Because the Catholics were clearly the aggressors in the fracas, they were vilified by a highly nativist public and press. Behind this anger over the riot, however, lay a growing fear over the growth in Irish Catholic political power in the city. One year later the city was again thrown into turmoil when the Orange Order announced plans to stage another march.
Boss William Tweed, head of the Tammany Hall political machine, had reached the pinnacle of his power in 1870-1871. While he was not Irish, many of his key lieutenants were and Tammany as a whole depended on the Irish vote for its power. City government under Tweed was spending vast sums of money on construction projects ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge to a new courthouse. Rumors and accusations abounded that Tweed and his henchmen were skimming millions of dollars from them. Even more alarming to Tweed’s critics, the boss had authorized $1.5 million to support Catholic parochial schools and charities, as clear a sign as any to the nativists that a secret Catholic plot was afoot. Irish Catholic power, it seemed, threatened not only the city treasury but republican government itself.
Eleven months after the July 1870 riot, the city’s Orange Order announced their intention to march again on July 12. That date, as noted last week, was the anniversary of the Protestant victory over Catholic forces in 1690 that led to the Penal laws and the complete subjugation of Ireland’s Catholic population. It was also the one-year anniversary of the last Orange Order parade that left eight dead. Clearly, the Orange Order and their sympathizers sought to send a message to the upstart Catholics.
Many Irish Catholics were outraged by the announcement and they called upon city officials to prevent the march. The Orangemen, they charged, had used abusive language and sang taunting, anti-Catholic songs in the 1870 parade. No group, they argued, had the right to instigate violence by provoking another group. On July 10, two days before the parade, Irish political clout carried the day as Police Superintendent James Kelso denied the Orangemen a permit to parade. Irish Catholic leaders, from Fenian nationalists to Archbishop John McCloskey, were thrilled by the decision.
Elite New Yorkers, however, were not. They viewed the parade as an opportunity to reassert their power and to put the ascendant Catholics in their place – especially after last year’s bloodshed. They signed petitions and lobbied state officials and the governor, John Hoffman. Most of the city’s newspapers, reflecting elite opinion, denounced Kelso’s decision. “City Authorities Overawed by the Roman Catholics,” thundered a banner headline in the New York Times.
On July 11th, Hoffman arrived in the city to meet with Tweed and Tammany Mayor A. Oakley Hall. Fearing the political damage likely to occur if the parade were prohibited, Hoffman wanted to reverse Kelso’s order. Tweed agreed to the reversal because he, too, had reason to fear the political wrath of New York’s power elite. The first significant revelations about a stupendous corruption network in Tammany-run government had just become public and Tweed did not want to provide his enemies with additional ammunition.
Following the meeting, Hoffman announced that he’d reversed Kelso’s decision and the Orange march would occur the next day. To ensure public safety, he would send several thousand soldiers from the state militia to escort the marchers along the parade route. Catholic New Yorkers were stunned and furious by the last-minute turnaround, but there was little they could do except to mobilize a mass turnout to jeer and shout down the parade.
The next day, July 12, tension filled the hot, humid air as a small contingent of Orangemen gathered at West 29th Street and Eighth Ave. At 2:00 pm the parade stepped off, intending to proceed down Eighth Avenue for a few blocks, then Fifth Avenue to Cooper Union. It was, to say the least, a bizarre sight. Fewer than 100 Orangemen were surrounded by several thousand fully armed state militiamen. State officials were careful to select regiments that would not be sympathetic to the angry Catholic crowds. The mostly Irish Catholic Sixty-Ninth Regiment, for example, was confined to its barracks.
Violence broke out immediately. Thousands of angry Irish Catholics lined both sides of Eighth Avenue. “Give them hell, the infernal Englishmen!” went up the cry and stones, bricks, bottles and rotten food rained down on the Orangemen. Shots rang out from the sidelines and a few soldiers fired into the crowd. Policemen and soldiers attacked the crowd with clubs and rifle butts, trying to clear a path for the parade to proceed. At one point an enraged Irish woman burst through the phalanx and tore the regalia off an Orangeman. More stones and projectiles rained down and more shots were exchanged. When two militiamen were hit with bullets at 24th Street, their comrades panicked and unleashed repeated volleys of rifle fire into the crowd. The scene disintegrated into utter chaos as scores of bystanders were hit by bullets and the rest stampeded to safety.
Incredibly, the parade kept going with soldiers and police doing battle with hostile crowds for most of the way. The only respite for the marchers came, not surprisingly, when the procession turned onto Fifth Avenue where crowds of upper class New Yorkers cheered them. They made it to Cooper Union by 4:00 pm and went home.
Back at 24th Street lay a scene of battlefield carnage. Nearly two hundred bystanders had been shot and the sidewalks and street were covered in bodies and blood. Within days the death toll surpassed sixty. Most of the victims were Irish Catholics. Also killed were three militiamen, quite likely shot by the wild firing of their fellow soldiers. Only one Orangeman sustained injury. It was, in the words of Irish World editor Patrick Ford, a “Slaughter on Eighth Avenue.”
Irish Catholics denounced the senseless butchery and turned out in the tens of thousands for the many enormous funeral processions that followed. But among the city’s power elite the mood was decidedly different. They blamed the Irish and their Democratic backers for the violence. One of them, a banker and Police Commissioner, expressed disappointment that so few had been killed. “Had one thousand rioters been killed,” he explained, “it would have had the effect of completely cowing the remainder.”
For Irish New Yorkers, the worst was yet to come. For Boss Tweed, the man many considered their protector and provider, would soon fall from power. Ten days after the bloody parade, the New York Times began publishing a Watergate-like series of exposes regarding Tammany Hall and rampant corruption within city government. Energized by the bloody parades, elite New Yorkers seized the opportunity to demolish Tweed’s Irish-dominated machine and reassert their power. Yet they would find after a few short years that Irish political power had merely been checked by these events, not defeated. By the late 1870s Tammany Hall was back in power where it would remain until the 1930s.
Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
July 13, 1896: Philadelphia’s Ed Delahanty becomes the second major league baseball player to hit four home runs in a single game.
July 13, 1960: Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts receives the Democratic Party’s nomination for president at the convention in Los Angeles.
July 14, 1921: Eamon de Valera meets with British Prime minister Lloyd George following a truce in the Irish War for Independence.
July 13, 1818: Hugh O’Brien, first Irish mayor of Boston is born in Maguiresbridge, County Fermanagh.
July 15, 1899: Taoiseach Sean Lemass is born in Ballybrack, County Dublin
July 18, 1874: Revolutionary Cathal Brugha is born in Dublin.