The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anti-Irish mobs terrorized JFK’s great-grandparents in 1850s Boston

John F. Kennedy and Rosemary Kennedy sit with their grandfather, Patrick Joseph “P.J.” Kennedy, on the porch steps of the house the Kennedy family rented in Cohasset, Mass. P.J.'s parents, Patrick and Bridget, were terrorized by anti-Irish mobs in Boston. (John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. Kennedy Family Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
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This article is adapted from “The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of an American Dynasty” by Neal Thompson, published by Mariner Books on Feb. 22.

One Sunday in early May 1854, a menacing white-robed street preacher named John Orr, who blew a trumpet and called himself the “Angel Gabriel,” came to the East Boston neighborhood where Patrick and Bridget Kennedy — the great-grandparents of future president John F. Kennedy — were raising their two daughters and a son.

Orr led a mob of protesters across the bridge from Chelsea into East Boston, vandalizing Irish homes, smashing church windows, chasing residents indoors, tossing bricks at their heads, cheering and chanting. They marched right past Bridget and Patrick’s home on Eutaw Street, down Meridian Street and onto Maverick Square, eventually surrounding the Kennedys’ church, St. Nicholas.

Spectacles like this had been going on for months throughout New England. Orr was often joined by an accordion player, and the duo would stand on the steps of a church or city hall, shrieking about the Irish and the “evils of popery.”

They were often protected by gangs of youths from a secret paramilitary club called the “Wide Awakes,” disgruntled working-class men drawn to the jingoistic sloganeering. Typical of the pseudo-patriotic fetishes of such clubs — the Order of Free and Accepted Americans, the Order of the American Star — this lot wore funny hats and robes decorated with a star and the number 67, meant to represent George Washington’s age when he died. Presumably unaware that Washington envisioned America as a “safe and agreeable asylum” for immigrants, they shouted, “Wide awake! Wide awake!” — a rallying cry designed to frighten Boston’s Irish and muster others to the cause.

The crowd around St. Nicholas swelled to more than a thousand — a mix of Orr’s followers chanting to pull the church apart and Irish locals armed with bats and bricks. Stationed inside the church were a hundred parishioners, some with guns. The mayor finally sent police across by ferry to break things up and make arrests, and the incident slowly fizzled.

Orr’s ability to lead so many angry followers to the steps of the Catholic house of worship rattled the Kennedys and other St. Nicholas parishioners. Bridget was pregnant at the time, and the chaos and violence must have terrified her and her children.

Though Orr was considered a troublemaker and a kook, his message was becoming more mainstream. Even respectable citizens openly shared their concerns about the strangers washing ashore and the need to keep the Irish and their “foreign influence” in check.

They’d been around for years: so-called benevolent societies, fraternal orders and social clubs with names like the Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner or the American Protestant Society. They launched newspapers and magazines: the Signal, the Republican, the Protestant, the Order of United Americans, the Spirit of ’76. Membership was open to Protestants born in the United States — “native Americans,” they called themselves. Claiming to be defenders of the Constitution and protectors of freedom, they floated conspiracy theories: The Irish had come to America to infiltrate and contaminate it, part of a secret plot for a Catholic takeover.

Like adolescent boys playing games of spy, they created secret handshakes, passwords and salutes. The instructions for saluting the officers of Boston’s Republican Liberty Guard were as follows: with right hand, make an “okay” symbol with thumb touching middle finger, then touch forefinger to right cheek. One Boston sect required members to identify themselves to comrades by tucking their right thumb in their vest pocket; the appropriate response was placing the left thumb in the vest pocket. One secret password exchange went like this: Q: “On what hill?” A: “Bunker Hill.” Membership in such clubs soared in the mid-1850s, numbering an estimated 1 million souls who believed that only native-born Americans should run the show.

