Philadelphia anti-Irish riots

This major outburst of tension over expanding Irish Catholic populations in northeastern urban cities triggered the national rise of the Native American Party, a growing movement for private Roman Catholic education, and consolidation of some urban government administrations.

As industrialization accelerated during the 1830’s and 1840’s, more and more Irish Catholics came to America. By the early 1840’s, in those neighborhoods and urban areas where the immigrants were rapidly displacing American-born Protestants, anti-Catholic organizations began to develop, fueled by a growing anti-Catholic press.Roman Catholics;IrishIrish immigrants;Philadelphia riotsPhiladelphia;anti-Irish riots[antiIrish riots]Nativism;anti-Irish movement[antiIrish movement]Roman Catholics;IrishIrish immigrants;Philadelphia riotsPhiladelphia;anti-Irish riots[antiIrish riots]Nativism;anti-Irish movement[antiIrish movement][cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Philadelphia anti-Irish riots[04160][cat]NATIVISM;Philadelphia anti-Irish riots[04160][cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;Philadelphia
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Title page of one of the Douay Bibles that were at the heart of Philadelphia’s anti-Irish riots. The page features an illustration of New York City’s first St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

(Library of Congress)

In 1842, after Philadelphia’s Catholic bishop asked to use the Catholic version of the Bible as an option during required school Bible reading, the school board compromised: Catholics could leave the room during Bible reading, but the Protestant King James Version would stay in schools. Within a year, rumors began to circulate that the Catholics had an organized plan to expunge the Bible from public schools. This fed into a continuing fear that the goal of the Roman Catholic immigrants was to bring American political institutions under the political control and authority of the pope in Rome.

On Monday, May 6, 1844, a nativist group called the American Republican PartyAmerican Republican Party held a rousing anti-Catholic rally in the heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood of Kensington. Rain forced the planned outdoor meeting into a market house next to a fire company made up of Irish immigrants, and as the rhetoric grew more forceful, shooting and fighting broke out between the opposing groups. During the battle, several area homes were attacked. The Irish eventually drove the nativists out of their neighborhood, but not before a young nativist, George Schiffler, was shot while holding aloft the Flag, American;and nativism[nativism]American flag, which the nativists ardently employed as a symbol of their “America for Americans” ideal. He became a martyr to the anti-immigrant cause.

The next day, an angry mob carried that flag through Philadelphia, calling for retribution on behalf of Schiffler. That enlarged group later marched back to Kensington, attacked the Irish fire company house and the market used the day before, and proceeded to burn down a church, a rectory, and a Catholic school. Two other Catholic churches were also attacked but not destroyed. At least one hundred were wounded, and twenty died. The next Sunday, the bishop ordered all Philadelphia Catholics to stay away from church to avoid violence, and valuable church possessions were taken and hidden in congregants’ homes. Tensions eased slightly.

However, when the Fourth of July came, the American Republican Party, by then known as the Native American Party (later known as the American Party, or Know-Nothings), demonstrated its growing political clout in Philadelphia. More than three thousand marched in a holiday parade to display their strength and spread their anti-immigrant beliefs. Alerted that some paraders planned an attack on a Catholic church in the neighborhood of Southwark, the governor allowed the placement of some weapons within the church for its possible defense. The next day, some Protestant locals discovered that an arsenal was in the church, and an angry mob gathered to demand its removal. Some weapons were removed, but the crowd was unsatisfied, and a confrontation developed between the state militia, brought in to protect the church, and the anti-immigrant mob. Two soldiers and at least twelve rioters were killed and twenty-six others were wounded.Roman Catholics;IrishIrish immigrants;Philadelphia riotsPhiladelphia;anti-Irish riots[antiIrish riots]Nativism;anti-Irish movement[antiIrish movement]

Further Reading

  • Feldberg, Michael. The Philadelphia Riots of 1844: A Study of Ethnic Conflict. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.
  • Lee, J. J., and Marion R. Casey. Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: New York University Press, 2006.



History of immigration, 1783-1891

Irish immigrants

Know-Nothing Party




Religions of immigrants