Wednesday, April 14, 2021

How the Klan Copied the Catholics

An army of Ku Klux Klan stalwarts drives St. Patrick, representing Roman Catholicism and Irish immigration, back across the Atlantic. From, "Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty" (1926), by Bishop Alma White. Irish-Catholic lore tells of how St. Patrick drove the snakes from Hibernia. Here, papist snakes flee America with St. Patrick. 

After the riots at the U.S. Capitol last January, white supremacist organizations like the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys have gotten a lot of media attention, but America’s oldest and most infamous hate group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), is rarely mentioned. Is it that the Klan just ain’t what it used to be?

Many Americans are familiar with the Klan’s history of intimidation, violence, and murder against African-Americans after the Civil War (1861-1865). The Klan declined in the late 19th-century under pressure from the federal government, but it reemerged in 1915, expanding in reaction to the movement of Blacks and immigrants into the cities of the North and Midwest.  While the KKK maintained an abiding hatred for Blacks, it added immigrants to its enemies list, because those coming through Ellis Island at the time were non-Protestants, notably Roman Catholics and Jews.

The KKK was not the first organization to oppose the entry of Catholics into the US. As early as the 1840s, the American Party (aka “Know-Nothings”) warned that Irish-Catholic immigrants were under the control of the pope, who sought to take over America. Nativists observed that the “Romish Church”—a term then used—was organized like the military. The Pope was its commander-in-chief. He demanded unquestioned loyalty from a hierarchy of cardinals, bishops, and priests. In turn, this clerical hierarchy held sway over the immigrant masses and dictated how the newcomers would vote.  Once the immigrants had achieved overwhelming numbers, they would rise-up at the Pope’s command and transform the United States into a theocracy.  

This alien religion, they said, was nothing like American Protestantism. Steeped in egalitarian traditions, Protestant believers owed allegiance only to the Lord Jesus. The Klan and other nativists also ridiculed the ostentation of Catholic religious practice. They mocked priestly vestments, the use of incense and holy water, the veneration of saints, and the deference shown Catholic prelates. All of this was described variously as “mumbo-jumbo,” “pope’s toe-ism,” and “idolatry.”  

It now seems obvious that the Klan, in making such criticisms, lacked self-awareness.  Just look at their regalia. Klansmen may have declared themselves fiercely opposed to papists, but that that did not stop them from wearing gowns that mimicked the garb worn for ages by Catholic “penitent societies” in the countries from which the immigrants the Klan so despised came. So closely do the two resemble each other that the BBC recently used photographs from Ku Klux Klan ceremonies to illustrate a story on Catholic brotherhoods in Spain. 


Some years ago, while visiting a cathedral in Spain, I stopped at a nearby shop selling religious articles. On display were rosaries, prayer books, saintly images, incense, and the like. The store also sold hooded robes for members of the local penitent society. A mannequin of baby Jesus was used to model toddler-sized robe and accessories. Today, such shops may assure tourists with labels that state, "No Ku Klux Klan - Spanish Tradition!"  

Other aspects of Catholicism that were anathema to evangelical Klansmen were the complex hierarchy and elaborate rituals of the Church. Hadn’t the Reformation rejected these trappings in favor of a spiritual return to the Gospels? True Protestantism would be egalitarian and austere in practice. Yet, when the Klan was going strong in early 20th century America, its rallies were notable for elaborate rigamarole and pageantry—burning crosses, flaming torches, solemn processions, and somber hymns—all presided over by a hierarchy of officers with arcane titles like “Grand Dragon” and “Imperial Wizard.”

A father and daughter, perhaps African-American tourists, pose in front of a Holy Week procession in Spain. The young woman looks upset at the resemblance the penitents bear to Klansmen. Her father seems to recognize that the similarities are superficial. Image courtesy of

Isn’t it ironic then that at least in its outward trappings the KKK adopted two medieval aspects of the Catholic Church it hated so much? No sane person would welcome the Klan's replacement by the likes of the Boogaloo Boys, but one can wish the hateful and anachronistic organization good riddance. 


