Last September, I published a blog post regarding an event in Louisville, Kentucky, in the mid-1850s – an event known as “Bloody Monday.” My interest in this event is due to my having ancestors on two sides of my mother’s family living in that city on August 6, 1855. One family was German, and the other Irish. Both had recently immigrated in the past decade; both were politically Democratic and religiously Roman Catholic. In the article, I lamented that I did not have direct access to two of the main newspapers published in Louisville in the 1850s: the Louisville Daily Courier and the Louisville Daily Journal. Through my local library, I did, however, have access to other newspapers published throughout the United States. Based on quotes I found published in different sources, I could ascertain which of the two local Louisville newspapers was the source for information regarding the election day riot in Louisville. In the 19th century, newspapers did little to hide their prejudice toward a particular political party.
I recently renewed my subscription to Ancestry.com for one month and an outlay of $60 for reasons I describe elsewhere. One of the benefits of doing so was that it gave me access to a different set of newspaper archives. For a brief period, I had access to the Louisville Daily Courier and the Louisville Daily Journal, including the summer of 1855.
The Louisville Daily Courier was pro-Democratic, which made the paper’s editorial stance pro-state rights and pro-slavery. Yet, following the Bloody Monday riot, the Courier’s stance against the Know-Nothing movement was the more obvious. On the other side of the fence stood the Louisville Daily Journal, a newspaper that had long been known for its pro-Whig point of view. Yet, in recent years under the leadership of George D. Prentice had become the unofficial organ of the regional Know-Nothing movement.
In my blog post, I wrote: “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 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.”
Now having access to the primary sources, I read through many of the pages of both of those newspapers for two weeks following the events of August 6, 1855. I was struck by two things: one, the Louisville Courier, despite its one-sided political stance, was more concerned with the publication of the facts and the truth regarding the riot, and secondly, the Louisville Journal, despite its role in inciting the riot continued to spew forth its dangerous anti-Catholic and anti-foreigner rhetoric.
What the Journal Said
To give you an idea of the extremism of the rhetoric spewing from the Louisville Journal in the summer of 1855, here are excerpts from an editorial that appeared on page 2 of the Louisville Journal on Friday, August 17, 1855, ten days after the riot that killed more than twenty citizens.
The title of the article is Union of “Free Germans.” It begins by describing an individual who 60 years prior, on the 20 September 1795, who called himself an American citizen and dared to write to the “Father of His Country” calling him “treacherous in private friendship” and a “hypocrite in public life;” describing him as “an apostate imposter.” Then comes the big reveal that this was the language addressed from Paris by Thomas Paine, “a foreigner by birth,” in a letter to George Washington because the latter refused to “prostitute his power as president of the United States in the service of Red Republican Jacobinism.”
For some reason that is not entirely clear to me, the author of this piece believed that the views expressed by Thomas Paine and addressed to George Washington some 60 years earlier, is somehow relevant to the then-current political situation in the United States in the mid-1850s. Part of the complaint is that the writings of Thomas Paine had been recently republished in the United States and that his “attacks upon [President] Washington were suppressed” because they would “wound feelings of veneration entertained for Washington by all true Americans.”
The connection to the current political situation comes with the statement, “particularly since the influx of Germans commenced, which was the consequence of the failure in Europe of the revolutionary movements of 1848, a deluge of fanatical Painites has been poured into the United States who owned no sympathy for the conservative element in our institutions, and whose natural affiliation to all the elements of radicalism in the land bodes evil for the future welfare of our Republic.”
The lengthy introduction complains that even though Thomas Paine witnessed firsthand the excesses of the French Revolution, he had the audacity to criticize the father of our nation. Stating that Paine “had been a witness of the excesses which had resulted from a system of infidelity and false freedom similar to his own; but the horrors of the revolution had failed to convince him that the people sunk from religion into infidelity becomes a nation of demons.”
Then following this word salad which tosses in phrases such as “13th Vendemaire” and “Reign of Terror,” comes the traditional tossing of the red meat, in the form of a direct broadside against German-Americans. One of its chief complaints is that many daily newspapers published and read by German-Americans were written in the German language.
