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When the Know Nothings Menaced Maine

A secret order of bigoted super-patriots terrorized Catholics in the 1850s and forged the template for Trumpism

by | Apr 11, 2021

A Know Nothing flag. image/via Wikipedia Commons

The roots of the immigration debate in the United States today can be traced back 200 years, to the heyday of the Second Great Awakening. This Protestant movement, fueled by fiery sermons delivered to crowds at revival meetings, pushed the faithful to apply their personal religious beliefs in public life, through politics and activism. The idea was to clean up all the evil in society before Jesus showed up again — an event they believed was at hand.

Most of the social campaigns spawned by the Awakening were laudable, like the empowerment of women, abolition of slavery, prison reform, and care for the ill and disabled. But this dawning had a dark side: a deep suspicion and hatred of the Catholic Church and its ways of worship, derided back then as “Popery.” This animosity was extended to Catholic immigrants and refugees, who were mostly from Ireland and Germany in those days.

In Maine, the sectarian bigotry was worsened by the push for another Great Awakening social cause: temperance. Portland Mayor Neal Dow was leading the crusade to make Maine the first state in the nation to abolish booze. The “whiskey-drinking” Irish and “beer-loving” Germans were demonized before passage, in 1851, of what became known as “the Maine Law,” and for years afterward, as other states took up the cause.

Immigration wasn’t a hot political issue until the 1830s. The number of newcomers quadrupled during that decade, growing from fewer than 150,000 in the 1820s to nearly 600,000. A conspiracy theory gained traction that imagined a papal plot to overthrow the young nation by flooding it with Catholic immigrants. Among the loudest proponents of this fiction was one of the “tech giants” of the day: Samuel Morse, co-inventor of the telegraph and the code that bears his name.

In a series of articles published by The New York Observer in 1834 — later reprinted in a bestseller titled A Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States — Morse sounded the alarm about the Irish invasion. “Up! Up! I beseech you! Awake! To your posts! Let the tocsin sound from Maine to Louisiana. Fly to protect the vulnerable places of your Constitution and laws. Place your guards … shut your gates!”

The alarm bells had already been clanging in Maine. In 1833, Yankee sailors and fishermen, allegedly addled by bad booze, trashed Irish businesses and homes in Bangor. And in September of 1835, tensions spilled over into a riot in Stillwater, outside Orono, after an Irishman got the best of a Yankee in a fist fight.

The day following the fisticuffs, “hand-bills were posted up directing the rioters to an island [in the Penobscot River] where the Irish lived,” a local newspaper reported. “About two hundred men then proceeded to the scene of destruction, making the most horrid out-cries, and uttering fearful imprecations on their victims.” Irish families fled into the woods as the mob destroyed their homes.

Concerned citizens condemned the attack and adopted resolutions intended to prevent future depredations. “We sincerely trust we shall not again have to record the perpetration of similar disturbances in this section of the country,” a Bangor newspaper opined.

At the heart of the immigration debate was a question the country is still asking itself: Are we a nation that welcomes newcomers or must we defend ourselves against them?  

In 1844, a Portland newspaper declared, “It is high time that a check were put to the impudence of foreigners. The work-houses and pest-holes of Europe boil over, and the scum is driven to the shores of America. Must we receive such materials into our arms to be stung and destroyed by them? Many American citizens have become so much incensed at the course pursued by foreigners, that they have resolved never to give them employment.”

Another Portland paper, the Eastern Argus, wrote of those who held such views: “The very Republic whose foundations were laid by refugees from old-world oppression, they would have [it] shut its gates and deny its privileges to all who, like their fathers, preferring freedom to tyranny, might wish to exchange the monarchy under which they were born, for an American home, and Republican Institutions. The only asylum of free opinions and religious toleration on earth, they would have converted into an abode of bigotry and nursery of intolerance. Fortunately for America, and happily for the victims of despotism every where, their attempt has failed, and their meditated treason has been rebuked and crushed.”