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Mr. Dooley and the Birds of Passage


I recently came across a wonderful anecdote in a book written near the height of early 20th-century immigration to America.  In 1904, journalist Broughton Brandenburg published Imported Americans, documenting his and his wife’s experiences posing as immigrants from Sicily. Leslie's Magazine had financed their adventure, sending them to Italy, where they lived for a few months before making the voyage back to America in steerage. Brandenburg’s book described the entire experience, from the couple’s language and cultural orientation in New York’s Little Italy to the screening they passed through at Ellis Island on their return. Brandenburg illustrated the book with sixty-six of his own photographs.

One of the small stories Brandenburg tells gives insight into an important aspect of Italian immigration, the “Birds of Passage” phenomenon. One morning in a village outside Messina, Brandenburg is awakened by the voice of a child singing. The child is picking grapes in the vineyard below Brandenburg’s window. Brandenburg knows the song, but he's flummoxed to be hearing it here. It’s a popular American tune called “Mr. Dooley,” named for a comic Irish-American character created by Chicago newspaperman, Finlay Peter Dunne.

These are the days before radio. The song is best known via sheet music and an Edison recording sung in a thick brogue by an Irish tenor. But “Mr. Dooley” now comes to Brandenburg's ears under entirely different auspices. Journalist that he is, Brandenburg rousts himself from bed and ventures into the vineyard to find the source. The singer turns out to be an eight-year-old Sicilian boy who lived for two years in New York, where his father had contracted tuberculosis while working on the subway. The family had recently returned home so that the father might recover his health, but the boy tells Brandenburg that as soon as he’s big enough he’s going to run away and sail to America where he can go to school and make money selling newspapers.

Few Americans today realize that many immigrants, particularly during the Ellis Island Era (1892-1924), returned to their home countries. This was especially true for those from southern and central European countries. Italians had among the highest rates of return. More than forty percent went back.  They were thus described as “birds of passage.” Their reasons for return were many. Most were single men, who had traveled to the United States to work for a time and save enough money to get married, buy a plot of land, and build a house back home, where it was said they could live like Rockefeller. They were “target laborers” who never planned on staying in the United States. A few even made repeated trips, arriving in the spring and returning in the winter. During the sailing ship era, this would have been almost impossible, but the advent of the steamship made passage cheaper, faster, and less grueling.  

"The Immigrant. Is he an acquisition or a detriment?" An Italian laborer is the center of attention. Immigration from Italy was reaching its peak in 1903. For the first time in US history, annual immigration was exceeding one million. Artist: Victor Gillam, Judge Magazine, September 19, 1903. Courtesy of the American Social History Project

Americans hated this return migration. They accused the Italian laborer of exploiting their hospitality, caring nothing at all for the country that was treating them so well! In fact, a good many of the return immigrants went home as broken men. As one said, “America took us in, chewed us up, and spit us out.” These were the days before “workman’s compensation” and occupational safety practices. Injuries and deaths were common for laborers, especially those who did the dirty, dull and dangerous work that was the Italian’s lot in America.

Debilitating disease also sent many back, as was the case for the young singer’s father. The Italian immigrants lived disproportionately in America’s eastern seaboard cities. Many dwelled in tenements, where contagious diseases, particularly tuberculosis, thrived. At congressional hearings in 1924, witnesses said that Italian immigrants wanted to go home as soon as they had contracted the disease. Some must have believed that they would recover more quickly at home. Others returned in order to die. It was said that the hospitals and sanitariums in Sicily were crowded with tubercular patients returned from America.

No matter what the reason for return migration, Americans said they despised it. Their complaints were not unlike the complaints against Mexican immigrants today. They said the newcomers were nothing like the immigrants of old who had helped “upbuild” the nation. They accused the Italians of remaining loyal to the old country while acting with mercenary motives toward America. The birds of passage, the critics said, cared only for money, which they would take out of this country. Even worse, Americans believed that because the Italian laborers sought only to save enough to live well in Italy, where it was cheap, while in America they would take any kind of job, submit to the worst exploitation, and live under horrid conditions to achieve their target. In sum, the birds of passage were an affliction for the honest American working men.  