“The Socialist, Red Republican hatred against religion which has taken such a deep root, of late years, in our largest cities, and especially among the German population is a greater evil than it otherwise would be, from the fact that it is partially hidden from the notice of Americans by the screen of foreign language, behind which it seeks concealment until it show have gathered sufficient strength to make its influence dominant at the polls. Its power is already felt there in those states which Germans have thickly settled – and in Wisconsin, Missouri, Ohio and some parts of Illinois, demagogues have already have been already for years in the habit of gaining the votes of “Free Germans” by real or affected sympathy with their political libertinism.
“The riots in Cincinnati, some months ago, were a consequence of the war of anarchist savages upon our institutions, and good citizens, in many of the Northwestern states, have been compelled to unite in expressing their indignation against measures proposed, or electioneering Shibboleths introduced by naturalized citizens, which would have been deemed impossible some years ago. [Historians today seem to all agree that the Cincinnati riots of April 1855 were caused when nativist, Know-Nothing mobs attacked the German neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine resulting in an organized defense by German-American citizens.]
“As early as 1848, Heine published, in Switzerland, his famous Democratic programme in which it is declared that no true freedom can exist until Christianity has been boldly exterminated. This same feeling has been transplanted here; its expression is necessarily modified; the large number of vile German papers, and the connivance of unprincipled office seekers, are rapidly increasing the evil. The indignation of the country would be aroused if the contents of some of the papers that are published at Cincinnati, Milwaukee and other cities where the German population is large, were translated into English. They agree together in anti-Christian, Come-outerism, blasphemous revilings against revealed religion, and identification of compelled unbelief with liberty. Their political tendency is communist and radical infidel. [The term Come-outerism is a code word for someone who opposed slavery on religious grounds]
“Thomas Paine – a man whose name a quarter of a century ago was considered synonymous with deadly sin against the bounteous Creator of the Universe is their apostle, his birth-day is celebrated with military displays, illuminations and festivities, which have been heretofore considered in America due alone to Washington whom he reviled. The German programmes which appear from time to time in different localities show, by their similarity, the closeness of the union of all the Red Republicans in support of one common cause, and we trust that their manifestations will be pondered over by thinking, conservative Americans, and that an antidote will be applied to the infidelity that is growing up amongst us before it has become an incurable evil.”
In another part of the same publication, same date, same page says: “If men cannot associate peaceably together and agree not to support foreigners and Roman Catholics for office without being attacked by foreigners and Catholics with deadly weapons, the fact affords the strongest possible evidence that the Association was not formed soon enough. If American citizens because they use the right of suffrage as they pleased are to be shot down by foreigners and Catholics, it is high time that foreigners and Catholics should be taught their places and their duties. Foreigners and Catholics will shoot and murder because they are voted against, it is a miserable reason why they should be voted for.”
What the Courier Said
I will give the last word to the Louisville Courier, the local newspaper that seemed more concerned with the facts than with the rhetoric spouted by their competitor. Here’s what the Louisville Courier had to say on the day after “Bloody Monday,” Tuesday, August 7, 1855:
The headline read THE ELECTION RIOTS – BLOODY WORK. – MURDER AND ARSON. – TWENTY MEN KILLED.
“We passed, yesterday, through the forms of an election. As provided for by statute, the polls were opened, and privilege granted to such as were ‘right upon the goose,’ with a few exceptions, to exercise their elective franchise. Never, perhaps, was a greater farce or as we should term it tragedy, enacted. Hundreds and thousands were deterred from voting by direct acts of intimidation, others through fear of consequences, and a multitude from a lack of proper facilities. The city, indeed, was, during the day, in possession of an armed mob, the base passions of which were infuriated to the highest pitch by the incendiary appeals of the newspaper organ and the popular leaders of the Know Nothing party.
“On Sunday night, large detachments of men were sent to the first and second wards to see that the polls were properly opened. These men, the ‘American Executive Committee ‘ supplied with the requisite refreshments, and as may be imagined they were in very fit condition on yesterday morning to see that the rights of Freeman were respected. Indeed they discharge the in pertinent trusts committed to them in such manner as to command them for ever to the admiration of out-laws! They opened the polls; they provided Ways and Means for their own party to vote; they bluffed and bullied all who could not show the sign: they in fact converted the election into a perfect farce, without one redeeming or qualifying phase.
