Monday, 6 August 1855. It was election day in Louisville, Kentucky. By the end of the day, this city of 43,000 would suffer a paroxysm of violence. A "reign of terror" ("Recalling...") in the words of the bishop. A local business, numerous buildings, and a neighborhood burned to the ground. Churches barely escaped destruction. Gunfire and beatings. Official numbers claim between 19 and 22 deaths (no one counted the numbers of wounded and homeless). Unofficial estimates go as high as 100. This became known to the citizens of Louisville as Bloody Monday.

Nativism, fearmongering, and anti-Catholicism boiled over in the heat and humidity of the August sun.

Coming to America

By the beginning of the Civil War (1860), there were over 1.3 million Germans living in the United States (total population 31.2 million), mostly arriving since 1848 when around 4,000 came to the US following the failed revolution of 1848 or the subsequent uprisings the following year. These tended to be somewhat radicalized immigrants, believing in such things as abolition of slavery and women's suffrage. Interestingly, as it will be clear later, there were largely anticlerical, if not atheists. Not only because of these and other ideas of uniting under social equality (which they viewed as an American democratic ideal—the founding fathers were considered radicals, too) and outspoken, even advocating such ideas, they were viewed with concern. That they were less radical than they were painted didn't matter. They were a large group of foreigners who were showing up following political instability.

It was a time when immigration was beginning to greatly increase in a nation less than a century old. By 1850 or so, some 40,000 immigrants were arriving per year. In 1851 Germans made up about 20% of that number and by 1854 it was over 50%. By 1860, four-fifths of these new citizens lived in the free states and two-thirds made their homes in just five (in 1850, there were 30 states): Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Though fewer lived in the slave states, like Kentucky, that state had one of the largest German populations outside of the others, mostly due to manufacturing development along the Ohio River. There were also fewer slaves in counties along its northern border. In 1860, there were 27,000 Germans living in Kentucky. About 70% of them lived in just three cities and Louisville boasted about half of the total German population. About a third were Catholic.

Living conditions had hardly been good before and when the potato famine hit in the mid 1840s, it sparked an explosion of immigration that led to great numbers of Irish citizens flooding into the US—almost two million between 1841 and 1860. In 1849, about 73% of the nearly 300,000 new Americans came from Ireland. Unlike the Germans, who were able to count a moderate amount of middle class people among their number, most of the Irish were poor, fleeing poverty and disease for a better life. This made assimilation more difficult because employment opportunities were scarce and many lacked the formal training or education of the Germans or "native" citizens (for a nation of immigrants, one's sense of full citizenship—full Americanship—and sense of the newcomers' lack thereof is striking by how quickly it occurred).

Upon reaching America, the Irish, like so many others before and after, tended to stick together for support and unity (and safety) before becoming a full part of the community. One of the strong ties that bound them together was religion. Most of the Irish were Catholic. While they had far fewer in numbers in Louisville (compared to the Germans), there was still a significant population living in their own neighborhoods.

Nativism and Anti-Catholicism

Us vs Them
People tend to find unity and security (physical and psychological) through identifying themselves, in part, by defining the "other." It is an us against them feeling that closely bonds the group, not only by positively identifying themselves, but through a negative definition of what they are not. As useful as it is, it is precarious because the numbers and proximity of the "other" can become a threat to the group's identity and sense of superiority. The influx of outsiders via immigration came to be seen as a threat to those native born who had only established their niche within the last one or two generations.

Other factors include the fear that this new strata of society will come in and overrun employment and (especially when the numbers are substantial—in reality or as perceived) compete for resources—the idea that they will take all the good land, for instance. There is also the concern that there will be an inversion of the status quo leaving those who felt established and who hold most or all of the power will become a real or perceived minority in both numbers, status, and socioeconomic class. Through their own struggle to establish themselves, many feel a sense of entitlement to their position and the threat from outside leads to fear, suspicion, discrimination, and even hatred.