In the Sicilian village where Broughton Brandenburg stayed, ten percent of the population was away in America and the movement between countries was quite regular. Immigration from Italy to America grew explosively in the late 1800s. The U.S. Census of 1850 counted some 3,600 Italians in the entire country.  In 1903, the year Brandenburg visited southern Italy, more than 230,000 Italians arrived. Between 1900 and 1915, a total of 3 million migrated. As this stream of newcomers matured, fewer repatriated. Instead, those single men who had pioneered the process were joined by family and friends. Many birds of passage sent for fiances or wives, settled down and became full-fledged Americans. Whether that young boy who sang outside Brandenburg’s window ever returned to America we may never know, but I like to think he did.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Irish and Chinese Railway Workers, "Meat vs. Rice"?

This 1860s illustration is entitled, "The Great Fear of the Period." Given that Civil War and Reconstruction dominated the decade, it seems strange anyone then could think of immigration as a major concern. Yet, fear that the country was being consumed by foreigners, namely by the Irish and the Chinese, was particularly strong in states like California and Utah.  In this cartoon, the two chief rivals of mid-19th century foreign labor, the Irish “Paddy” and the Chinese “coolie,” stand astride a sketched landscape of America as they compete to swallow Uncle Sam whole. Not only does the Chinaman consume most of Uncle Sam, but he also eats the Irishman, his jacket bursting at the seams as he wears Paddy’s hat. Both immigrant groups were criticized for underbidding native-born labor and for their willingness to work under what Americans considered sub-human conditions. By the 1860s, the Irish had done most of the work on the railroad in the eastern part of the country. Many then sought to work on the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. “The Last Spike” ceremony outside of Provo, Utah, marked the completion of the line on May 10, 1869. 

From this iconic photograph of "The Last Spike" event, we might assume that the Chinese were not invited. There is not a Chinese face to be seen. 

In 1881, painter Thomas Hill offered a retrospective and romanticized interpretation of the same occasion. He depicted railroad baron Leland Stanford driving that final spike. At least a couple of Chinese workers can be seen in the foreground (holding shovels). Stanford, who became governor of California in 1862 spoke out against the Chinese as an inferior race whose presence would have a “deleterious influence” on American society, but this did not deter him from importing thousands of Chinese men as cheap labor. The good governor would go on to found Stanford University with a generous endowment no doubt deriving from his railroad fortune.
Thomas Hill painted this romanticized version of the "Golden Spike" event eleven years after it took place. Railway magnate Leland Stanford ceremonially drives the last spike. Just behind his kneeling helper on the left, one can see Chinese workers bearing shovels and wearing blue shirts.

Ironically, 1881 marks the year that Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the immigration of Chinese workers to the U.S. Both native American and Irish-born laborers supported the ban. In fact, Irish-born union organizer Dennis Kearny agitated against all immigration from Asia. The Irish had grievances in common with the Chinese—both were sorely exploited—but the Irish saw the Chinese only as competitors. As for Americans in general, they feared and distrusted the “Chinese coolie,” believing that Asian labor would lower living standards for native-born workers. 

This belief was suggested by the title of union leader Samuel Gompers’s book, “Meat vs. Rice?” Gompers was himself an immigrant (from England) and a champion of the working man, but he opposed Chinese immigration. As has so often been the case with America, just as one wave of immigrants starts to find its feet, a newer, hungrier wave follows. The newest arrivals are willing to work for less and under harsher conditions. This, of course, discomfits those who came before them. In 1892, the Scots writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, traveled America's Far West by rail and commented on such anti-immigrant feeling, “Awhile ago it was the Irish, now it is the Chinese that must go.”  

Of course, Chinese workers were already barred from entry. Not until after World War II, when the exclusion law was lifted, did immigration from China become numerically significant. In 2018, China displaced Mexico as the top country of origin for new immigrants to the U.S. In the wake of the declining relationship between China and the U.S. during the Trump years, we can only guess how immigration from China will fare under the Biden administration.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Dirty Words and Captain Clock 

French Priests Among First Americans

Portrait of Jesuit missionary, Fr. Jacques Marquette, by Wilhelm Lamprecht (1838-1906).
This romanticized vision contrasts with more realistic depictions, such as portrayed in "Black Robe," the Brian Moore novel, and the movie which it inspired.  

