in New Orleans from 1834 to 1866. Fr. Mullon was born in 1793 in Derry, Ireland. He came to the U.S. with his parents when very young. His first parish was in Cincinnati, before coming to New Orleans.

At St. Patrick’s in New Orleans, he conducted 53 baptisms in 1835. That number increased to 163 in 1840 and then to 337 in 1845. The Irish population was booming and the new Father was ready for it. The church itself was a mess. Construction of St. Patrick’s started in 1835, but the tower started leaning in the soft soil. The parties agreed to take the dispute to arbitration. The construction company balked. James Gallier, an Irish architect, was called in. He succeeded in getting the church completed.

See a picture of St. Patrick’s Church here.

Raising Funds

Paying for the brick church became difficult. The parish tried to take out a mortgage. The church tried selling pews, but that did not raise enough money. The trustees took out bonds secured by the mortgage.

This was a time of significant strife for the Catholic faith. It would have been very  embarrassing if the newest church – and the only church serving Irish immigrants – failed.

By 1834, the debt load on the church had risen to $56,000. By one estimate, that would amount to $620,000 in 2019 dollars. Fr. Mullon was excluded from these financial decisions by the trustees of a corporation responsible for the financing. The church could not pay the interest on the bonds. One of the bond holders sued and won. The sheriff sold the pews for non-payment of the interest. Other bondholders and note holders began to press for payment.

In 1842, Fr. Mullon formed the Church Debt Paying association. Its members paid 25 cents each week. Fr. Mullon’s “two bits a week” association paid for the improvements to the interior of the church. But, the overwhelming notes and bonds remained outstanding.

In 1845, the sheriff seized the church for sale. Later, that year the bishop, Antoine Blanc assumed the debt for $40,000. The Bishop saved the church.

Jews and Protestants

Fr. Mullon was a friend of Jews and Protestants, at a time when such friendships were rare. He also owned two slaves. It is easy to judge the Father now. But, we do not know the circumstances of his slave ownership. It was not unheard of for persons of good-will to purchase slaves for positive reasons, such as keeping slave families together or close by. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson purchased two slaves for those very reasons. Starting in 1837, Fr. Mullon let the German Catholic immigrants use the church. He was a friend to theater people. The father was a forceful, eloquent speaker. He generally had standing room only when he said Mass. Many non-Catholics attended his Mass.

St. Patrick’s Day Parades

Fr. Mullon did not support St. Patrick’s Day parades. He believed those parades only caused censure and criticism. The Irish were handy targets for the nativists. Fr. Mullon would say Mass and then urge his flock to go home and eat a good dinner with family on St. Patrick’s Day. 

In 1837, the bishop invited Fr. Mullon to deliver the homily at St. Louis Cathedral to mark the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. The solemn Pontifical Mass was attended by legislators, judges, and civic officials. Fr. Mullon took the opportunity to lambast the nativist sentiment then growing. He criticized the “anti-American principles” of the Nativists. This drew the attention of the Nativists. In 1839, Fr. Mullon looked in on a meeting of the Native American Association at the elegant St. Charles hotel. He was surprised to see a friend there. He asked his friend what drew him there. When he heard the response, Fr. Mullon told him that if he joined the Native American party, their friendship would end.

Fr. Mullon was a very athletic man when he was young. Sometime in the late 1830’s, he found himself in a dispute over rent at a tenement. The short, Jewish proprietor struck the father. But, he did not respond. J.C. Prendergast, editor of the Daily Orleanian and a fellow Irishman, taunted the Father for not responding. Fr. Mullon asked Prendergast what would he have Fr. Mullon do, he being a man of the cloth? I could tear him to pieces, said the priest, but a minister of the meek Savior must remain a non-combatant.

The Know-Nothings

Fr. Mullon stood up to the Know Nothings. The American party members were known as Know Nothings. It was a nativist party which opposed immigration, especially Irish Catholic immigration. In 1854, there were riots, mob brawls and beatings between the Know Nothings and the Irish. The Irish were generally on the losing end of these fights. These Nativist sentiments likely kindled for Fr. Mullon memories of the severe sectarian strife in Ireland. In 1854, a large group of Irish left the St. Mary’s market, the center of the Irish neighborhood, marched down the street toward St. Patrick’s. On the way they met a mob of Know Nothings. A large brawl broke out. Fr. Mullon deplored the violence erupting across the city. But, St. Patrick’s church was never harmed.

When the Civil war broke out, the father blessed many banners and flags as the Irish troops marched off to war.

The Yankees

Fr. Mullon did not care for the Yankee occupation. The Union authorities ordered that prayers for the Confederates in churches cease. The churches, instead, must substitute prayers for the Union forces. Fr. Mullon exploded in the pulpit, excoriating this attack on religion and conscience. Gen. Butler summoned Fr. Mullon. Fr. Mullon eventually substituted silent prayer.

Another time, Gen. Butler summoned the priest. He accused him of refusing to bury a Union soldier. Fr. Mullon replied that he would be happy to bury the entire Union army, including Gen. Butler, whenever the opportunity would arise.

