Washington Oddities: The Plug Uglies come to Washington DC.
John William Tuohy
The formation of the Know Nothing party would, as John F. Kennedy pointed out, give the American Irish the odd distinction of being the only group of Americans to have a political party formed against them.
The Know Nothings were founded in New York City in 1853 by a former dry goods store owner named James W. Barker under the name The Supreme Order of the Star Spangled Banner. It was supposed to be a super-secret organization that was dedicated to keeping foreigners, naturalized citizens, and above all else, Catholics, out of political office. In the organizations prime years (1850's -1860's) all of those things, foreign and Catholic, meant the Irish who made up 45% of the country’s foreign born.
On June 1, 1857, a Know Nothing sponsored group of thugs calling themselves the Plug Uglies arrived by train from Baltimore to disrupt the local municipal elections. Armed with a cannon, rifles, pistol and clubs, they marched to Northern market then the cities commercial district and quickly took control of the voting booths. They beat Irish citizens who tried to vote and threatened to burn down Irish and African American ghettos.
The city's mayor was William Beans Magruder (1810–1869) was a prominent physician who served as Mayor from 1856 to 1858. Although born in Montgomery County, the family moved to Georgetown where Magruder was raised and educated. He set up his medical practice there in 1831. A year later, when a cholera epidemic broke out. Magruder was placed in charge of the Western Hospital and his heroic actions during the epidemic made his reputation as an important physician in the city.
Magruder is the subject of a now famous anecdote that once, while attempting to talk a small boy into taking a dose of castor oil, he promised the child that the medicine was very sweet, when the boy replied, "Well, then, if it's so good, why don't you take some yourself?"
Magruder entered public office in 1835, when he became a member of the Washington Board of Health. Two years later, he was elected to the city's Common Council, then to the Board of Aldermen in 1843, where he served until 1856.
John Thomas Towers, a Know Nothing had been mayor before Magruder. Towers, born in Alexandria to English immigrant parents, was trained as a printer and ran several book and printing shops in Washington until 1852 when President Millard Fillmore appointed him superintendent of printing at the U.S. Capitol.
(The position was the forerunner of the modern Government Printing Office.) The Know-Nothings put Towers up for mayor against incumbent John Walker Maury in 1854.
Maury was born in Caroline County, Virginia to a prominent family. His great-grandfather, Reverend James Maury, had founded the Maury Classical School for Boys at which Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were students. His grandfather was headmaster of a school in Williamsburg; his great-uncle, "Consul" James Maury, was the United States' first consul to Liverpool, England, appointed by George Washington; and his uncle, Matthew Fontaine Maury, was a famous and accomplished oceanographer.
He moved at 17 to Washington City (as DC was then called), where he established a law practice. As mayor, Maury (and the philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran) convinced Congress to appropriate funds for the Government Hospital for the Insane, now known as St. Elizabeth’s. He also oversaw the start of construction of Washington's public waterworks. Additionally, he appropriated the money to pay sculptor Clark Mills to complete the statue of Andrew Jackson that stands in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House.
The year 1854 was the political peak for Know Nothings all across America that year, and the party elected mayors in most of the major US cities, including DC and John T. Towers defeated Maury.
As mayor go, Towers was a disaster. In 1856, Towers declined to seek re-election. In his place, the Know-Nothings nominated Silas H. Hill to succeed him as mayor. However, the city's Democrats, Republicans, and remaining Whigs banded together as the "Anti-Know-Nothing Party" and nominated Magruder. After one of the fiercest campaigns in the history of Washington, Magruder won the mayoral election by a mere 13 votes.
As mayor, Magruder worked to build the city's infrastructure, in particular building an archway over a stream that then ran near L Street and frequently overflowed, damaging the city streets.
The Plug-Uglies turned away anti-Know-Nothing voters with rocks, guns, and knives, until some citizens brought weapons of their own and the violence grew into mob rule. When the rioters reached levels of over 1,000, Magruder, commanding a force of less than 56 full time Police officers most of whom had abandoned their posts in the face of the pending violence, was forced to close the polls and appeal to President Buchanan, one of eleven children of poor Ulster Irish parents, for help. (Of those eleven children, three died in infancy and only one o lived past the year 1840) However, before soldiers arrived, the rioters had stolen a Federal cannon and Magruder pled with the mob to abandon it and surrender until Navy Marines arrived and dispersed the rioters.
Buchanan also knew a thing or two about the Know Nothings. In fact, in 1856, former president, Millard Fillmore's Know-Nothing candidacy helped Buchanan defeat John C. Fremont, the first Republican candidate for president.
