Aug. 9, 2021

The Nativist Riots of Philadelphia in 1844


In May of 1844, growing tensions between nativists and Irish Catholic immigrants in Philadelphia erupted into violence in the streets of the Irish Catholic Kensington district, prompted in part by a disagreement over whether the King James Bible should be read in public schools.

A citizen posse called by county sheriff Morton McMichael was unable to quell the violence, and the local state militia, under the command of General George Cadwalader stepped in to help, as homes and churches were destroyed, $150,000 in damages (equivalent to over $4 million today). Fourteen people were killed and as many as 50 were injured.

After two months of uneasy peace, the violence re-ignited, this time in the nativist district of Southwark where a Catholic church had been stockpiling weapons in anticipation of trouble. After a long stand-off, an hours-long battle between the military presence that arrived and the local nativists took over the streets of Southwark, as they fired at each other with guns and cannons. Another 15 people died, with fifty or more injuries.

The riots, which got national attention, had lasting effects in politics and city planning and in the development of the Catholic school system in Philadelphia.

In this episode, Kelly briefly tells the story of the Philadelphia riots and interviews George Mason University History Professor Zachary Schrag, author of The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Episode image: Riot in Philadelphia. July 7th 1844. by H. Bucholzer, ca. 1844. New York: James Baillie, July 23.  https://www.loc.gov/item/2003654121/

Transcript available at: https://www.unsunghistorypodcast.com/transcripts/transcript-episode-10.

Sources:

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Transcript

Kelly 0:00

This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.

 

Today's story is about nativist riots in Philadelphia in May and July 1844. In the years leading up to 1844, the immigrant population of Philadelphia and the surrounding districts was growing, especially the population of Irish and Catholic immigrants. Native born Americans and immigrant Protestants were alarmed by the influx and tensions were growing in the early 1840s. The issue of Bible reading in schools became especially heated. Schoolchildren in Philadelphia public schools began their day reading from the King James Bible and saying Protestant hymns. Catholic parents objected, and in 1842 Catholic Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick, wrote a letter to the Board of controller's of public schools, asking the Catholic children be allowed to read instead from the Bible used by Catholics at the time, known as the Douay Bible. The board agreed that children could read whatever version of the Bible their parents preferred, and that children should not be forced to participate in religious activities. Nativists took this as an attack on Protestantism, and rallied others to their cause, joining with a nativist political party that launched in New York in June of 1843, called the American Republican Party. In 1844, the agitation reached a boiling point when a Kensington school director named Hugh Clark, who was Catholic, suggested that the Bible should not be read in school at all, at least until the school board could develop a policy that the Catholics and Protestants both approved. Protestant nativists use this incident to rally support. On Friday, May 3, 1844, the American Republican Party gathered in the heavily Irish Kensington district, but were chased away. On Monday, May 6, they assembled in Kensington again, this time in greater numbers. When it began to rain, the rally moved to a nearby market, where fighting broke out between the neighborhood Irish Catholics and the nativists. Eighteen year old nativist George Shiffler was shot and killed, the first fatality of the scuffle, and several more people were killed as the fighting continued. A posse organized by county sheriff Morton McMichael proved powerless to stop the violence. On Tuesday, May 7, a nativist mob marched into Kensington and gunfire broke out. The mobs set fires throughout the district, including to the Hibernia fire station and to local homes. The sheriff called for help, and the first brigade of the Pennsylvania militia, commanded by Brigadier General George Cadwalader responded, dispersing the crowds, although they could do little to stop them from starting more fires. On Wednesday, May 8, mobs again set fires, including to Hugh Clark's house, to a Catholic seminary and to two Catholic churches. At the second Catholic Church, St. Augustine, which was within the city limits of Philadelphia itself, Mayor John Morin Scott pleaded for the rioters to stop, but they threw stones at him and continued to set fire cheering when the steeple fell. The violence ended by Friday, May 10, but only after forces including citizen posses city police militia companies from other districts, and US Army and Navy troops showed up in force to quell it. Over the course of the riots, at least 14 people were killed, and another 50 injured.

