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.
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 the city’s fire brigades. Those heroes
rushed to join with Company 20 to return 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 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.
Boston had 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 locals 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
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. The first Bishop was Jean Cheverus,
a refugee from the French
After the War of 1812, commerce
resumed, and so did prosperity. New waves of immigrants arrived.
Catholics began building not only churches but other 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 periodicals
could be relied on for more.
No matter how theologically liberal the Boston clergy were—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
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 site of a Convent of Ursuline Nuns, and the academy for girls that they
operated. Since no other 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 had 47 students, only six of
whom were Catholic. The neighborhood 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 called 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
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 a 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 had no attorney and not a friend in the world. He became a safe designated scape goat and 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
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 total fabrication, fueled new waves of anti-Catholicism and led
directly to the emergence of the 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 workhouse.
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 Fire and Police Departments
remained largely segregated for
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 is retold to this day. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones,
a popular Ska and proto-punk
band in the 1990’s sang:
their way to fight a fire somewhere
Met with a
way too slow
burns out of control
We need to
lay to rest this soul
on Broad Street Eye to eye and toe to toe
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 of 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.
A Boston Police sergeant--by the look of him, Irish--guards Black teens boarding school busses in compliance with a court ordered desegregation plan. They would be greeted by angry crowds and rioting in the same Southie neighborhood where the cop probably lived. Resentment over "forced busing" and liberal recriminations of racism kept Catholic/Protestant relation inflamed in Boston.
More recently conflicts over abortion rights, LGBT rights, and marriage
equality, along with the continued clergy sex abuse scandals in the Church, has stoked new
criticism of the Church.
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