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This lithograph portrays key aspects of rioting and violence aimed at Catholic and Irish immigrants in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The image portrays the fight that took place in the Southwark neighborhood on July 7, 1844. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Riot in Philadelphia aka The Nativist Riots of 1844.

Even before Irish-Catholics arrived in America, en masse, following “The Great Hunger” — also known as the “Irish Potato Famine” — Philadelphia was the scene of religious-based riots.

This lithograph depicts a scene from an 1844 riot. The Library of Congress describes it with these words:

Tensions built up in 1844 when the Roman Catholic bishop persuaded school officials to use both the King James and Latin Vulgate bibles. Protestant mobs burned two Catholic churches on May 7, 1844.
On July 7, 1844 rioting broke out again, necessitating intervention on the part of the state militia.

In May and July 1844, Philadelphia suffered some of the bloodiest rioting of the antebellum period, as anti-immigrant mobs attacked Irish-American homes and Roman Catholic churches before being suppressed by the militia. The violence was part of a wave of riots that convulsed American cities starting in the 1830s. Yet even amid this tumult, they stand out for their duration, itself a product of nativist determination to use xenophobia for political gain. In the aftermath of the riots, shocked Philadelphians began debating new methods of maintaining order, a discussion that contributed to the consolidation of Philadelphia County in 1854.

The illustration above is by H. Bucholzer and was published by James Baillie. When the lithograph was first released, it incorrectly reflected the date of the riot. According to the Library of Congress, it was:

Reprinted with the corrected date of July 7, 1844 [instead of June 7, 1844] by James Baillie in New York and J. Sowle of New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1844.

How Did The Riot of Philadelphia End?

The Armed Clash in Southwark
On Sunday, July 7, the crowd reassembled, and this time it armed itself with cannon. Egged on by nativist speakers, the crowd forced the militia to surrender the church and its prisoners. Cadwalader returned to Southwark about sunset at the head of a column and tried to clear the area around the church. When the crowd attacked the militia with bricks, stones, and bottles, the militia fired on them, killing at least two and wounding more. Starting around 9pm, the crowd counterattacked. For the next four hours, rioters and militia battled in the streets of Southwark, with both sides firing cannon. By morning, four militiamen and probably a dozen rioters were dead, along with many more wounded. Southwark’s aldermen negotiated the militia’s withdrawal from their district, but thousands of militia troops from other parts of the state arrived to patrol the City of Philadelphia.

Although American cities, particularly Philadelphia, had endured a surge of riots since the early 1830s, few individual riots lasted for more than a day, making the 1844 riots extreme in their severity and duration. While some of the violence had been spontaneous, the ambitions of the nativist newspapers and political party in an election year likely sustained nativist fury through the spring and summer. Though the riots were more than the simple transplantation of anti-Catholic violence from Northern Ireland, they echoed the deliberate provocation seen there.

The riots did not resolve the place of the Irish in the city. On the one hand, few Philadelphians were willing to endorse publicly the attacks on Catholics, and more than two thousand Philadelphians signed an address praising the militia’s use of “lawful force which unlawful force made necessary.” On the other hand, in the October elections, amid the heaviest turnout in Philadelphia’s history, Levin and another nativist won congressional seats and other nativists took lesser posts.

Meanwhile, Philadelphians began discussing plans for a stronger police force to deter future riots. In April 1845, the legislature passed a law requiring each major city and district of Philadelphia County to support at least one police officer for each 150 taxable inhabitants, and in 1850 it created a new Philadelphia Police District to cover the entire metropolitan area, including the outlying districts of Kensington and Southwark. Though not the sole cause, these steps contributed to the consolidation of Philadelphia County into a single government in 1854.