That counter-argument was published in 1845, the first year of the Irish Potato Famine, which turned a steady stream of immigrants into a torrent of refugees fleeing hunger in their homeland. During the decade that followed, over a million Germans also arrived, escaping economic hardship and the political violence that erupted there in the late 1840s.

Beneath the public demonization and ridicule of newcomers, countless clandestine actions were undertaken by scores of secret societies organized to stop the spread of Catholicism. Among the most widespread of these was the Order of United Americans, which formed in New York in 1844 and had an active Portland chapter that comprised some of the city’s most powerful people: judges, bosses, cops, ship captains and newspaper editors.

John Mead Gould, who went on to earn fame as a Civil War hero, donated this secret order’s 1854 membership list to the Maine Historical Society. He’d added some colorful comments next to the names: J.H. Willey (“probably the man afterward on the police. Very strong and a great hater of the Irish”), James Todd (“son of his father. Loafer all thru life”), Edward M. Patten (“Auctioneer, rioter, dare devil, Captain of the Rifles”).

Nearly all of these shadowy anti-Catholic groups soon faded into obscurity, their cause eclipsed by the Civil War. But one secret order managed to make, and change, history: the Know Nothings.

In the early 1850s, the Know Nothings — originally called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner — emerged from the shadows to become the first significant third party in U.S. politics. A rough tally published in 2017 by Smithsonian Magazine lists their electoral victories: “more than 100” members of Congress, “eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians.”

It’s hard to get a definitive count of Know Nothings in office, because in its early years members of the order ran as Democrats and Whigs, and only after an election might the winner be revealed to be a Know Nothing. “[T]hese tactics wreaked havoc among the parties, as Whigs and Democrats scrambled to find the hidden Know Nothings in their ranks,” Michael Todd Landis wrote in a 2018 piece for Zócalo Public Square.

Dow, for example, was a Know Nothing, but he campaigned as a Whig, becoming Mayor of Portland in 1851. When Dow lost his reelection bid the following year — despite the clandestine support of local Know Nothings and the fact his party controlled the voter rolls — he blamed his defeat on illegal voting by Irish immigrants.

Know Nothing politicians backed Great Awakening causes like temperance and abolition, but the secret order drew all its energy from ethnic and religious hatred. Its objectives, the Portland Daily Advertiser reported in 1854, are “part religious, part political”: “the disenfranchisement of adopted citizens and their exclusion from office, and perpetual war upon the Catholic religion.”

In Maine, this war got bloody. Know Nothings went on a domestic terror spree that lasted several years. Members of the order, abetted by Mainers caught up in the hysteria they created, burned three churches to the ground and desecrated numerous others, blew up a Catholic schoolhouse, terrorized immigrant communities and assaulted Catholics on the streets.

As happened in Orono in 1835, many Mainers stood up for their new neighbors and denounced the violence. The Know Nothings soon followed the Whigs into the political graveyard, and the then-ascendant Republican Party attracted many of their members by virtue of its strong opposition to slavery.

The specific tactics of the Know Nothings are artifacts of the past, but key elements of their strategy are potent forces in contemporary U.S. politics: hyper-patriotism mixed with religious fervor, the demonization of immigrants and refugees based on religion and ethnicity, an obsession with secrecy and conspiracy theories, vigilante violence and mob actions instigated by clownish charlatans.

In Maine and elsewhere, the Know Nothings lost their anti-Catholic crusade, but their politics of intolerance is stronger than ever, and may yet win the day.

Son of Sam: The Know Nothings’ conception of Uncle Sam’s son.

“Seeing Sam” 

Since the emergence of xenophobic politics in the U.S., opponents of immigration were labeled nativists, and they embraced the term, adopting monikers like the Native American Party. They did so without irony or reference to the fact that the actual native inhabitants were, at that time, still actively being dispossessed of their land by foreign occupiers under threat of deadly violence.

The Know Nothings went further. They called their meeting places “wigwams.” Higher-ups in the order adopted the titles of “sachem” and “chief.” The Advertiser reported in 1854 that prospective members “must be a native-born citizen, of native-born parents, and not of the Catholic religion.”

