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Chaos in the Streets: The Philadelphia Riots of 1844


Riot in Philadelphia. July 7 1844. From Villanova University’s Digital Library: Pennsylvaniana Collection.  (View in Digital Library)

Welcome to Chaos in the Streets: The Philadelphia Riots of 1844. In May and July of 1844 Philadelphia was at the epicenter of religious and ethnic rioting and violence aimed at Catholic and Irish immigrants.  To provide insight into these eventful days, the exhibit draws from material in Falvey Library's Special Collections including the Philadelphia Riots Collection, which includes digitized representations of materials owned by the American Catholic Historical Society - a Digital Partner of Villanova University, as well as the Pennsylvaniana and Americana Collections. 

The exhibit will take visitors through the events in Philadelphia that led up to the riots and the riots themselves with a detailed look at the destruction of Catholic churches during the May rioting.  Also observed is the effect the violence had on the city of Philadelphia and the formation of Villanova.  Finally, the exhibit is bookended with an eye on the historical backdrop of the time focusing on a political group called the Nativists that eventually became the Know Nothing Party. 

Visitors will see publications portraying the events of the rioting, as well as anti-Irish and anti-Catholic writings that were popular at the time.  Letters from the sheriff of Philadelphia in 1844, Morton McMichael, are also included. Links to the full-text scans of  books utilized in the exhibit are also provided when available. 


Curated by Karla Irwin (Digital Library Intern Fall 2011) with graphics by Joanne Quinn.  Transcription of manuscript materials by: Susan Connor, Susan Ottignon, and Chelsea Payne.  Technical support provided by: David Lacy.



Posted by Cormac Brady on
I think this is an excellent presentation.
Posted by Margot Sheehan on
This exhibit is biased by a glaring omission. It scarcely mentions Lewis C. Levin, the professional rabble-rouser who was not merely 'one of the speakers' but instigated the whole series of riots. He founded his political career upon these riots, beginning with a win in a three-way Congressional race in 1844. Levin was a founder not only of the so-called "nativist" movement but led it into its "Know Nothing Party" phase in the 1850s. Leaving Levin out of this exhibit is like discussing the war in the Pacific 1941-45 and failing to mention Pearl Harbor and Bataan.
Posted by T. Horning on
Way to be a party-pooper, Margot Sheehan. A comment like that perhaps would have been better communicated as a private message. Seems like an intentional effort to shame the folks who obviously put a lot of hard work into this exhibit, while simultaneously showing off just how very smart you yourself are.
Posted by Lambert Strether on
Unfortunately, T. Horning, the information that Sheehan provides is critical, and we might not otherwise know about it. So lighten up!
Posted by Fr. Michael Slattery, OSA on
Thank you for a marvelous presentation. Your collected material shines a bright light on a significant period of early US history.

I would love to know if we might be able to bring these wonderful historical images and text to life. We have a number of visitors who come to St Augustine to learn about our history which is an integral part of the history of the early American republic.

It would be wonderful to unite the historical images with an audio presentation of the text. I can imagine a large flat screen TV in one of the entry alcoves of the church as a small "visitor center" with the digital equipment playing the audio and digital images for historical tours.

It may be a bit of a fantasy at this moment. Please let me know what you think.

Fr Mike Slattery, OSA
Old St Augustine Church
Posted by Margaret kelly on
Thank you. I so enjoyed this. There is a family story that one of my forebears took the Eucharist from St Augustine's to Villanova during the riots. Never been able to validate. Perhaps I should visit to look at your collection.
Posted by Adam on

I am just learning about the riots. Your comment forced me to do some research on Lewis C. Levin. Which in turn gave me a dozen more questions I cant wait to look into. Thanks M. Sheehan.