Three Philly Elections That Were Even Worse Than This One
This week Donald Trump told the world to be very, very wary of Philadelphians in this election. He said we were going to steal the election from him, and urged his supporters to swarm polling places to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. Besides showcasing the Great Pumpkin’s paranoia, this clarion call highlights something very surprising: The Donald is an astute student of our city history. While there has been no proof of the widespread voter fraud that he warns of, it’s not that weird for elections to cause mayhem hereabouts. Here are several instances when, spurred on (always, always) by gossip, they did.
The 1742 Election Riot
In this uprising, the city’s Anglicans were pitted against the peace-loving Quakers, who had long dominated local politics. A growing German immigrant population threatened that domination, as the Anglicans courted the newcomers’ votes. But the Germans spurned the Anglicans, and on Election Day in 1742, rumors swirled that the Quakers were mobilizing large numbers of these new voters. Counter-rumors then spread that the Anglicans, led by businessman William Allen, planned to drive voters from the polls. (Allen’s estate, Mount Airy, gave its name to the Philly neighborhood.) Sure enough, a mob of 70 Anglican sailors armed with bricks and clubs attacked lines of German immigrants and Quakers waiting to vote at the courthouse. The Germans and even some of the pacifist Quakers fought back, while other Quakers locked themselves inside the building for protection. That started rumors that they’d taken some of the sailors hostage, causing the Anglicans to attack the courthouse. A brave Quaker, unbelievably, managed to convince the mob no sailors were inside, and the election proceeded after the Germans and Quakers, armed by the sheriff, drove the attackers away. Dozens of Anglicans were later jailed; the Quaker Party won the election.
The 1844 Nativist Riots
Between May and July of 1844, the city was rocked by successive waves of violence between so-called “Nativists” who already lived here and newly arrived Irish Catholic immigrants. The trouble started when Nativists spread a (false) rumor that Catholics were trying to have the Bible removed from local public schools. In early May, mobs in Kensington destroyed two Catholic churches, killed 14 people and injured more than 50. In July, an uprising in Southwark saw Nativists storm St. Philip Neri Church. Fifteen more people died, dozens were injured, and it took 5,000 militiamen to calm things down. The riots were covered in the national press and influenced the presidential election later that year, in which Democrat James Polk defeated Whig Henry Clay. Polk, who was virtually unknown to the public, is considered the first “dark horse” presidential candidate.
The 1871 Municipal Election
Black Americans, including freed slaves, gained the right to vote via the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870. Philly’s 1871 municipal election was the first in which they could legally participate, and they were expected, naturally, to heavily favor the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, who’d been assassinated in 1865. South Philly Democratic Party boss William McMullen was determined not to see his party lose power. On the night before the election, two black men were shot in the street. Word of the shootings spread quickly, and fights and riots broke out along Lombard Street. One of the city’s most prominent black citizens, activist, baseball player and teacher Octavius Catto, heard the news as he was meeting with some friends. They cautioned him against walking home alone, but he refused to alter his routine. On Election Day, white gangs roamed the city streets, trying to scare black people away from voting. Catto went to his job at the school he’d founded, the Institute for Colored Youth, to send its students and teachers home lest they suffer any violence. On his way home to fetch his uniform for the all-black Fifth Brigade of the Pennsylvania National Guard, in case it was called out to keep the peace, he was shot in the back, two doors away from his house. Frank Kelly, the white Democratic Party operative later tried for killing him, was acquitted. But the backlash against the murder roused Republican voters, and their candidate for mayor won.
Well, the Republican Party has changed in the last 145 years. Today, Democrats in the city outnumber Republicans by seven to one. There’s been absolutely no evidence of any sort of massive voter fraud here, despite Sean Hannity’s lunatic claims. But hey, keep trash-talking us, Mr. Trump! And, oh yeah, Philly? Remember: Don’t believe everything you hear.
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