(This piece continues my exploration of Irish immigrants incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons and workhouses in the 19th and early 20th century. Here’s the original post. MH)
Irish immigrants in 19th century America were often characterized in the press as shiftless and criminal. In states with heavy concentration of Irish, such as Pennsylvania, there was some basis for the perception, as noted in this later historical account:
Since colonial times they had been heavily over-represented in the prisons and alms-houses. Widow, orphans and dependent people abounded among them. Their distress spurred their achievement.
As the Irish made the long climb to respectability in the late 19th century, detailed prison records helped erode some of the negative stereotypes. An example can be found in the August 1880 issue of The Penn Monthly, a Philadelphia-based journal “Devoted to Literature, Art, Science and Politics.” There, an article focused on a landmark report of the Board of Commissioners of Public Charities, the agency created in 1869 to oversee Pennsylvania’s vast network of charitable and correctional institutions.
The Board’s tenth annual report to the state legislature in Harrisburg noted that of the 3,417 people convicted of crimes in 1879, just 4.53 percent were Irish immigrants, fewer than the 5.09 percent of German-born lawbreakers, and only slightly more than the 3.40 percent native English prisoners. This prompted Penn Monthly to observe:
There is a very common notion that the Irish in America contribute more than their share to our criminal class. But this expectation is contradicted by all the statistics of crime in their own country–which is more free from offences against person, property and chastity than any other country in the world–and also by these Pennsylvania tables. On the other hand the English, who form but a small percentage of our population, furnish nearly as many criminals as the Irish.
Of the nearly 10.2 million people who immigrated to America between 1820 and 1880, almost 28 percent were from Ireland. Irish immigrants were 15 percent of the populations of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, totaling more than 100,000 people. They gathered in northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, and railroad hubs such as Altoona.
That the percentage of Irish behind bars was less than their countrymen outside the walls had “an importance far beyond any honor it may do to the Irish portion of our population,” Penn Monthly suggested. This fact also refuted “specious objections” to the “Irish system” penal reforms as Pennsylvania officials reconsidered their own correctional operations.
Sir Walter Crofton, the mid-19th century chairman of the Board of Directors of Convict Prisons for Ireland, devised a three-stage system of prisoner confinement. Convicts moved from solitary cells to communal work camps and finally, supervised, intermediate release into the community, a forerunner of parole.
Penn Monthly alleged that Pennsylvania prison officials:
… shake their heads and hint that our prisons are full of Irish convicts, who have escaped from such lax custody, to renew their depredations in a new world. The statistics of such escapes are easily accessible, being reported periodically to Parliament. But they are never alleged by the opponents of the Irish system. Neither do they tell us that the Irish convicts in Pennsylvania prisons form less than 5 percent of the whole number.
Image of Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, set to close in June 2017, by Mugatu.
Popular perceptions of the Irish contributing more than their share of criminal behavior persisted for several reasons. Among the 83.24 percent of native-born convicts incarcerated in Pennsylvania in 1879, an unknown portion were first generation Irish Americans. Their Irish surnames would have stood out in police and court records, and in news accounts of notorious crimes, typically without any distinction of their place of birth.
It is also worth remembering that the Penn Monthly article appeared after seven years of headlines about murders, arson and other crimes alleged to have been committed by the Molly Maguires, a pro-worker, Irish secret society concentrated in the state’s coal region. Twenty Mollies were convicted of crimes and executed by 1878.
Back in Ireland, the Land War was well underway by 1880. The often violent struggle between Irish tenant farmers and absentee English landlords made frequent headlines in American newspapers. For example, a January 1879 story in the Pittsburgh Daily Post detailed Irish “agrarian crime,” including murder and intimidation. A November 1879 report in the Post reported that “Irish-American Fenians are at the bottom of the trouble now prevailing in Ireland.” Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell toured America in early 1880, including stops in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, to raise attention and money for the cause.
So regardless of the prison statistics, it must have seemed to many Pennsylvanians and other Americans that the Irish were creating unrest on both sides of the Atlantic.
But the Catholic-focused Donahoe’s Magazine sought to amplify the Penn Monthly story, quoting the same passages as above in its December 1880 issue. Donahoe’s suggested that the 4.53 percent figure of Irish convicts in 1879 was probably unusually high, “inasmuch as the unfavorable circumstances and evil influences under which Irishmen were placed … during the past few years in the state of Pennsylvania.” It did not mention the Molly Maguires or any specifics.
The Boston-based magazine also referenced how a June 1880 Milwaukee newspaper column quoted a Wisconsin politician as saying the majority of criminals in the local House of Corrections were Irish.
“And it ended there, without giving facts to substantiate its insults to the most law-abiding citizens of that city,” Donahoe’s huffed. “…[We are] hoping that in the future, when local reporters of secular papers are desirous of placing upon the Irish of this country the false imputation that they ‘build and fill the jails,’ they will substantiate their assertions by statistics from official reports.”
Clark, Dennis, “The Irish in Pennsylvania: A People Share a Commonwealth“, Pennsylvania History Studies No. 22, The Pennsylvania Historical Association, University Park, Pa., 1991. “Over-represented” quote, page 16. Immigrant population tables, page 32. From Griffin, William D., “The Book of Irish Americans” Times Books, 1990.
Erie, Stephen, “Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1995”, University of California Press, 1988. 1870 city percentages, page 18.
“Ireland’s Woes”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Nov. 22, 1879, page 1.
“Irish Agrarianism”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Jan. 17, 1879, page 3.
“Irish Criminals in America: How They Compare in Number With Those of Other Nationalities“, Donahoe’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 6, December 1880, pages 492-493.
“Tenth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Public Charities of the State of Pennsylvania“, Lane S. Hart, State Printer, Harrisburg, 1880.
“The Watch Over Our Charities“, The Penn Monthly, August 1880, pages 649-658.