Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Nativist Riots of 1844

lithograph of the southwark riot

This lithograph depicts key elements of one of the riots of 1844. The image portrays the fight that took place in the Southwark neighborhood on July 7, 1844. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

In May and July 1844, Philadelphia suffered some of the bloodiest rioting of the antebellum period, as anti-immigrant mobs attacked Irish-American homes and Roman Catholic churches before being suppressed by the militia. The violence was part of a wave of riots that convulsed American cities starting in the 1830s. Yet even amid this tumult, they stand out for their duration, itself a product of nativist determination to use xenophobia for political gain. In the aftermath of the riots, shocked Philadelphians began debating new methods of maintaining order, a discussion that contributed to the consolidation of Philadelphia County in 1854.


Click on the arrows to follow the sequence of where, when, and how the riots occurred.


Click Here to View a Larger Version of this Map

Ethnic and religious antagonism had a long history in the city. Since the 1780s, Irish textile workers had come to Philadelphia after losing their jobs to mechanization in the British Isles. As early as 1828, when an off-duty watchman was killed after disparaging “bloody Irish transports,” Catholic presence had provoked anxiety among American- and Irish-born Protestants. In 1831, Irish Catholics battled along Fifth Street with Protestants celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.

Anti-Catholic agitation increased in the early 1840s, organized in part around a perceived threat to the Bible in the public schools. Catholic Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick (1796-1863), an Irish immigrant himself, objected to Protestant teachers’ leading students in singing Protestant hymns and requiring them to read from the King James Bible. Nativists used Kenrick’s complaints to gain followers. In 1842, dozens of Protestant clergymen formed the American Protestant Association to defend America from Romanism. In early 1843, editor Lewis Levin  (1808-60) made the Daily Sun an organ for attacks against Catholicism and Catholic immigration, and in December of that year, he helped found a nativist political party called the American Republican Association.

Bible Reading as Flashpoint

In 1844, the Bible controversy intensified in the district of Kensington, a suburb to the northeast of Philadelphia City and home to many Irish immigrants, both Protestant and Catholic. In February, Hugh Clark (1796-1862), a Catholic school director there, suggested suspending Bible reading until the school board could devise a policy acceptable to Catholics and Protestants alike. Nativists saw this as a threat to their liberty and as a chance to mobilize voters, and they rallied by the thousands in Independence Square. On May 3, 1844 they rallied in Kensington itself but were chased away.

The first serious violence broke out three days later. On May 6, the nativists reassembled in Kensington, provoking another fight, during which a young nativist named George Shiffler (1825-44) was fatally shot. By day’s end, a second man—apparently a bystander—was dead, and several more nativists were wounded, two mortally. The next day, the First Brigade of the Pennsylvania Militia, commanded by Brigadier General George Cadwalader (1806-79), responded to the sheriff’s call for help. The troops faced little direct resistance, but they proved unable to stop people from starting new fires. On May 8, mobs gutted several private dwellings (including Hugh Clark’s house), a Catholic seminary, and two Catholic churches: St. Michael’s at Second Street and Master and St. Augustine’s at Fourth and Vine. Only a flood of new forces—including citizen posses, city police, militia companies arriving from other cities, and U.S. army and navy troops—ended the violence by May 10.

The city remained superficially calm for the next eight weeks, but both nativists and Catholics anticipated further violence. In Southwark—an independent district south of Philadelphia City and a seat of nativist strength—a Catholic priest’s brother began stockpiling weapons in the basement of the Church of St. Philip de Neri on Queen Street. On Friday, July 5, a crowd of thousands gathered to demand the weapons. When the crowd reassembled the following day, the sheriff requested militia troops, and Cadwalader led about two hundred into Southwark. Saturday ended without bloodshed, but the situation remained tense, with a small group of militia—some of them Irish Catholics themselves—guarding the church and a group of nativist prisoners inside it.

Armed Clash in Southwark

On Sunday, July 7, the crowd reassembled, and this time it armed itself with cannon. Egged on by nativist speakers, the crowd forced the militia to surrender the church and its prisoners. Cadwalader returned to Southwark about sunset at the head of a column and tried to clear the area around the church. When the crowd attacked the militia with bricks, stones, and bottles, the militia fired on them, killing at least two and wounding more. Starting around 9pm, the crowd counterattacked. For the next four hours, rioters and militia battled in the streets of Southwark, with both sides firing cannon. By morning, four militiamen and probably a dozen rioters were dead, along with many more wounded. Southwark’s aldermen negotiated the militia’s withdrawal from their district, but thousands of militia troops from other parts of the state arrived to patrol the City of Philadelphia.

