The Year Maine Went Mad – the Know Nothingism of 1854-5

A political realignment. Promises to drain the swamp and put Americans first. Attacks, both verbal and physical, on immigrants and minorities. In 1854 and 1855, Maine, like much of the country, was shaken by the rise of the Know-Nothing movement. Its anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic rhetoric overturned state politics and spilled over into mob violence. For a brief period, much of the state went mad.

The Know Nothing movement had its origins in secret societies across the United States. The name given to the group was, in fact, a nod to the clandestine nature of these gatherings. When pressed, members would says they “knew nothing” about the group or its beliefs. As the members organized themselves more formally as a political party, they called themselves the “American Party” or the “Native American Party.” But the “Know Nothing” label stuck.

The Know Nothings organized themselves in opposition to the recent surge in immigration to the US, particularly the influx of Irish immigrants in the wake of the Great Famine (1845-9). The Irish were seen as a different kind of immigrant from the “traditional” English and Scottish people who had come to the US in earlier decades. Not only did many Irish not speak English (speaking the native Irish language instead), and often arrived destitute of any resources, but they were overwhelmingly Catholics, and even seen as racially different from the Anglo-Scottish descendants.

While Irish-Americans were their primary target, other groups also incurred the ire of the Know Nothings. French Canadian immigrants shared many of the same characteristics the Know Nothings despised, and the small but growing Franco community is Maine was caught up in the nativist violence as well.

In its Aug 24, 1855 issue, the Union and Eastern Journal of Biddeford, which was sympathetic to the Know Nothing cause, reprinted the text of a pamphlet it had printed up for a local Know Nothing group. The principles of the movement were:

Americans alone are capable of ruling themselves…
We stand firm as a surge-beaten rock in our opposition to the overwhelming tide of foreign and pauper immigration…
We oppose the naturalization of foreigners and equalization with our own citizens until they have been twenty-one years on our soil….
We oppose with all our hearts…the insidious aims of the Church of Rome to obtain political and secular power in the Republic…
We are in favor of other countries supporting their own paupers instead of dumping them here to burden us….
We are bitterly and fervently opposed to the designing knaves who…have used [immigrant voters] through bribery, corruption, and their own their own easily excited prejudices as tools for their own personal advancement.

The synthesis of the Know Nothing message was that poor immigrants were flooding the United States, bringing strange customs with them, nursing divided loyalties and with a secret foreign agenda. These same immigrants were being used as pawns by corrupt politicians (especially Democrats) to rig elections. A message that sounds familiar today.

Advertisement for the “American Citizen,” A Know-Nothing newspaper in Boston, 1852. The protesters in the illustration carry anti-Catholic placards, and in the upper right, a divine hand seizes a basilisk wearing the Papal tiara snaking out of St Peter’s in Rome.

As a political movement, the Know Nothings (officially known as the American Party) had some short lived electoral success in mid 1850s. In Maine, their candidates helped wrest control of the legislature away from the incumbent Democrats and elect Anson P. Morrill, running on a joint Republican-American ticket, as Governor. The incoming legislature set to work with a series of anti-immigrant measures. They banned newcomers from serving in the militia, and added a 3-month residency requirement before new citizens could vote. More drastically, they removed the ability of state and municipal courts to naturalize new citizens, forcing immigrants to travel to the federal courts to apply for citizenship.

The Know Nothings also supported Maine’s powerful temperance movement, which had already achieved the first statewide prohibition of alcohol anywhere in the country in 1846. The so-called “Maine Law” was partly inspired by stereotypes of drunken Catholic immigrants, especially the Irish, but it was also used to discriminate against Franco-Americans, and enforcement of the law was often lop-sided.

At the local level, Know Nothings campaigned against what they saw as Catholic influence on local school boards, and any erosion of the traditional public school curriculum , which in this period include a substantial dose of (Protestant) Bible study.

“Father Bapst, SJ, Catholic Priest of Ellsworth, Closes the Door of the Public School Against the Children of Papists.” Cartoon from the Ellsworth Herald, Feb 24, 1854.

In Ellsworth, the Know Nothing group was known as the “Cast Iron Band” and led by William Chaney, the editor of the Ellsworth Herald newspaper. (In honor of Chaney’s nativist sentiments, the paper later became the Ellsworth American). Conflict broke out between the Cast Iron Band and Father John Bapst, a Swiss Jesuit who oversaw a sprawling parish in central Maine. A native French-speaker, Bapst had been assigned to Maine initially to minister to the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy people, but later oversaw several small but growing immigrant parishes as far afield as Skowhegan and Eastport.

Father Bapst had moved to Ellsworth in 1854 to establish a church for the growing Catholic community in town. While his very presence was probably enough to infuriate the nativists, Father Bapst became their sworn enemy after he encouraged Catholic children at the local school to ask to be excused from studying the King James Bible. When the school board (stacked with members of the Cast Iron Band) refused, Father Bapst helped the children’s parents take the case to court. In a landmark ruling, the state Supreme Court sided with the school board. The precedent in Donahue v Richards stood in US law for half a century before minority religious rights were accepted in public schools.

