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The Know-Nothings of the 1800s and the No-Mosquers of the new millenium

Steve Wessler asks two important questions in Wednesday’s Portland Press Herald:

The Ku Klux Klan has deep Christian roots. Would Americans rise up in anger if a Christian group proposed to build a church near the site of a Klan killing?

In 1856, a period of intense anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, a mob of angry Protestants burned to the ground a Catholic church in Bath. Would Maine Catholics have erupted in anger and hysteria if a Protestant church had been built near the site of the burned and desecrated Catholic church?

No one who is historically informed can call the Ku Klux Klan a group of minor destruction. The names of known Ku Klux Klan members positioned high in government are striking. Type in the word “KKK” or the word “KKKLAN” and follow it with “.com” in your internet browser and you’ll see how closely the still-existing KKK identifies itself with Christianity. So answer Steve Wessel’s question for yourself: does all this mean that Christian churches should be banned from anywhere within three blocks of a Klan killing? Why or why not?

Steve Wessler actually soft-pedals his description of the middle 1800s: to call it a “period of intense anti-Catholic sentiment” in the USA is to put matters lightly. To read more about the incident in Bath, Maine, visit the website of St. Mary’s Church in Bath today:

The burning of South Church in Bath, Maine in the 1850s by KnowNothingsOn July 6, 1854, political agitators from the national party called the “Know-Nothings” incited a riot in the holiday crowd in Bath. This party had been newly formed in 1849 to protest against immigration, especially that of Irish Catholics, millions of whom were entering the country due to the famines in Ireland. Protests and violent incidents flared up across the country, including several places in Maine. In Bath, which was rapidly expanding with both many new residents, including immigrants, and the frantic pace of shipbuilding that particular year, tempers were easily ignited during that hot, unusually dry summer of 1854. When the street preacher’s speech to hundreds of onlookers was intentionally interrupted that evening in July by a small group who found the sentiments distasteful, audience members reportedly shouted “To Old South.” The mob rushed to the site of the South Church to vent its resentment against the Catholics; the group burned and destroyed the church, as well as accosting several Catholic families in their home later that night and in the following days. Today the only reminder of the church that remains is the street name, “Old South Place,” that runs from Union to Granite Street.

Oliver Moses, a member of the Universalist Church, reportedly protected a Catholic family from a mob at the time of the riot, and subsequently offered his home at 1034 Washington Street to the Catholics for Mass until another location could be found.

The violence wasn’t limited to Bath, Maine. Let’s consult The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference (1913, pages 679-680) for some more information:

The history of Knownothingism would be very imperfectly told without some account of the wrongs inflicted upon Catholics and the criminal excesses committed by the partisans of that movement. The same bitter attacks against the Catholics and the same incitements to violence could not fail to produce results similar to those which had characterized the earlier Native American movements. In 1851 the large Knownothing element in Providence, R. I., was excited over the establishment there of a community of Sisters of Mercy under the direction of Mother Xavier Warde. The cottage occupied by the sisters was attacked at night, and all the windows broken. In daytime, as the sisters passed through the streets, they were hooted at and otherwise insulted, and were openly threatened with the destruction of their convent. So persistent were these threats that the Mayor requested the sisters to abandon their residence in Providence so as to avert the threatened disorder. Soon afterwards a mob of Knownothing partisans fully armed was assembled whose purpose of attacking the convent had been openly announced. The bishop’s house and one or more of the churches were likewise marked for destruction. After fruitless appeals to the civil authorities for protection, the Irish Catholics of Providence, under the prudent and resolute lead of Bishop O’Reilly, prepared to resist the mob and to repel any violence that might be attempted. The mob marched to the convent, but, finding it guarded by a number of Catholic Irishmen, with Bishop O’Reilly present and declaring that the sisters and their convent should be protected at whatever cost, the Knownothing leaders decided not to molest the convent, and the mob dispersed.

In 1853, on the occasion of the visit to America of Archbishop Bedini, Apostolic Nuncio to the Court of Brazil, a great outcry was raised by the Knownothing element throughout the country, with whom were joined certain Italian refugees who had emigrated to escape the consequences of their criminal conduct at home. In all the cities visited by the archbishop hostile demonstrations were made against him. At Boston, Baltimore, Wheeling, St. Louis, and Cincinnati where the Nuncio took part in various solemn religious celebrations, there were scenes of disorder, and in some cases of bloodshed, provoked by the Knownothing speakers both lay and clerical, as well as by the anti-Catholic press. At Cincinnati, in December, 1853, a mob of 600 men armed with weapons of various sorts, and carrying lighted torches and ropes, marched to the cathedral intending to set it on fire and, as was believed, to hang the Nuncio. There was an encounter with the police, and the mob was dispersed, but not until after shots had been fired and several persons wounded. During 1854 there were numerous assaults upon Catholic churches throughout the country by the Knownothing element. St. Mary’s church at Newark, N.J., was invaded by a mob made up of Knownothings and Orangemen from New York City; the windows were broken, some of the statuary destroyed, and one unoffending bystander, an Irish Catholic, was shot and killed. In October of the same year, at Ellsworth, Maine, Father John Bapst, S.J., was dragged from the church, robbed of his watch and money, tarred and feathered, and ridden about the village on a rail.

