Not too long after the January 6th insurrection, I became curious about the history of political violence in the United States. One of the first events that came to mind was the Draft Riots of 1863. Although the New York Draft Riot of July 3 – 5 is infamous as the most deadly and expensive civil disturbance in American history, it is not the only incident of that era. Another anti-draft action in that same month was the incident at Holmes County, Ohio. Here a handful of relatives of my great-great-grandfather got into an armed showdown with U.S. marshals defending a draft registration officer engaged in enumerating military-age males in the county. Frank Gaume’s uncle and a neighbor, Frank’s future father-in-law, went on trial for treason, were found guilty, and later pardoned by President Lincoln. I write about this incident in my book, Gathering Leaves. From my current research, I found the second major incident of political violence that involved two other branches of my family. This incident which occurred on August 6th, 1855, has come to be known as Bloody Monday. Many of the things happening in this country today involving anti-immigrant sentiment and voter suppression were at play on that fateful day, 166 years ago.
In the movie, Gangs of New York, directed by Martin Scorsese, the New York Draft Riot of July 1863 was tied to the long-running Protestant/Catholic feud dating back to the sudden influx of immigrants from Europe in the 1840s. These events culminated in a cluster of civil disturbances in the mid-1850s connected to the Know-Nothing political movement.
One of the most deadly incidences of that era has become known as Bloody Monday. In Louisville, Kentucky, August 6th, 1855 was an election day. The riots grew out of a bitter rivalry between Democrats and the Nativist Know-Nothing Party, known as the American Party in some cities. Twenty-two people were killed in the violence, and dozens were injured. Property damage was extensive in the Irish and German neighborhoods of Louisville.
The Jacksonian Democratic party was made up of different groups of Americans. Two such predominant groups in the large urban centers were the Irish and German Catholics who had recently emigrated to the United States.
On my mother’s side, two families lived in Louisville in 1855 but were not yet united. The Kollros family, a German Catholic family consisting of Joseph Kollros, his wife Magdalena, and his two sons, Dominic and Constantine, lived on Shelby Street, which was the scene of a terrible fire and horrible acts of violence. The Bannon/Campbell family, a large extended family of Irish Catholics from the Belfast area, lived in one of the neighborhoods that witnessed political violence, which historians largely blame on the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Nativists (a.k.a. Know-Nothings).
My maternal grandmother’s family had a presence in the city of Louisville for over 100 years, from the 1850s to the 1960s. The Bannon family, who immigrated from Northern Ireland in 1849 and first went to Cincinnati, lived in Louisville on that fateful day in 1855. The Kollros family, who came over from Germany and lived in Madison, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville in 1850, appeared in the U.S. Census of 1860, living in the city of Louisville. Based on what we know happened after the Bloody Monday riot, it is doubtful that they would have wanted to move to Louisville after 1855. Therefore they must have been living there that year, as thousands of other Irish and German citizens permanently fled the city following the violence.
A similar incident of political violence occurred in April 1855 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where there were clashes between nativists and German-Americans. In this case, the riot ended when the citizens of the Over-the-Rhine district fired a cannon over the heads of the nativists who were attempting to attack the neighborhood.
The details of the August 6th, 1855 incident in Louisville come from direct witness reports published in two leading newspapers based in Louisville, Kentucky.
Historians today seem to all agree the violence began when the Know-Nothings had formed armed groups to guard the polls on election day. Their intent was to block access to the polls to anyone that could not be identified as a member of the American Party, thus preventing hundreds of Irish Americans from exercising their voting rights. From there, it escalated, shots were fired, and more than a dozen men were shot – some were killed. Some houses, chiefly German coffee houses, were broken into and pillaged. A German-American-owned brewery was burned down.
In the afternoon, the vast armed crowd with shotguns, muskets, and rifles were proceeding to attack the new German parish of St. Martin of Tours on Shelby Street, about two blocks from where the Kollros family lived. The Know-Nothings brought forward a cannon threatening to fire upon the church, claiming that the Germans were storing arms and ammunition within the building. The new mayor of Louisville, himself a Know-Nothing, dissuaded the mob from attacking the church by agreeing to go inside and confirm that there were no weapons stored therein.
According to the Louisville Daily Journal, three Irishmen going down Main street, near Eleventh, were attacked late in the afternoon, and one was knocked down. Irish in the neighborhood responded by firing repeated volleys from the windows of their houses on Main street. Mr. Rodes, a river-man, was shot and killed by one in the upper story, and Mr. Graham met with a similar fate. An Irishman who discharged a pistol at the back of a man’s head was shot and then hung but survived.
After dusk, a series of rowhouses owned by Mr. Quinn, who was described by the newspaper as “a well-known Irishman,” was set on fire. The newspaper reported, “the flames extended across the street, and twelve buildings were destroyed. These houses were chiefly tenanted by Irish, and upon any of the tenants venturing out to escape the flames, they were immediately shot down. Those badly wounded by gun shot could not escape from the burning buildings.
