When the factions were not fighting amongst each other, they banded together for the “common good” into one large Secret Society organization.
It is important to understand that even in the best conditions, the Irish were living in extreme poverty. Even the most minute loss of wage or work would cause the loss of any sort of livelihood they may have had.
Because of this, the Irish felt that canal jobs belonged to them, creating ethnic animosity. However, the most volatile fuel for the fire came from the loss of work and wages. When other ethnicities were given jobs on the canal, the Irish feared they would no longer be able to provide for themselves and families.
In April 1836, German hands were dispersed from the line by terror tactics, including heavy beatings and robbery. But it wasn’t until 1839 that a vicious attack finally allowed the canal company to loosen the control of the Irish Secret Societies.
On August 11, 1839 over 100 Longford and Corkonian men, armed with guns, clubs, and other deadly weapons, stalked canal sections 281 and 193.
Located between Hancock and Cumberland, these sections were operated by German contractors and laborers. The Irish saw their employment as infringing on their territory, jobs, wages, and in essence, their rights to subsistence. The goal was to force the Germans from the canal line.
Finally, the Irish attacked, destroying buildings, shanties, and stealing anything of value. Any worker or person who objected to the assault was beaten. By the end of the attack, the Irish left one worker mortally injured and the remaining Germans terrified.
Father Guth, the German’s Catholic priest, was present during the attack and attributed it to “highway robbers and incarnite devils crazed with liquor and emboldened by lack of law and order”. The Canal Company viewed the assault in a similar light, pressing blame fully to the Irish.
The Irish were successful in narrowing the labor supply and, consequently, forcing the canal to pay higher wages to its workers. However, the canal company attempted to use this incident to once again restore law and order.
The Hagerstown based Maryland Militia was once again called in, and upon finding the Irish workers still extremely hostile, filed a report stating that the attack was one of a long history of violence, and that the Irish laborers held between 600-800 firearms, were governed by Secret Societies, and committed daily robberies and murders.
Nonetheless, the militia failed to collect evidence of the assault. Out of fear, witnesses chose to remain silent. Because no further measures could be taken, the withdrawal of troops allowed rioters to feel invincible and above the law, proving to the company that civilian militias were not enough to calm the rooted hostilities on the canal line.
This invincibility was soon cut short, when by August 24, Father Guth forwarded a list of names of the Irish involved in the German attack to General Otho H. Williams, commander of the 2nd Brigade of Maryland Militia of Hagerstown, Maryland. Forwarding the list, the General ordered that “immediate and energetic measures” be taken to silence and disarm those listed. Williams demanded that those without significant evidence of remorse be forced off the line, and their contractors ordered to disallow the men to return to work.
On August 27, 150 men advanced in an effort to intimidate the Irish laborers, disarming and dismissing those who had proven riotous. The troops ransacked the shanties, and burned to the ground any accomodation of which the occupants refused to allow a search. Of course, the Irish refused orders, and battle ensued. While many workers escaped by crossing the Potomac River under heavy fire, 8 to 10 canalwers were shot, and over $700 in arms were destroyed. During this raid, 40 to 50 shanties were completely destroyed.
Over the next 3 days, troops destroyed 120 more weapons and demolished a large number more shanties. Numerous printed passwords and countersigns were retrieved from the shanties, finally providing the canal company evidence towards the existence of unground organizations of workers which possessed, at the bare minimum, 500 total guns.
During the militia’s invasion on the Irish, many of the workers named by Father Guth were arrested, one of which was accidentally killed by a civilian attempting to assist the troops. The prisoners were taken to Cumberland, Maryland, where they were released to the civil authorities.
According to the Hagerstown Sun, September 25, 1839, of those arrested, one paid a $1,000 bond, one was sent to Hagerstown for trial, four were discharged, and nineteen were pressed with charges ranging from riot and robbery to assault with the intent to kill.
However, the canal company remained unconvinced of its ability to fully prosecute these workers based upon the small amount of evidence collected. The canal was even less convinced that these arrests would prove successful in deterring further violence on the canal line. Remaining workers and witnesses refused to provide further evidence to the company.
Secretly, the canal company hired labor spy James Finney -- the first documented labor spy hire in U.S. history. Finney spent several days in the hostile environment, collecting and documenting incriminating evidence against those in custody.
The trial for the 19 workers remaining in Cumberland ran October 14 through October 31. Between Finney’s testimony and the general ill will against the Irish, most of the men stood little chance and 14 of the 19 workers were convicted. Two workers were sentenced for 17 ⅔ years, 7 for 15 years, 3 for 9 years, and 1 for 4 ⅔ years. Of those who were unable to be convicted, four were acquitted and one was sent to Washington County, Maryland to stand trial.
The canal company was impressed with the evidence Finney was able to collect, and felt that they were finally able to prove their authority and dominance over their canal line. In the canal company’s eyes, they were the “new sheriff in town”, and had gained the power of meeting violence on the line with prosecution.
But the Irish, and many area residents, were angry. Citizens felt that the militia had gone much too far by destroying the property of those who had no hand in the riots. Many of the shanties and inns destroyed belonged to contractors or area residents, in effect destroying their livelihoods for the sins of the Irish.