 

There was an uneasy calm in Philadelphia for the next eight weeks. Preparing for more violence, the Catholic Church of St. Philip de Neri in the heavily nativist district of Southwark started to stockpile weapons, authorized to do so by Pennsylvania Governor David R. Porter.

 

Although rumored July 4 attacks never materialized, on Friday, July 5, thousands of Nativists gathered at St Philip's de Neri to demand the weapons. The sheriff and two aldermen searched the church and removed some of the muskets. The crowd refused to leave and demanded a further search. The new search party, which included 17 nativists found further weapons, but instead of removing the weapons, the search party remained in the church all night. A company of city guards cleared the streets. Saturday, July 6, passed without bloodshed, but the tension increased. Cadwalader ordered the crowds to disperse to no avail. The military presence grew and the nativists began to arm themselves, including with a cannon from a nearby wharf. Former US Congressman Charles Naylor, and several others were arrested in the tumult and held in the church. The crowd reassembled on Sunday July 7, and forced the militia to surrender the church and release the prisoners. When Cadwalader and his militia returned that evening, they tried to clear the area around the church that the crowd attacked the militia. The militia responded by firing on the crowd, killing two and wounding more. The mob counter attacked, and for hours they battled in the streets of Southwark fighting with muskets and cannon fire. By the time the fighting ended in the early morning, on Monday, July 8, at least 15 people had been killed, both soldiers and rioters. At least 50 more were injured. Troops ordered by Governor Porter remained in the city for a few days to hold the peace, eventually beginning to withdraw on July 10. The riots had lasting effects, including and how Philadelphia was policed, and eventually in a consolidation of the city in 1854. For his part, Bishop Kenrick decided that creating Catholic schools would be a better plan than trying to influence public education. By 1860, there were 17 Catholic parish elementary schools in Philadelphia.

 

To learn more about the riots, I'm joined now by Zachary Schrag, Professor of History at George Mason University, to discuss his recently published book about the riots, The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation, which was one of the sources I consulted for this introduction.

 

Hello, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm excited to talk about the nativist riots of 1844.

 

Zachary Schrag 7:48

Thank you. It's pleasure to be here.

 

Kelly 7:49

So I want to start by asking what got you interested in this topic. So this is a different time period than your other historic works. And I imagine a book like this must take years to research and write, so a great deal of time that you're spending in 1844, Philadelphia, so what got you interested in this?

 

Zachary Schrag 8:11

So you're correct that I was trained as a 20th century historian. My first books were about post 1945, United States domestic policy, essentially. And I thought the next project was also going to be about the 1960s, specifically about riots in the 1960s, which for a scholar of urban America is a very important topic, really one of the events or series of events that created urban history, as we now know, it were the riots of the 1960s, including the 1968 riot in my hometown of Washington, DC, whose reverberations continue. So I thought, you know, what, maybe I could do a background capture on the 19th century, you know, I just assumed not much happened, that, you know, they brought out the militia, whatever that was, and that the real history of riot control, which starts sometime around World War One with the introduction of tear gas, so I started pulling on that thread of the sweater. And it, it landed in back in the Jacksonian period. Specifically, I was interested in the role of the National Guard, which you know, right to our day, is a major actor in trying to preserve order or restore order during urban riots. In 2020, I believe more than thirty states activated their national guard in order to respond to protests about police shootings. And that begins again, really in the 1830s in the 1840s, as the volunteer militia, as they were then called, is increasingly called out for riot duty. And even within that period, the event that really I think solidifies the role of the militia in riot control are the two sets of riots in Philadelphia in May and July of 1844.

 

Kelly 10:09

Yeah, that's interesting. I, as I was reading it, I kept thinking about Kent State. So my parents were at Kent State in May 1970, you know, so that I've been hearing about that my whole life. And the second episode I did of the podcast was about the Jackson State shootings, also in 1970. And so I, you know, I kept sort of drawing these parallels in my mind as to what that that's so interesting to think about that as sort of the the genesis for thinking about the this event, these events in Philadelphia. I also want to ask about, at the very end of the book, you have this note on sources, which I loved and could have kept reading forever. So I wanted to ask you to talk some about that about the kind of sources that you use used a ton of sources in, in writing this and how you navigated these different sources that were very much conflicting. And of course, we don't have, you know, video evidence of what happened then or anything to track it down like we might today. So what that process looked like.

