Northeast Times

A riotous history

  • Words of wisdom: Author Ken Milano, author of The Philadelphia Nativist Riots (Irish Kensington Erupts), stands inside St. Michaels Church at 2nd and Jefferson streets. BRAD LARRISON / FOR THE TIMES

  • West Kensington is shown near the site of the 1844 anti-immigrant riots that are documented in Milano’s book. BRAD LARRISON / FOR THE TIMES

The Nat­iv­ist move­ment of the mid-1800s prob­ably helped ad­vance the ca­reer of Phil­adelphia at­tor­ney and news­pa­per ed­it­or Lewis C. Lev­in for a little while, but it all ended in ru­in for the prom­in­ent anti-im­mig­rant, anti-Ir­ish, anti-Cath­ol­ic orator.

A son of Jew­ish par­ents, the South Car­o­lina nat­ive later con­ver­ted to Chris­tian­ity, be­came a Meth­od­ist street preach­er and moved north.

He was one of the vo­cal lead­ers of the Nat­iv­ists, a fledgling polit­ic­al party whose in­flam­mat­ory 1844 pub­lic rally in the heart of Kens­ing­ton’s Ir­ish-Cath­ol­ic com­munity sparked three days of ri­ot­ing that killed about 25 people and des­troyed the ori­gin­al St. Mi­chael’s Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church, among dozens of oth­er neigh­bor­hood build­ings.

As a res­ult of the ri­ots, the Nat­iv­ist move­ment grew in pop­ular­ity, al­low­ing many of its lead­ers to win elec­ted of­fices in both Phil­adelphia and New York. Lev­in went on to serve three terms in Con­gress as the rep­res­ent­at­ive from Pennsylvania’s First Dis­trict. But he lost his re-elec­tion bid in 1851.

In 1856, while cam­paign­ing against a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate at In­de­pend­ence Hall, a dis­turb­ance erup­ted and Lev­in was pulled from the speak­er’s plat­form. Later that year, he was com­mit­ted to an in­sane asylum, where he died in 1860.

After his death, one of his daugh­ters mar­ried a Span­iard. Both she and Lev­in’s wid­ow con­ver­ted to Cath­oli­cism.

“That just goes to show, you don’t burn down Cath­ol­ic churches,” Kens­ing­ton-based au­thor Ken Mil­ano said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view.

Lev­in’s omin­ous yet per­versely hu­mor­ous tale amounts to a mere snip­pet of Mil­ano’s re­cently re­leased his­tor­ic­al volume, The Phil­adelphia Nat­iv­ist Ri­ots (Ir­ish Kens­ing­ton Erupts), pub­lished by The His­tory Press.

Mil­ano, an un­as­sum­ing mar­ried fath­er of two, stud­ied his­tory at Temple and still lives at a sec­tion of the old neigh­bor­hood once called “East Kens­ing­ton,” but now known as Fishtown. Ac­cord­ingly, the au­thor em­braces the fa­mil­i­ar and en­dear­ing “Kenzo” dia­lect while lec­tur­ing about his latest book at ven­ues like the re­built St. Mike’s or Bustleton’s Pen­nepack Baptist Church, as he did on Oct. 2. The North­east Phil­adelphia His­tory Net­work presen­ted the pro­gram.

“I think I’m more of a storyteller than aca­dem­ic lec­turer,” he told the North­east Times after the event. “I’m just a guy from the neigh­bor­hood.”

He’s one of the guys if you want to learn about the his­tory of Kens­ing­ton or sur­round­ing areas. Nat­iv­ist Ri­ots is his sixth pub­lished book. Earli­er pro­jects in­clude Hid­den His­tory of Kens­ing­ton and Fishtown, Re­mem­ber­ing Kens­ing­ton and Fishtown, The His­tory of the Kens­ing­ton Soup So­ci­ety, The His­tory of Penn Treaty Park and Palmer Cemetery and the His­tor­ic Buri­al Grounds of Kens­ing­ton and Fishtown. Each is avail­able for $19.99 via www.his­tory­press.net

Mil­ano got his start in 2006 writ­ing weekly columns for the Times’ sis­ter pa­per, the Star, which serves Port Rich­mond, Fishtown, Brides­burg and North­ern Liber­ties. Then he cre­ated Ken­neth­W­M­il­ano.com, where he pro­motes his his­tor­ic­al and gene­a­lo­gic­al re­search ser­vices.