Although American cities, particularly Philadelphia, had endured a surge of riots since the early 1830s, few individual riots lasted for more than a day, making the 1844 riots extreme in their severity and duration. While some of the violence had been spontaneous, the ambitions of the nativist newspapers and political party in an election year likely sustained nativist fury through the spring and summer. Though the riots were more than the simple transplantation of anti-Catholic violence from Northern Ireland, they echoed the deliberate provocation seen there.

The riots did not resolve the place of the Irish in the city. On the one hand, few Philadelphians were willing to endorse publicly the attacks on Catholics, and more than two thousand Philadelphians signed an address praising the militia’s use of “lawful force which unlawful force made necessary.” On the other hand, in the October elections, amid the heaviest turnout in Philadelphia’s history, Levin and another nativist won congressional seats and other nativists took lesser posts.

Meanwhile, Philadelphians began discussing plans for a stronger police force to deter future riots. In April 1845, the legislature passed a law requiring each major city and district of Philadelphia County to support at least one police officer for each 150 taxable inhabitants, and in 1850 it created a new Philadelphia Police District to cover the entire metropolitan area, including the outlying districts of Kensington and Southwark. Though not the sole cause, these steps contributed to the consolidation of Philadelphia County into a single government in 1854.

Zachary M. Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University. He is at work on a book about the 1844 riots.

(Click the Map to Expand)

Copyright 2013, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Beyer-Purvis, Amanda. “The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844: Contest Over the Rights of Citizens.” Pennsylvania History 83 (Summer 2016): 366-93.

Billington, Ray Allen. The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

Feldberg, Michael. The Philadelphia Riots of 1844: A Study of Ethnic Conflict. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Geffen, Elizabeth M. “Industrial Development and Social Crisis, 1841-1854,” in Russell Frank Weigley, Nicholas B. Wainwright, Edwin Wolf, eds., Philadelphia: A 300 Year History. W. W. Norton, 1982.

Lannie, Vincent P., and Bernard C. Diethorn. “For the Honor and Glory of God: The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1840. [sic]” History of Education Quarterly 8, no. 1 (April 1968): 44–106.

Luccioni, Mark David. “’Fire and Be Damned’: Philadelphia Volunteers and the Use of Force in the Riots of 1844.” PhD diss., Temple University, 1996.

Milano, Kenneth W. The Philadelphia Nativist Riots: Irish Kensington Erupts. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2013.

Montgomery, David. “The Shuttle and the Cross: Weavers and Artisans in the Kensington Riots of 1844.” Journal of Social History 5, no. 4 (July 1972): 411–446.



General George Cadwalader Papers, Cadwalader Family Papers (Collection 1454), Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Riots Collection, Philadelphia Archdiocesan Research Center, digitized by Falvey Memorial Library, Villanova University, 800 E. Lancaster Avenue, Radnor, Pa.

Places to Visit

Church of St. Philip Neri, 218 Queen Street, Philadelphia.

Independence Square, bounded by Chestnut, Walnut, Fifth, and Sixth Streets, Philadelphia.

St. Augustine Church, 243 N. Lawrence Street, Philadelphia.

St. Michael Church, 1445 N. Second Street, Philadelphia.

2 Comments Comments

  1. Too bad nobody went to jail. Nobody was held accountable for the damage or death that occurred because of this lawlessness. Instead of punishment, they rewarded the instigators with a Congress seat and high governmental positions.

    Ron Posted May 26, 2015 at 8:23 pm
  2. Kind of puts today’s controversies in perspective

    John Posted August 12, 2015 at 9:58 am

Logged in as . Log out? Add a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


Comments 23 Trackbacks

  1. By Bible Readings | MADE IN AMERICA on May 12, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    […] proper role, if any, in American public schools. The most ferocious such episode was probably the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844. As part of rolling battles in American cities between Protestant nativists and Catholic […]

  2. By Bible readings « The Berkeley Blog on May 14, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    […] proper role, if any, in American public schools. The most ferocious such episode was probably the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844. As part of rolling battles in American cities between Protestant nativists and Catholic […]

  3. […] is not Birmingham in 2014, though, but Philadelphia in 1844: the year of the Bible Riots, two of the deadliest outbreaks of street violence before the Civil War. The ‘foreigners’ […]