 

Zachary Schrag 11:11

Yeah, so this was part of the reason the book did in fact, take many years and turn out to be a book rather than a chapter, in what I thought would be a longer history of riot control, is that the sources are amazing. And there are some manuscript sources, I think my favorite is Colonel Pleasanton's diary, he had really good handwriting, which is always a pleasure. But he also was very, very good writer, and very nasty about the people he met. So there are lots of really good quips in there. But most of the sources I used were newspapers. And one of the fascinations about writing about this period, you know, in the 1840s, but also in 21st century is to understand the newspapers as the social media of their day. There were some reporters out there really just a handful of working reporters in Philadelphia, a lot of the content of the newspapers was actually either transcripts of the trials, which of course, are very rich, you get lots of verbatim dialogue of people reporting what they said. The newspapers would reprint official documents from the authorities and the state militia, they would reprint party platforms, they would reprint reports of meetings. They would print people's cards, what we would, you know, now think of a letter to the editor might have someone just writing in with a first person account, here's what I saw, here's what I did. And then someone else would take offense at that and write back Oh, no, this is really what happened. You would have advertisements for people's businesses, but also for meetings, saying we are going to have a political rally at such and such place, and such and such a time. And so and then the newspapers were all competing with each other, there were more than a dozen daily newspapers in Philadelphia, some Democrats, some Whig, eventually, some are nativist, representing the anti immigration forces. There was Catholic newspaper, there was a militia newspaper, those were weeklies or biweeklies, there are Presbyterian newspapers. There are neutral newspapers that are never really neutral. So it becomes this very rich conversation that I was wading into and listening to so many different voices, all kind of shouting at each other, not only about the facts of what happened, but also about their meaning.

 

Kelly 13:33

So then you take all of these sources, and you have to put them into this narrative, which I assume could have been 1000s of pages long if you used everything. So you have to be judicious and think about what to use and how to use it and how to decide between them. And I wanted to ask you specifically about this process, because you also have had another book came out this year, that is a guide to historical research. So how do you take all of these amazing sources, some of which conflict? And how do you put that into a narrative, figure out what is and isn't important to highlight what isn't isn't relevant how you tell this story.

 

Zachary Schrag 14:12

So I did intend this to be a narrative. This is a book that you know, I hope people in the scholarly profession enjoy, but in many ways is designed more for people outside of the university. But you know, most Americans have not heard of these riots unless they went to Catholic school in which case they may well have because this is something that Catholic Americans remember as important part of their history. But I did want to make it a good story for everyone. And the key way to do that is with characters. I think scholarly history can rely very heavily on strong characters, my previous books, which were more for a scholarly audience, certainly have those. But with more popular narrative history, characters are crucial. And so I didn't have quite as much choice as someone who's say writing a history of the Civil War might have, where you might have, you know, hundreds of people to choose from. But I did try a few different things to figure out who my major characters were. And I ended up with four to represent different elements of Philadelphia in the 1840s. So for the establishment Philadelphia, I have the wonderful character of Brigadier General George Cadwalader. His family goes back to really the founding of Pennsylvania, one of his ancestors is more or less on the ship with William Penn, and even to this day, and the Cadwaladers are a presence in Philadelphia.

 

Kelly 15:34

And one of the streets in the May riot, one of the streets is named after his family.

 

Zachary Schrag 15:38

One of the streets is, it turns out that one of the stores that is ransacked is on his land. He owns all these blocks all over town. So he Yeah, he's a very wealthy patrician, he could have just sat at home and collected money and some Philadelphians of his class did that, sit around in clubs and race horses, and he did that too. But he also had a real sense of noblesse oblige. And he did not want to get involved in civilian politics, he really want to serve his community by serving in the militia. So he, this was an elected post. He runs for Brigadier General at a fairly young age and wins in 1842. And becomes, again the sort of major commander within the county of Philadelphia, there are three brigadier generals and then a major general above him. But really, George Cadwalader, the Brigadier General of the First Brigade, is the most important figure. And fortunately, he is something of a pack rat. His papers are up at the historical society of Pennsylvania, and they are quite helpful. They're not as introspective as Pleasanton's diaries, his handwriting is certainly not as good. But we still have some sense of where he was and who was writing to him. And so I'm very grateful to him for for keeping that paper.

