July 6, 1854: A mob incited by a street preacher named Brown burns the Old South Meeting House in Bath, which was bought by Irish Catholics to serve as a church.

The incident is one of several violent anti-Catholic crimes that occurs in the 1850s in Maine, including the tarring of the Rev. John (or Johannes) Bapst on Oct. 14, 1854, in Ellsworth, in association with the rise of the xenophobic Know Nothing Party.

Around 8 p.m., several hundred men charge up Meeting House Hill and burst through the doors of the church. They hang an American flag from the belfry, ring the church bell, then burn the church to the ground while police officers watch.

Bath firefighter John Hilling later depicts the church’s destruction in a series of paintings that are now in the possession of the Maine Historical Society.

After the church fire, the police follow the mob back into town, where it threatens to drag a prominent Catholic out of the Sagadahoc House, but the mayor intervenes. The agitated crowd then storms through the streets, firing weapons into the air and yelling that all Irishmen should leave town to avoid being burned to death in their own houses. The rioters then haul some Irish occupants out of nearby shanties and demolish their dwellings.

The next night, the mob still is spoiling for a fight. Several men attach a rope to a house on Bowery Street, intending to pull it down because its owner, Oliver Moses, rented the house to a Catholic family.

Moses steps to the front of the crowd, holding an ax. He cuts the rope, then turns and quietly faces the crowd, members of which curse at him and threaten to kill him. A marshal steps to Moses’ side, and soon others join in his quiet resistance to the mob.

Otherwise, Bath town officials essentially do little to contain the rioting during the two-day period, according to author James Mundy, a former executive director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

“The Bath Riot showed above all else that the cancer of nativism had become, not only politically acceptable, but politically institutionalized in Maine,” Mundy writes in his 1990 book, “Hard Times, Hard Men: Maine and the Irish, 1830-1860.”

Presented by:

Joseph Owen is an author, retired newspaper editor and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. Owen’s book, “This Day in Maine,” can be ordered at islandportpress.com. To get a signed copy use promo code signedbyjoe at checkout. Joe can be contacted at: [email protected]

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