On 4 July, at Manchester, N.H., St. Anne’s church was attacked, its windows broken and furniture destroyed, the priest compelled to seek shelter away from his home, and the houses of Irish Catholics were likewise attacked, the inmates driven out, even the sick being dragged from their beds. At Bath, ME., the mob broke into the church and, after wrecking the altar and the pulpit, set fire to the building which was reduced to a heap of ashes. At Dorchester, Massachusetts, a keg of gunpowder was placed under the floor of the little Catholic church, it was fired at three o’clock in the morning and resulted in almost the total destruction of the building. Another Catholic church, at Sidney, Ohio, was blown up with gunpowder. At Massillon, Ohio, another church was burned, and an attempt made to burn the Ursuline Convent at Galveston, Texas. At Lawrence and at Chelsea, Massachusetts, the Catholic churches were attacked by the Knownothing mob, the windows smashed, and much other damage done. St. Mary’s church at Norwalk, Conn., was set on fire and later its cross was sawed off the spire. A fire was started in the church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Brooklyn, and the building was saved only by the interference of the police aided by the militia, who drove off the mob. St. Mary’s Church at Saugerties, N.Y., was set on fire and nearly destroyed by the fanatics, and an attempt made to burn the church at Palmyra, N.Y. The following year (1855), at Louisville, Ky., the elections were attended with such rioting and bloodshed, the result of Knownothing agitation, that the day (5 Aug.) acquired the name of “Bloody Monday.” The cathedral was invaded by the mob and was saved from destruction only by the prudence of Bishop Spalding, who, in a letter to Bishop Kenrick summing up the results of the day’s proceedings, said: “We have just passed through a reign of terror surpassed only by the Philadelphia riots. Nearly one hundred poor Irish have been butchered or burned and some twenty houses have been consumed in the flames. The City authorities, all Knownothings, looked calmly on and they are now endeavouring to lay the blame on the Catholics” (see “Life of Archbishop Spalding”, by J.L. Spalding, p. 185).

While their ignorant followers were engaged in these lawless proceedings the leaders were exerting themselves in various directions to secure legislation hostile to Catholics, especially to Irish immigrants, then mostly of that faith. In the legislatures of some of the states bills were proposed to authorize the visitation and inspection of convents and other religious institutions by state officials, and in Massachusetts, in 1854, such a law, known as the Nunneries Inspection Bill, was actually passed. Under this a legislative committee made a tour of inspection and in a very offensive manner visited several Catholic colleges and convents. In several states, notably in New York, church property bills were proposed which were designed to destroy the title to Catholic church property, which for the most part stood in the name of the bishop, there being then no law for the incorporation of Catholic churches by which such title might be securely held. In Congress efforts were made to restrict the benefits of the Homestead Laws to those who were actual citizens of the United States, and the old-time proposal to extend the period of residence to twenty-one years before a person could be admitted to citizenship was constantly agitated. Of lesser importance were the laws and ordinances passed in Massachusetts disbanding various volunteer militia companies bearing the name of some Irish patriot and composed for the most part of Catholic Irishmen.

These different measures were advocated in the newspaper organs, both secular and religious, of the Knownothing party. The New York Church Property Bill evoked the newspaper controversy between Archbishop Hughes and Senator Brooks which attracted attention all over the country. In addition, many books and pamphlets were put in circulation in support of the Knownothing claims. Much of this literature was grossly insulting to Catholics and especially to the Irish members of that Church, and the Catholic press of those days was busily engaged in meeting the charges made against the Church. Speaking of Knownothingism, the authors (Nicolay and Hay) of the “Life of Lincoln” (Vol. II, p. 357) say: “Essentially it was a revival of the extinct Native American faction based upon a jealousy of and discrimination against foreign born voters, desiring an extension of their period of naturalization and their exclusion from office; also based upon a certain hostility to the Roman Catholic religion.”

