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ARTICLES Bloody Monday Riots: August 6, 1855

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 Read more about “Kentucky’s Civil War 1861-1865” 

Kentucky's Civil War 1861-1865.  This compilation of articles depicts Kentucky's role in this tragic conflict, as interpreted by Kentucky's finest Civil War scholars, including Bryan S. Bush.  It includes accounts of the 11 major Civil War battles in Kentucky, stories of long forgotten skirmishes, and sketches of many leaders and personalities.

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On August 5, 1855, Louisville experienced one the city?s darkest moments

On August 5, 1855, Louisville experienced one of the city’s darkest moments.  In just a matter of hours, Louisville Protestants killed twenty-two German and Irish Catholic immigrants.  What caused the events leading up to the bloody riots?  Did George Prentice, editor of the Louisville Journal, have any role in the riots?  Louisville seemed an unlikely place for a religious and social riot, since Louisville was the home to thousands of German and Irish immigrants.  The purpose of this article will explore the reasons behind the riot.

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George D. Prentice, editor of the Louisville Journal — statue next to the Louisville Free Public Library

In order to understand the riots, a brief study is needed of the time during the 1840s.  During the presidential campaign in 1844, the German editor of the Louisville newspaper Beobachter, advised the German population of Louisville to arms themselves, and enforce their rights to vote at the polls.  George Prentice, editor of the Louisville Daily Journal, translated the column and distributed the proclamation as handbill.  The native born citizens of Louisville gathered in front of the office of the Beobachter and the editor of the paper had to flee for his life.  Several Kentucky newspapers blamed Kentucky Senator Henry Clay’s loss against James K. Polk on the foreign vote.  Many Whigs started to drift towards nativism.  By 1845, Walter Halderman, editor of the Louisville Morning Courier, began to take up the nativist cause and attacked Catholics and nativists held their first national convention.  The nativists began to call themselves the Native American Party and Halderman represented Louisville.

The smoldering embers of hate and prejudice soon caught fire over several incidents leading up to August 6, 1855.

In 1849, the Louisville German newspaper, Anzeiger, encouraged Germans to retain their native language and customs.  The organization known as the “National Central Union of Free Germans,” who had their headquarters in Louisville, advocated women suffrage, free trade, denunciation of the Roman Catholic religion, and abolition of slavery and equality of the black man.

Plaque on Prentice statue

By 1850, Louisville had 13,782 foreign born residents.  Nativists saw immigrants holding onto the old country and the old ways, not adopting “American traditions.”  They also resented the refugees of the Revolution of 1848, which promoted the “Louisville Platform” which stated that immigrants were against European despots, race and class privilege, the institution of slavery, and Jesuits and the Pope.  Louisville native residents turned against the revolutionaries of 1848.

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By 1854, the Native American Party became the Know Nothing Party.  The members of the party were called Know Nothings because they were instructed to answer any questions about their secret organization with the statement: “I don’t know.”  As the Whig Party collapsed after the death of Henry Clay in 1852 and the issue of slavery divided party members, many Whigs looked for a new party to join.  Many Democrats also turned to the Know Nothing Party, because of the dividing issue over slavery and wanted to think about something else other than slavery.  The purpose of the Know Nothing Party was to keep Catholics from obtaining political office.  Know Nothings feared and grew suspicious of the universality of the Catholic Church and the power of the Pope.

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The Know Nothings won great victories in Jefferson County in August 1854 and in April 7, 1855, John Barbee won the Know Nothing Party ticket for mayor of Louisville.  On April 17, 1855, George Prentice, a Whig party member, turned to the Know Nothing Party, hoping the new party would save the Union from the dissolving of the country over the issue of slavery.  By May 5, 1855, Know Nothings gained control of Jefferson County’s City Hall.

“Let the foreigners keep their elbows to themselves to-day at the polls.  Americans are you all ready? We think we hear you shout "ready," "well fire!" and may heaven have mercy on the foe.”

The smoldering embers of hate and prejudice soon caught fire over several incidents leading up to August 6, 1855.  On July 8, 1855, a large mob gathered around the Catholic Church on Fifth Street.  A rumor circulated that the Irish stored arms in the church and prepared to use them in the upcoming state elections.  The mob found out that the church did not contain any arms.  A few days later, the Louisville Public School Board fired all the Catholic teachers except for one.  The newspapers such as the Louisville Democrat and the Louisville Daily Journal attacked each other and fanned the flames.  The Journal portrayed the Democrats as the destroyers of the Union and the American Party as the one true savior of the nation.  Prentice stated the nation must deal “with the foreign hordes.”  He stated that the Pope sought to “rule this country.”  The Democrat struck back stating that the Know-Nothings were the worse class of voters.  On the day before the August elections, Prentice published the following advertisement: “Let the foreigners keep their elbows to themselves to-day at the polls.  Americans are you all ready?  We think we hear you shout 'ready,' 'well fire!' and may heaven have mercy on the foe.”  Just before the election, the Know-Nothings held a 1,500 man torchlight procession through the streets of Louisville, hoping to intimidate the foreigners.  At midnight the Know Nothings took control of the polls and the city’s police officers backed them up.