 

The second major character is Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick, he later becomes an archbishop. And I didn't have a lot of manuscript material from him. There are certainly some letters that survived. But fortunately, most of his letters and his diary, a word not only published, but also translated, because he was a very learned man who kept both his diary and his personal correspondence in Latin. And I have some Latin in college, but not enough to really do extensive research in Latin. So I'm very grateful to the Catholic scholars of the early 20th century for translating all of that for me. And, you know, he, too, is a very fascinating thinker because he was born in Ireland. He's educated in Rome. And then he goes out essentially, to what he considers a heathen land, which is the predominantly Protestant United States. First, he's in Bardstown, Kentucky, for a while, and then he is sent to Philadelphia, to kind of clean things up. The Philadelphia Catholic churches in some crisis in the early 1830s. Kenrick comes in he gets the laymen, he gets the priests, he gets them all in line. And he's there to serve this growing Catholic community that is increasingly Irish as more and more Irish immigrants like him arrive, and part of that is building churches all around the county. And that becomes a way for the Catholic Church to become more visible, which is a bit of a problem for Protestants who are skeptical of the Catholic Church, who are afraid of it.

 

The third character is the wildest. That's Louis Levin. He is born in the United States in Charleston, South Carolina, but his parents are immigrants. He is born Jewish, but probably converts. It's pretty hard to nail that down. But he does marry, first one Christian woman, and when she dies, he marries again in the church. And he says a lot of things that suggest that he has converted to some kind of Protestantism, probably a non denominational form. And he, he goes, he's drunk at one point, he goes bankrupt. He has a very colorful life, he gets a knife fights, probably a rifle duel, but then he finds some kind of religion. Around 1842, he sobers up, again, probably converts around this time, and becomes first a temperance crusader, and then a voice against the Catholic Church. And he is a leader of this growing nativist movement that is an anti immigrant movement that's also an anti Catholic movement. And is there sort of riling up the younger men of Philadelphia into mobs. So he's he's my leading anti Catholic.

 

And then the fourth figure has probably the one I like the most personally, though, in some ways, the most frustrating to get at because he left the fewest documents. And that's the sheriff Morton McMichael, who is, as best I can tell, trying to be a friend to everyone. He starts off as a Democrat, later, he joins the Whigs, but there are a lot of people for crossing party lines to vote for him. He's very popular. He is constantly trying to make peace among these different factions. He, you know, seems to, you know, try to protect the African American community when they are threatened. He protects the Irish community when they're threatened. But he's also, you know, palling around with some of the Nativists. And you know, later on, he becomes an important figure in the consolidation of Philadelphia, in 1854. He becomes the mayor of Philadelphia, and is one of the founders of what we now know is Fairmont Park. So there's a statue of him up there. So these are my four figures. And once you have those sort of four major figures, then it's a question of, you know, watching the move on the chessboard and trying to use them to tell the stories of these broader communities that they represent: the Catholic community, the anti Catholic community, the establishment community, the different political parties.

 

Kelly 20:45

It's funny that you say, chessboard I did you start sketching out, like on paper to sort of figure out like, these people were here and these things, because I was trying to sort of keep track of all of it in my mind, but I only had to read it. To actually figure it out to write it, like, how did you make sense of all that?

 

