When Louisville rioters killed Catholic immigrants.

On Aug. 6, 1855, 160 years ago today, people in Louisville lost their minds (via Vox):

In 1855, the Know-Nothing Party was beginning to take over politics in Louisville, Kentucky. The night before a local election in August, Know-Nothings armed with torches paraded through the city’s Catholic areas, telling voters to “keep their elbows in.” That day — fueled by rumors that hundreds of armed Germans were taking over polling places, and that an Irishman had killed a Know-Nothing — the Know-Nothings exploded into wholesale rioting in the Irish and German sections of town. At least 22 people were killed — and probably many more.

What was that all about?

It’s important to know who the Know-Nothings were. And if you know what the party stood for, you realize that anti-immigrant sentiment has always been strong in this country.

The Know-Nothing party was an outgrowth of the strong anti-immigrant and especially anti-Roman Catholic sentiment that started to manifest itself during the 1840s. A rising tide of immigrants, primarily Germans in the Midwest and Irish in the East, seemed to pose a threat to the economic and political security of native-born Protestant Americans. In 1849 the secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner formed in New York City, and soon after lodges formed in nearly every other major American city.

They were the Tea Party of the mid-19th century. And like the Tea Party, they were funded by a wealthy benefactor. This guy:

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He was the Koch brothers of his time. And you’ve heard of him.

Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, and creator of Morse Code.

Morse was a leader in the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration movement of the mid-19th century. In 1836, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York under the anti-immigrantNativist Party‘s banner, receiving only 1496 votes. When Morse visited Rome, he allegedly refused to take his hat off in the presence of the Pope.

Morse worked to unite Protestants against Catholic institutions (including schools), wanted to forbid Catholics from holding public office, and promoted changing immigration laws to limit immigration from Catholic countries. On this topic, he wrote, “We must first stop the leak in the ship through which muddy waters from without threaten to sink us.”

He wrote numerous letters to the New York Observer (his brother Sidney was the editor at the time) urging people to fight the perceived Catholic menace. These were widely reprinted in other newspapers. Among other claims, he believed that the Austrian government and Catholic aid organizations were subsidizing Catholic immigration to the United States in order to gain control of the country.

How bigoted was he? Here’s a sample:

Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion. They will be deeply impressed with the truth, that Popery is a political as well as a religious system; that in this respect it differs totally from all other sects, from all other forms of religion in the country.

So he kept the anti-immigrant fires burning throughout the country. And on at August night in Louisville, the fire was literal.

According to the web site Public I, back in 1855, the mayor of Louisville converted to Catholicism. The Know-Nothings were on the rise and to them, this was unacceptable. So an election was held in April and the mayor was ousted along with most of the city council and the Know-Nothings took over. Then, a month later, they held another special election, and got replaced the judges with their henchmen.

The Know-Nothings tasted power. And you know that when paranoid people feel powerful, bad shit is about to happen. It did:

Another Know Nothing, Charles Morehead, was favored to win the governorship on yet another election, Monday August 6th. On the night before, 1,500 Know Nothings staged a torch light march through Catholic neighborhoods, warning them “to keep their elbows in” come morning. …

If a would-be voter were an immigrant from Germany or Ireland he was presumed to be Catholic, and was “… ordered by one of the bullies to leave…” And if he refused, “…he was attacked by the whole mob, severely beaten and driven away. If the man showed fight, his life was in great danger. “ Recently ousted Mayor James Speed watched the beatings on the courthouse front lawn from eight in the morning until six. “It was not fighting man to man, but as many as could fall upon a single Irishman or German and beat him with sticks or short clubs…”

So, when you’re dealing with a psychotic mob, the next thing that happens is that someone, somewhere says the people you’re oppressing are getting guns are preparing to fight back. Of course, that’s a lie, but it’s a deadly lie:

About four in the afternoon, things went from bad to worse. Two Catholic activists, Theodore Rhodes and David Doughtery were warning everyone in their east side neighborhood off Main Street. They stopped at Micheal O’Connor’s grocery store, at the corner of 10th street and warned him to close. As they came out of the store a man ran up to them. Basil Rhodes, Theodore’s father, who lived a block away, saw the man shoot his son dead. The gun shot drew Know Nothings from all directions, and it quickly became common knowledge that the reverse was true, that a Catholic had killed a Know Nothing. What followed was wholesale murder.

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The Know-Nothings rampaged through the streets of Louisville for hours, burning down buildings owned by Catholics and killing every imagined Catholic they could find.

The official version said that 22 people had been killed in the entire city on Bloody Monday It is much more likely that the number was at least 100.

It would have gone on, but one of the buildings the rioters hit was a brewery, So they got drunk.

No one was ever prosecuted for the murders, the beatings or the arson. In response the despised immigrants voted with their feet. Ten thousand left Louisville over the next few months, almost 25% of the city’s population. Most of the Irish moved to Chicago. … The Germans mostly moved to St. Louis and Milwaukee, and some to Kansas City, Kansas – ensuring that state would remain in the Union come the Civil War.

And the riots set back Louisville for years. Businesses failed, unemployment soared and city revenues dried up.

That was the height of the Know-Nothings power. Of course, the whole foundation of their existence was wrong. The overwhelming issue of the time wasn’t immigration, but slavery. The party split down the middle over it. So, when the Civil War (or, more appropriately, the Southern Treason) started, the pro-slavery Know-Nothings went to the side of the Southern Democrats, and the anti-slavery adherents joined the Northern Republicans.

So, Know-Nothings were against people who actually made the country stronger: Irish and German Catholics.

Meanwhile, our Know-Nothings of today are riled up against other immigrants to want to get to America to improve their lives and by extension to improve this country.

We really haven’t learned anything from history, have we? Let’s not have anther war to make idiots come to their senses.

And what became of Samuel Morse. He died in 1872. Very rich. Very celebrated. Highly admired. Because that’s how it goes for the rich.