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. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

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.

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. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2013, Rutgers University


The Death of George Shifler

Library Company of Philadelphia

On May 6, 1844, the nativist American Republican party staged a rally in the third ward of Kensington, which housed many Irish Catholic immigrants. Heckling yielded to fistfights and then gunfire. The first killed was nativist George Shifler, whose death is depicted in this lithograph published soon thereafter. Shifler (or, Shiffler) was just nineteen years old at the time of his death. He was depicted as a patriot, killed in the act of standing up for his country.

Columbia Mourns Her Citizens

Library Company of Philadelphia

Though the nativists frequently used Protestant rhetoric derived from Europe’s wars of religion, this lithograph relied on strictly American iconography—flag, eagle, and Columbia—to emphasize the patriotism of those native-born Americans killed in Kensington. The names of Irish-Catholic victims are not listed.

St. Augustine's Church

Library Company of Philadelphia

On May 8, the third day of heavy rioting, nativists torched St. Michael’s church in Kensington and a nearby Catholic seminary. In the evening, they entered Philadelphia City and set afire St. Augustine’s church, which had been dedicated in 1801. In 1847, using funds awarded as damages in a suit against the city as well as private donations, the congregation began rebuilding, consecrating their new church in 1848.

Southwark Riot Lithograph

Library Company of Philadelphia

After the Kensington Riots in May 1844, the city remained relatively quiet for the early summer. But starting on July 5, crowds menaced the Catholic Church of St. Philip de Neri in the district of Southwark. On the evening of July 7, the militia fired into the hostile crowd, leading to a battle that lasted into the following morning. This lithograph depicts key elements of the fight: the close proximity of rioters and militia, the use of weapons ranging from stones to cannon, the danger to bystanders—including women and children—and the confusion of smoke and darkness

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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.

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