This is exacerbated when the newcomers seem to keep to themselves instead of some sort of expected assimilation and retain the customs, language, and other beliefs of their homeland. New groups of Germans or Irish (whose poverty made them even more undesirable) showing up and living in ethnically segregated neighborhoods (which, of course, were allowed in order to keep them amongst their own kind), having their own holidays and traditions, speaking these non-English languages, and many being Catholic.

The established people, the native born—the Americans—began to fear usurpation by the increasing numbers of foreigners arriving on the shores. This led to a reaction against them based on many of the reasons above. A particularly toxic addition to the mix came in the form of anti-Catholicism. Catholics and Protestants have had a tense and even sometimes violent relationship since the Reformation and this didn't disappear which the founding of the nation.

Besides the long-standing animosity, the Protestant establishment feared the foreigners were a threat to US democracy, Catholics in particular. The centralized and hierarchical leadership of the Catholic church with its pope as the earthly spiritual leader for all Catholics was problematic for those who believed in the great democratic experiment. That this presupposed that Catholics deferred to the pope in all things without any evidence that it was true was irrelevant. The mere possibility of this stereotypical view of Catholics was enough to scare those in power. Who could trust these papists whose loyalty resides in the person of a foreign prince? Could they be depended on to obey US law? Fight its wars? Who could be patriotic when one's loyalty is held to one above the leader of the nation? There were also more personal fears like worrying what they might be teaching our children—especially if they were to rise to any political power.

Anti-Catholicism certainly existed from the early days of the nation and the flames were fueled by both pulpit and paper. In 1834, a mob (not a little incited by a local reverend) burned an Ursaline convent and girls' school to the ground in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The men were arrested and acquitted. Many were seen as heroes. Books and pamphlets detailing supposed abuses and plots by Catholics were circulated. In Philadelphia, 94 ministers formed the American Protestant Association. The group's constitution included "encouragement of Protestant ministers of the gospel, to give to their several congregations instruction on the differences between Protestantism and Popery," "circulation of books and tracts adapted to give information on the various errors of Popery in their history, tendency, and design," and "To awaken the attention of the community to the dangers which threaten the liberties, and the public and domestic institutions, of these United States from the assaults of Romanism" (

In addition to Protestant preachers sermonizing of the anti-Christian beliefs and other dangers of Catholics, they also strongly aligned themselves with a strong streak of patriotism, as if to suggest only their flavor of religion could be patriotic and truly American. Newspapers appeared in New York City and elsewhere taking this line to the greater populace outside of the church and reinforcing the message among those who attended. The fires continued to be stoked until riots broke in Philadelphia in 1844. Two churches and dozens of homes burned. The city had to be placed under martial law. In New York, when threats were made to the church, armed men had to stand outside Catholic houses of worship. Similar incidents (though on a far lesser scale) were scattered throughout the country.

"I know nothing."
Anti-Catholic/anti-immigration nativist groups began to organize politically, some being elected on a local level. In 1849, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner (note the deliberate evocation of patriotism) was organized New York City. Its mission:

The object of this organization shall be to protect every American citizen in the legal and proper exercise of all his civil and religious rights and privileges; to resist the insidious policy of the Church of Rome, and all other foreign influence against our republican institutions in all lawful ways; to place in all offices of honor, trust, or profit, in the gift of the people, or by appointment, none but native-born Protestant citizens, and to protect, preserve and uphold the Union of these states and the Constitution of the same.

Soon similar secret lodges organized throughout the states.

The oddly amusing moniker of Know-Nothingism came from the way members, when asked about the party, they would claim to "know nothing" about it. The party held its greatest sway between 1850 and 1855. Its platform, unsurprisingly, demanded limitations on immigration, exclusion of voting rights for foreign-born citizens (who would not be allowed to hold public office), and the requirement for citizenship included a 21 year residency status. As it increased in membership (Catholics need not apply) and power, it became known as the American Party and ceased to be secretive (though it wasn't uncommon for the candidates to run without acknowledged affiliation).