On August 6, 1855, the polls opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 7 p.m.  Most of the polling stations had thugs at the doors, asking for a yellow ticket, which was a sign for the Know-Nothing party and asked foreigners if they had their naturalization papers.  The first person to lose his life during the riots was George Berg, who was beaten to death on the street by a group of angry Irishmen.  During the course of the day, two large riots erupted in the city.  The first riot took place in the German district at 4 p.m., which was located in the First Ward on the east end of Louisville.  The second riot occurred from 6 p.m. until midnight in the Irish district, in the Eight Ward in the western section of town.

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Historical markers about Bloody Monday

On the corner of Shelby and Green Streets, a German fired at a passing carriage.  Another man was shot riding in his buggy.  Once the gunshots were fired, the mobs of Know-Nothings became uncontrollable.  Luckily, Bishop Martin Spalding gave the keys of the Cathedral of the Assumption to Mayor Barbee.  When the mob arrived at the Cathedral, Mayor Barbee searched the premises and told the crowd that there were no arms inside the church.  The mob moved onto St. Martin’s Church on Shelby Street, believing the Catholics had arms stored in the church.  Again Mayor Barbee assured the crowd there were no arms.  The mob joined about another fifty men, carrying muskets, bayonets, and pulling a cannon.  At 3 p.m. the mob assembled around Armbruster’s brewery.  The mob burned down the brewery but not before they drank a lot of the contents.  The riot began to fizzle out in the German ward, since most of the mob members were drunk.

In the Irish Ward, the fighting broke out between Know-Nothings and Irishmen, after the killing of Theodore Rhodes, when he and two other men, were beaten by two Irishmen while walking through the district.  Large mobs entered the Irish Ward and the residents fired on the mob from houses located along Quinn’s Row.  Patrick Quinn owned a series of houses located along Main Street, located between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets.  The Know Nothings burned the whole row of houses, destroying twelve houses and burned several people to death.  The mob killed Quinn, an Irishman, and threw his body onto the flames.  Two men were hanged from their banisters of their own homes and also consumed to the flames.

Modern location (Main Street) where some of the violence took place

Fires from the burning houses lit the Louisville skylight.  But houses were not the only building on fire, a grocery store on the corner of Madison and Shelby burned, the coopering factory of Thomas Garrety and Edwin Prom also fell to the flames.  The mob shortly broke up.  The last victim of the riots occurred when an old German was pulled from his bed and shot to death.  Another German was beaten and then thrown down his stairway, until he died.  Reverend Karl Boeswald, of the Church of Immaculate Conception, at Eighth and Cedar, rushed to the bedside of the dying parishioner, but fell fatally wounded by a hail of stones.  James Speed, a local attorney and later Attorney General for Abraham Lincoln in 1864, witnessed the “Bloody Monday” riots.  He worked in his office until about 5 p.m., but before he left his office, he saw many blood-covered Irishmen carried off to jail.  He witnessed a crowd yelling down Jefferson Street guarding an Irishman to jail, covered in blood.  Between the front gate of the courthouse yard and Sixth Street, the crowd took after a German who was going up Jefferson Street.  The crowd struck him several times before he reached the courthouse gate.  After he reached the yard, he was knocked down and beaten.  To escape the blows, James Speed reported that the man crawled under the Know Nothings stand, and from where James stood, he saw a man with an iron pitchfork stab the German man under the stand.  They dragged the German from under the stand “more dead than alive” and carried him to jail on their shoulders.  James reported that he did not see any “foreigner misbehave or do or say an insolent thing.”1

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The Know-Nothings overwhelmingly won the elections, and James Morehead became Kentucky’s Know-Nothing governor, and Humphrey Marshall became a U. S. Senator, but like the Whig party, they spilt over the sectional issue of slavery and lost their power.  By June 1857, the Know-Nothings disbanded in Kentucky.  The riots tarnished the reputation of George Prentice.  Many editorials in other papers accused Prentice of instigating the riots.  His statue outside the Louisville Public Library has a plaque describing his “tarnished legacy.”  Luckily Louisville’s racist past has not lingered into the 21st Century.  The city hosts many immigrants from many different countries and celebrates our diversity with World Fest on the Belvedere every year and the Americana Fest.  Louisville takes pride in their variety of restaurants, including Irish, German, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese.  One of the important lessons taught by the August 1855 riots was to never let passion, fear, or hatred to control American’s decision making.

Resources

Peter Smith, Recalling Bloody Monday, The Louisville Courier-Journal, 6/23/2006.

Louisville Daily Journal, August 7, 1855, The Election Riots: Bloody Work.

Betty Carolyn Congleton, "George D. Prentice and Bloody Monday: A Reappraisal," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 218-229.

Charles Deusner, "The Know-Nothing Riots in Louisville," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 122-147.

Wallace S. Hutchinson, "The Louisville Riots of August, 1855," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society,  152-172.

George Yater, Two Hundred Years at the Falls of the Ohio: A History of Louisville and Jefferson County, (Louisville: The Heritage Corporation, 1979).


1James Speed, James Speed: A Personality, 38-41.

This specific article is under full copyright.  Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved.
Modified Saturday, October 20, 2007

Next Keynote Article: “Joshua and James Speed”

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