Members of the secret society pledged to “renounce all previously entertained political leanings, and co-operate exclusively with the new order,” the Portland paper reported. They were forbidden to have “political, civil [or] religious intercourse” with any Catholic, and pledged to strip Catholics of all political power by denying them the right to vote, preventing them from winning elections, and removing them from any government jobs they held.

The Advertiser’s account reveals a host of other, decidedly more amusing details about Know Nothings. For example, to gain entrance to a meeting, an applicant “raps at the outer door an indefinite number of times, asking at the close, in a low, whispering voice, ‘What meets here today?’ … The interrogated immediately replies, ‘I don’t know.’ To which the applicant for admission responds ‘I am one,’ and forthwith is admitted to a second door, at which he gives four distinct raps.” When this door is opened, the applicant “whispers to his attendant, ‘Thirteen,’ and then advances into the body of the lodge.”

“If a member requires the assistance of a brother when mixing promiscuously with the public,” the Advertiser wrote, “he places the right forefinger upon the left eyebrow, as if in the act of scratching, looking directly at the person whose attention he desires to attract.” If that person was a Know Nothing, “he is bound to respond immediately with a similar sign.”

The Know Nothings had a secret handshake, too. Upon feeling the telltale pressure applied to the designated part of his hand by a stranger’s middle finger, a Know Nothing would ask, “Where did you get that?” The proper response was “I don’t know,” to which the fellow Know Nothing would reply, “I don’t know either.”

“Nothing concerning the association is to be committed to writing or published,” the Advertiser reported. Accordingly, when leaders of a lodge wished to hold an unscheduled meeting, they notified members by “scattering small square pieces of white paper over the [sidewalks] and public thoroughfares, and by nailing them to a post, or other places accessible to the public.”

Writing in the 1970s, Maine historian Allan Whitmore described “a mysterious character known as ‘Sam,’” who served as the symbol of the organization when it was the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Sam was said to be the son of Uncle Sam.

“The sound of Sam’s voice was fearsome indeed. … Sam trod without echo, but political demagogues and party hacks considered him as terrible as ‘an army without banners,’” Whitmore wrote, quoting Congressman Kenneth Rayner, a Whig from North Carolina. “Although he was not a magician, the touch of Sam’s wand … caused ‘the mask to drop from the face of hypocrisy and exposed the deformity of selfishness and partisan bigotry.’”

Sam’s mission was to “visit every city, town and hamlet in the land,” Congressman Rayner declared. “He is equally at home in the mansion of the great and the cottage of the lowly. … His march is ever onward. He passes rivers at a bound, scales mountains at a leap, and through swamp and forest he never loses his way. He never stops, except to drop a tear upon the grave of some revolutionary hero, for his heart is as tender, as his nerves are strong. … Chattering demagogues grow dumb at his approach, and bishops’ miter and Jesuits’ robe fall from the head of pampered insolence and skulking knavery at his touch.”

Another account notes a Know Nothing initiation rite called “Seeing Sam,” a hazing ritual by which the applicant was forced to walk between rows of members who assaulted him as he made his way down the line. The Know Nothings were a fraternal organization — no women allowed.

During its first few years, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner attracted only a few dozen members in New York. Its chapters, called “twigs,” grew substantially after a wealthy New York City businessman named James W. Barker took over its leadership in the spring of 1852. “After Democrat Franklin Pierce’s narrow victory in the presidential election that autumn [of 1852] was attributed to foreign voters, many frustrated Whigs rallied to the growing nativist ranks,” Whitmore wrote.

New twigs sprouted across the country, gathering the support of voters angered by the distasteful deals struck by Democrats and Whigs to preserve the Union against the stresses of slavery, such as the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. “The Know Nothings came out of what seemed to be a vacuum,” University of Cincinnati history professor Christopher Phillips told Smithsonian. “It’s the failing Whig party and the faltering Democratic party and their inability to articulate, to the satisfaction of the great percentage of their electorate, answers to the problems that were associated with everyday life.”

