It began as, so many unpleasant things do, with a traffic jam of sorts. It was June 11, 1837 and the place was Boston a/k/a the Hub of the Universe. After fighting a fire in neighboring Roxbury the volunteer firefighters of Fire Engine Company 20 had stopped at a saloon to wash the smoke out of their throats. After refreshing themselves they departed to make their way back to the station. They found their way blocked by a passing Irish funeral parade. An outraged fireman, named George Fey began cursing at the mourners then took a shove at one of them. Instantly a melee erupted and quickly escalated as paving stones were hurled and all manner of makeshift weapons, including the brigade’s fire axes, were deployed by both sides.
Fire Captain W. W. Miller ordered his men to make a run for the firehouse. When they got there Miller sounded an alarm that called out all of the city’s fire brigades. Those heroes rushed to the scene and along with Company 20 returned to the scene of the initial fight. By that time the funeral procession had passed but the commotion had attracted a crowd which the firefighters immediately attacked.
It was called the Broad Street Riot, and became the greatest street disturbance in the city’s history. About 1000 people on both sides engaged in a furious street battle. Fire fighters chased their foes inside some homes which were then systematically smashed up. Although no one was known to be killed outright, fighting went on for hours.
It was broken up when Mayor Samuel Atkins Eliot—Unitarians will recognize the name as a member of that faith’s most distinguished family—who had been on the scene of the original fire, arrived with 10 companies of militia he had hastily called out. The violence was quelled, but not the simmering rage boiling between the immigrant Catholic Irish and Boston’s working class Protestants. The fine lads of the fire brigades, you see, were all recruited among the city’s Protestant laborers, apprentices, and shop clerks. No Irish need apply
Boston, founded by Puritans, had a tradition of rabid anti-Catholicism stretching back well before the American Revolution. It was then the custom for gangs of apprentices and laborers to gather every year on Guy Fawkes Day—called locally Pope Day—for parades bearing effigies of the Pope to be burned. Gangs from the North and South sides would customarily run into each other and engage in a semi-ritualistic gang brawl between them. All of this in a city virtually bereft of any actual Catholics, except whatever seamen might be lounging around the port. It took a shrewd organizer, Samuel Adams, to transform these street hooligans into the muscle of the Sons of Liberty.
After the Revolution when Boston’s municipal volunteer fire companies were organized, they were drawn from the same pool
After the Revolution, Boston recovered as a major port and trading center. By the turn of the 19th Century it was beginning to attract immigrants, especially from Ireland, seeking work. Most of them were Catholics. There was plenty of work and whatever resentment the local might have was kept in check by prosperity. But President Thomas Jefferson’s embargo on trade with warring European powers and the War of 1812 all but destroyed Boston’s commerce and led to a regional depression. Tensions mounted between Yankees and Micks. Street brawls became common.
The first ever public Catholic Mass in Boston was not held until 1788. In 1803 the Catholics were numerous and prosperous enough to open Holy Cross Church, designed by the same architect—Charles Bulfinch—who was building the city’s impressive churches for the Standing Order. By 1808 there were enough Catholics—the vast majority of the Irish—to establish the Diocese of Boston in 1808. The first Bishop was Jean Cheverus, a refugee from the French Revolution.
After the War of 1812, commerce resumed, and so did prosperity. New waves of immigrants arrived. Catholics began building not only churches but institutions—a convent and schools. This rapid rise of Catholics in their midst inflamed the Protestant Clergy as much as job competition inflamed the working class. Denouncing insidious Popery in thundering terms became common on Sunday mornings and the city’s several religious publications could be relied on for more.
No matter how theologically liberal the Boston clergy was—and most of them were very liberal religiously and would soon formally break from the Calvinist Standing Order and become openly Unitarian—few of its members could resist the siren call of anti-Popery. Rhetoric heated up which seemed to give a sanction to anti-Catholic street violence.