Much of the blame for the violence has been directed towards the editor of the Louisville Journal, George D. Prentice, whose statue stood outside the Louisville Public Library up until a few years ago (see Controversial Prentice Statue Removed from Louisville Library Property). Prentice, whose politics began as a Whig, in 1855 became a shill for the Know-Nothing Party. In mid-1855, as the Whig party disintegrated, Prentice editorialized in support of the Know-Nothing party and the pro-slavery, anti-Catholic and anti-foreigner movement that reached a hysterical level in the 1850s in many parts of the nation. Prentice’s anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant editorials make Tucker Carlson and others of his ilk look like Liberal snowflakes.
The Louisville Journal’s account of the Bloody Monday rioting was transmitted via telegraph to other like-minded newspapers throughout the country. Thanks to my local library providing access to NewspaperArchives.com, I found the Journal’s reporting of the incident printed word for word in several newspapers in the days following the riot. Reading the detailed description of the rioting reprinted in several newspapers was like playing a game of telephone. In some cases, a newspaper in one city would publish the account they had received from a nearby newspaper who had obtained their account from another newspaper and so on. Still, all eventually traced back, almost word-for-word to what was published in the Louisville Journal.
For example, in the newspaper that would have been read by my Dobbs ancestors living in Georgia, I found the dispatches from the Louisville Journal published in that newspaper on Tuesday, August 7th, 1855. Even though they were attributed to a newspaper in Savannah, the dispatches were literally what had been published in the Louisville Journal.
Here’s what the Milledgeville Southern Recorder published on that day. The first of three dispatches the anti-immigrant, fake news tone is established with the sentence “The Irishmen fired on the Americans and killed three.”
The second dispatch has a sentence that reads: “In the riot between the American and Irish, twenty persons were killed, including three Americans.”
The third dispatch blames the start of the riot on the Irish and makes no mention of the Know-Nothing party blocking access to the polls. Its account of the violence directed towards the predominantly German neighborhood on Shelby Street makes it appear as if the German citizens had incited the mob of Know-Nothings that terrorized their neighborhood.
Reading a fake-news-style account that was written over 160 years ago reminds me of something I might read at Breitbart or Newsmax today:
“The disturbance was commenced in the First Ward, when an American named Burge was beaten and stabbed by a party of Irish. The assailants were afterwords arrested. Three Americans were fired upon, while quietly passing a German brewery. A gentleman passing with his wife was fired upon at the same time. A shower of shot and bullet were sent from the German houses on the crowd of Americans standing around. A large number of foreigners began to collect in the vicinity, and in indiscriminate slaughter of Americans commenced. They turned upon their assailants, and sacking the brewery, afterwords burnt it. In the Eighth Ward, three Americans were attacked by an Irish mob with firearms. One was killed and others wounded.“
The third dispatch continued.
Notice while it does mention that the Know-Nothings brought a cannon to the riot, there is no mention of the attempted attack on St. Martin of Tours Church. I suppose it would not look right for the “Americans” to appear to be irreligious.
Quoting from the second half of the third dispatch: “The Irish went into a house and fired from the window, killing two Americans. The house was broken into, the murderers captured, and one of them hung. He was cut down by the police before he was dead, but died in the morning.
“In the meanwhile, a fusillade was kept up of rifle balls and shot, from a row of Irish houses, upon Americans passing. Several Americans were wounded. They afterwords burned the Irish buildings.
“The Americans were then reinforced and brought out cannon and muskets. Some of the Irish were shot and killed, and others were captured. No attempt was made to extinguish the burning houses.
“This morning at 11 o’clock, a large mob attacked the Irish houses, and some persons are reported shot. The mob is now partially restrained, and efforts are making to restore order.”
“The Americans who had become infuriated, marched in a body to the Times office, with the intention of destroying it, and were only restrained through the efforts of George D Prentice, of the Journal and others.
Note how Prentice was made out to be the hero of a riot that was partly to blame on his inflammatory, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant editorials.
No one was ever prosecuted in connection with the riots. The elected Whig mayor, James S. Speed, had been ousted in June by a court order. Upon his marriage, Speed had converted to Catholicism, left Louisville for Chicago, never to return. The riots profoundly impacted emigration from Louisville, causing more than ten thousand citizens to pack and leave for good, most to St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The Kollros and Bannon family remained. Following the Civil War, my great-great grandfather’s brother, Patrick Bannon, became a member of the Louisville City Council and was in that position for many years. Also, following the Civil War, a German-born man was elected mayor of Louisville.
In August 2006. A historical marker was unveiled in Louisville commemorating Bloody Monday.
The marker reads: “Bloody Monday” – Election day, August 6, 1855, known as Bloody Monday due to riots led by “Know-Nothing” mobs. This political party was anti-Catholic and nativist. Attacks on German immigrants east of downtown and Irish in the West caused at least 22 deaths, arson and looting. Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption and St. Martin’s Church were threatened with destruction.