Subscribe for $3 for three months
Anti-Irish riots

A drawing of the anti-Irish riots that broke out on election day Aug. 7, 1854, in St. Louis. The arrival of so many German and Irish immigrants upset many of the city's more established residents. Some of them gathered in the Irish ward along Washington Avenue on that day to supress immigrant voting. Ten people died in the street battles between nativists and Irish. (Missouri State Historical Society)

ST. LOUIS • Ireland's potato famine, beginning in 1845, propelled thousands of refugees into the crowded tenements near Washington Avenue. The Irish were poor, suddenly numerous and drank in public after Mass on Sundays.

The city's elite of Southern-bred Protestant gentlemen and old French families regarded the 8,000 newcomers with uneasy disdain. As Irish and German immigrants poured into the city, local nativists joined the national "Know Nothing" movement (named for the answer its members gave to nosy questions). As always, elections invited trouble.

On Aug. 7, 1854, U.S. Rep. Thomas Hart Benton, a veteran former senator, ran for re-election to the House and courted immigrant votes. Nativists backed former Mayor Luther Kennett. That morning, the Missouri Republic, a pro-Kennett newspaper, printed this call to arms: "A large number of illegal votes will be attempted. Watch them close."

Look Back: Anti-Irish riots
John How, mayor of St. Louis from 1853-55 and 1856-57. He was mayor during the violent election of Aug. 7, 1854, and supported Thomas Hart Benton. Late on election day, How led the city's 63-man police force in an effort to end the riot, but they were brushed back. Only exhaustion and darkness ended the first day of rioting. The city's militias -- groups more used to parading than fighting -- assembled the next day and made some headway, but violence continued. On the third day, How organized a meeting at the (old) courthouse, where citizens voted to temporarily disband the police force and create a special posse. But that night, the riot finally spent itself. A short time later, the city voted to give its police officers their first uniforms. Until then, officers wore badges upon the clothing of their choosing. (Missouri History Museum)

Hundreds of vigilant Kennett supporters gathered in the heavily Irish 5th Ward, running west from the Mississippi River north of Washington, where zealous poll judges were busy disqualifying voters. In the inevitable street jostling, an Irishman stabbed a boy and fled to Second and Morgan streets, in today's Laclede's Landing.

Nativists chased him through a boarding house, which they trashed with relish. They smashed the windows and furniture of houses nearby as many more joined the commotion. Weapons were rocks, bricks and occasional gunfire.

Irish steamboat workers formed a skirmish line on Morgan, where they gave as good as they received, with the support of shots fired from flanking tenements. At least three died there.

The nativist mob moved west along Morgan and Franklin avenues, wrecking more Irish homes, taverns and businesses. They ranged as far west as Seventh Street (today's America's Center). The pro-Benton mayor, John How, tried to restore order with the city's 63 police officers, but only nightfall and exhaustion got the job done.

Violence resumed the next afternoon, when local militia units — men more used to parades than combat — clashed with Irish mobs at present-day Broadway and Lucas Street (near what is now the Missouri Athletic Club). Sporadic street fights continued a third day as How convened an emergency meeting at the (old) courthouse, where citizens disbanded the police and formed a special posse. Late that night, the riot finally spent itself.

Contemporary reports put the toll at 10 dead, at least 30 wounded and 93 Irish dwellings and businesses damaged. The ethnic riot was the city's worst.

Anti-Irish riots, 1854

An 1853 map of St. Louis showing the heavily Irish 5th Ward, the scene of nativist anti-Irish rioting in 1854. Some incidents did spill to the south (left) into the 4th Ward, which also had many Irish residents. The city had six wards during the 1850s, all starting on the riverfront. Rioting began at Second and Morgan streets, on the line dividing the two wards. The intersection is in today's Laclede's Landing, then a neighborhood filled with Irish immigrants who had fled the 1845 potato famine. An Irishman who had stabbed a boy near a polling place fled into a rooming house there, and a nativist mob entered and trashed the place. Irish steamboat-landing workers fought nativists in a pitched battle on Morgan near the site of the damaged rooming house. Battles ranged as far west as Franklin and Eighth streets, now part of the America's Center convention hall. At the bottom (east) or the map is part of Bloody Island, infamous as the place for dueling. Missouri History Museum image

Kennett won the much-disputed election. The Republic trumpeted 5th Ward results favoring Kennett, but the pro-Benton Daily Democrat cried foul. The central-city 3rd Ward, home to the upper class, took Kennett 4-to-1.

The immigrants, however, kept arriving, doubling the city's population to 160,000 by 1860.


Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.