Things really blew up in 1834 in Charleston—now the Somerville neighborhood of Boston, home to a large population of working class Protestants. It was also the home of a Convent of Ursuline Nuns, and the academy for girls that they operated. Since no equivalently high quality education was available to girls in Boston, many of the city’s Unitarian elite had enrolled their daughters there, regardless of warnings from their ministers. In 1834 the school enrolled 47 students, only six of whom were Catholic. The neighboring Protestants resented both Catholics and the haughty Bostonian elite.
Rumors circulated of Protestant girls being “sold” to the convent. Then in August word began to circulate about a Nun who possibly wanted to leave the convent, but was prevented from doing so. Inflamed by a circular calling on the citizenry to intervene to “free” the mysterious woman, a mob gathered on the evening of August 11. Early the next morning they rushed the convent with torches and burning tar barrels. The nuns and students barely had time to escape and hide in the garden while the building was vandalized then set on fire. Responding fire brigades not only refused to extinguish the flames, but they joined the rioters. The building burned to the ground in two hours.
The following morning Mayor Theodore Lyman convened a meeting at Faneuil Hall to try to calm the situation and instigate an investigation into the arson. Bishop Benedict Fenwick convened another meeting about the same time at Holy Cross, now officially a cathedral at which he tried to keep the outraged Irish from pouring into the streets to seek revenge. He was largely successful
But a new Protestant mob assembled and marched first to Faneuil Hall with the intent of breaking up the Mayor’s meting and then on to the Cathedral. They were foiled at both points by Militia guard. After failing to procure arms from the guarded arsenal they proceeded on to the Convent. In a frenzy as the Convent itself still smoldered the mob destroyed the gardens and orchards, set bonfires, and pulled down fences before exhausting their fury.
The city’s clergy were divided by the convent riot. Orthodox ministers including Lyman Beecher soon to rise to fame as a leading abolitionist either openly cheered the rioters or found excuses for their actions in supposed Catholic immorality and exploitation of pure womanhood. The city’s Unitarian divines generally decried the violence but refrained from any action or speech which could be considered coming to the defense of Catholics. The only sympathy came from Bishop Fenwick’s personal friend, the Universalist Hosea Ballou, himself an outcast from the local religious establishment.
The self confessed ring leader of the riot, John R. Buzzell and a dozen others were charged and brought to trial, but Buzzell boasted:
The testimony against me was point blank and sufficient to have convicted twenty men, but somehow I proved an alibi, and the jury brought in a victory of not guilty, after having been out for twenty-one hours.
In the end only one defendant, a 16 year old boy seen burning a book after the main arson, was convicted. The boy must have had no attorney and not a friend in the world, because he was sentenced to life in prison. That sentence was so manifestly unjust and out of line that Bishop Fenwick and Mother Superior Sister Mary St. George joined 5,000 local citizens petitioning for a commutation of sentence for the boy. He was eventually released.
Catholic demands for restitution for the failure of authorities to protect their property kept the memory of the Convent Riot alive in both communities as the Boston City Council, Charleston Town Meeting, the County of Middlesex, and the Massachusetts legislature all considered and rejected claims year after year.
Tensions between Catholics and Protestants remained high. Then in January of 1836 Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed was published and became an instant best seller. In fact it was said to be the mostly widely read American book between Parson’s Weems’s spurious biography of George Washington and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book was a pot boiler novel supposedly written by Maria Monk, a young woman who had “escaped” from a convent. It told a hair-raising story of sexual exploitation. The book, since proven to be almost totally made up, fueled new waves of anti-Catholicism and led directly to the emergence of the America Know Nothings, a rabidly anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant secret society and political party.