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These groups were collectively referred to as the Know Nothings, a reference to their practice of denying that their group even existed; they professed to know nothing. Members aligned under the umbrella of the Native American Party, later called the American Party. The more devout among them were disaffected working-class urban dwellers worried about losing jobs to men like Patrick Kennedy. Preying on the economic fears of the poor, the Know Nothing publication Almanac asked readers: “Why are you poor?” Then it answered its own question: “competition of foreign cheap labor.”

The Boston Pilot began to fill with stories, editorials and letters about “secret organizations” eager to burn churches and harm Irish residents, including “defenceless servant girls” like Bridget. One particularly devout club of the Know Nothings were Bridget and Patrick’s neighbors, a group of East Boston business leaders who’d been meeting at secret locations to discuss the “imminent peril of Freedom” that immigrants represented. By 1855, the East Boston chapter of the American Party had nearly 800 members and was led by Samuel W. Hall, son of a prominent shipbuilder and founder of the East Boston Ferry Company.

During their backroom meetings, Hall and other party leaders drafted a list of proposed laws they hoped to pass if Know Nothing candidates won upcoming elections. One called for an “absolute denial” of the powers of the “Papal Church” and demanded that anyone who believed otherwise (meaning Catholics) “shall not be permitted to hold any (federal) office.”

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Though the acronym WASP was not yet in use, the makeup of the Know Nothings was just that: White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. They nursed a distrust of government and hoped to carve out a place for themselves in national politics. The collapse of the Whig Party and the rise of the fledgling Republican Party gave the American Party an opening. In 1854, Know Nothing candidates swept elections across the United States, placing seven governors and nearly 50 congressmen in office. They were now poised to make life even harder for Catholic immigrants.

Some of their success resulted from voter suppression, fraud and violence. The East Boston group authorized its treasurer to “procure and pay for 2,500 votes.” Elsewhere, Know Nothing gangs patrolled the polls, wielding clubs and pitchforks, demanding to see naturalization papers, and threatening those who looked or sounded foreign, inciting riots in Cincinnati, New Orleans, St. Louis and Chicago. In Baltimore, a man named Charles Brown was gunned down by a Know Nothing thug outside his polling place, leading to an exchange of gunfire that killed five. The Baltimore American bemoaned the “guerilla warfare” tactics that the American Party used to prevent immigrants from voting.

In Louisville, Protestant rioters raided and torched a brewery, killing those trapped inside. One woman, running from the flames with an infant in her arms, was “followed by a hard-hearted wretch who … put the muzzle of the weapon to the child’s head, fired, and bespattered its brains over its mother’s arms,” the Louisville Daily Journal said. Estimates ranged from 20 to 100 dead in what was later called Bloody Monday.

A naturalized citizen, Patrick Kennedy was eligible to vote. (Not Bridget, of course — and not in her lifetime.) While the ranks of male Irish voters were rising, they were no match for the forces against them in 1855. Across New England, hundreds of Know Nothing candidates were elected to state and local offices, with an especially strong showing in Massachusetts. There, the governor, the entire state senate, and all but four state representatives were Know Nothings, as was Boston’s new mayor.

These lawmakers introduced a stream of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant legislation. The Know Nothing — controlled legislature proposed that only native-born citizens be eligible for federal office; that only native-born Protestants represent the United States overseas; that no foreign-born resident be allowed to vote until he’d lived in the United States for 21 years. One bill called for a literacy test for all voters. Another made the King James Bible required reading in state schools. In response to nativist cries to “send them back,” Irish paupers were deported to Ireland or Liverpool.

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Suddenly, the Kennedys had to worry that if they didn’t maintain a certain level of income, the Know Nothings might ship them home. The Kennedy children inherited U.S. citizenship from Patrick, but even naturalized citizens and their native-born kids were being targeted for deportation — sent “across the seas for the crime of being poor,” the New York Irish-American said.

Some of these proposed laws would be voted down or overturned on technicalities — it turned out that many Know Nothing candidates were political newcomers unskilled at actually running things. And they began to attract plenty of opposition, including from a former congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, who in 1855 wrote to a friend:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it, “all men are created equal, except negroes. When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.