Once again, I have been perusing “TheJesuit Relations” online. It’s a collection of letters that French missionary priests in North America, particularly in Canada, sent their superiors back home in the 1600 and 1700s. The letters are fascinating sources of ethnographic detail on indigenous peoples, especially on Iroquoian and Algonquin tribes. The letters also provide insights into the attitudes of these priests, which could range from earnest concern for the souls of “les sauvages” to the self-righteous condescension of proselytization. The letters can be fascinating, horrible, and sometimes hilarious.

I recently came across a funny scene in which a young priest ruefully recounts how an Indian host embarrassed him. This host, an old man, was intrigued by the Jesuit’s ability to write and read. He decided to test the priest by dictating Huron sentences to him, insisting that every word be transcribed exactly.  This is no small task for the priest. He is still struggling to learn the Huron language. He doesn't understand what he's hearing. He simply writes phonetically what the old man says. After he has managed to take down a few words, his host asks him to read them aloud to the assembled company.

Here, it deserves mention that one of the things that could drive the more contemplative priests nuts was that there always seemed to be company. Being alone was something the Indians rarely did!

Anyway, the audience reaction to the priest’s recitation is overwhelming. As the young man slowly enunciates each word, his listeners start to laugh. Before he can say more than a few words, the lodge is filled with fits of gasping, howling laughter. This earnest young Jesuit, who has hoped to enlighten the benighted, has brought down the house!

But the young priest is no dummy. It doesn't take him long to realize that he's been set up. The old man has dictated to him obscenities. And the young man is bound to be struggling with their pronunciation, perhaps repeating them syllable by syllable, which makes them even more hilarious.  The priest wants to stop, but his host tells him it’s out of the question. He’s got to continue! And a grand old time is had by all (save one), especially when the Indians see that the young priest is truly embarrassed.

If we are to believe the Jesuit accounts, the Indians routinely used language that the French considered obscene. Men and women, boys and girls, young and old, cheerfully bantered, using terms for sexual acts and bodily functions. And yet, from what the priests say, the Indians were not “libidinous” in behavior.  

Canadian writer Brian Moore seems to have depended heavily on the “Jesuit Relations” for his fine novel, “BlackRobe” (1985), the English rendering of the name the Indians used for the Jesuits. In turn, Moore’s book inspired the film of the same name (1991) directed by Bruce Beresford.  The movie includes a scene where the Indians gather together around a clock the Jesuits have brought into the forest. The Indians call the timepiece, “Captain Clock.” The priests seem to have told them when to expect the tolling, and there’s a sense of anticipation among them as the hands move into position. The priests have also encouraged them to think that the captain is under priestly command, and they order it to stop just in time.

If memory serves, I encountered a description of this scene years ago from another reading of the “Jesuit Relations.” It makes the Indians seem childlike and naïve. What I most like about the account of the young priest taking dictation is that it shows how the tables could be turned. For a time, in the forests of North America, it was the Europeans who were like naive children.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Erasmus's World of Kisses and Ruskin's Chastity

This is about culture change, specifically about how attitudes in a single country may change over time, sometimes remarkably. Many of us associate Victorian England with prudery. Women were supposed to dress and behave modestly. They were to defer to their husbands in their opinions. They were largely restricted to the domestic sphere as wives and mothers. Men were supposed to maintain an outgoing, chivalrous deportment. They were the breadwinners and protectors.

Self-portrait of John Ruskin. The Victorian art critic was an excellent draftsman and skilled painter. Yet his greatest contribution to art may have been as an "influencer." His support for such painters as Turner and the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Millais, helped bring them fame.  