Given this kind of history, the Broad Street Riot comes clearly into focus. Fourteen Irish and four Protestants were brought to trial. Like the earlier Convent Riot, no Protestants were convicted. The four Irish were all sentenced to terms in the work house.
|Anti-Catholic cartoons like this kept Protestant workers inflamed.|
The riot did cause Mayor Eliot to institute two reforms. First, he established a paid Fire Department under the authority of the Mayor and Council. The volunteer brigades were abolished, although almost all of the members of the new professional Department were drawn from their ranks. Second, he established a Day Police to supplement the existing Night Watch. The two were soon merged into the Boston Police Department. Recruitment into the new department came mostly from the Irish community. The two departments remained largely segregated for decades before the Irish and other Catholics began to be hired by the Fire Department.
Two versions of the riot were told and kept alive in their communities. The popular version among working class Protestants was that the fire brigade was rushing to a fire when blocked by arrogant Irish mourners who would not let them pass. In some versions children or whole families perished in the flames. It was manifestly not true.
That did not stop it from being believed and the story retold to this day. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a popular Ska and proto-punk band in the 1990’s sang:
The Boston fire-fighting volunteers
On their way to fight a fire somewhere
Met with a funeral procession
Proceeding way too slow
A brownstone burns out of control
We need to lay to rest this soul
Loggerheads on Broad Street Eye to eye and toe to toe
Broad Street’s just not broad enough
And you just don’t love God enough…
A new wave of immigrants arrived in the 1840’s spurred by the Irish Potato Famine, and the flood gates of Europe opened up after the Civil War. Catholics gained a majority in the city population and led by Irish politicians seized the City government, a move as bitterly resented by the class Unitarian Brahmins who were used to running things as by the still large Protestant working class.
Meanwhile the enthusiasm for reform among the intellectual elite of Boston, tended to grow in direct proportion to the growing Irish Catholic population. Early support for moderation in alcohol use was transformed into a temperance movement aimed squarely at the taverns of the scary, rowdy Irish. Free public education was supported as a counter to the Catholic’s system of parochial schools. Compulsory public schooling was at first meant to close the Catholic schools and place children into public schools where they would be inoculated with Protestant values. Crusades for decency and morality in entertainment were aimed at popular amusements. What Do-gooders saw as reform, the working class Irish recognized as a cultural attack upon them.
Late 19th Century resentments resulted the persistence of the No Irish Need Apply signs still frequently seen in shops and factories. The politics of Boston and those signs would be bitterly remembered by Joseph P. Kennedy when he became a fabulously rich man married to a daughter of the former Boston Mayor John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. He would inoculate his sons, and by extension their children with a resentment of the WASP elite, and a determination to prove themselves better than any of them.
While Protestant/Catholic relations improved across much of the nation, and as Irish Americans established themselves in politics and the professions, the old strains eased in most places. But not in Boston. The Irish found themselves “put in their place” when Governor Calvin Coolidge, a quintessential WASP, crushed the strike by the virtually all Irish Boston Police in 1919, banning every man for life from public service. Many of those men, unable to find work, would make their close knit South Boston neighborhood —Southie—a bastion of bank robbers, cartage thieves, and gangsters to this day.
If the Irish in Boston hold resentments to this day, the Protestants have not been shining examples of brotherhood. The Unitarian’s Beacon Press continued to publish virulent anti-Catholic screeds well into the 1950’s. Unitarian Universalist ministers generally supported Boston school desegregation in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s including forced bussing which was voraciously—and occasionally violently—opposed by the Irish of Southie and were often harsh in characterizing the opposition as racist.
More recently conflicts over abortion rights, LBGT rights, and marriage equality, along with the continue scandals about clergy sex abuse in the Church, has led to revival of anti-Catholic rhetoric.
Today in most parts of the country with heavily Catholic populations, large proportions—often majorities—of local Unitarian Universalist congregations—are made up of former Catholics. But not so much in Boston, and especially not among the Boston Irish. Disgruntled liberal former Catholics would generally go anywhere to worship before they would set foot in a congregation of those they see as their ancient tribal enemies. It seems some street brawls never really end.