Anti-Catholic sentiment was strong in big cities, like New York, where Irish and German immigrants settled en masse in ethnic neighborhoods and competed more directly for work. But the Know Nothing movement was also popular in rural areas, like most of Maine, where the nativists’ oft-repeated charge that foreigners were stealing jobs was not apparent to the workers themselves.

As the eminent Maine labor historian Charles Scontras pointed out in Collective Efforts Among Maine Workers: Beginnings and Foundations, 1820-1880, Catholic newcomers were not a challenge to the existing labor force, “since they were often recruited to fill a void in the labor supply.” For example, the job of maid or nanny in a Protestant household was considered beneath the dignity of most fellow Protestants; newly arrived Irishwomen readily met the need.

“In view of the fact that the Irish did not economically threaten the skilled mechanics that could be found in the [Know Nothing] movement, or even the general laborers, sailors (who were particularly enthusiastic in their nativism), or the numerous farmers in the movement, it appears that the fundamental opposition to the Irish was social and cultural in nature,” Scontras wrote.

In a study titled “Political Nativism in New York State,” written in 1901, Louis Dow Scisco explained the movement’s appeal in rural areas. “It was the peculiar secret character of the Know-Nothing Order which proved a magnet for country voters,” Scisco wrote. “The idea of secret politics was a novelty, and human nature was responsive to novelty. The mysterious manner of the Order’s workings, the dramatic successes that it won, the patriotic professions that surrounded its efforts all combined to throw about the organization an irresistible attraction.”

“There were also some less serious aspects of the nativist movement which appealed to voters,” Scisco observed. “The American idea of humor was pleased by the chagrin which the secret order brought to the practiced politicians of the older parties. … To many the Know-Nothing movement was a huge joke upon the community, harmless because thoroughly American, and useful because it broke up old cliques and promised the voter greater share in making nominations.”

Problem was, in cities and towns all over Maine, the Know Nothings’ reign of terror was no laughing matter.


Don’t Feed the Trolls

“The gentlemen are becoming quite outrageous,” Catholic newspaper The Boston Pilot wrote of Know Nothings in the summer of 1854. “We laugh at them and let them go. This does not suit the know nothing gentlemen, so they have betaken themselves to blowing up churches and schoolhouses.”

“You, Catholics, have only to let the know-nothing papers and speakers alone, and to laugh at them,” the Pilot advised. “Opposition will give them life, and neglect will destroy them.”

In Portland — “a veritable hotbed of anti-Catholicism,” according to one Catholic historian — Father John O’Donnell, the 35-year-old pastor of St. Dominic’s Church, tried to debunk some wild rumors that year by taking a lighthearted tone in a letter to the State of Maine newspaper.

“I was somewhat amused when informed the Catholics of the city had covertly, at midnight, conveyed to the cells of the church several hundred guns and muskets, which they purposed using in a sudden and preconcerted attack on their Protestant fellow citizens,” Father O’Donnell wrote.

According to another rumor, O’Donnell had recently returned from Boston with boxes full of poison. Irish housemaids, communicating using Latin code words, were preparing to poison their Protestant employers. “Some of our good ladies believed the slander and denied themselves during several days the luxury of tea,” the priest dryly observed.

But O’Donnell also called out the secret societies whose “avowed purpose” was “persecuting Irishman.” “Telegraph reports, grave newspaper articles, and fanatical lectures are posted in public places, read in stores and counting rooms, scattered through work-shops, particularly where the Irish are numerous, [used] by pious Grocers to wrap up their commodities” he wrote. “Such are a few means employed to arouse the bad passions of citizen against citizen.”

A Protestant who’d merely stopped to chat with O’Donnell on the street had been ostracized. The priest wondered how, “in this age of freedom of speech and enlightenment,” it could be “treason for a Protestant to speak to an Irishman or Catholic.”

Having thus “fed the trolls,” as we’d say today, the trolls set upon the young holy man. For months after his letter was published, Father O’Donnell didn’t feel safe walking the streets of Portland after dark. Twice, he said, he was stoned by young men, and he was hissed at and “insulted with vile language” by children, much to the delight of Protestant adults nearby. The windows of St. Dominic’s were smashed, door panels were destroyed, horse manure was spread across the entryway, and a large stone was thrown through the priest’s bedroom window one night.