Of course, we know that men, especially affluent men, had secret lives. Many had liaisons with mistresses and prostitutes. Yet, sexual matters were not to be discussed in polite company, particularly between the sexes. Victorianism at its most extreme might best be illustrated by the marriage of the influential art critic, John Ruskin, to the much younger Effie Gray. Although the union lasted five years, the couple never had sex. The story goes that on the wedding night Ruskin was disgusted to find that Effie had pubic hair. He was familiar with the nudes of classical sculpture, but not with flesh and blood nakedness. In the midst of this unhappy relationship, Ruskin commissioned the painter, John Everett Millais, to do his portrait. Effie and Millais fell in love. Effie sued to have her marriage annulled. She succeeded largely because the union had never been consummated. Effie went on to wed Millais. By all accounts, they—and their children—lived happily ever after. I call on this anecdote as an illustration of a straight-laced, prudish element of late 19th-century England. 

Accounts of English society during the reign of Henry VIII provide a vivid contrast. One of these accounts comes from the letters of Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch philosopher-scholar who traveled among the courts of Europe. His collection of Apothegms consists of thousands of “old sayings” that he traces to classical times. These volumes might qualify as the original bedside readers if they were not so cumbersome! 

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) 

At the age of thirty-three, Erasmus visited England for the first time. He was smitten by English culture, which his letters reveal to be far different than the culture of Ruskin’s England. Erasmus wrote enthusiastically to the poet Faustus Andrelinus, entreating his friend to join him in England.

Why are you so complacently burying your wit among French dunghills while you turn into an old man?... If you were fully aware of what England has to offer, you would rush hither, I tell you, on winged feet… There is one custom that can never be commended too highly. When you arrive anywhere, you are received with kisses on all sides, and when you take your leave they speed you on your way with kisses. The kisses are renewed when you come back. When guests come to your house, their arrival is pledged with kisses; and when they leave kisses are shared once again. If you should happen to meet, then kisses are given profusely. In a word, wherever you turn, the world is full of kisses…

This “world full of kisses” sounds nothing like the proper Victorian world. It extended into the reign of Elizabeth I, where kissing was particularly popular on the dance floor. Accounts of a dance, nicknamed “Kissum,” describe participants kissing every dancer of the other sex. These may sometimes have been mere pecks on the cheek, but full-on-the-mouth kisses were not uncommon. After a particular round ended, couples would retire to the sideline where we are told, they would sit—the young man on his partner’s lap—to exchange endearments and to kiss some more!

Yet the seeds of Victorianism were already being planted. Kissing of all sorts was popular in the Catholic Church, from kissing the prelate’s ring to kissing the bones of dead saints. Elsewhere in his letters from England, Erasmus describes touring a religious site where he and a companion were expected to kiss relics, including the still-bloody arm of a reputed martyr. Then, too, there was the kissing going on in Rome among the clergy and their mistresses. It was opposition to such behavior that fed the Reformation and lent power to Puritanism, which flowered over the next century and no doubt helped shape Victorian England.


The Persistence of Dutch in America


The Persistence of the Dutch Language in America

To hear Americans complain that many Spanish-speaking immigrants are “refusing” to learn English just adds to the evidence that the “United States of Amnesia” is an apt nickname for this country. Rarely has any immigrant group given up its natal language in fewer than two generations. Historically, several of America’s most significant ethnic groups held onto their “mother tongue” for far longer. I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, which touches the Hudson Valley region originally settled by immigrants from the Netherlands—the Dutch—so let me start with them.  

In 1624, the Dutch established New Amsterdam at the southern end of Manhattan Island. The English took the colony from the Netherlands in 1664. Nearly a hundred years later, the Dutch language was still being spoken in the Hudson Valley “fairly extensively,” according to historian John Higham. One history of New York, published in 1756, stated that "the sheriffs find it difficult to obtain persons sufficiently acquainted with the English tongue to serve as jurors in the Courts of law." 

Before the Revolution, newspapers regularly carried advertisements for the sale of indentured and enslaved people. Sometimes, bounties were offered for runaway captives. These notices often indicated the runaway’s proficiency in Dutch. In fact, the famous abolitionist Sojourner Truth, born around 1797 as Isabella Baumfree, spoke Dutch as her first language. Truth had grown up on a farm in the Hudson Valley only a few miles away from Kinderhook, the birthplace of Martin Van Buren. Born in 1782, Van Buren would become America’s eighth president.