Zachary Schrag 21:00

I did. And and it's frustrating, because, you know, if you read screenwriting books, you're trying to build up to these climactic scenes where the characters, you know, finally stare each other down. And for the most part, that doesn't happen. I mean, McMichael is there everywhere. Like he's he's really on foot, he has a newborn child, at one point, he leaves him at home and goes out into the riots. But Kenrick, you know, he's a peacemaker. He's a man of the cloth, he does not want to be out there, facing people down so I can't place him at any scene of violence. And then the thing about Levin and Cadwalader is I don't know that they were ever on the same block or in the same room at the same time. And that was frustrating to me for a while. And then I realized, oh, there's probably a reason for this, which is Levin is a kind of guy who will leave as soon as the first shot is fired. He does get in fights, but but when the numbers are really bad against him, he's going to sort of skedaddle, he finds a taxi or something and leaves. And Cadwalader, the big knock against him is he doesn't show up until a little too late. So you know, just as Levin is walking off the stage Cadwalader is rushing on, and so they never have the big showdown you would want in a movie treatment. But you know, again, as a historian, I say, Oh, this is actually very telling that, you know, Levin is going to rile up the mob, and let them do the fighting and dying. Cadwalader is going to come in, and again, he who got shot out, I don't know if I believe that he had, you know, 12 bullet holes with his coat, as one of the accounts has it, but I do believe that he got hit on the knee with a bottle or a brick or something. I've seen it, you know, he was definitely in people's faces. And, you know, later on in Mexican War, he shows a lot of personal courage as well. So I have no reason to doubt that he was physically very present.

 

Kelly 22:52

A lot of these same things are happening in other places, too. You talk about New York and Baltimore as other sites, where there are these sort of warring factions, there's immigrants, there's also nativists, you know, and there's this growing Catholic population. But nowhere else does the violence erupt the way it does in Philadelphia in 1844. Why do you think that is like, what is it about Philadelphia? What is it about that moment, that makes it so much worse?

 

Zachary Schrag 23:23

So I'm not sure there's deep reason here. You know, historians talk about contingency. And you see this in riots as well, that, you know, a crowd may be on edge, and something happened, someone throws a brick through a window, someone gets knocked down with a brick. If you've seen the movie Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee, there's a great portrayal of this where it's the trash can through the plate glass window, that turns a crowd into a mob, essentially. And that's very plausible, very realistic, if you know about kind of crowd events. And so I think we could have had riots like this in New York, or Boston, or Baltimore, possibly Cincinnati, certainly Montreal. And there's a great book about Montreal in the 1840s by my friend, Dan Horner. So um, and there's certainly was violence in Europe, as well in Ireland and England. So in that sense, Philadelphia is part of this Atlantic ring of anxiety about Catholicism, anxiety about Irish migration in multiple directions, and it had kind of the bad luck to be the place where it turns into actual artillery duels. So I don't want to, you know, say that it was inevitable. Um, you know, that said, there weren't too you know, Philadelphia was a major center of Irish immigration, and that certainly contributed to it. And, you know, beyond that, though, again, I think a little bit of luck in a different way. We could have been talking about the New York riots or the Brooklyn riots of 1844 just as easily.

 

Kelly 25:00

So when I was doing the episode about Jackson State and thinking about why didn't they learn more from Kent State, but that was only a 15 day window between the two events. So how is it that between May and July, which is a couple of months in the exact same city with a lot of the exact same people involved, they didn't have a better plan in July to avoid the bloodshed that happened? Or? Or is this the best plan they could have had? You know, is that the, the answer to is that given the the forces that there just wasn't a better outcome that could have happened?

 

