IFAS | Freedom Writer | June 1996 | violence.html

Religious violence -
American style

By Albert J. Menendez

The twelfth of July in 1871 was a day that no New York City resident would soon forget. Violence between Catholics and Protestants resulted in 62 deaths and 100 injuries. The carnage was ignited when Catholics of Irish descent protested the provocative marches of the mostly Irish Protestant and militantly anti-Catholic Orange Order. A riot the year before had left eight dead, and the animosity and antagonism between the groups had intensified. This time, violence seemed inevitable as conflict over the Bible in the public schools exacerbated centuries-old disagreements and bitter memories.

The New York militia was clearly on the Protestant side of the riots. Historian Michael A. Gordon observes, "The militia were responsible for at least 115 of the 162 known casualties."1 Irish Catholic immigrants "suffered the greatest number of deaths and injuries,"2 he wrote. Even after that horror, the press, the judiciary, and the law enforcement establishment justified the police action and blamed Catholics for opposing law and order and Bible-oriented education. America's leading journal of polite opinion, Harper's Weekly, editorialized, "Political Romanism is the chief peril that hangs over our political progress, and Catholics are the bitterest enemies of religious and civil liberty, of education, good order and progress."3

The Orange Riots were by no means the first example of religious violence on American soil. Almost all of the thirteen original colonies maintained established churches, civil preferences for adherents of the preferred sect, legal discrimination against dissenters, and laws restricting the holding of public office either to members of the established church or to Protestants. In no colony could Catholics or Jews hold office or serve on juries, nor could they worship openly except in Rhode Island or Pennsylvania. "Infidels" and "blasphemers" met the same fate.

Occasionally, repression took the ultimate form. In Puritan Massachusetts several Quakers were hanged on Boston Common in October 1659. On the first day of June in 1660, Mary Dyer became a martyr for her Quaker faith as she swung from a gibbet on the green fields of Boston Common. Other Quakers were fined, banished, imprisoned or tortured. Catholic priests were forbidden to enter Massachusetts on pain of death.

In Old Dutch New York in 1741, a fire destroyed a chapel. The Jesuits were promptly blamed, and two individuals suspected of being "professed papists" were executed. One of them, a hapless clergyman named John Ury, was later discovered to have been a High Church Episcopalian and a "non-juror" who had opposed the Glorious Revolution of 1689.

In the next several decades, laws were passed in most colonies to prevent Catholics from educating their children, owning property or firearms, inheriting land, or worshipping openly. Even after the adoption of the U. S. Constitution, conditions improved, but slowly, in many states and local communities.

A rebirth of religious antagonism in the 1830s and 1840s threatened to tear the country apart. Religious agitators convinced large numbers of American Protestants that all Catholics were subversive and would, if not stopped, destroy religious liberty and enslave non-Catholics. Mobs torched Irish-Catholic homes in Boston in 1829 and again in December, 1833, resulting in deaths.

In the 1830s, a wave of salacious literature appeared about nuns and priests, called "the pornography of the Puritans," a phrase coined by historian Richard Hofstadter. Some of it was intended to incite violence and that purpose was often achieved. The books inspired a mob to burn down the Ursuline convent near Charleston, Massachusetts in 1834. Looking for captive girls and proofs of sexual immorality, mobs leveled the convent and would have burned a nearby church had troops not quelled the situation. The perpetrators of the crime were acquitted a year later.

One of the most infamous examples of religious violence in the U.S. came to Philadelphia in 1844. Catholics petitioned the school board to permit Catholic students to read from the Catholic rather than the King James Version of the Bible. Militant Protestants accused Catholics of trying to ban the Bible and the situation turned from rumor to hysteria to eventual mob violence. The city was beset with riots from May through July, and militant nativists threatened to burn down all Catholic churches. By July 8th, twenty people were dead, two Catholic churches and schools and hundreds of homes had been burned to the ground.4

The Bible-reading question in public schools was a continual source of discord, and offers lessons to those who would impose prayer on public school students today. In Maine and Massachusetts, Catholic students were forced to read from the King James Bible and to recite the Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer. If they refused, they were either beaten or expelled. A Maine Supreme Court decision in the Donahue case upheld this policy, which stimulated the growth of Catholic parochial schools. A Maine priest, the Rev. John Bapst, was tarred and feathered and ridden out of the town of Ellsworth on a rail when he tried to change school policies.

