Articles by Bryan S. Bush
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ARTICLES ◣ Bloody Monday Riots: August 6, 1855
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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
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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.
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.
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
““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.
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
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
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
Wallace S. Hutchinson, "The Louisville Riots of August, 1855," Register of the Kentucky Historical
George Yater, Two Hundred Years at the Falls of the Ohio: A History of Louisville and Jefferson
County, (Louisville: The Heritage Corporation, 1979).
James Speed, James Speed: A Personality
This specific article is under full copyright. Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved.
Modified Saturday, October 20, 2007
Next Keynote Article: “Joshua and James Speed”