Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania pledges to Irish freedom in 1918 U.S. election

A month before the 1918 U.S. elections, a Philadelphia chapter of the Friends of Irish Freedom sent a questionnaire to Pennsylvania candidates for state and federal office that asked whether they would make this pledge:

Will you, if elected to the public office for which you are a candidate, openly and unequivocally support Ireland’s claim to Complete Independence–the form of Government to be determined by the whole male and female population of Ireland?

The Irish Press published the questionnaire,1 which featured seven “historical facts” about England’s subjugation of Ireland “based on force,” including a 250,000-troop “army of occupation … equipped with all the ruthless machinery of modern warfare.” English prisons were “full of Irish men and women” who refused to follow her “tyrannical decrees.”

Wilson

The questionnaire also noted that over 500,000 men of the Irish race were serving in “Uncle Sam’s Army and Navy.” And it included two 27 September 1918, quotes from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson about the rights of smaller, weaker countries to be free from the rule of larger, stronger nations.

Friends of Irish Freedom and other Irish groups had been building support for Irish self-determination since January, when Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress. He said the world should “be made safe for every peace-loving nation, which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world…”

Mass meetings and petition drives mounted through the spring and summer, especially as it became clear that Wilson’s statement likely included only those nation’s controlled by Germany and its allies. “It must be remembered that while President Wilson did not include Ireland, he said nothing about excluding [it],” was the hopeful formulation of one speaker at a May 1918 Friends’ rally at the Lyceum Theater in Pittsburgh.2

As the November election neared, the Irish Press reported that responses to the Friends’ questionnaire were “gratifying to all friends of the cause” and also showed “in a conclusive manner” that 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters were “heartily in favor” of an Irish Republic. The Press continued:

This result should put a little ginger and backbone into the weak and vacillating men of our race who are willing to take anything that England should see fit to grant as a favor. Let our motto be that in the matter of self-determination nothing is too good for the Irish.

It is unclear how the Press determined the 70 percent support figure. There is no reference to voter polling independent of those candidates who returned the questionnaire. In two issues before the 5 November election, the Press named nine congressional candidates, plus the Democrat and Republican contenders for governor, as supportive of Ireland. Over 100 candidates were on the ballot for 33 congressional seats; plus dozens more for state legislative offices.

Letters of support

Focht

The Press reproduced two letters of support from congressional candidates.

“I wish to advise that I believe Ireland has suffered only too long the oppression of a foreign power, and that the day has come for her liberation …,” Republican Congressman Benjamin K. Focht wrote in a letter published on the front page of the Press. Focht was editor and publisher of the Lewisburg Saturday News in his district 60 miles north of the state capitol in Harrisburg.

Hulings

The paper also published a letter from Willis J. Hulings of Oil City, Pa., who was attempting to return to Congress after a two-year absence. Hulings said that he favored Irish freedom and that “sympathy with Irish patriots has been part of my life.”3 However, he did not see how “the United States Congress has any right of interference until after the Irish people have unitedly demanded separation from Great Britain.”

The Press editors acknowledged that Hulings position was shared “by many other honest Americans.” It added:

If Ireland must wait for freedom until Great Britain gives the Irish people an opportunity to unitedly demand separation, we should look for the establishment of the Irish Republic somewhere around the Greek calends.

Historian Joseph P. O’Grady noted that “what influence this [questionnaire and news coverage] had upon the campaign is difficult to assess; but the fact that candidates for high office would publicly endorse such statements [as the pledge] indicates, to some extent, the political power of the Irish at election time.”4

In the election, Democrats lost both chambers of Congress to the Republicans, a bad omen for Wilson, who had cast the midterm in strident personal and national security terms. Only three of the nine congressional candidates named in the Press, including Focht and Hulings, were elected. As the war in Europe ended the following week, the pressure campaign by Irish America continued to heat. The results of British Parliamentary elections in Ireland the following month would have an even bigger impact on the issue.

See archived stories about the Irish in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

How an 1879 prisoner report won good press for the Irish

(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.”

NOTES:

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.