For almost a decade religious tempers ran high, and blood flowed in Baltimore and Louisville as a result of Nativist and Know-Nothing fanaticism in the 1850s. John B. Boles describes the horror of election day, August 6, 1855, in Louisville: "Know-Nothing hoodlums patrolled the polls, 'protecting democracy' from peacefully voting foreign-born citizens. Mobs roamed the streets, assaulting German and Irish citizens...When the furor finally subsided, twenty-two lay dead and countless others were wounded."5 Historian Carleton Beals depicts the hysteria gripping the country: "All over the country Catholic churches were stoned, dynamited, burned, wrecked. Crosses were stolen, windows smashed, altars were torn out. After a Catholic church had been destroyed in Maine, a mob broke up a cornerstone ceremony for a new one. Everywhere priests were threatened, spat upon, their robes torn off. Everywhere nuns, because of their reputed immorality, were propositioned grossly on the streets, and the police frequently had to rescue them from assaults...In many places Protestants began bringing court action to secure the release of captive nuns...Bills were introduced in many legislatures to abolish convents."6

Meanwhile, a new religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, became the next target of religious xenophobia. Even the federal government involved itself in the fray.

Joseph Smith, a Vermonter and self-styled religious prophet, founded the Mormon movement in 1830 and quickly won converts in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. They were never free from antagonism toward many of their beliefs and practices, especially polygamy. Smith and several of his followers were arrested by the Illinois governor on charges of destroying a newspaper office in 1844. They were taken to Carthage, Illinois, to await trial, but an irate mob stormed the jail, killing Smith and his brother Hyrum on June 27 of that year. The new religion had its first martyrs. For the next fifty years Mormons had to go it alone. State and federal government authorities were so hostile that in 1890 the church formally abandoned polygamy as a price of acceptance by U.S. authorities. The federal government had even attempted to prevent the immigration of foreign Mormons to the U.S. in an 1879 circular letter sent to American diplomats in Europe.7

In the three decades preceding the turn of the century, enforcement of Sunday closing laws in the South caused scores of Seventh-day Adventists to be jailed, many for plowing their own fields on Sunday, or chopping firewood, or hoeing a strawberry patch. One, Samuel Mitchell, died as a result of a lung infection contracted while in a Georgia jail.8

A tragic incident in Georgia just before the First World War reveals how religious hysteria can pervert the judicial system. Leo Frank, a prosperous, college-educated businessman from the North, was charged with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old factory worker on April 27, 1913. In August of that year a jury found him guilty, though the evidence was grossly circumstantial. The trial judge and nonpartisan observers believed that Frank did not receive a fair trial because of suppressed evidence and deep religious bias on the part of the jury, bias fanned by the prosecuting attorney and the local hate-mongering press led by Tom Watson.

The entrance of Tom Watson into this case was the decisive factor precipitating the ultimate tragedy. Watson was a demagogue, racist, and religious bigot. His Jeffersonian Magazine and Jeffersonian Weekly spewed out hatred of Catholics and Jews. Priests were depicted as lechers, and convents as dens of iniquity. "In issue after issue," wrote Carleton Beals, "he dwelt upon the noses, the sensuous lips, lustful eyes, and other physical features, to prove that Jews were all sexual perverts."9 Investigative journalist Charles P. Sweeny said, "In his long campaign of journalistic frightfulness against Frank and against all Jews at the time, Watson convinced Southerners by the thousands that the Jewish faith condoned and encouraged atrocious crimes against the children of Christians. As a result of Watson's carnival of falsehood against Frank, which led to Frank's legal, and later to his actual, lynching, the belief became widespread in Georgia that one of the Hebraic rituals is the drawing of blood of children and drinking of it by adults. The lives of Jews were unsafe in Atlanta during the height of Watson's campaign.10

Fearing that the state's moderate governor, John Marshall Slaton, would commute Frank's death sentence to life imprisonment, Watson raised up an armed mob of 4,000 ruffians outside the governor's mansion. Governor Slaton was indeed convinced of Frank's in nocence and did commute his sentence in August 1915, after the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Frank's last appeal on May 18, 1915.

