The Story Behind the Philadelphia Nativist Riots of 1844, One of the Bloodiest Riots of the Antebellum Period

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A painting of the fight that took place in the Southwark neighborhood on July 7, 1844.
Image via Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
The Philadelphia Nativist Riots that took place in 1844 broke out as a result of tensions between Catholics and Protestants over Bible reading in schools.

In May and July 1844, among the antebellum period’s bloodiest rioting took place here in Philadelphia, writes Zachary M. Schrag for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Anti-immigrant mobs attacked Irish-American homes and Roman Catholic churches before being suppressed by the militia as part of a wave of riots that convulsed American cities since the 1830s. 

Ethnic and religious antagonism had a longer history in the city however, since Irish textile workers had come to Philadelphia after losing their jobs to mechanization in the British Isles in the 1780s. 

In February 1844, a Catholic school director in Kensington suggested suspending Bible reading until the school board could devise a policy acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants.

Nativists saw this as a threat to their liberty and rallied by the thousands in Independence Square

On May 6, 1844, the first riot broke out, leading to several nativists getting wounded or killed.

The violence ended days later and the city remained superficially calm for the next two months before another riot broke out in July. 

In the aftermath of the riots, shocked Philadelphians began debating new methods of maintaining order, which subsequently helped contribute to the consolidation of Philadelphia County in 1854.

Read more about the nativist riots that took place in Philadelphia at The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

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