Acts of vandalism and street violence were often precipitated by the appearance of traveling Protestant street preachers. One such character showed up in Portland a couple months after O’Donnell’s letter was published.

His name was John Sayers Orr. Whitmore described him as “a short, black-bearded, long-haired, fifty-two-year-old, British-[Guiana]-born, Scotland-reared-quadroon fanatic.” His nickname was “‘the Angel Gabriel,’ because he characteristically appeared in public carrying a six-foot staff topped by British and American flags and blowing bursts on a silver bugle to summon listeners.

“On top of his cone-shaped hat appeared the figure of an American eagle, which in turn was surmounted by a lion and a unicorn,” Whitmore continued. Three ribbons hanging from the hat read: “Rule Britannia,” “Hail Columbia” (an early name for the United States) and “To Hell with the Pope!”

“Wherever he went, the Angel Gabriel attracted large crowds of nativist supporters, angry Catholics, and merely curious spectators,” wrote Whitmore. “When whipped up by Gabriel … anti-Catholic bands went on to attack churches, vandalize Irish neighborhoods, and beat up immigrant Irishmen.”

A 19th century depiction of John Sayers Orr.

On July 6, 1854, another street preacher was riling up anti-Catholic anger in Bath. The crowd around him — still celebrating the Fourth of July, many still drunk — became angry when a carriage drove through their midst. No one knew who was inside the carriage, but when it drove through a second time, prompting some to complain they couldn’t hear the preacher, the crowd turned into a mob.

“Adjourn to the Old South!” someone yelled, referring to a former Congregationalist church that local Catholics had been renting to celebrate Mass. The mob, about 500 strong, vandalized the church, hoisted an American flag from its belfry, then put it to the torch. Policemen and firemen soon arrived, but stood by and watched the church burn to ashes. The mob had moved on, trashing the homes of Irish residents in town along the way.

The destruction continued the following night. Oliver Moses, a Yankee alderman, stopped rioters from burning a home he owned in which an Irish family was living. The mayor finally called upon the local militia and deputized 100 residents as special policemen. The mob scattered.

In October of 1854, Father O’Donnell turned to the mayor of Portland for help. The mayor agreed to post a watchman, on the city’s payroll, outside St. Dominic’s to deter further attacks. But again, there were parallel plots being hatched in secret to undermine the Catholics.

In a letter published by the State of Maine that October, O’Donnell wrote of a large, secret society “bound by a solemn oath that the second Catholic Church shall never be built in Portland.” The priest had already purchased the parcel at the foot of Munjoy Hill that would become the site of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception a few years later. When O’Donnell hired a workman to get a cost estimate for a small building his church could use in the meantime, “the workman was privately warned against trying to go forward with such a project,” Whitmore wrote.

We now know Portland’s Know Nothings would meet at their headquarters inside Union Hall, a concert and event venue on Congress Street (where Springer’s Jewelers is now located). Their leader was J.B. Thorndike, president of the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association, and their chaplain was the Rev. Benjamin Peck, a Baptist clergyman.

A missionary man in Maine: John Bapst.

The Attack on John Bapst 

To the Know Nothings in Maine, Public Enemy No. 1 was a Swiss Jesuit named Johannes “John” Bapst, whose open challenge to their growing influence nearly cost him his life.

In 1854, when Bapst was 38, a Portland newspaper described him as “a man of small stature, of frail constitution.” But the missionary priest must have been much tougher than that.

Father Bapst crossed the Atlantic in 1848, arrived in New York, and was promptly sent north to pastor (and expand) the flock at the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation, in Old Town. In 1851, he was assigned to the Eastport mission, which encompassed over 30 towns or stations spread as far north as Houlton and west to Skowhegan. Traversing that territory half a century before real roads, in Maine’s weather, required a strong constitution and an even stronger faith.

