Bloody Monday

Today I had lunch with my great aunt.  We talked about a lot of things– but particularly things that had to do with our family’s history.  This side of my family is comprised of proud full-blooded German-American Catholics.  A long time ago, my great uncle and my father talked to me about Bloody Monday, a dark part of Louisville’s history where Germans were among groups of immigrants who were persecuted and killed.  After talking about family and history with my great aunt today, I felt compelled to learn a little more about Bloody Monday.  The following text comes from wikipedia, but I also found a more detailed article written by historian Bryan S. Bush, along with the photo below.  


Bloody Monday was the name given the election riots of August 6, 1855, in Louisville, Kentucky. These riots grew out of the bitter rivalry between the Democrats and supporters of the Know-Nothing Party. Rumors were started that foreigners and Catholics had interfered with the process of voting. A street fight occurred, twenty-two people were killed, scores were injured and much property was destroyed by fire.

Bloody Monday was sparked by the Know-Nothing political party (officially known as the American Party), an off shoot of the shattered Whig Party and fed in large part by the radical, inflammatory anti-immigrant writings of the editor of the Louisville Journal, George D. Prentice and others. Immigration from Ireland and Germany was changing the face of much of America and Louisville was no exception. By 1850, Louisville was the 10th largest city in the country and nearly 40% of its population was native born German. The rioters, led by Know-Nothing political figures who bolstered their ranks with paid thugs brought to Louisville for the express purpose of causing trouble, targeted Irish Catholics and Germans (primarily Catholics but Protestants and even German Jews were also caught up in the melee — the key being that they were German). By the time it was over, more than one-hundred businesses, private homes and tenements had been vandalized, looted and/or burned, including a block long row of houses known as Quinn’s Row. Conservative estimates place the death toll at 22, while more realistic estimates, including those of Bishop Martin Spalding of Louisville, placed the death toll at well over 100 with entire families consumed in the fires. Citizens were dragged from their homes, attacked on the streets and in their place of work. Weapons, arms and later bodies of the dead, were stored in Louisville Metro Hall (the old Jefferson County Courthouse, now the Mayor’s Office), a Know-Nothing stronghold at the time. Sporadic violence and attacks had occurred in the year and months leading up to August 6 and continued for some time afterward.

Only by Louisville Mayor John Barbee’s intervention — himself a Know-Nothing — was the bloodshed and property destruction brought to an end, including his personal intervention that saved two Catholic churches, the new German parish of St. Martin of Tours and the Cathedral of the Assumption from destruction by the mob. No one was ever prosecuted in connection with the riots. The legitimately elected Mayor of Louisville, James S. Speed, had been ousted in June by a court order. Speed, who upon his marriage, had converted to Catholicism, would leave Louisville for Chicago never to return.

The riots had a profound impact on immigration to Louisville, causing literally more than ten thousand citizens to pack and leave for good, most to St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee, and a large group who left in 1856 for Prairie City, Kansas). Only the Civil War, with the trade and commerce it represented, halted this trend. This reverse immigration caused dozens upon dozens of businesses to close, affecting the arts, education and charitable causes with the loss of members, money and brain-power (primarily from the German ’48ers). Empty storefronts were the norm on once bustling commercial corridors and much of the destroyed and charred ruins lay untouched for years afterward as a silent reminder of that terrible day.


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