“We do not know when or how their plan of operations was devised. Indeed we do not care to know when such a system of outrage – such profanity – such dastardy – was conceived. We only blush for Kentucky that her soul was the scene of such outrages, and that some of her sons were participants in the nefarious swindle.
“It would be impossible to state when or how this riot commenced. By daybreak the polls were taken possession of by the American Party [Know-Nothings], and in pursuance of their pre-concerted game, they used every stratagem or device to hinder the vote of every man who could not manifest to the “guardians of the polls” his soundness on the K.N. question. We were personally witnessed to the procedure of the party in certain wards, and of these we feel authorized to speak.
“At the Seventh Ward we discovered that for three hours, in the onset in the morning it was impossible for those not “posted” to vote without the greatest difficulty.
“In the Sixth Ward, a party of bullies were masters of the polls. We saw two foreigners driven from the polls, forced to run a gauntlet, beat unmercifully, stoned and stabbed. In the case of one fellow the Hon. William Thomasson, formerly a member of Congress from this district, interfered, and while appealing to the maddened crowd to cease their acts of disorder and violence Mr. Thomasson was struck from behind and beat. His gray hairs, his long public service, his manly presence, and his thorough Americanism, availed nothing with the crazed mob. Other and serious fights occurred in the sixth Ward, of which we have no time to make mention now.”
“In the morning, as we stated elsewhere, George Berg, a carpenter living on the corner of Ninth & Market, was killed near Hancock Street. A German named Fritz, formerly a partner at the Galt House, was severely, if not fatally beaten.
“In the afternoon a general row occurred on Shelby Street [the street my German ancestors lived on], extending from Maine to Broadway. We were unable to ascertain the facts concerning the disturbance. Some 14 or 15 men were shot, including officer Williams, Joe Selvage, and others. Two or three were killed in a number of houses, chiefly German coffeehouses, broken into and pillaged. About 4 o’clock, when the vast crowd, augmented by accessions from every part of the city, and armed with shotguns, muskets and rifles, were proceeding to attack the Catholic Church on Shelby St., Mayor Barbee arrested them with a speech, and the mob returned to the First Ward polls. [This would be the church, St. Martin of Tours, two blocks from where my great, great, great-grandfather, Joseph Kollros and family lived].
“Presently a large party with a piece of brass ordinance, followed by a number of men and boys with muskets. [The plan by the Know-Nothing mob to fire a cannon at a Catholic church was thwarted by the mayor’s speech]. An hour afterwards the large brewery on Jefferson Street, near the junction of Green, was set fire to.
“In the lower part of the city, the disturbances were characterized by a greater degree of bloody work. Late in the afternoon three Irishmen going down Main Street, near 11th, were attacked, and one knocked down. Then ensued a terrible scene, the Irish firing from the windows of their houses, on Main Street, repeated volleys. Mr. Rhodes, a river man, was shot and killed by one in the upper story, and a Mr. Graham met a similar fate. An Irishman who discharged pistol at the back of a man’s head was shot and then hung. He, however, survived both punishments. John Hudson, a carpenter was shot dead during the fracas.
“After dusk, a row of frame houses on Main Street between 10th and 11th, the property of Mr. Quinn, a well-known Irishman, were set on fire. The flames extended across the street and 12 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. No idea could be formed of the number killed. We are advised that five men were roasted to death, having been so badly wounded by gunshot wounds that they could not escape from the burning buildings.
“Of all the enormity’s and outrages committed by the American party yesterday and last night, we have not time now to write. The mob having satisfied its appetite for blood, repaired to Third street and until midnight made demonstrations against the “Times” and “Democrat” offices [Two other newspapers in Louisville]. The furious crowd satisfied itself, however, with breaking a few windowpanes, and burning the sign of the Times office.
“At 1 o’clock this morning a large fire is raging in the upper part of the city.
“Upon the proceedings of yesterday and last night we have no time, nor heart now to comment. We are sick and with the very thought of the men murdered, and houses burned and pillaged, that signalized the American victory yesterday. Not less than 20 corpses form the trophies of this wonderful achievement.”
For more details on this topic, please see my earlier post titled Bloody Monday.