Election Day Became Louisville’s Bloody Monday

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Louisville Bloody Monday Election Riots of 1855

Fearing Louisville’s growing immigrant population would gain control of city council, the nativist Know-Nothing Party murdered German and Irish citizens indiscriminately.

Recent census findings have revealed that Americans of German descent now represent the country’s largest ethnic group. German surnames and customs are so woven into the American cultural fabric that they’ve long since ceased to possess any significant “foreign” cache. It’s difficult to imagine a time when their presence inspired fear and hatred strong enough to produce widespread ethnic violence in the nation’s largest cities.

German Immigrants Faced Widespread Nativist Resistance

One of the most notable waves of German immigrants, known popularly as the “48ers,” fled the wave of revolution and violent reaction that set Germany and much of Europe ablaze in 1848. They were predominantly artisans and intellectuals and brought with them new ideas and abilities, quite different from other waves of immigrants who arrived as fodder for factory and farm.

The swelling numbers of German immigrants made their presence felt in the job market, in trade unions and on the political stage throughout 19th-century America. Though statistically among the smallest of the German immigrant groups, the 48ers soon made their presence felt in dozens of American cities. Their activities, and those of other immigrants during the mid-19th century, were eyed with alarm by the nativist Know-Nothing Party, an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fragment of the old Whig Party.

Many of the 48ers were activists and sophisticated political thinkers who had tried to make their voices heard in Germany. For the Know-Nothings, this activism represented just the kind of foreign influence they feared.

Discrimination Against Germans, Irish Erupts Into Open Violence

By 1850, Louisville, Kentucky, was America’s 10th-largest city. Settled in 1796, it prospered as a major river port with enough industry to attract large numbers of European immigrants. Germans and Irish comprised by far the largest percentage of these groups by the middle of the 19th century.

The Know-Nothings had control of Louisville’s city council and the mayor’s office. They spread rumors that German and Irish Catholics were attempting to disrupt elections and subvert the local political establishment. In Louisville, the newspapers, particularly George Prentice’s Louisville Journal, played on these fears and, by 1855, anti-immigrant sentiment in Louisville had reached a fever pitch.

On election day, August 6, 1855, Germans and Irish were prevented from voting by Know-Nothing party members and paid thugs. Louisville’s Know-Nothing Mayor, John Barbee, failed to arrange for security at the polling places and, not surprisingly, violence broke out. Riots erupted in the heavily German Butchertown neighborhood and the mob ransacked homes and businesses, dragging helpless victims into the streets and assaulting passers-by.

The violence quickly spread west into the city’s Eighth Ward. In the Irish enclave on West Main Street an entire block of row houses was set on fire, burning any who were trapped inside. Those who tried to escape were shot down.

Ironically, Barbee may have done more than anyone to end the violence. His intervention saved two Catholic churches from being burned, including the city’s cathedral church, but it was too late to prevent widespread death and destruction. The official number of deaths was given as 22 though many believed more than 100 died that day, to say nothing of the scores injured and the damage to homes and businesses.

Bloody Monday’s Aftermath

Louisville was a long time recovering from the Bloody Monday riots. Homes and businesses in once- thriving immigrant neighborhoods stood for years as burned-out hulks. Thousands of families fled Louisville for St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago and other destinations to the west. The population loss and consequent impact to the city’s tax base offset much of the growth Louisville had enjoyed in the first half of the century.

Louisville experienced violence during the Civil War, racial strife over civil rights and riots during school busing but Bloody Monday remains the darkest day in the city’s history, though it has received relatively scant attention over the past 155 years. The Ancient Order of Hibernians and Louisville’s German-American Club commemorate August 6 with an annual march to one of the Catholic churches that narrowly escaped being burned.

Local historians have chronicled the events of those days and the dead are remembered, but the city has avoided officially condemning the neglect of local government officials and those responsible for the violence. Perhaps the most eloquent commentary on that tragic day came 10 years after the Bloody Monday riots…in the form of another local election. In 1865, German immigrant Philipp Tomppert was elected Louisville’s mayor.

References:

  1. The Encyclopedia of Louisville, Volume 2000, 2001, Edited by John E. Kleber
  2. “Marchers Remember Bloody Monday,” Courier-Journal, Rebecca Neal, August 3, 2004