After his weekly columns hit the street in print, he would post them on his per­son­al web­site. His pub­lish­ing house — which is based in Char­le­ston, S.C. — found the site and offered to fin­ance a col­lec­tion of the 800-word es­says. Mil­ano said he likes His­tory Press’ format, which al­lows 50,000 words to go along with 30 to 40 pic­tures or il­lus­tra­tions. Oth­er pub­lish­ers are more im­age-ori­ented and al­low less ac­tu­al storytelling, he said.

About 10 of his 284 columns for the Star dis­cussed the Kens­ing­ton ri­ots. He ex­pan­ded on each of those top­ics to fill the book’s 160 pages, in­clud­ing ap­pen­dices, a bib­li­o­graphy and an in­dex for those seek­ing to re­search fur­ther on their own. Hours of in­vest­ig­a­tion went in­to each column, so the book is a cul­min­a­tion of count­less even­ings and week­ends in church and pub­lic re­cords of­fices.

“All of this loc­al his­tory stuff is primary re­search. It’s not like you can go and look it up on the In­ter­net,” Mil­ano said. “Schol­ars haven’t really fo­cused on Kens­ing­ton his­tory and wrote about it.”

The sec­tion was a self-gov­ern­ing dis­trict with­in Phil­adelphia County from 1820 to 1854, sep­ar­ate ad­min­is­trat­ively from the city of Phil­adelphia, and was a world-class in­dus­tri­al cen­ter in the 19th cen­tury.

“When Phil­adelphia was a power­house of Amer­ica and the world, in­dustry­wise and tex­tilewise, Kens­ing­ton was half of that,” Mil­ano said.

Yet, the ri­ots, if con­sidered as a group, amoun­ted to per­haps the most sig­ni­fic­ant single event in the neigh­bor­hood’s his­tory.

“If you look at the aca­dem­ics, if there’s one thing they did re­search and write about, it’s the Kens­ing­ton ri­ots,” Mil­ano said.

Many of the same con­flicts that pre­cip­it­ated and sparked the ri­ots per­sist today: “nat­ive” Amer­ic­ans vs. im­mig­rants, Prot­est­ants vs. Cath­ol­ics, the sep­ar­a­tion of re­li­gion and pub­lic schools, the so­cioeco­nom­ic di­vide between the bour­geois­ie and the work­ing class.

“It had all of those un­der­tones,” Mil­ano said.

He doesn’t take sides, nor­mally.

“I’m more of a nar­rat­ive his­tor­i­an. I leave in­ter­pret­a­tion to the read­er, al­though some­times I fall out of my paradigm,” he said.

His cheeky ana­lys­is about the per­ils of burn­ing Cath­ol­ic churches is one such in­stance, but it’s not without a strong found­a­tion.

For in­stance, an­oth­er prom­in­ent Nat­iv­ist and former mi­li­tia of­ficer, Col. Peter Al­bright, like Lev­in, met a sim­il­arly grue­some fate years after lead­ing the siege on St. Mike’s.

A nat­ive Phil­adelphi­an, Al­bright was bap­tized at St. Au­gustine Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church as a child, but “some­how be­came a bit­ter en­emy of Cath­ol­ics,” Mil­ano wrote. Al­bright’s moth­er was Prot­est­ant. In ad­di­tion to burn­ing St. Mike’s to the ground dur­ing the ri­ots, Al­bright led his fol­low­ers to Fourth and Vine streets, where they set St. Au­gustine ablaze. Al­bright’s bap­tis­mal re­cords sur­vived the fire, however.

Three years later, Al­bright died at age 41 after his bowels ex­ploded in an oyster cel­lar, Mil­ano said. In 1853, Al­bright’s broth­er died in a fire. Three years after that, Al­bright’s wid­ow and daugh­ter drowned when they were sled­ding on the frozen Delaware River and the ice broke. ••

On the Web: 

Vis­it the North­east Times chan­nel on You­Tube.com to view au­thor Ken Mil­ano’s Oct. 2 dis­cus­sion of the Nat­iv­ist Ri­ots for the North­east Phil­adelphia His­tory Net­work.

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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