Watson stirred up the mobs once again, as he had during the trial when crowds outside the courtroom screamed "Hang the Jew!" and a tent evangelist thundered, "The Jew is the synagogue of Satan!" Only the Georgia militia saved Slaton and his wife from death. Watson's newspaper organized a boycott of all Jewish businesses, urged Georgians to defend "Southern womanhood against rich, depraved, sodomite Jews" and propounded the charming idea that "lynch law is God's law."

Atlanta's 3,500 Jews were terrified. The so-called "Knights of Mary Phagan" (the 14-year-old murder victim) threatened vengeance. Harry Golden describes the terror in the Jewish community when Governor Slaton commuted Frank's sentence on grounds that the court and jury were terrorized by a mob: "By noon, all the Jewish businessmen had closed shop, and on the south side people had sent their colored servants home. Jews locked their homes and in the afternoon began checking into the hotels, the Winecoff, the Kimball House, the Georgia Terrace and the Piedmont. Many Jewish men sent their wives and children to relatives outside the state. Most Atlanta Jews remained in their hotel rooms from Monday night, and when they discuss it among themselves they refer to it as 'crystal night.'"11

On the night of August 16, 1915, a lynch mob went to Milledgeville Prison, overpowered the guards, cut all telephone lines, and seized Leo Frank. They transported Frank to Marietta, near the gravesite of Mary Phagan, where they hanged him from an oak tree. People came from all over to celebrate by digging their heels into the face of the dead man, and, like the vultures they were, by carving up Frank's clothing to take home as "souvenirs." Before the body was cut down, photographers took snapshots of the scene, which were sold in rural Southern drugstores for years. Through his magazine Tom Watson exulted, "the wages of sin is death," and "let Jew libertines take notice."

Several Jewish families left Georgia, and two attempted lynchings were narrowly thwarted by local sheriffs. Tom Watson had done his work well. Harry Golden opines that Watson "made an entire Jewish community feel insecure for the first time in America. The Jews of Atlanta lived with this insecurity and fear for an entire generation...Tom Watson was directly responsible for fomenting the only European-type pogrom against a Jewish community in the history of the United States."12

Governor Slaton was forced to leave Georgia, his political career ended. Tom Watson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1920, only to die of a brain tumor two years later.

In 1916 the religious climate in neighboring Alabama had also turned ugly. A Catholic church and school in Pratt City, near Birmingham, were burned to the ground by night raiders. Father James E. Coyle, pastor of St. Paul's Church in Birmingham, received several death threats. Federal authorities alerted him to the plots, and he was forced to hire armed guards to protect the church sanctuary and rectory.

Anti-Catholic political parties swept the Birmingham municipal elections in 1916 and brought about the firing of all Catholic employees, save for two policemen, and a boycott of all merchants who hired Catholic employees. (Jewish merchants resisted.) Journalist Charles P. Sweeny investigated and reported, "The sign is up. No Catholics are wanted in Birmingham and those now there are desired to leave."13 The boycott was mostly successful. "The efforts to dislodge Catholics from their jobs was carried out systematically and with considerable success...Each employer was visited by a vigilance committee, which demanded dismissal of Catholic workers under penalty of a boycott."14

In 1921 a local itinerant Methodist preacher, E. R. Stephenson, was incensed when his daughter became a Catholic. A gun-toting member of the Ku Klux Klan, he could no longer restrain himself when his daughter married a Catholic of Puerto Rican ancestry in a ceremony performed by Father James Coyle. On the evening of August 11, 1921, the crazed preacher shot and killed the priest on the porch of St. Paul's rectory.

But the real horror was yet to come. During the murder trial the defense admitted Stephenson's guilt, though technically claiming "temporary insanity." It was not that he had committed the murder, but that he had a right to do so.

The Klan was behind the Stephenson defense effort, and they hired Alabama's best trial lawyer, Hugo Black, a Klan member noted for his fiery anti-Catholic lectures. The Klan controlled the defense team and secured lists of potential jurors. Only white Protestant males were selected. Writes Hugo Black's preeminent biographer Roger K. Newman, "The majority of jurors were Klansmen, and the foreman was a field organizer for the Klan. Members in the courtroom used hand gestures to the jury during the trial. The judge, William E. Fort, was a Klan member."15

After Black browbeat witnesses, singling out Catholics for ridicule, and appealing directly to ethnic and religious fears and prejudices, the jury took only one vote and acquitted the itinerant evangelist on the grounds of self-defense. Jurors prayed and read the Bible while deliberating. Newman says Black "gave to Stephenson's defense his professional devotion" because "he disliked the Catholic Church as an institution and treated prosecution witnesses not just as adversaries but virtually as mortal enemies."16 (Black later reversed course and distinguished himself as a great civil libertarian in a long and illustrious career on the U.S. Supreme Court. But he lied about his Klan affiliation in order to win U.S. Senate confirmation.) As might be expected, the verdict had a chilling effect on Catholic life in the Deep South.

