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Old St Peter's Roman Catholic Church-NYC-003Old St. Peter’s Church at today’s 22 Barclay Street,¬†built 1785-1786. Source: Wikimedia

Sometimes we forget that even New York City has come a long way to garner its reputation for religious and ethnic toleration. In 1806, a riot broke out on Christmas Eve in the city. According to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, fifty members of the Highbinders (or Hide Binders)–a nativist gang of apprentices and propertyless journeyman butchers–gathered outside St. Peter’s to taunt worshippers leaving midnight mass. The watch prevented a serious disorder but on Christmas Day, Irishmen fearing a Highbinder attack armed themselves with cudgels, stones and brickbats.”

A skirmish broke out, one watchman was killed and the Highbinders invaded the Irishtown. The riot only ended when magistrates were able to restore order. The only people to get arrested were Irish.

Traditionally, new groups have always been viewed suspiciously by the establishment in America—historically first it was the Irish, then the Italians, then the Chinese. In the early days of the United States, Irish Catholics were particularly targeted and barred from holding office through a series of laws and requirements–such as a 1777 naturalization clause. The 1806 Christmas Riots occurred less than a year¬†following the election of the first Irish Catholic to the assembly.

Best wishes for a more peaceful Christmas and holidays in 2013!

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich. Read more from our column “On This Day in History.”

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