Zachary Schrag 25:39

So I think what they hit is a dilemma that shows up after Kent State that shows up in 2020, that shows up in 2021, which is, it's really hard to figure out what you want from a riot, you know, from a sort of godlike stance, what would be a good thing. Because a country where no one is allowed to gather in the street, and make themselves heard is not a free country. This is right in the Constitution. The Constitution's First Amendment says yes, there's, you know, free speech, freedom of religion, though it's nice. There's also the freedom peaceably to assemble. And so the framers of the First Amendment understood that mass assembly is an inherent part of democracy, as important as free speech or freedom of the press. So that you need, you need to have some room for that, then what happens often, you know, Far too often, is that you get a mostly peaceful crowd. You know, you could have 1000s of people, of whom a much smaller percentage, maybe dozens or hundreds of people, but maybe just dozens, who are going to cross the line into property damage, they're going to smash some windows, you know, maybe the loot a store, set a police car on fire, some kind of damage. And then within that group, you've got an even smaller contingent, who are willing to do bodily damage, who are going to throw rocks at the authorities, the police or the troops, whoever it is, or maybe they're going to try to lynch or kill some unpopular minority, could be a racial minority, obviously, you know, most of the mob violence in American history is against racial minorities. But in this case, it's a religious minority, could be a political minority. We see that in Baltimore in 1812. And so if you are the representatives of order, how do you try to protect first of all human life, secondly, property. And then third, also the freedom of assembly all at the same time. And that is not a problem that anyone has solved, not in the United States, not in any other democracy. Authoritarian governments have been much easier they say just shoot everyone, right? And they do in the 19th century, and 20th and 21st centuries, that's very easy. But if you're trying to balance these imperatives, that turns out to be very hard. And so you see this in Philadelphia in 1844, after the first round of riots, there's this massive town meeting outside of what we now call Independence Hall, and they're debating this and they're, they're saying, Oh, you know, we really can't tolerate this anymore. If there's a crowd out there, and they're not obeying curfew, let us treat them as pirates, which means they can be shot on site. But the same meeting says, but really, if fathers and employers would just tell their young men to stay at home, we wouldn't need any of this. So they're treating them at once as kind of innocent youths who just are slightly naughty, and also as pirates who are the enemies of humanity. And unfortunately, that is the that's the dilemma right there. And they haven't solved it by July of 1844. And they certainly haven't solved it by May of 1970.

 

Kelly 28:51

Yeah, well, and I, you know, I was reading your book, with the backdrop of these hearings going on about the January 6 commission and rioters, you know, attacking the Capitol building and thinking through that, you know, again, obviously, there's a line crossed at some point there. But you know, how do you stop that from happening in the first place? What do you do? How do you minimize loss of life and damage of property? And so, yes, clearly, we still haven't solved all of these problems. I, you know, and it seems like there's similar motivations there, too, right. Like, as I was reading this, as I was seeing what, what the nativists were saying, the kinds of language they were using, I felt like there were reverberations today with a lot of what you know, maybe the MAGA, America first kind of crowd might be saying about, you know, people are taking our jobs or people are coming in and taking over you know, do you see those same kinds of maybe impulses. Not exactly the same kind of movement. Obviously, it's not against the Irish It's not anti Catholic, necessarily, although maybe, but you know that there are some through lines there?

 

Zachary Schrag 30:06

Very much so. So the the nativism of the 1840s and then the 1850s combined two different streams that have come separated today. So today, it strikes me that you know that there's one brand of nativism that is primarily economic and is primarily targeting Latinos, people from Mexico, people from Central America saying, Oh, these are fine people, but they are poor, and they're going to take jobs that Americans should have, and will lower wages for American born citizens. They are coming to our country, they you know, without authorization, they are, you know, taking votes. So that kind of anxiety about a large group of people who threaten American prosperity. And then the second 20th and 21st century American nativism is against religious minority Muslims. And you have these, you know, horror stories about Sharia, that people are freaking out that there's this group religious minority that somehow is incapable of true American citizenship because their religious loyalties conflict with their political overtones or, or overwhelm their political loyalties. If you combine those two, the economic anxiety and kind of the religious anxiety, then you get 19th century nativism, where the Irish are both poor people who are seeking opportunity and coming in very large numbers. And they are members, again, of a religious minority. And the claim of the nativists is that anyone who is loyal to the Pope, who is, after all, a European monarch, technically, cannot also be a good American citizen. And so in that sense, it's all very familiar, it would be very hard for me to identify, you know, anything that was said in the 1840s, that isn't being said right now, or vice versa. It's, you know, again, the narrative arc, as with riot control, is more of a narrative flatline.

 

Kelly 32:23

So, the other topic I wanted to talk about was in the 1830s/40s, in Philadelphia, and maybe elsewhere, there are these Volunteer Fire companies. And this is just the craziest thing to think about that they would sort of race to see who could get to the fire first, jostle each other out of the way, even, you know, maybe damage each other's property to sort of be the first group. And then actively fight. So can you talk a little bit about what is going on? And, you know, did this last? Was this just in Philadelphia? Is this a common thing in the US at that time? Like, what is going on with these fire companies?