Despite his family having lived in America for five generations, Van Buren grew up speaking Dutch. He was our first president to speak English as a second language, but his immediate predecessor, Andrew Jackson, was raised in a household where Gaelic may have been spoken. Jackson’s parents were immigrants from Ireland. In an early instance of “birtherism,” his critics slandered Jackson as having been brought to America as an infant and not actually born here. Had this been true, Jackson would not have been constitutionally eligible to become president.

More than a century after the English had taken control over the colony of New York, local communities operated schools offering instruction in Dutch, but English schools were displacing them, prompting geographer Jedidiah Morse to predict that the Dutch language would likely disappear “in a few generations.” Morse was not far wrong. While English had generally displaced Dutch by the beginning of the 1800s, visitors to the Hudson Valley were still commenting that Dutch had “corrupted” the English spoken there, and old people in a few northern New Jersey communities were said to speak a peculiar dialect called “Bergen Dutch.”

Of course, “Dutch” is also what many Americans called immigrants who spoke German, such as the “Pennsylvania Dutch” who came from Switzerland. Today, more Americans trace their ancestry to Germany than from any other country. How German-speakers actively sought to keep the mother tongue alive in America is perhaps the best example of immigrant language preservation and a story for another time.

Portraits of Sojourner Truth and Martin Van Buren from, respectively, the National Museum of Women's History and

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Is America Really More Diverse?

 The Last Yankee. A mainstream rural American, no doubt descended from “colonial stock,” arrives in the big city and finds himself surrounded by a motley throng of “new immigrants.” He's become a curiosity in his own country. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 8, 1888. 

It is often said that America is more diverse than ever before. There is no doubt this is true in an objective sense. Certainly, the population of the United States today comes from a greater variety of nations, languages, religions, and cultures than ever before. And yet, an argument can be made that we are not so diverse as we were in the early twentieth century when the majority of Americans could trace their ancestries to Europe.

To appreciate this idea, we must recognize that some of the largest countries of immigrant origin were far more heterogeneous than they are now. Germany is one example. Today, more Americans can trace their ancestry to Germany than any other country, but for most of the 19th century, Germany did not exist as a unified nation-state. What we now call a country was, in fact, a hodgepodge of more than thirty principalities and states. Immigrants who came here considered themselves Prussians, Hessians, Bavarians, and others. They differed from each other culturally and religiously. The German language may have united them, but the newcomers often spoke regional dialects and very few knew any English. 

Today globalization has smoothed over many localized identities. Relatively few newcomers come from isolated peasant cultures. This was not the case during the great waves of European immigration when most arrivals came to America’s cities from rural backwaters. The Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and social media, in general, have brought about a cross-cultural awareness, call it a cosmopolitanism, that did not exist, say, in 1888, when Matt Morgan drew the accompanying illustration.

American immigration shifted remarkably starting in 1882 when the federal government took control of admissions. Whereas most immigrants had come from northern and western Europe, the mix suddenly changed. The “new immigrants,” as they were then called to distinguish them from the founding “colonial stock” or “old immigrants,” seemed utterly alien to many mainstream Americans.    

Opinion writers and university professors thought America was heading down a dangerous road. The nation was abandoning our Anglo-Saxon roots in favor of a dangerous diversity.  Morgan’s humorous illustration conveys a bit of this dread. Front and center is a Yankee, not unlike the familiar depiction of Uncle Sam. Our Yankee looks like a dressed-up farmer, who has come to the big city, perhaps for the first time.

In the city, the Last Yankee becomes an object of curiosity to a multicultural crowd. Most of the gawkers are European in origin. Morgan knew his ethnic types. We see Scots, Dutch, German, English, Irish and more. We even see Black, Chinese, Arab, and Jew. The signs on the surrounding businesses declare American identities, but they, too, are something new—Germans brought delicatessens and Chinese, laundries. After the crowd has ogled this strange creature, they will return to their own kind.