Initially, the Jesuit’s mission went well. Bapst won over an impressive number of converts and won praise from Protestants in Waterville and Skowhegan when he brought Catholics to the temperance crusade. Protestants in Waterville even offered to help build a church for Bapst and his communicants. In January of 1853, he was appointed the resident pastor of Ellsworth, a town of 4,000 souls in 1850, about 400 of them Irish-born. That’s where the trouble began.

In January of 1854, a nativist gang was formed in Ellsworth called the Cast Iron Band. Its leader was William H. Chaney, the editor of the Ellsworth Herald (now the Ellsworth American) and a Know Nothing.

Here and elsewhere in the nation, controversy was brewing over calls to allow Catholic students to read their version of the Bible (the Douay-Rheims translation) in public schools. A large group of Catholic parents in Ellsworth, led by Father Bapst, petitioned the school committee on this point. They stressed that they weren’t trying to prevent Protestant kids from reading the King James version, as opponents claimed; only to allow their kids to read their preferred holy book.

The committee turned them down, and didn’t do so politely. According to Bapst, they said, “We are determined to protestantize the Catholic children; they shall read the Protestant Bible or be dismissed from the schools; and should we find them around the wharves, we will clap them into jail.”

Several Catholic students had already been expelled from school for alleged unruly behavior, so Father Bapst opened a Catholic school in the old Catholic chapel in town. Contrary to rumors, he did not seek or receive public money from the town to establish the school. But that hardly mattered. The parents challenged the school committee’s decision before the Maine Supreme Court, and Chaney went berserk, in print and otherwise, riling up his followers as tensions in the town rose in tandem with the Herald’s readership.

The issue of Bibles in schools could have been peaceably settled, Father William Lucey wrote in The Catholic Church In Maine, “had not the editor of the Herald aroused the fears and prejudices of the native Americans against Catholics and Bapst to such a pitch that the leadership of the saner element was neutralized until the mob mentality controlled the course of events.”

Chaney’s paper published an ominous notice: “1000 MEN WANTED. To Protestant laborers everywhere, we say, Come to Ellsworth and come quickly! For your services may yet be needed in more ways than one!”

Whitmore reports that Chaney’s Cast Iron Band “nightly marched through Irish neighborhoods to terrorize individuals” and throw rocks at Irish shanties that summer. In June, members of the gang, garbed in white with dark belts, went to Father Bapst’s rectory and demanded to speak to him. His housekeeper said the priest was away visiting a sick parishioner. Before they left, gang members smashed the rectory’s windows with rocks. It was later said that Bapst had been hiding nearby in a haystack.

Three days later, Know Nothings in Ellsworth tried to burn down the Catholic church. Colonel Charles Jarvis, a prominent Yankee Democrat and landowner, saved it from destruction by persuading the arsonists to leave. A week later, the nativists firebombed the Catholic school Bapst had opened in the old chapel — the incendiaries demolished the front door and windows, and almost blew the roof off, but no one was hurt. On July 15, ruffians tried to burn the church again, but once again the fire was discovered and extinguished before it could engulf the structure.

At a town meeting that month, a series of resolutions were unanimously passed and signed by the town clerk: William H. Chaney. Chaney dutifully reprinted the resolutions in his paper. The final one read:

Resolved, That should the said Bapst show himself again in Ellsworth, that we manifest to him our gratitude for his kindly interference with our free schools, and attempts to banish the bible therefrom, by procuring for him and trying on an entire suit of new clothes, such as cannot be found at the shop of any taylor, and that when thus appareled, we present him with a free ticket to leave Ellsworth upon the first railroad operation without a dissenting voice or vote.”

Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston had decided in June to reassign Bapst to Bangor. But the priest returned to Ellsworth on a cold and rainy day in October. He was staying at the home of some former parishioners, the Kents. Late that night, they heard a loud commotion outside. A mob of men gathered in front of the house loudly demanded the family hand the Jesuit over to them. They refused, and hid the priest in the cellar.

The rioters, some of them masked, broke in, found Bapst, tied a rope around his neck and violently hauled him into the night. They stripped him, poured hot tar all over his body, applied feathers, and then carried him around town on a wooden rail. They also stole the priest’s silver watch and money.

