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Posts Tagged ‘louisville kentucky’

I’m one of those historical researchers who reads the entire page of the newspaper when I find an article of interest, who reads the surrounding pages of a census enumeration, the entire county’s tax rolls, the whole parish register book. I find everything interesting! This week I was researching a particular historical story in newspapers and accidentally discovered this article:

Headline: BURNED AT THE STAKE

Section 1 of an article from p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

Like most Americans (I hope), I know about how widespread lynchings of African-Americans were in America. This headline startled me, though. As if lynchings weren’t bad enough, people were being burned at the stake by mobs, too – and then the events were being reported in what read to me as a rather chipper way (That scoundrel got what he deserved! Everyone helped! We had a grand time burning someone alive!) in newspapers around the country.

As someone who grew up in a Northern area where the Klu Klux Klan was still very active when I was a child, I have spent a fair amount of time as an adult researching white supremacy movements and violence in America in the antebellum, Civil War, and post-Civil-War periods, counterpoints to my interest in North American & British abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. Reading historical summaries of the violence is horrific enough; here is a particularly chilling excerpt from David Grimsted’s excellent book American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998):

In the morning [in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1855], the election went fairly quietly, though there was a knife fight between an Irishman and an American, both of whom eventually died, the Irishman in jail. In midafternoon things grew worse when Germans fired into some American election carriages, killing two men, and Know-Nothings [an anti-immigrant American political party] attacked and burned five or six German homes and a coffeehouse from which the shots apparently came. The Know-Nothing mayor dissuaded them from attacking the Catholic church. In the next few hours, random Germans were attacked, at least three fatally, and other homes and a brewery burned down. Irish in Ward Eight attacked three Americans, killing at least one, and Know-Nothings followed their retreat to a house, burned them out, and killed three. Another American death led to an attack on Quinn’s Row, a block of Irish homes, and some others, twenty in all, which were burnt. Patrick Quinn was shot and his body partly burned, and rioters beat victims fleeing the fire and, rumor declared, drove some Irish trying to escape back to a fiery death. The Know-Nothing police, inactive and maybe helpless in the shootings and burning of private property, protected the hated Louisville Times when a mob later threatened it. (pp. 233-34)

This came to be known as “Bloody Monday.” I’ve read some other accounts that claim that when the mob set buildings on fire, some of the people waited outside to shoot the people who tried to escape the fire; perhaps that is what Grimsted is referencing when he says “burned them out, and killed three.” Another Louisville mob would kill three slaves two years later.

In this climate of mob violence, it’s no wonder that people and events such as the Border Ruffians, the Bushwhackers & Jayhawkers, and the New York Draft Riots followed shortly before and during the American Civil War. And when the federal troops pulled out of the South when US President Rutherford B. Hayes (born 190 years ago yesterday) ended Reconstruction as part of a compromise to resolve the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876, it’s no wonder that mob violence quickly escalated again.

Article, part 2

Section 2 of an article from p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

But reading about the violence as recounted in a book like American Mobbing is completely different than reading about it first-hand in contemporary accounts. The subheadings in the second section (above), “HUNTING THE NEGRO” and “CAPTURED,” remind me starkly of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which turned every American into an accomplice to slavery, and which spurred many bounty hunters of escaped slaves to hunt in free states and some to enter Canada to hunt those that had escaped to full freedom there.

One of the most famous cases was centered on Oberlin, Ohio, the town of my alma mater, Oberlin College, which had attracted a lot of abolitionist teachers and staff who had left Ohio State University because they were unhappy with its slavery stance. Most commonly known today as “the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue,” there is now a lengthy digitized article about it, “When the Slave-Catcher Came to Town,” featuring much background information on tensions at the time. It is well worth a read for anyone even lightly interested in white American/African-American relations and/or the lead-up to the Civil War.

This specific article is noteworthy in part for what it does not say. The reporter writes, “Confronted with this evidence of his guilt, and charged with the crime, the scoundrel admitted that he had attempted . . .” As Grimsted notes in American Mobbing (p. 15), “Southern mobs always offered ‘proof’ of guilt which no one could doubt: victims were ‘whipped until they confessed’ . . .”

article on being burned at the stake, section 3

Section 3 (of 3) from an article on p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

No trial, not even a day’s wait: “Reed’s confession sealed his fate. It was decided that he should die at once. The majority insisted that he should be burned at the stake.” Even if Dick Reed was guilty (and I have no idea whether he was or not, and never will due to the way this proceeded), this is not the way justice should be carried out in an even marginally civilized society.

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