1854 saw great success for the party with the American Party getting both state houses (the House of Representatives was composed of 376 Know-Nothings and two others of different parties), all state officers and the governor of Massachusetts. They also elected forty people to the national congress. The next year they elected governors to six states (including Kentucky). They carried elections in nine other states. They felt strong and the idea that "Americans must rule Americans" was within grasp.

Poison Ink
Louisville had its share of these "Americans." Its mayor John Barbee, was one. So was the editor of the local newspaper, The Louisville Journal. Along with the usual politicians and preachers, people like editor George Prentice, inflamed the people against these foreigners. On election day, he wrote "Let the foreigners let their elbows to themselves today at the polls. Americans are you ready? We think we hear you shout 'ready,' well fire! and may heaven have mercy on the foe"."

Prentice would write also about the danger of the "most pestilent influence of foreign swarms" and referred to the pope as "an inflated Italian despot who keeps people kissing his toes all day" ("Recalling..."). This sort of extremist and eliminationist talk from the prominent head of the city's paper could not help but push everything closer to the precipice.

Bloody Monday

Election Day
At the time of the 1855 elections, Louisville's population was about 43,000 with about 11,000 of them immigrants. About 70% of the population was native born, the rest foreign born. The polls were set to open at 6:00 AM. There were already long lines of citizens waiting to vote. Fewer voting places, especially in districts primarily made up of foreigners, made the long lines move slowly. Except for the Know-Nothings, who had been given yellow tickets enabling them to move through the voting process more quickly by allowing them to access the polls through different doors.

In two of the German and Irish districts, poll workers demanded proof of naturalization papers, slowing things even more as the August sun climbed higher in the sky. It is estimated that as many as 90% of the those voters were disenfranchised.

By noon, the long lines, heat, and frustration led to fewer and fewer voters coming to the polls. This undoubtedly gave the Know-Nothings the vote advantage that won them seats in the election. At midday, Know-Nothing supporters were wandering the streets (some masked) drunk on their success and prodigious amounts of whiskey. Some spent time intimidating other voters. And way too many of them were carrying clubs and guns and likely looking for what they probably thought would be payback. All that was needed was a precipitating event for the powder keg to blow.

Most sources agree on what that match was. Sometime between 10 AM and noon, some Irishmen (the reason isn't clear; the Courier-Journal describes them as "frustrated") attacked one of the "Americans." Also, someone took a shot at people in a carriage. All hell broke loose. In short time a mob of 500 began rioting their way through town. Shots rang out, both from the mob and from frightened citizens in their homes. Windows were broken, property destroyed, "foreigners" beaten. Some killed. Buildings were set afire as the angry wave flowed through the town.

As they neared St. Martin of Tours Catholic church, rumors broke out that it held a secret cache of weapons. This effectively marked it for destruction. Cannons were rolled up to its doors. The church was only saved when the mayor (himself a member of the anti-immigration party) personally searched it and persuaded the crowd that it was clear of any weapons. The rumor and search would be repeated at both the Cathedral of the Assumption and St. Patrick's church.

Mayor Barbee, with the help of editor Prentice (of all people), also helped save the offices of an anti-Know-Nothing newspaper from being destroyed. He pled for 50 more policemen to help control the rioters. Sadly, the Board of Alderman rejected the idea.

Fights had broken out near the courthouse and another mob formed. They stole the cannons from the courtyard grounds and headed down the street, numbers increasing as they went. The crowd marched to a local brewery, which after it was looted of its liquor, was burned to the ground. (The brewery was located near a place where shots had reportedly been fired at passersby—whether this was merely convenient or just serendipitous, there's no record.) The mob shot at anyone trying to escape the fire and seven or eight people were burned alive in the cellar. At least 20 buildings in the area were burned down.

Into the evening (around 7 PM) it was time for the Irish. As the mob spilled into the Irish part of town, people shot at the crowd from windows in their tenements. They were answered with the torch. Numerous buildings were burned, including twelve owned by one Francis Quinn. As earlier at the brewery, gunfire was trained on anyone trying to escape regardless of age or gender (Quinn, himself, was shot while escaping). Others perished in the fire while the fire brigades were told which buildings to save and which ones to let burn.