The Bravest Man He Ever Knew

Many of the Federal troops on duty in New Orleans were Irish Catholics. And, back in Massachusetts, Gen. Butler had been a politician who relied on support from Irish voters. So, the Federals generally left Fr. Mullon alone.

Fr. Mullon passed away in 1866. It was the end of an era. His body lay in state for two days in the church. He was laid to rest in the church in a tomb which he himself had built.

Sources:

Charles Dufour, ed., St. Patrick’s of New Orleans, 1833-1958 (New Orleans: A.P. Laborde & Sons 1958), p. 63-75.

Chester G. Hearn, When the Devil Came Down to Dixie (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1997), p. 174.

New Orleans Daily Orleanian, March 8, 1850, p. 2, col. 2

Accused of being Abolitionists

Perhaps the worst accusation made against the Know Nothing party, in the mind of the average Southerner, native born or not, was that the Know Nothing party secretly supported abolitionism. As a secret organization, with secret handshakes and the like, it was easy for outsiders to view Know Nothings with suspicion. In the South, abolitionists were seen as evangelical extremists. For the average Irish Catholic, extreme Protestantism awoke their greatest fears. The accusation of supporting abolition of slavery hurt the Know Nothings more than the anti-Irish prejudice.

Father Patrick Lynch, also a slave holder, wrote an article entitled, “The Secret Sect.” He argued that the blatant Americanism so prevalent in the North was wedded to abolitionism. By “Americanism,” he meant the anti-immigrant fervor. He argued that Irish Catholics were loyal to the South and its institutions, while the American Party was not. Fr. Lynch lived in Charleston, and was one of the first native born priests in America. Abolitionists were indeed quite evangelical. They were often seen as fanatics. In truth, the Know Nothings tried to remain neutral on slavery. In a time when the slavery divide was increasingly pronounced, neutrality itself raised suspicion. The nascent Republican party became more attractive. Many Northern Know Nothings joined the Republican party by 1860. Southern Know Nothings were then left with a party seen as un-patriotic. The Democrat party gained even more members.

And, in the process, the Irish became more secure in their Irishness.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 79-80, 119-120.

Know Nothings in the South

The greatest challenge to Irish and German immigrants in the 1850’s was the rise of the American party, known as Know Nothings. The American Party succeeded to the Whig Party. Most Know Nothings were former Whig Party members. So, most Democrat Party members instinctively opposed the Know Nothing movement. This was especially true in the South where the Democrat Party was strongest.

They were known as “Know Nothings.” They started as a secret society, with secret handshakes, passwords and the whole nine yards. They were instructed to answer when asked about the society, “I know nothing.” See Smithsonian article for more about the Know Nothings.

In Virginia, Henry Wise, future Confederate Congressman and future Confederate general, ran for governor in 1855 against Know Nothing Thomas Flournoy. Flournoy was a strong candidate. But, Mr. Wise overcame the challenge. Years later, Gov. Wise would say that Know-Nothingism 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 ascendancy to the struggle in America against Know Nothingism. Gov. Wise also believed the Know Nothings sought a “fanatical and sectional demolition of slavery.” In the South, as in many parts of the North, Abolitionists were viewed as fanatics.

Know Nothings opposed German and Irish immigrants. Yet, they were even more concerned about any breach of the union. They were staunch unionists.

Some former Southern Whigs were appalled at Know Nothingism. In Georgia, former Congressman Alexander H. Stephens, the future Confederate Vice-President, and former Senator Robert Toombs, who was also a future Confederate general, strongly opposed Know Nothingism. Some former Whigs joined the American party, but minimized the nativist plank. Former Whig Senator John MacPherson Berrien of Savannah, Georgia, joined the American party to “promote Unionism rather than nativism and anti-Catholicism.”

In the North, the Know Nothings found considerable success. But, in the South, not as much. They elected several Congressmen, but only two Senators, Sam Houston of Texas and John Bell of Tennessee. They elected a few state representatives, but did not gain control of any state legislatures. In large part, the lack of Southern success was due to the Democrats who would not abandon the Irish immigrants. In Alabama, the Know Nothings tried to institute a plan to exclude “foreign paupers.” The plan failed due to Democratic opposition.

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

The Irish Strike Back in New Orleans

In the 1858 city elections, the Irish combined with the French Creoles. Also joined by some former American party members, the three groups formed a “Vigilance Committee” of almost 50 people. They posted bills printed by John Maginnis, the Irish newspaper publisher of the True Delta. The bill informed New Orleanians that “After years of disorder, outrage, and unchecked assassination,” the committee was unwilling to “bow down in unresisting submission to a set of ruffians, or to abandon the city in which their business, their social sympathies and their affections cluster.” The committee recruited 500 men, mostly Irish, for the armed wing of the committee. They took over the state arsenal, obtained muskets and artillery pieces. They took over municipal buildings. They occupied Jackson Square in the heart of the French Creole section. They marched about the city in a show of strength.