Although the move eroded views of the canal by area residents, the canal company had won this battle by chopping away at the Irish workers’ ability to control the labor force, increasing the worker supply and decreasing wages from $1.25 to 37 ½ cents per day.
Not all Irish warfare on the canal took the form of bloodthirsty, surprise raids. In many cases, the Irish factions displayed a sort of civility by posting notice against their grievances. If their demands were not met, however, violence ensued.
In November 1836, the following notice was posted at the PawPaw Tunnel in respect to manager James Reynolds, who had testified against Irish rioters on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad two years earlier.
“We give ye a civil notice Concerning your manager Mr. James Reynolds that you will discharge him out of your employment so that it will save us Some trouble for coming here a distance… any Labouring man that will work under the said James Reynolds let him mind the consequence hereafter. Any carter that works his carts under the said Reynolds let him mind it also for I give them all a fair notice that I will come with stronger forces the next time and when they will not be aware of it… if Reynolds leaves the tunnel in 6 or 8 days time after this notice will be no more trouble.”
Irish Workers at the PawPaw Tunnel
In July of 1838, further notices were posted at the PawPaw tunnel, demanding that two particular bosses remove themselves from the canal line. In a letter, Chief Engineer Charles B. Fisk wrote, “these notices are not idle threats”, signifying that the canal did not disregard the Irish workers’ directive.
The PawPaw tunnel notices were not peculiar. Many other contractors also received similar notifications. While many contractors' fear of the “Irish canal mob” caused them to flee upon receipt, others first refused.
Contractor William Brown received warning that he and his men must quit work, and after refusal, “about twenty men wantonly came and burnt down my office and stable which I had built for the purpose of prosecuting the Work Immediately and also destroying my tools and grain that I had purchased for my horses with threats it would be renewed if I would procede any further”. In response, Brown asked that the canal company consider his contract abandoned so that he could flee the line.
Contractor John Daily similarly ignored the Irish warning, having his carts and tools thrown in the river and receiving threats on his life, prompting him to suspend work within his section.
A builder named Tracy also ignored a notice. He was first beaten, but again resumed work. Shortlythereafter, the Irish set fire to his shanty. While Tracy and a priest he was hosting were inside the arsoned shanty, they miraculously managed to narrowly escape the flames.
Avoiding being exclusive, fellow workers also received these types of notes. Employees of unfavorable contractors, those of another faction than the by which the canal section was controlled, or those proven unloyal to the dominant organization were first asked to leave the line. According to George Bender, the consequence of refusal was “usually a midnight beating, which in many cases causes death.”
Inciting fear in this way was seen as successful for the Irish objectives. Upon receipt of notice, workers of both Brown and Tracy fled the line, which opened up jobs for faction members. And because most victims feared for their lives or that of their families and comrades, not one ever spoke against the correspondents. According to Charles B. Fisk, “A muder may be committed. A hundred of them may witness it. And yet not one person can be found who knows anything about it.”
An 1846 newspaper article from the Anti-Slavery Bugle, New Lisbon, Ohio points to the fact that a lot of the violence on the canal could have been quelled simply by kinder words and less threat of punishment. The authors note that while providing medical treatment to canalwers, they never so much felt compelled to carry a weapon for self-defense. Instead, they would befriend the Irish and were able to successfully mitigate many quarrels and calls for violence.
"...We well recollect the result of our experience, in this respect, when engaged in medical practice among the rude and belligerent sons of Erin who were, a number of years ago, engaged in digging the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. During the bloody riots that used to prevail--- when “Fardowns” and “Corkonians” met in battle array, with pickaxe and gun--- we never found it necessary to carry a pistol or any other “implement of self-defense” as they are sometimes called. Our brethren of the Faculty used to wonder at this, and ask us if we were not afraid to go among the Canallers unarmed? We answered--- no! And why not? We reply, because we knew we could not possibly give offence while in the line of our duty--- that the condensing parties did not wish us any harm, and sought only their real enemy. To show ourself their friend was the way to move among them. This we did by gentle reproofs--- by appeals to their better sense--- to even their reason. In this way we have prevented more than one scene of violence. We have, by a simple appeal to the better sense of some infuriated victim of rum, caused the arm of violence, lifted against a personal friend--- perhaps a faithful though spirited wife--- to fall harmless. To have threatened the consequences of the law, would have been only to increase the flame of passion; but a gentle word acted like a spell. “Patrick, don’t strike your poor wife--- never strike a woman, the mother of your children, who is trying to do the best she can!” was far more efficient than “Pat, you drunken wretch! Would you dare to strike a women?” or the like mode of reproof. The former would call forth the confession that he had been taking “a wee bit too much,” and an asking of pardon--- whereas the latter would have only aroused the fiery spirit of defiance. Now, as with Irishmen, so with other men, Gentleness of persuasion will generally control them, where rudeness of reproach would only infuriate and make unmanageable..."
Anti-Slavery Bugle, New Lisbon, Ohio. 17 April 1846.
While most sources of the past view the Irish as "crazed, drunken, vile, devils", the Irish were very much a victim of circumstance. The viewpoint of the medical workers above shows that the Irish were only human, carrying the weight of circumstance on their shoulders while clawing their way through the life presented them.
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