Streets of Washington Presents The Election Day Riot of 1857, driven by religious intolerance

Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is the author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by the History Press, Inc. and also the author of Lost Washington DC.

In 1857, radical conservatives of the “Know Nothing” party in Washington, imbued with contempt for Roman Catholics, mounted an extraordinary attempt to forcibly prevent the naturalized citizens of Washington from voting in local elections. The result was the infamous Election Day Riot on June 1 at a polling station just south of Mount Vernon Square. The New York Times called it “one of the most daring insurrectionary riots of bloodshed and murder that ever disgraced a city.” Six people were killed by a Marine detachment that was called in to quell the disturbance. While the troublemakers ultimately failed in their attempt to prevent voting by Catholic immigrants, the incident was deeply embarrassing for 19th century Washingtonians and gave them a tangible sense of the tragic consequences of religious intolerance in political affairs.

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Marines firing on the mob at Northern Liberties Market, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 29, 1857. (Source: Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 24, 1922).

Upheaval overseas—including the Irish potato famine and the Revolution of 1848 in Germany—led to large numbers of Irish and German immigrants to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. These desperate people, willing to making the arduous journey to America in hopes of a better life, would enrich the country immeasurably in years to come, and many were happy to see them come. But to Anglo American “nativists,” they were foreign transgressors bent on destroying American society as the Anglos knew it. The nativists pointed to the increasing numbers of destitute and homeless immigrants crowding the nation’s cities—Washington’s notorious Swampoodle was an example—as evidence that the newcomers were bringing the country down. They began organizing themselves in secret to resist the immigrants and all they stood for, especially their predominant religion, Roman Catholicism. Supposedly if a member of this secret group were asked anything about the organization, he was supposed to reply “I know nothing,” and so they became known as the Know-Nothings. Secretly calling themselves the “Supreme Order of the Star Spangled Banner,” the group foreshadowed the growth of the Ku Klux Klan later in the 19th century.

As elsewhere in the northeast, the Know-Nothings were ascendant in Washington for a brief period in the mid 1850s and found odd ways to express their xenophobia. One particularly infamous episode occurred in March 1854, when late one night a band of Know-Nothings stormed the shed next to the unfinished Washington Monument and seized a beautiful polished marble stone that had been donated to the Monument project by Pope Pius IX. Attacking the stone with hammers and chisels, they damaged and defaced it, then threw it into the Potomac. (The stone was later recovered and carved into an obelisk, now in the National Museum of American History.) To round off their mischief, the Know-Nothings subsequently maneuvered to gain legal control over the privately-organized Monument project and through their incompetence stopped any further construction work. The result of their actions was that the stub of the monument languished uncompleted for decades to come.

Dr. William B. Magruder (RCHS 1913)
Mayor William B. Magruder, an Anti-Know Nothing. (Source: Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 16, 1913).

The political power of the Know-Nothings peaked in 1854, when their candidate, printer John T. Towers (1811-1857) was elected mayor of Washington. Towers reign was short; he declined to run for re-election in 1856, setting up a bitter confrontation between the Know-Nothings’ subsequent candidate, businessman Silas H. Hill, and the opposition candidate, William B. Magruder (1810-1869). Magruder was supported by a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and former Whigs known as the Anti-Know Nothing Party, and he carried the day by the slimmest of margins, winning 2,936 votes to Hill’s 2, 904. Bitter over a narrow defeat they attributed to the votes of recently-naturalized Washingtonians, the Know-Nothings resolved to use force to ensure that they carried the mid-term elections in 1857 for other local government offices.

With election day set for March 1, tensions ran high. City officials assumed the Know-Nothings would find some way to try to terrorize voters, and their worst fears were soon realized. That morning members of a gang of pro Know-Nothing Baltimore street toughs known as the Plug Uglies boarded an early train for Washington and were soon on city streets looking for trouble. Afterwards it would be discovered that the Plug Uglies’ train tickets were purchased with a 100-dollar bill that had been obtained at the Metropolitan Bank on 15th Street—but no one ever knew precisely who made the purchase.

The Baltimore Plug Uglies hooked up with two Washington gangs, the Chunkers and the Rip-Raps, to form a formidable mob of at least several dozen rowdies, perhaps many more. By around 9 am they were focusing their harassment on a line of Anti-Know Nothing voters stretching down the street from a polling station opposite the Northern Liberties Market at Mount Vernon Square. After some shoving and pushing that didn’t have much effect, the group departed briefly, returning a short time later in larger numbers and armed to the teeth. “One man was armed with a large blacksmith’s sledge; another with a horse pistol of large dimensions; a third carried a miscellaneous assortment of revolvers, bowie knives, billies, an iron bar; while a fourth carried, besides a side pocket filled with convenient stones, brickbats, &c., a large billet of oak wood of sufficient weight to fell an ox,” The Daily Evening Star reported.

With cries of “Wade in, natives!” the rioters charged into the crowd and attacked anyone who looked like a recent immigrant. The newspaper reported that “A terrible scene now ensued, in which the entire crowd participated. Stone and pistols were rapidly discharged and men trampled to the earth, beaten, stamped on, and severely wounded.” Police officers on the scene tried valiantly but were unable to contain the violence, and several of them were among the 20 or so victims of the attackers. “An Irishman was so dreadfully mutilated that his features were entirely undistinguishable, and his head and shoulders were covered with blood. The polls were torn down by this imported gang of Baltimore villains, the pavements were strewn with stones, clubs, and other missiles…. The buildings in the neighborhood were damaged, the doors and windows being broken in on all sides….”