Some wanted to hang Bapst from a tree. “So they persecuted Jesus of old!” one mockingly yelled. But the murderers were overruled. After an hour of tortuous humiliation, the mob dropped the delirious Jesuit on a town wharf and left him for dead. When Bapst came to his senses, he found a tarp and wrapped himself up against the cold. A search party of armed Irish Catholics found him wandering the riverfront and took him to safety.  

Bapst had the constitution to appear at church that morning and preach to his former flock. But come nightfall, the mob reassembled, and he was “further threatened with death if he did not leave town,” the Argus reported.

“The Irish population, incensed and exasperated, assembled together, armed themselves with hatchets, pitchforks and such weapons as they could command, took Mr. Bapst into their custody and were determined to protect him to the death,” the paper continued. Whereupon Col. Jarvis swooped in again and sheltered the priest in his home to avert bloodshed. Following another church service the next morning, Bapst returned to Bangor.   

The attack on the well-respected Jesuit was called “the Ellsworth Outrage.” The partisan newspapers of both major parties ran editorials denouncing the violence. “If in this country a man is to suffer violence for his religious opinions, where on earth can he be safe from persecution?” asked a Democratic Bangor paper.

The editor of the Bangor Whig wrote that the assault was not only against Bapst, “but against the laws of the land, and all the pledges of civilized society, and the securities of our Constitution, and the whole spirit and aim of our system of government.”

Forty-one prominent Protestant Bangorians wrote an open letter to Bapst. “Although not agreeing with you in the tenets of the faith you profess, and of which we are happy you are an ornament, we are unwilling to see any man proscribed for worshipping God according to the dictates of his own conscience,” they wrote. “We claim the privilege to ourselves, and desire it may be extended to all others.” The Bangor Yankees presented Bapst with a gold watch and $500.


The Failson Revolution 

Father Bapst never returned to Ellsworth. Only two men were brought to court for his assault and both were acquitted by a grand jury that included numerous Know Nothings.

Nativist gangsters vandalized the Catholic church in Ellsworth two more times before they finally burned it down in April of 1856. In 1855, a mob of at least 500 Know Nothings and their supporters torched a former Protestant church in Lewiston that had been used for Catholic services.

Emboldened by their electoral success in 1854, the Know Nothings formed an official political party, the American Party, and ran former President Millard Fillmore against Democratic and Republican candidates for president in 1856. Notable Know Nothings of the time included Texas Sen. Sam Houston, future Vice President Henry Wilson, and future president-killer John Wilkes Booth. The party also attracted what today we’d call the political failsons of the era, like Alexander Hamilton, Jr., and nephew-of-a-president James Monroe.

Fillmore flopped in ’56, winning only one state (not Maine). Enthusiasm for the American Party, and the anti-Catholic cause, dropped off a cliff. By the end of the decade, the Know Nothings were done. Then again, so was the Union.

Bapst spent five years as pastor of St. John’s Church in Bangor, where a private high school bears his name, and went on to become the first president of Boston College.

His arch nemesis, Chaney, gained notoriety as an early astrologist after the Civil War (and was jailed for six months in New York City for the practice). A decade later, he moved to San Francisco and, by most accounts, impregnated a woman named Flora Wellman. According to Wellman, Chaney demanded she get an abortion and ditched her when she refused. That child grew up to be the novelist and journalist Jack London.

John Sayers Orr, “the Angel Gabriel,” returned to Scotland in 1855 and continued to raise hell against Catholics. He was imprisoned for inciting a mob in Greenock, sued for wrongful imprisonment and won a sizeable judgment, got booed during a trip to Liverpool, and eventually returned to Guiana. He incited mob violence there and was sentenced to three years of hard labor in a penal colony, where he died of dysentery.

In the United States, nativism metastasized into nationalism. Xenophobic hyper-patriotism catapulted Donald Trump into the White House, where he slashed all forms of migration to the United States, including refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants that he banned based on their religious or ethnic identity. The Know Nothings would be proud.  


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