Schouler, another non-Catholic historian, says (History of the United States, Vol. V, p. 305): “They [the Knownothings] revived the bitter spirit of intolerance against the Roman Catholic Church such as ten years before had been shown in the riots of Charlestown and Philadelphia, by representing it as foreign, the handmaid of popular ignorance and bent on chaining Americans to the throne of the Vatican. . . .Catholic churches were assaulted every now and then by some crowd of Bible bigots helped on by the brawny friends of free fight inflamed by street preachers and the revelations of ‘converted Jesuits’ and ‘escaped nuns’ etc.” Speaking of the partisans of the movement, Bishop J. L. Spalding said (Life of Archbishop Spalding, p. 174) they were “the depraved portion of our native population”.

The Protestant mobs didn’t just attack one Catholic church in Bath, Maine. They were active and brutally intolerant and astonishingly violent. These were some crazed religious zealots we’re talking about, right here in the United States. So answer an expansion of Steve Wessel’s question for yourself: does all this mean that Protestant churches should be banned from the scene of a Know-Nothing attack? Why or why not?

Consider the tactics of the Know-Nothings in the 1800s: Efforts in multiple communities across the USA to drive certain religious houses of worship out of town. Seeking legal authority to inspect houses of worship of certain religions. Claims that all members of a religious group are in thrall to a foreign dictator. Extravagant claims made by suspicious ‘converted’ former members of the targeted religious group. Assumptions that members of a certain religious group must be foreigners. Declarations that membership in a certain religious group is tantamount to treason.

We saw all of these elements in the 1800s, and we’re seeing all of them again now. Only the names — and for now the intensity — have changed.

4 thoughts on “The Know-Nothings of the 1800s and the No-Mosquers of the new millenium”

  1. Tom says:

    Chalk up another bit of evidence to the failure of mankind to cooperate, understand, allow for diversity, peacefully coexist, or learn from past mistakes. The stupidest species on the planet will drive many to extinction.

  2. five-year Bath Me resident says:

    This is my fifth year living in Bath, Maine. I’ve visited or lived in most regions of the country. Maine has a quaint expression for visitors from the other 49 who stay past Labor Day. From June to September they refer to us on local commercials as people from “away.” From then to the next cash season, they refer to us as “out-a-staters.” In a grocery store, I heard a woman say she has lived here over 40 years. I approached and asked if they still call her an out-a-stater. She said when she’s buried, they’ll carve “out-a-stater” on her grave.

    People don’t go to church here much in Bath. There are many beautiful churches, but most are empty 365 days a year. I was born in the mid-west to a family who claimed to be protestant. We never went to church, and we liked it that way. I understand the Knownothing movement of the mid-nineteenth century. European Catholics moved en mass into key areas of America and used their numbers to promote their people and belittle, exclude, and empoverish everyone else. Today, the second largest religious group in America are the Baptists at about 4%. Catholics are about 25%. Try to get in to a major Catholic college or prep school if you are not Catholic.

    None of us should exclude each other based on building a support group or targeting people. Knownothings are alive and well in Bath, Maine. They are as vigorous and militant as when they burned the Catholic church down in the mid-1850s. Knownothings won. They are in charge decade after decade. Just visit the town library, IGA, furniture store, banks, and on it goes. The owners won’t even make a big pretense about how they feel about you if you are from the other 49 states. It’s as bad as anything you’ll find in Mississippi regarding feelings toward northerners. They say down south, “What’s the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee? A Yankee comes down to visit, and a damn Yankee comes down to stay! Mainers love to make money from dumb tourists, but no self-respecting Mainer would go so far as let you know which way the bathhroom is. In Bath, they’ll only point you toward Massachusetts.

  3. Nicole says:

    After reading “five-year Bath Me resident,” I can hardly recognize the town my family moved to when I was 15. But then, I moved there from a nearby fishing village, with a year-round population of about 200. If this person feels so unwelcome, I fee truly sorry. But as reserved and standoffish as Mainers can be, I don’t recognize the place I lived in for so long from their description.

    One thing I can say about the “know nothing” and klan past in Bath is that it’s not something people talk about, let alone take pride in. You can go to Bath schools from Kindergarten until you graduate from Morse High, and never hear about the 1854 riot and church burning unless you take a special interest in local history and do some independent study. My family wasn’t from Bath, but I knew many French Catholics who had long family memories of that time. Interestingly, the Klan were more interested in keeping the the French out, even though they’d lived in Maine longer than the English, while the “Know-Nothings were more interested in keeping the Irish out.

    All Saints Parish has a good page on the Catholic history of the Bath area at

  4. Stephen Kent Gray says:

    Reason magazine sums it up best in this really good article. It discusses Islamophobia in America.

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