Soon everyone except the Plug Uglies and their allies had scattered from the scene. Police took a few of the ringleaders into custody, but the violence had effectively shut down the voting, and the remaining rioters started looking for trouble at other city polling stations. At around 11am they attacked a station at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, firing more revolver shots and leaving several more would-be voters wounded.

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President James Buchanan dithered about slavery but acted decisively to call out the Marines in Washington on March 1, 1857 (author’s collection).

Mayor Magruder soon turned to President James Buchanan for help, imploring him to send out a detachment of U.S. Marines to restore order. Buchanan quickly complied. Around mid-day, two companies of marines—115 officers and men—marched out of their barracks on 8th Street SE and headed to City Hall on Judiciary Square to receive Mayor Magruder’s instructions. All along the way they were accosted by rioters “hooting and yelling, threatening and insulting them at every step,” according to the Star. By this time the rioters had obtained a small brass cannon (some accounts say it came from an Anacostia firehouse) and began marching their prize up 7th Street to the Northern Liberties Market where the polling station was still shut down. Brandishing their revolvers and clubs, they vowed to defend themselves with their cannon and threatened to kill all of the marines called out to disarm them.

Magruder sent the marines to Mount Vernon Square to disarm the Plug Uglies and reopen the polling station. By the time they arrived, the rioters had set up their cannon and were threatening to fire it at the soldiers. The gun was loaded with “about half a pound of powder, sixty or seventy rifle cartridges (tied in a handkerchief), eight large stones, and several pounds of shot,” according to a later grand jury report, and could have inflicted catastrophic harm on the marines if it had been fired. But Brigadier General Archibald Henderson (1783-1859), Commandant and “grand old man” of the Marine Corps, was on hand to intervene and save lives. Henderson was not formally commanding the small detachment and was unarmed, save for a cotton umbrella. He stepped up directly in front of the small cannon, bracing it with his body so that it could not be aimed at the Marine contingent, and admonished the demonstrators not to fire. As he did so, the Marines advanced, and the rioters fled from the gun.

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General Henderson urging the rioters not to fire (Source: Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 24, 1922).

The Plug Uglies didn’t give up without a fight, of course. They fired their revolvers as they withdrew, and the “pistol shots now rattled around like hailstones,” in the words of the Star. One shot hit one of the Marines in the jaw, seriously wounding him. With one of their own down, the young marines, many of whom were raw recruits, finally responded by shooting into the crowd. (A later inquest found that neither Henderson nor any of the officers in charge ordered the troops to fire.) The wild volley of the marines sent bullets flying in all directions, and the worst casualties of the day resulted, including several of the day’s recorded deaths. Francis M. Deems, a clerk in the General Land Office, was viewing the riots from a second story window with a co-worker, Col. William F. Wilson. Deems was killed, while Wilson was shot in the arm. Other fatalities included Archibald Dalrymple, a brakeman from the Washington Branch Railroad; constable D. H. Alston; Ramy Neal, an African American waiter at Walker & Schadd’s restaurant; and Christian Lindig, 16-year-old German immigrant.

The show of force by the Marines dispersed the crowds in a mad scene of chaos and bloodshed. The Plug Uglies headed back to the train station, where many were arrested. Reinforcements who were heading down to Washington from Baltimore turned back when they heard that government troops had been called out to fight them. The Election Day Riot was finally over. In the following days, there would be much soul-searching in the press about what happened, and much justifying of the action of the Marines. The standard line was that the disturbances were caused by outside elements (implying that Washingtonians on their own would never be so violent) and that the threat they posed was so overwhelming that the only possible response was to call out Federal troops.

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Mount Vernon Square, home to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., as it appears today (photo by the author).

The Election Day Riot had a profound psychological impact on Washingtonians of its day, something akin to the terror of 9/11. “In the name of all that is dear to us as Americans how long is this state of things to be tolerated?” beseeched the Evening Star on the day of the riot, reacting as much to the affront to democracy as to the violence that had ensued. Both democracy and the rule of law needed to be protected from terror, yet it was not soon achieved. The following year, a Senate Committee concluded that Washington had become a lawless place. “Riot and bloodshed are of daily occurrence. Innocent and unoffending persons are shot, stabbed, and otherwise shamefully maltreated, and not infrequently the offender is not even arrested.”

The lawlessness of 1857 certainly began to turn supporters away from the Know-Nothings, who soon disintegrated politically as the divide over slavery quickly overshadowed all other issues. If it had not been for the Civil War, the memory of the Know-Nothings perhaps would not have been so quickly forgotten. In any event, firsthand witnesses of the 1857 riot couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the possibility of terror and violence in future local elections. According to historian George Rothwell Brown, many were not unwilling to give up their local voting rights in 1874 when Congress abolished the city’s elected offices and established the commissioner-based government that would continue for much of the next century. It’s impossible to know for sure how people felt, but there’s little doubt that the Know-Nothings’ xenophobia, religious intolerance, and contempt for democracy had a terrible impact on Washington.

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Sources included George Rothwell Brown, Washington: A Not Too Serious History (1930); Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington A History of the Capitol, 1800-1950 (1962); Tom Lewis, Washington: A History of Our National City (2015); Arthur Meier Schlesinger, “The Significance of Immigration in American History” in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1921); Rachel A. Sheldon, Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War (2013); Washington Topham, “Northern Liberty Market” in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 24 (1922); and numerous newspaper articles.

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