 

Zachary Schrag 33:01

Yeah, this is very strange. So you know, the Volunteer Fire companies, obviously, we still have them, My home is protected in part by one, they trace their lineage back to Benjamin Franklin, I think, and for the most part, they've been a force for good. But in the 1830s, and 1840s, in some cities, not all, they turn into this very mixed kind of group where yes, they are fighting fires some of the time, but they spend a lot of their time fighting each other. These are, you know, young men, very macho, and whoever gets to the fire plug first has the honor of fighting the fire, unless another company cuts their hose or beats them up. And so fires become either brawls themselves, or they wait until after the fire and start hitting each other with their axes and their other fire tools, their metal trumpets, or maybe they just wait until the next weekend and raid each other's fire houses, and sometimes fatally, sometimes people are shot. Amy Greenberg has a wonderful book on this, Cause for Alarm. She points out not every American city, but Philadelphia and Baltimore were right up there with some of the worst. And this persists, you know, well beyond the 1840s. It's not until the 1850s I believe that Philadelphia, basically professionalizes its firefighting and does away with the worst of this violence. And then I should say, beyond the formal membership of these fire companies, which sometimes don't accept members until they're 21, you might have hangers on, 18/19/20 year olds who are there only to fight or to provide protection. So they're known as runners, they'll run along with the engine and try to protect it and keep each other out. And I do think this explains some of the violence of 1844 at the spot where the violence first breaks out on May 6, 1844, tt's in a market house and just across this vacant lot, there is a firehouse, the Hibernia hose house, which obviously is an Irish affiliated firehouse. And as best I can tell, in the middle of this riot over immigration and Catholicism and politics, there's another miniature fire riot, where a bunch of teenagers and 20 year olds go and attack this firehouse and they end up destroying it and the apparatus inside. So one of the things I was trying to figure out with this is, how much of this violence is unusual, and how much of it is just kind of building on the normal violence of the city. One of the, you know, things I was noticing is that there are a lot of people who are just shooting each other by accident. You know, as I'm reading these newspapers, people are, you know, bringing muskets home from their militia drills and shooting their cousins, or, you know, leaving the musket loaded in a corner. So they're sisters killed themselves. You have people firing salutes with cannon and blowing their arms off. You have one, you know, situation where, in a period of relative calm after the first steps of riots, a man starts stockpiling weapons. And this is, you know, of course, very familiar to us in the 21st century, it's like, oh, this is not going to end well is that and in fact, it doesn't he shoots his niece, I believe. And she later dies in really what you know, feels like a very 21st century incident. So it is a very well armed city, unfortunately. You could, you could buy powder and shot pretty much at corner store. And guns were not too hard to find on. So in some ways, it's remarkable that the death toll wasn't greater.

 

Kelly 36:42

Yeah, well, and I live in Chicago, so you know, sort of always in the shadow of the Great Fire of Chicago and kept thinking as they were deliberately setting fire to buildings like this could end really, really badly. And, you know, the fire, of course, spreads but not nearly something like the Great Fire of Chicago. But yeah, it seems like the death toll could have been much, much worse.

 

Zachary Schrag 37:04

Yes. And, you know, there are sort of these rumors going around that maybe there's going to be a third wave. Cadwalader orders a lot of ammunition, he is clearly expecting things to at least potentially go very badly. And he wants to be prepared, because the second wave of riots in July of 1844, pretty much exhausts everyone in this brigade and the neighboring brigades, they end up bringing in troops from around Philadelphia, they're thinking about calling in the US Army, as well. No one knows how this is going to happen, you know, really going to the end. And eventually, you know, some of their worst nightmares come true in the New York Draft Riots of 1863. And that is a larger event that has some echoes of the 1844 riots.

 

Kelly 37:55

So is there anything else that you want to make sure that we talk about, that people know about this story?

 

Zachary Schrag 38:01

You know, I do you think that we have all of these stories, as you say, continuing, we've got the religion story, we've got the immigration story, and we've got the riot control story. And, you know, unfortunately, they all kind of converged in January 2021, with the storming of the Capitol. So, you know, unfortunately, I think this story of Philadelphia in 1840s, is far more relevant than we might wish, I wish I could say, Oh, you know, this is all the distant past, we don't have to worry about anymore. But in fact, you know, this is very much present with us. And, you know, to some extent, around the world as well, because obviously, we've got a lot of countries that are, you know, dealing with violence against religious minorities, and trying to figure out what level of policing, what level of military response is appropriate to try to tamp down that violence rather than making it worse.