Buchanan ordered marines from the nearby Capitol Hill barracks to restore order. General Archibald Henderson (January 21, 1783 – January 6, 1859 75) the so-called "Grand old man of the Marine Corps" hailed from Colchester (A former wealthy tobacco port, it is an unincorporated town on the Occoquan River) in Fairfax County. Henderson would be the longest-serving Commandant of the Marine Corps (over 38 years) and had served on the USS Constitution during her famous victories in the War of 1812.
He went into the field as Commandant during the Indian campaigns in Florida and Georgia during 1836 and 1837, and was promoted brevet brigadier general for his actions in these campaigns. Tradition holds that he pinned a note to his door that read, "Gone to Florida to fight the Indians. Will be back when the war is over."
Henderson is credited with thwarting attempts by President Andrew Jackson to combine the Marine Corps with the Army in 1829. Instead, Congress passed the Act for the Better Organization of the Marine Corps in 1834, ensuring the Marines would remain part of the United States Department of the Navy. A sword presented to Henderson after the end of the Mexican-American War read "From the Halls of Montezuma, to the Shores of Tripoli" giving the opening words to the Marines' hymn.
Henderson, then 74-years-old and dressed in a civilian suit (He had been in church when the call came in to the Marines barracks on 8th Street just after noon) ordered Maj. Henry Tyler to march two companies of marines from their Barracks to down town. Also in command were Capts. Jacob Zeilin and William Maddox. (Of Charles County, the USS Maddox is named for him) Henderson rode at the front of the men; armed with an umbrella (Others say it was a cane)
The two companies marched to the District’s city hall, where Major Tyler discussed the situation with Mayor Magruder and then carried on towards the polling headquarters at what is now 5th and K streets.
The marines took the voting booths back from the mob and ordered the rioters to disband. Instead, the Plug Uglies turned their Cannon on the General and threatened to shoot if he and his men did not withdraw. Henderson, riding on horseback and dressed in civilian clothes, instead stuck his umbrella into the Plug Uglies Cannon and turned his back on the mob defying them to shot. "Give my men due cause to impose the wrath of God" (Another version says the generals words were “Men, you had better think twice before you fire this piece at the Marines.”)
At that point, a squad of marines that included Henderson’s son, rushed into the Plug Uglies line and wrestled the cannon away from the gangsters (The term gangster rose out of another massive street gang of the time, in Detroit)
Again, Henderson ordered the mob to disperse and then ordered his marines to march into the mob, Bayonets fixed. The plug Uglies responded by firing into the oncoming Marines with pistol shot, killing one and injuring several more. The Marines charged the mob. In the next several minutes, 12 people fell severely wounded. Eventually the marines managed to push the mob back to the B&O railroad station where the Plug Uglies where reinforced with a contingent of Know Nothings brought in from Baltimore. In the next 24 hours, five more people lay dead and scores more were wounded before the Marines could not retake the city streets from the Nativist's.
Mayor Magruder did not receive the Anti-Know-Nothing nomination for mayor in the 1858 election, and the coalition's new candidate, James G. Berret, came to office. Magruder ran again as an independent candidate in 1860 but lost to Berret. After leaving office, Magruder continued to practice medicine until dying from a stomach infection in May of 1869.
John Walker Maury died one year after leaving office. He is buried at the Congressional Cemetery in DC. The Maury Elementary School in upper northwest was named in his honor.
Know Nothing mayor John Thomas Towers also died in 1857, one year after leaving office and was interred in Congressional Cemetery.
There is a bronze and granite memorial in Meridian Hill Park in DC in honor of President Buchannan. It was designed by Baltimore architect William Gorden Beecher and sculpted by Maryland artist Hans Schuler. Commissioned in 1916 but not approved by the U.S. Congress until 1918, and not completed and unveiled until June 26, 1930. The statue of Buchanan is between the classical figures of a male and female which represent law and diplomacy, with the engraved text reading: "The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law," a quote from a member of Buchanan's cabinet, Jeremiah S. Black.
General Henderson is buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Henderson Hall Barracks on 8th Street SE is named for him
Capt. Zeilin, one of the two officers that led the marines against the Plug Uglies, was later promoted to Brigadier General and served as the seventh Commandant of the United States Marine Corps from 1864 to 1876. It was Zeilin who officially approved of the design of the "Eagle, Globe, and Anchor," as the emblem for the Marine Corps. He died in D.C but is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.