The Catholic Irish as depicted in Harper’s Weekly
And so it was July 12, 1871 – Boyne Day – and the Orange Order of Irish Protestants marched down Broadway, surrounded by 1,000 New York City Police and five regiments of New York militia. The sidewalks and buildings held tens of thousands of Irish Catholics determined to see to it that that Orange Order did not march in peace.
By sunset, two policemen, three militia men and sixty two civilians lay dead between 24th and 25th streets on 8th avenue.
The crowd had fled in all directions when the militia and police started shooting and then, reported the Times, in one of the most egregious acts of bad taste in New York’s history, the band struck up “a lively tripping quickstep” and the Orangemen marched away “leaving the dead still on the street.”
The scene on the street was one of gore and horror, leaving grown men aghast. Between 24th and 25th street one had to pick his way through the bodies, “the street clotted with gore and pieces of brain.”
The Irish World called it the “slaughter on 8th Avenue.”
The mainstream New York press, which viewed the carnage in the context of the draft riots of 1863, called the outcome a victory over mob rule.
“Excelsior! Law Triumphs! Order Reigns! trumpeted the Herald. The Times called the result “a noble vindication of the might of popular will and of the Justice which lives in the un-perverted instincts of a free people.” Each brushed aside the frightful death toll and the soldiers failure to warn the rioters to disperse before firing, as was typical in instances of urban unrest.
The Tribune argued that this “unfortunate blunder…had one happy effect of cowing and crushing the rioters, saving the city from greater bloodshed.”
Harper’s weekly cartoon merely stated Bravo! Bravo!
Of course Irish Catholics viewed the outcome completely differently.
“We demand justice” cried the Irish American. A shower of rocks and even bricks does not justify over 60 fatalities. “Murder has been done by wholesale and the murders must be traced and punished.”
Much of the blame, argued the Irish American, lay with nativists and those at Harper’s Weekly, whose stereotyping of the Irish (mostly by Thomas Nast) made it possible for troops to fire indiscriminately as if Irish lives did not matter.
Think of it without the hash tag: Irish lives matter!
Harper’s regularly depicted the Irish as animals rather than human beings.
“Though oppressed, our people are not low; though wronged we are not guilty – though pictured with gorilla faces and misshapen forms by base bigots, we are men! Irishmen, having free souls and spirit sufficient to work for freedom for our loved lnad.”
The riots did lead both Irish immigrants and native born New Yorkers to one shared conclusion – and they turned their wrath on William Tweed – “Boss Tweed” – the leader of Tammany Hall and the New York Democratic machine.
William “Boss” Tweed
Tweed and Tammany Hall played a major role in the politics of 19th century New York City and State. At the height of his influence, Tweed was the third-largest landowner in New York City, a director of the Erie Railroad, a director of the Tenth National Bank, a director of the New-York Printing Company, proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, a significant stockholder in iron mines and gas companies, a board member of the Harlem Gas Light Company, a board member of the Third Avenue Railway Company, a board member of the Brooklyn Bridge Company, and the president of the Guardian Savings Bank.
Tweed’s greatest influence however came from being an appointed member of a number of boards and commissions, his control over political patronage in New York City through Tammany, and his ability to ensure the loyalty of voters through jobs he could create and dispense on city-related projects.
Tweed was not Irish but Scottish, born in New York. And in the age of patronage, he gave the Irish jobs on city projects in return for their votes. Nothing happened in New York without Tweed’s support. If you were a real estate developer and wanted the street in front of your property improved you went to Boss Tweed and paid your bribe. Irishmen would do the work in exchange for their votes on election day. If you didn’t vote for Tweed and work for his candidates, you didn’t work again on a plum city job.
But the Irish were furious that Tammany was doing nothing to punish those responsible for the carnage on 8th Avenue. “Not one man, of all those we have put into office by our votes and influence, appears to have the pluck to come forward and demand that there shall be a full and fair investigation.”
Native born New Yorkers, in contrast saw the riots as a direct result of Tweed’s venality. “These frightful scenes will not cease until that corrupt party which depends for its existence upon the votes of the ignorant and vicious, loses its tyrannical control of our public life” declared the Tribune.
The Times went even further, calling the Irish “dupes” of Tammany imploring the Irish to free themselves from Tweed. “The ax is already laid at the root of the tree and it needs a persistent series of strong and well directed blows to send it home.”
Thomas Nast began devoting virtually all his work to Tweed, depicting him and his simian Irish cronies as bloated vultures, devouring the city’s taxpayers or drinking champagne. Readers nation-wide began to await his latest cartoon skewering Tweed and the Irish.
Tweed as a money bag
Meanwhile, Irish associated with Tweed and Tammany began coming forward with hard evidence. As evidence of theft and corruption mounted, Tweed tried to buy the Times to silence it but was thwarted by wealthy New Yorkers who acquired the shares instead.
Tweed tried to buy off Nast, offering him $100,000 to take a “sabbatical in Europe.” Nast negotiated it up to half a million dollars (equivalent to ten million dollars today) before rejecting it.
On July 22, 1871 the Times published ledgers obtained from Tweed Irish informants – it was a journalistic bombshell, equivalent in its day to the Pentagon Papers exactly one hundred years later.
Amid the unrelenting headlines, Tweed was arrested and indicted for fraud, found guilty and sentenced. An appeals court ruled the sentence was in excess of the law for the crimes committed and he was relased. He was immediately re-arrested on other charges and returned to prison – from where he escaped to Florida, then to Cuba.
He was boarding a vessel for Spain when he was detained and returned to New York where he died in prison awaiting a second trial.
Samuel Tilden, Chief Prosecutor of Tweed
The Chief Prosecutor against Tweed was Samuel Tilden, who would come within one Electoral vote of being elected President of the United States.
Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate would defeat him by offering southern electors the removal of all Federal troops occupying the south. The southern electors voted for the Republican candidate rather than the popular vote winner in their own states.
It was the first time the winner of the popular vote would not become President. It would not be the last. It has happened twice in the past 20 years.
Tilden’s defeat opened the door to the Jim Crow south and segregation for the next hundred years.
William Russell Grace, the first Irish Catholic Mayor of New York
Back in New York, the first Irish Catholic Mayor of the city, William Russell Grace, was elected in 1880.
Born in Ireland to a well-to-do family, William and his father, James Grace, traveled to Peru in 1851, seeking to establish an Irish agricultural community. James returned home but William remained, where he began work with the firm of John Bryce and Co., as a ship chandler.
In 1854, the company was renamed Bryce, Grace & Company, in 1865, to Grace Brothers & Co., and then W. R. Grace and Company. It would become the dominant shipping company between North and South America.
Grace married while in Peru to Lillius Gilchrist, the daughter of a prominent Maine ship builder.and relocated with his new wife to New York.
Opposing the Tammany Hall candidate, Grace was elected as the first Irish American Catholic mayor of New York City. He conducted a reform administration attacking police scandals, patronage and organized vice; reduced the tax rate and set up a modern civil service system in place of patronage politics.
Grace would become a renowned philanthropist and humanitarian, at one point contributing a quarter of the aid delivered to Ireland aboard the steamship Constellation during the Irish Famine of 1879. In 1897, he and his brother, Michael, founded the Grace Institute for the education of women, especially immigrants.
During his second term as Mayor he would gratefully accept the Statue of Liberty from France for New York.