Maine Historical Society

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The Know-Nothings Menace: When Hate, Fear, and Prejudice Ruled Maine and America
BEGIN AGAIN SERIES: A Talk with Matt Barker

Recorded on August 19, 2021

Recorded August 19, 2021 - Prejudice and discrimination in Maine against immigrants dates back to at least the mid-1700s, when Pope's or Pope Day (Guy Fawkes Day in Britain) was celebrated in Falmouth (Portland); effigies of the Pope and the Devil were carried around town to loud cheers and slurs. Protestants had been taught since birth to hate Roman Catholicism. After all, French Catholics had been their enemy since the 1690s during the French and Indian Wars.

When large numbers of Irish Catholics started to immigrate beginning in the 1820s, Protestant anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and anti-Irish groups were formed all over, including Maine. The large influx of Irish people who came during and after the Great Hunger (the Great Irish Potato Famine, 1845-51) only accelerated these groups, culminating with the formation of the Know Nothings (also Know-Nothings), a secret anti-Irish, anti-Catholic political party who gained political power throughout the United States in 1854-55.

Their poster child in Portland was Mayor Neal Dow. In Maine, they burned down three Catholic churches (in Bath, Lewiston, and Ellsworth). In 1854, they tarred and feathered Father John Bapst, a Swiss Jesuit, in Ellsworth. The issue of slavery, as well as their excesses, finally doomed the Know-Nothings and they disappeared. But the hate and suspicion of foreigners resurfaced again in the 1870s and in the 1890s, when the American Protective Association was in their heyday. This group was, of course, followed by the KKK in the 1920s. Matt Barker explores this history in Maine.