Founded on Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1915, the second Ku Klux Klan mounted a decade-long reign of terror against Catholics, Jews, blacks, immigrants, and religious liberals during the 1920s. Gaining power from Maine to Oregon, Klan supporters captured legislatures and governors' chairs, passed laws requiring Bible reading and Protestant religious activities in public schools, fired Catholic school teachers in Atlanta and Ft. Lauderdale, encouraged boycotts of Catholic and Jewish merchants, abolished all private and parochial schools in Oregon, and nearly did so in Michigan, and pressured Congress for bans on immigration. That is, when they were not engaging in acts of blatant terrorism, which were frequent and widespread. The Klan eventually lost power because of internal corruption and the inability of its leaders to govern effectively in areas where they had gained political power.

Depressions and wars tended to reduce religious conflict, though many Jehovah's Witnesses, Mennonites, and Brethren were harassed and abused because of their pacifism during the Second World War.

During the 1950s anti-Semitism revived during the charged and volatile atmosphere surrounding the Civil Rights struggle in the South. Synagogues were set ablaze in a number of Southern cities in 1958. Segregationists firebombed synagogues throughout Mississippi in the 1960s.

The 1970s and 1980s experienced attempts by some religious people usually adherents of majoritarian or popular groups to deprogram dissidents and members of unpopular new religious movements labeled cults.

The past decades have seen a new zealotry surrounding the abortion rights issue. Clear religious motivations permeate the antiabortion movement, and segments of that movement have resorted to murder and terrorism of abortion providers in order to prevent some women from exercising their constitutional rights. Religious fanaticism is alive and well in the United States today, and shows little sign of abating.

It should be emphasized that these frightful events in our history occurred despite the existence of constitutional guarantees and protections, embedded in the First Amendment and Article Six, for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. They took place in the face of state constitutional provisions which in all fifty states protected freedom of expression in religious matters. Thirty one states ban religious tests for public office and 35 states ban religious establishment. Twenty-nine states prohibit required church attendance and 25 states forbid public expenditures on sectarian institutions.

Still, the political culture must be willing to enforce these statutes and provisions or they could become dead letters, more honored in the breach than in the observance. A religiously tolerant culture is still a prerequisite for religious peace and harmony and for the equality of all citizens irrespective of their religious opinions.

We are told by Ben Wattenberg and others that "values matter most." Indeed they do. And clearly it is evident that a truly civilized society must embrace religious tolerance and equality as supreme values. A pluralistic, libertarian culture is an additional guarantee that will make constitutional protections and loudly proclaimed ideals a living reality for the citizenry of today and for their posterity.

In a world filled with the darkness of religious strife, this is one lamp that surely must be kept lit.

Albert J. Menendez is the author of Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach and many other books relating to church-state separation.


1 Michael A. Gordon, The Orange Riots (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 141.
2 Gordon, p. 137.
3 Harper's Weekly, September 4, 1875.
4 See Michael Feldberg, The Philadelphia Riots of 1844 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975).
5 John B. Boles, Religion in Antebellum Kentucky (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1976), p. 78.
6 Carleton Beals, Brass Knuckle Crusade (New York: Hastings House, 1960), pp. 126, 127.
7 Leo Pfeffer. Church, State, and Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), p. 649.
8 American State Papers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1949), p. 488.
9 Beals, op. cit. p. 298.
10 Charles P. Sweeny, "Bigotry in the South." The Nation, November 24, 1920, pp. 585, 586.
11 Harry Golden, A Little Girl Is Dead. (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1965), pp. 275, 276.
12 Ibid., pp. 215, 216.
13 "Bigotry Turns to Murder," The Nation, August 31, 1921, pp. 323, 233.
14 Sweeny, op. cit., p. 586.
15 Roger K. Newman, Hugo Black. (New York: Pantheon, 1994), p. 86.
16 Newman, p. 87.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.