As the mob turned toward yet another section of the city, the passions waned and the march of destruction ended. According to local legend, it occurred when Saint Benedict appeared before the crowd. Regardless of what finally halted the mob, the fires would burn deep into the night.

Morning. The accounting came as the sun "drank up the vapors from literal pools of blood that stagnated in our familiar streets," according to one newspaper. Priests and nuns feared being seen on those city streets. The morning after hangover of the heady violence left a town trying to make sense of what had happened.

Bodies were brought in for a coroner's inquest. Each report read the same. It would be determined that the victim "Came to death by persons unknown." While there were victims on both sides, two-thirds of the dead were immigrants. No one really paid for the crimes committed the day before. There were some arrests but little or no punishment.

And the city started the healing process by blaming it on the foreigners. So it goes.


Unsurprisingly, the violence caused a flood of immigrants to leave Louisville. Shortly after, 400 Germans took off for Kansas and 300 Irishmen left for Cincinnati, Ohio by mail boat. Immigration societies were set up to help those who chose to pack up and go. The Germans resettled in Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Minnesota. This was actually damaging to the town because many of these Germans were skilled and well-educated. Between 1852 and 1860, the German population declined by about 4,700.

Less skilled and educated (which made it more difficult to pull up stakes and be sure of finding work elsewhere), many Irish still fled the city. The people that left headed to Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Of the foreigners who remained, election day became a day to remain inside or leave town.

The city council voted to give the mayor $500 to dole out in increments of $5 to $20 to people who had been left homeless by the events. In 1869—14 years later—the family who had owned the brewery got some restitution. The family of Francis Quinn, who had lost a dozen buildings, never got a cent. The next year, more polling places were used during elections, since the long lines and frustrated voters were seen as one cause of the riots. Apparently, it had nothing to do with the bald-face bigotry and xenophobia.

For some time afterward, the burned out buildings and vandalized property just sat, no one wishing to purchase the property—as if it would acknowledge the city's shame. The outflow of citizens, who were selling their homes as cheaply as possible to facilitate a faster retreat, made property values crash. The city also gained a reputation as a place unfriendly (or even dangerous) to immigrants and unable to control its population. As late as 1897, the newspaper said that the events of that day still adversely affected the city's economy and ability to grow.

The violence helped contribute to the decline of the Know-Nothings. Many of their politicians were voted out the following year (by the end of the decade it would be virtually extinct). Within a few years, Louisville's Catholic and Protestant church leaders tried to work together.


In present day Louisville one can no longer find the scars from that Monday in August. There is only a single possible exception. There are bullet holes in the cross on the steeple over St. Martin's. There's no certainty that they are from that day but it is a distinct possibility.

The city has struggled to overcome that past and tries to be open and promote religious and racial tolerance. Over the years, calls have been made for the removal of George Prentice's statue from the entrance to the library. It still stands there but now has a plaque explaining his relation to Bloody Monday. In 2002, protesters spray-painted Prentice blue. In 2005, people requested it be moved to the grounds of the Courier-Journal building (the current newspaper was formed when Prentice's paper and two others merged in 1868).

One hundred fifty years later, Louisville is still learning from the mistakes of its past.

Articles from The Courier-Journal:
"Most traces of 1855 riot have vanished from the city" 30 July 2005
"Recalling Bloody Monday: Events to mark 1855 anti-immigrant riots in city" 30 July 2005
"Anti-immigrant bigotry in Louisville turned to violence 150 years ago. Its stain remains a part of our city's heritage" 31 July 2005 (uncited quotations from this article)
"Tragedy's stigma affected city's reputation, prosperity" 31 July 2005

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) entries for "Kentucky" and "Knownothinginsm"
"Forty-Eighters and Nativists"
"The History of Catholic America: Of Poison Pens and Politics"
"Irish Immigration"
"Irish Immigration"
"Kentucky's German-Americans in the Civil War"
"Know-Nothing Party"

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