The Know Nothings responded by forming their own armed vigilantes. The Know Nothings gathered in Lafayette Square in the American section of the city. It seemed certain that civil war would erupt. But, only three Irishmen and one German were injured, when they were fired upon by their own men when they returned to Jackson Square from a mission uptown. Cooler heads prevailed. The American party mayor, Gerald Stith, kept control of his group. The 1858 elections passed without excessive violence. The relative calm helped heal some of the ethnic divisions for the Irish. This election marked the end of violence by the nativists.

See more about the Vigilance Committee here.

In the 1860 election, the American party ran a stevedore, John T. Monroe who sought working class and Irish support. Soon the U.S. Civil War started and the Irish became a reliable partner in the war effort.

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 95-96.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 118-119.

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.

Mobile

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.

The Irish Strike Back in New Orleans

In the 1858 city elections, the Irish combined with the French Creoles. Also joined by some former American party members, the three groups formed a “Vigilance Committee” of almost 50 people. They posted bills printed by John Maginnis, the Irish newspaper publisher of the True Delta. The bill informed New Orleanians that “After years of disorder, outrage, and unchecked assassination,” the committee was unwilling to “bow down in unresisting submission to a set of ruffians, or to abandon the city in which their business, their social sympathies and their affections cluster.” The committee recruited 500 men, mostly Irish, for the armed wing of the committee. They took over the state arsenal, obtained muskets and artillery pieces. They took over municipal buildings. They occupied Jackson Square in the heart of the French Creole section. They marched about the city in a show of strength.

The Know Nothings responded by forming their own armed vigilantes. The Know Nothings gathered in Lafayette Square in the American section of the city. It seemed certain that civil war would erupt. But, only three Irishmen and one German were injured, when they were fired upon by their own men when they returned to Jackson Square from a mission uptown. Cooler heads prevailed. The American party mayor, Gerald Stith, kept control of his group. The 1858 elections passed without excessive violence. The relative calm helped heal some of the ethnic divisions for the Irish. This election marked the end of violence by the nativists.

See more about the Vigilance Committee here.

In the 1860 election, the American party ran a stevedore, John T. Monroe who sought working class and Irish support. Soon the U.S. Civil War started and the Irish became a reliable partner in the war effort.

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 95-96.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 118-119.

Know Nothing Violence in the South

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.

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.

The Old Irish And the New

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.

Shoot an Irishman

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 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.

Landslide for the Know Nothings

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.

What did the United States do to Help with the Irish Famine?

The Famine in Ireland during the 1840’s was the worst disaster in Europe during the nineteenth century. A country of some 5 million lost 3 million people in just a few years. It is said 1 million died and 2 million emigrated. It was a scarring experience for all Irish. The Irish children of the 1840’s would grow to become the Irish soldiers, North and South, in 1861.

What did the United States do during the Famine? Private citizens donated huge amounts in the 1840’s. Some 118 ships left U.S. shores for the Irish nation. They carried some $545,145 worth of food stuffs. Doubtless, much of that was donated or generated by Irish immigrants then living in the U.S. What did the U.S. government do during the Famine?

It was not clear at the time that the U.S. government should help. Many Congressmen and Senators argued that it was unconstitutional for the country to use public funds for private relief. At least two bills to authorize the spending of public money to help Ireland died in committee. One Democrat senator, John Niles, a slavery opponent, opposed one bill, saying charity begins at home. The country should aid those within the U.S., not persons in far off lands. Another Congressman, Lewis Levin, an early Know Nothing party leader, always opposed Catholics. He argued one proposed bill was actually intended to feed “party vultures,” not Famine victims. He meant the bill was to help some politicians secure Irish votes in America, not feed the starving. The American (Know Nothing) party started in New York in 1843. The nativist sentiment in the United States was strong in the 1840’s. Rep. Levin wanted to increase the requirement to become a citizen from living in the U.S. from five years to 21 years.

The U.S. government eventually did allow that two U.S. war ships could be used to transport food to the victims of the Famine. Congress passed a bill making this possible. Remarkably, they felt it was constitutional to use government resources, so long as actual ownership of U.S. property was not transferred to private persons. One ship, the Jamestown, was quickly loaded in Boston and was in Cork within 15 days of departure.

But, the second ship, the Macedonian, languished in New York harbor until the Jamestown returned. The New Yorkers simply did not contribute the way Boston’s citizens contributed. That was probably because New York City was ground zero for the new American (Know Nothing) party. The nativist attacks on Irish immigrants in New York were severe. When the Jamestown returned, the Boston committee quickly collected enough donations to finish loading the ship. The captain of the Jamestown, George DeKay of New Jersey, spent $30,000 of his own money outfitting the Macedonian. This set back Capt. DeKay financially. He requested relief from Congress. Before the body could act, however, he died exhausted and penniless.

Timothy J. Sarbaugh, “Charity Begins at Home: The United States government and Irish Famine Relief 1845-1849,” History Ireland, Vol. 4, Issue 2, Spring, 1996.