While many are aware of the rise of Maine’s KKK and its own lethal brand of “Americanism” in the early 1900s, many don’t know about the anti-immigrant prejudice that roiled in the mid-1800s. Younger Mainers of French-Canadian, Irish, or Catholic heritage may be unaware of the struggles their own grandparents or great-grandparents might have endured to settle here.

In Brunswick, a historically dark time was marked by the treatment of French Canadian workers at the Cabot Mill, and deplorable living conditions in the workers’ tenement community. In Bath, a dismal time is branded by the persecution of the Catholic community, and a riot that ended with the burning of a church and the terrorizing of Catholic families.

On Wednesday, March 21, retired professor Dr. Allan Whitmore will discuss the events that led up to that violent event at the monthly AARP Maine Coffee and Conversation taking place at the Coastal Landing Retirement Community, 142 Neptune Drive, Brunswick landing. The conversation runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and coffee and cookies will be served.

Dr. Whitmore’s talk is entitled, “The Burning of Bath’s South Church by an anti- Catholic Mob on July 6, 1854: The Know-Nothing Spirit of Nativism in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Bath, the State of Maine, and the American Nation.”

He’ll speak about the Know-Nothing party, the climate that fed the anti-Catholic fever, and the fallout of the event itself.

Dr. Whitmore, a Maine native, received his B.A. in history at the University of Maine and his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University, and taught for 46 years at the University of Southern Maine. His research has concentrated on the relationship of religion, immigration, politics, and government to 19th-century “nativism” in the United States. Nativism is defined as “a policy of favoring native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants.”

The Brunswick AARP coffees have been organized by Sandy and Ole Jaeger, of Georgetown, and Polly Shaw, of Bath, since 2016. Similar events take place all around the state as a way of informing community members about important issues past and present.

Sandy Jaeger says she and her husband heard about the Old South Church burning at a public talk, but thought it just couldn’t be true.

“I remember thinking he must have embellished the story,” Jaeger said in an email. “I began to research it and learned that not only was it true, but that this issue was very much present in Maine and indeed throughout the nation. But, it was also shrouded in mystery and myth, and I was eager to learn the facts, the context and the relevance it might have to current life in Maine.”

In essence, a perfect topic for a coffee talk.

After considerable research, she found Dr. Whitmore, someone extremely knowledgeable about the Know-Nothing party and the political climate of the times. The retired professor recently finished a book about the life of Maine native William Chaney, the leading Know-Nothing in Maine and the probable father of the famous American author, Jack London.

“The Know Nothings were essentially a secret society, although people were very aware of them and often it was known who belonged,” Whitmore said. “The intent was to keep it like a brotherhood. There was intense apprehension and alarm about the way America was changing, and people were afraid. It was a largely Protestant population in Maine, and in New England, things were changing with waves of immigrants arriving in the 1830s, ‘40s and ‘50s, large populations of Irish and French Canadians. And then people would hear about the leader of the Catholic church in New York City saying the Catholic faith will grow, and sweep over America … it just created so much fear and unease.”

The original name of the party was the American Party, and even briefly the Native American Party, but due to their secrecy, the Know-Nothing name came about and stuck (if questioned, a member would “know nothing”).

In Maine, Know-Nothing riots were responsible for another church burning in Lewiston, the tar-and-feathering of a Catholic priest in Ellsworth, and other violence around the state. The spirit of the Know-Nothings went on to fuel the rise of the KKK some years later.

A fiery street preacher (“they played a large role at the time,” Whitmore said) riled up an anti-Catholic crowd on July 6 in Bath, and the mob soon headed to the Old South Church, a Congregationalist-built venue purchased by Irish Catholics in 1805. After the burning of the church, many in the crowd took to roaming the streets of Bath, threatening and bullying in a night of terror.

Those interested in Bath history may be curious to know that Oliver Moses, of the Moses House (the purple Victorian on Washington, now a private residence) came to the rescue of families who were threatened during these uprisings. Moses and his brother William began a tin foundry that eventually gave birth to Bath Iron Works, and Oliver was one of the founders of Bath Savings Institution.

The site of the Old South Church in Bath is easily accessible on High Street, near the exit from Route 1 (turn left). The lots where the church stood are 695 and 699 High Street, and behind those lots there is a small lane named Old South Place, that runs parallel to High, between Union and Granite. The city named the lane in 1935, according to Whitmore.

The anti-Catholic, anti-immigration party fizzled out after a few years, due in large part to a split on the issue of slavery.

“Interestingly, some people tie them (the anti-slavery faction) to the birth of the progressive movement in the early 20th century,” Whitmore said. “They were anti-slavery, fought against political corruption, worked for more liberal changes in the court system, and that kind of thing.”

Whitmore sees some similarity in the nativism brewing today.

“You have a kind of changing political landscape, a largely independent governor of Maine, and an independent president, during a period in which there is change and growing apprehension about immigration patterns and such,” he observed.

Luckily, history offers the luxury of 20-20 hindsight.

For more information, email [email protected] or call Sandy Jaeger at 751- 4561.

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