Undeterred, Father Bapst established a parish school for the Catholic children to attend. This only seems to have escalated tensions. Someone broke into the public school and vandalized their Bibles. In response, the windows of the parochial school building were broken and a bomb was set off on the school house steps.

Ellsworth was not the only scene of mob violence in Maine at the time. Irish and Franco-American communities in Bath, Brunswick, and Lewiston all experienced Know Nothing attacks in the space of a few months.

A history of St John’s parish in Brunswick recalls how the early parishioners faded a campaign of intimidation in this period

There was such antipathy between Protestant Americans, the Irish and Canadians, that often, during encounters on the street and even in the factory, things came to insults and to blows. “We did not dare go out at night, a witness told us, for fear of finding ourselves in a fight. If you wanted to go to the post office to get your mail? We would all get together as a “gang” to protect ourselves in case we were attacked. What’s more, it was unthinkable to go out on the town, for young men and for young ladies alike. We would just stay quietly at home.

In Brunswick, things didn’t come to these excesses of savagery, but it is reported that one evening, returning to Topsham and passing by a small house on the edge of the river, occupied by two Canadian families, Labbé and Lévesque, some of these fanatics tried to demolish it and to throw the debris into the river. They did not get to bring their criminal project to completion; but a woman, who was then alone and sick in the house, was so frightened that she died a few days later as a result of this fear.

Meanwhile, worse attacks occurred in neighboring Bath and Lewiston. In Bath, a visit by an itinerant preacher, who went by the name “Archangel Gabriel” whipped a crowd into a frenzy in the days following the city’s Fourth of July celebration. On July 6 a mob attacked the Old South Church, which was being rented by the local Catholic congregation for worship. The parishioners were a mixture of Irish and Acadian immigrants largely engaged in shipbuilding. The mob smashed the church’s windows, destroyed the pews, and hoisted an American flag on the spire before setting the building on fire. The whole structure was destroyed.

John Hilling, “Third Phase, Burning of the Old South Church,” Bath, 1854. Image: Maine Historical Society/Maine Memory Network

In Lewiston, another small congregation had its house of worship destroyed by a nativist mob. The Catholics of Lewiston, denied a permanent home by the Franklin Company that ran the town, were worshiping in a chapel formerly used by another denomination. On December 8 1855, the building on Lincoln Street was set ablaze. Franklin Company agent Albert Kelsey recalled the incident much later:

One night, someone set fire to the little church …. The alarm of fire was given and I hurried down to the scene. I found five or six hundred Lewiston people standing on the street opposite the burning building. They were hooting and yelling and jeering. The fire engine had come to the scene but someone had cut the hose. At that juncture I ordered out the hose from the Bates, as the building was almost directly in the rear of the mill. I posted men along the hose and told them that if anyone attempted to cut it, to hold those men on the premises at all hazards. Then I went to the end of the hose and took the nozzle. First of all I turned it across the street and swept that crowd of persons who stood there shouting in an insulting fashion. They scattered like flies before a shower. Then I put water on the fire. [But] the building was ruined.

But Ellsworth was to host the greatest outrage of the Know nothing fever.

In the face of the escalating tension in Ellsworth, the bishop of Boston had Bapst leave town for several months. But when he returned in October 1854, the Jesuit’s enemies were still waiting for him.

Father John Bapst, SJ, ca 1860. Image: John Bapst Memorial High School/Maine Memory Network.

On the very night Father Bapst set foot in Ellsworth again, members of the Cast Iron Band abducted him at night, took him to the town wharf, and tarred and feathered him. On the verge of hanging the priest, the mob was talked down into tying him to an iron rail and attempting to ride him out of town. A group of armed Catholics eventually found Father Bapst bloodied and unconscious and alone, and brought him to safety.

The events in Ellsworth shocked Mainers and the nation. The “Ellsworth Outrage” was reported far outside the state. While some newspapers downplayed it’s significance, most Americans saw the attack on a member of the clergy by a mob of vigilantes to be shameful. Father Bapst himself received a warm welcome in Bangor, where he would take up residence for the next five years. Local officials even awarded him the freedom of the city to show their repudiation of the prejudice he had faced in Ellsworth.

After Bangor, Father Bapst moved to Massachusetts, where he helped found Holy Cross and Boston Colleges. The trauma at Ellsworth apparently haunted him for the rest of his life, causing him to have nightmares decades later.

The Know Nothing mania faded as quickly as it flared up. In Maine, as elsewhere, the movement lost support quickly in the later 1850s. Events like those at Ellsworth rightly destroyed the Know Nothings’ reputation. But the groups also struggled to find a common position on slavery, which soon replaced immigration as the greatest political issue of the time. In Maine, many Know Nothings drifted into the new vigorous Republican Party. The last gasp of the American Party was in the presidential election of 1860, when many former Know-Nothing politicians supported the third-party candidacy of Senator John Bell of Tennessee.

Though the formal role of the Know Nothings was at an end, their influence in Maine lived on. Their anti-immigrant sentiments would resurge in future decades, while the policies they championed, especially prohibition, lingered for generations.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.