 

Kelly 38:57

So how can people get copies of The Fires Philadelphia and your other book, The Princeton Guide to Historical Research?

 

Zachary Schrag 39:04

Well, they, you know, are available, in many cases at your local bookstore. A friend just sent me a nice photo of the Fires of Philadelphia on the shelf at her local bookstore. You can get them online, you can, you know, get them through the publisher. And so, yeah, but you know, certainly ask at your local bookstore, that's always a great way to support people, especially at this time when they're getting less foot traffic. So, you know, I know when I've got books I want, I've got a nice bookstore a couple miles away. And they've been very good about sort of putting things out on the sidewalk. So if you're concerned about going indoors, and so I hope people are continuing to support their bookstores until we get back to a better public health.

 

Kelly 39:45

Yeah, and you know, it's a long book, The First Philadelphia but as you started narrative, it's really readable. It's, you know, you got sort of like, oh, what's going to happen next, you know, who, how are they finally going to get out of this, so I think it's great.

 

Zachary Schrag 39:58

It's got a lot of pictures too. I mean, that's the one thing we can't do on the podcast is, you know, the publisher. I said, Oh, can we do a picture for every chapter, they said, Go ahead, and if they're a couple more you want to fit in. So, you know, this was at the dawn of photography. I have this one photograph in there, but they had lithographs, woodcuts and all kinds of wonderful imagery in there. So I do hope people have a chance to look at the book as well as to read it.

 

Kelly 40:22

Yes, absolutely. All right. Well, thank you so much.

 

Zachary Schrag 40:27

Thank you. It's been a great pleasure.

 

Teddy 40:30

Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode at UnsungHistoryPodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain, or our used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History or on Facebook at Unsung History Podcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistoryPodcast.com If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate & review and tell your friends.

 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Zachary M. Schrag

Zachary M. Schrag [silent c, rhymes with bag] was born in New York City in 1970. In 1977, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he attended Georgetown Day School, graduating in 1988. From there he went to Harvard, where he graduated in 1992.

In 1996 Schrag entered the doctoral program in history at Columbia University, where he studied with Elizabeth Blackmar, Alan Brinkley, Ronald Grele, and Kenneth Jackson. He received his PhD in 2002.

After receiving his doctorate, Schrag taught at Baruch College and Columbia University. In 2004, he joined the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University.

Schrag’s first book, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), examines the politics, planning, engineering, architecture, finance, and operations of the nation’s second-largest rail transit system, arguing that Metro is best understood as the concrete manifestation of Great Society ideals. A paperback edition, with a new preface, was published in 2014.

A second book, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009, was published by Johns Hopkins in 2010. It argues that biomedical researchers and bioethicists repeatedly excluded social scientists from rule making and ignored the existing ethical traditions in nonmedical fields. The result is that university ethics panels routinely impede the work of scholars in those fields.

Schrag’s third book, The Princeton Guide to Historical Research, compiles key lessons that Schrag has learned in his quarter century as a writer and teacher of history. It is scheduled to be published in April 2021.

A fourth book, The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation, is under contract to Pegasus Books, with publication scheduled in 2021.

Schrag’s articles have been published in the Journal of Policy History, the Journal of Urban History, Research Ethics, Rethinking History, Technology and Culture, and Washington History, and his essays have appeared in the American Historian, AHA Perspectives, Bioethics Forum, Politico, TR News, the Washington Monthly, and the Washington Post. Schrag has served as the editor of Washington History, a guest editor for the Journal of Policy History, a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Urban History, and a member of the board of the Urban History Association.

He has received grants and fellowships from Columbia University, George Mason University, the National Science Foundation, the Gerald Ford Foundation, and the Library of Congress. He has been awarded the Society for American City and Regional Planning History’s John Reps Prize and the Journal of Policy History’s Ellis Hawley Prize.

He is married to the beautiful Professor Rebecca Tushnet of Harvard Law School. They live in Arlington, Virginia, with their children, Leonard and Nora.