  4. […] should read up on the Philadelphia Bible Riots, the debates over the Blaine Amendments most states still have in their constitutions, and the […]

  5. […] http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/nativist-riots-of-1844/ […]

  6. […] cartographer Michael Siegel has made a magnificent slideshow of maps to accompany my entry, “Nativist Riots of 1844,” in the Encyclopedia of […]

  7. […] Yep, I’m talking about that event in American history that we all learned about in high school history class: The 1844 Philadelphia Bible Riots. […]

  8. […] songs like The Ballad of George Shiffler—a song about memorializing a Protestant martyr in the 1844 Bible Riots—in a way I couldn’t have imagined previously. As I’ve mentioned, conveying the message […]

  9. […] Americanness.  He’s followed this up with offensive remarks about Mexicans.  Basically a nativist, Trump shows an utter disregard for popular sentiment in putting himself forward […]

  10. […] then, and reflect: the Cathedral was built during a rather dark time in our city’s history.  The Nativist Riots of 1844 were a very real problem when the Cathedral was being built, leaving dozens dead and wounded, […]

  11. […] and reflect: the cathedral was built during a rather dark time in Philadelphia’s history. The Nativist Riots of 1844 were a very real problem, leaving dozens dead and wounded, churches destroyed and peace uneasy. […]

  12. […] In 1835, prominent Presbyterian preacher Lyman Beecher encouraged their exclusion from Western settlements. The burning of Catholic buildings, and the murder of Catholics, became rampant. […]

  13. By The New News | Ramonat Seminar: Catholics in Chicago on September 27, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    […] I wanted to find. Inspired by one of our readings, I decided to focus on the 1844 Philadelphia nativist riots. I kept “Catholic” as the sole keyword in my initial searches and limited the […]

  14. By Radical Islamic Terrorism and Reactionary Hatred on November 14, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    […] So successful was this experience of freedom that it did not take long for Philadelphia to become recognized as the epicenter of the new American experiment. Immigrants in particular flooded to Pennsylvania, and especially to Philadelphia. Germans, Irish, English, Jews, Catholics, Protestants of all denominations, all flooded to this great capitol of freedom, and the effect of such cultural diversity can still be felt in this great city today. This isn’t to say that everything was peaceful. Precisely because Philadelphia was such a harbor of religious and cultural diversity, and human nature being as it is, there were great struggles and sometimes violent conflicts. […]

  15. By Nativism, Fascism and Donald Trump | * on November 23, 2015 at 11:45 pm

    […] This violence, like in Charlestown, was a backlash against Catholics. This backlash was sparked by differing views of Bible readings, “Catholic Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick (1796-1863), an Irish immigrant […]

  16. […] Catholic churches were torched. Crosses were burned on front lawns. Philadelphians rioted over perceived threats of “Papal invasion.” Never change, […]

  17. […] Andrew B. Cross, was ground zero for an anti-Catholic movement that would not only incite further violence, but culminate in the formation of the Native American Party. The party, popularly known as the […]

  18. By Bible Riots?? | StarrTrekking on April 18, 2017 at 9:40 am

    […] The riots did not resolve the place of the Irish in the city. On the one hand, few Philadelphians were willing to endorse publicly the attacks on Catholics, and more than two thousand Philadelphians signed an address praising the militia’s use of “lawful force which unlawful force made necessary.” On the other hand, in the October elections, amid the heaviest turnout in Philadelphia’s history, Levin and another nativist won congressional seats and other nativists took lesser posts.  [Source] […]

  19. […] Larcombe’s assessments convey the anti-Catholicism of the time. Philadelphia was the scene of two anti-immigrant riots in 1844, during which mobs targeted Catholic churches and Irish homes. Larcombe perceived some of the […]

  20. […] the US in order to set up a Catholic nation. Multiple anti-Catholic organizations formed and led to Nativist anti-Catholic riots. In one of the odder anti-Catholic episodes the Know-Nothings took the marble […]

  21. By Last Days of America – aladdinsmiraclelamp on November 5, 2017 at 11:41 am

    […] And later in Philly: http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/nativist-riots-of-1844/ […]

  22. […] the nativist groups attacked Irish-Catholic homes and burned down two churches in Philadelphia, Hughes drew a line. He wouldn’t let the same […]

  23. By More Immigrants Please on November 21, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    […] marker of culture, immigrants to the U.S. rarely converted. Despite heavy discrimination and even violence against Catholics, Catholicism became the plurality religion throughout much of the country. […]

Share This Page: