[Religious Riots of Philadelphia] [MAGEE, J.L. (lithographer)]

Death of George Shifler in Kensington

Philadelphia: Wm Smit. [1844]. "Death of George Shifler | Born Jan 24 1825 | Murdered May 6 1844 | In Kensington." Original hand-colored lithograph depicting a fallen Shifler on a cobblestone street, bleeding from a wound to the chest, surrounded by three comrades as he clutches an American flag. In the background rioters can be seen against an architectural backdrop. 10.5 x 13.75 inches. A few light marks to margins, else fine. 

The fear of immigrants has never gone out of fashion for politicians when looking for a divisive issue. President Trump, for example, expressed ideas throughout his candidacy and presidency very much in line with those behind the Alien and Sedition Acts and his anti-immigration attitudes and policies are of course well known.  Eerily prescient in a number of ways in our current climate, rife as they are with examples of flag-draped xenophobic hysteria, the present poignant lithograph harkens back to an earlier instance of such, the first casualty of the 1844 Philadelphia Bible Riots, which roiled the city in both May and July of that year leaving dozens dead and hundreds wounded. As was the case in many other large cities on the Eastern seaboard, Anti-Catholic sentiment in Philadelphia had grown throughout the 1840s in response to the arrival of waves of Irish immigrants fleeing the Famine and tensions came to a head in 1844, amid false rumors that Catholics were agitating to remove Protestant Bibles from the public schools.  The first series of riots began on May 6th, when the American Republican Party,  nativist precursor to the Know-Nothings, staged a rally in the Kensington neighborhood, home to a large Irish immigrant community. According to The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, heckling yielded to fistfights and then gunfire and the first killed was eighteen-year-old apprentice tanner and nativist George Shifler, whose death is depicted in the present lithograph published soon thereafter.  His death was exploited as a propaganda tool by the Know-Nothings, who claimed that Shifler had perished while defending or rescuing an American flag and "made him a martyr for the Nativist cause...resulting in a large funeral with poems, songs, and prints created in his honor and Nativists parading the flag around the city with a placard exclaiming that the flag 'was trampled on by Irish papists.'" (National Museum of American History website, “Death of George Shifler”) 

The present image – paradoxically produced by the hand of an Irish-American lithographer, Jonathan L. Magee –  is unexpectedly affecting, the delicacy of the depiction of Shifler's dying face suggesting perhaps even a note of remorse.  A later version of the print, published by DeWitt in New York after the July riots, includes in the caption the names of further fallen (Nativist) heroes; a copy is held at the National Museum of American History (Peters Collection, though the image is not catalogued in America on Stone). OCLC notes additional copies (of uncertain issue) at AAS, LOC, and Villanova; we also note a copy at LCP.  (5864)

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