The Battle Ground for the Nations: anti-Catholicism and the American Protective Association
Mrs. Elizabeth Stark, manager and director of the World’s Fair Mandolin Club of Kansas City, was nonplussed after discovering that the Club had performed under false pretenses at a free musical entertainment on May 29. The Kansas City Times reported that the auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri, was “crowded to the doors,” with many turned away for lack of room.
Mrs. Stark wasn’t the only performer at the event to be surprised: a quartette had sung, as had Miss Mabel Haas, who sang “Across the Dee.” They too had been unaware of the true nature of the event, at which Reverend J.Z. Armstrong, pastor of the Independence Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, presided, and Bishop B.B. Ussher, Bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church, lectured on “Ireland.” The Bishop’s talk was interspersed with Irish melodies such as “The Meeting of the Waters,” by Thomas Moore, and “The Harp that Once through Tara’s Halls.” Views of Irish scenery were shown on a stereopticon. The evening closed with singing of “Home Sweet Home” and “America.”
The performers realized as Ussher spoke that the free show was no travelogue. It had been covertly organized by the American Protective Association, a rabidly anti-Catholic secret society, and that Ussher’s lecture was a diatribe against Catholics and Catholicism. Mrs. Stark, Miss Mabel Haas, and others, had been “very badly taken in,” the Times reported. It was all “a political scheme of secret character” by the APA to draw in a crowd.
Mrs. Stark told the Times that her group had been invited to perform, without pay, by Bishop Ussher. She had not been told the reason for the event but welcomed any chance to advertise the Mandolin Club. Several of the “young ladies” in her club were Catholic, she said; had they known who was behind the event they would have refused to come. One of the members of the musical quartette said the “whole affair was something of a mystery” to him, especially since advertisements for the event made no mention of APA involvement. He added that, though a Protestant, he did not approve of a minister “saying such bitter things against any other Christian church.”
Miss Mabel Hass, also recruited by Ussher, only began to understand what was up when a man sitting near her, gleeful at the size of the crowd, told her of “our order,” as he called it, which he said wanted to “reform existing evils and to bring about purer government,” including removing Catholics from the Lower House of the city council. Ussher had told her nothing about the purpose of the gathering, she said, and had she known would not have taken part.
Bishop Ussher, writing to the Times, did not deny the meeting’s purpose, cloaking it instead under an attack on “bigotry and falsehood,” and on “the hierarchy of the Church of Rome.”The scheme, concluded the Times, “was secretly and cleverly worked,” and the real goals of the meeting were “deceitfully concealed and the people were misled.”
It was an age of secret societies and “protective associations.” Physicians, merchants and, not surprisingly, African Americans had protective associations, and there was a host of “patriotic” groups with grandiose names and anti-immigrant biases, like the Daughters of Liberty, Patriotic orders of the Sons of America, and the American Party. But the American Protective Association was something different. Founded in Iowa in 1887, it mimicked Masonic rituals, complete with regalia and badges, but with the specific end of excluding Catholics from workplaces and government. The Wyandott Herald reported it was “very strong” in Kansas City, Kansas, “mustering new recruits every day,” and operating behind the scenes to influence local elections. As a secret, conspiratorial society, it was impossible to know who were members or how many. The editor of the Kansas City Times had to deny accusations he was one, although he did so without offering any criticism of the APA’s extreme views. An APA member claimed there were 2,000 members in the two Kansas Citys.
The real conspirator, from the viewpoint of A.P.A. members, was the Catholic Church. An A.P.A. speaker in Kansas City, Missouri, accused Catholics of being “narrow minded and bigoted. Rome is a slimy serpent coiling its length about, and choking the life out of our national existence. Romanism will cause the people to grow ignorant. If God gives them the power they will burn, scourge and kill Protestants and build over the ashes the altars of their churches. Catholics are a race of slaves worse than were ever the negroes of the south.” The Times reported that the speaker was applauded, and “quite a number” in the listening crowd enrolled themselves in the association.
Once enrolled, new members recited the A.P.A. oath, which included a promise not to support the nomination of a Catholic “for any office in the gift of the American people,” and to vote only for Protestants. Even though the oath required union members of the A.P.A. not to cooperate with Catholic co-workers in labor disputes, many trade unionists joined the A.P.A. At least some were African American, since C.H.J. Taylor’s American Citizen saw fit to warn its black readers against the organization, reminding them that the Catholic Church had long supported African American rights: “Colored men do not be deceived,” Taylor wrote. “Study well what you are doing before you join this new movement. Do not jump out of the frying pan into the fire.”
In June there was what the Kansas City Mail called “a religious riot” after James G. White of the A.P.A. gave a speech entitled “Our Country – Its Dangers and Our Duty,” at the Third Regiment Armory at Twelfth and Troost. White was scheduled to give another lecture a few days later entitled “’Auricular Confession Disclosed,’ the same being an attack upon the morality of the Catholic clergy,” the Times reported, but the Third Regiment commander, Colonel L.E. Irwin, learning of White’s topic, closed the Armory as a crowd estimated at over two thousand gathered.
At one point a contingent of working men appeared headed by a “man of powerful physique,” in the Times' words, “with an immense coil of rope in his hand,” perhaps intending to apply the rope to Mr. White, who had conveniently disappeared after vowing to give his speech “if I stay till Christmas.” Fist fights broke out and two men were badly beaten. Irwin later said that, like Mrs. Stark of the Mandolin Club, he’d been “wholly deceived as to the real nature of the lectures” when allowing use of the armory.
Soon after, Catholic citizens of Kansas City, Kansas, met to denounce White and the A.P.A.; the Times called it “by far the biggest demonstration ever held in that city.” John O’Flanagan, editor of the Kansas City Catholic, spoke of “lies and forgeries” used to support A.P.A. claims that “we are driven by someone; that we are tied by one man.” Catholics, he continued, are “the most self-sustaining and patriotic people in America.” The meeting concluded with approval of resolutions expressing, among other things, “feelings of indignation against the treatment we have of late been subjected to by this secret and oath-bound party organized for political ends.”
Many who joined the organization did so, ran another resolution, “for the sake of riding into political power by it ….” The final resolution called on the Catholic Church in the city to cease making improvements on its facilities “until the proscription of Catholics be ended; and until a better spirit be manifested,” and to advise new immigrants against coming to the Kansas side where “we have for more than a year been subjected to gross insults and goading attacks.”
Non-Catholics also criticized the A.P.A.. The Winfield Free Press saw in the A.P.A. another example of religious persecution throughout history: “There should be more of the spirit of Christ,” the editors wrote, “and less of the spirit of intolerance and bigotry.” Unlike the Catholic gathering, they made no mention of the contribution of nativist attitudes toward immigrants to what was being called a “religious war.”
A perennial writer to the Kansas City Mail, identifying himself as “Ike Gentry,” was nativist to the core. Catholics, he said, have “poured into this country as the scum and poison element from every nation and country on the globe,” and the Pope “directs and controls” many of them. Gentry argues that there are eight million Catholics who are “not free like others and citizens of this country,” whose “duty to obey the Pope is absolute.” Catholics, he continued, wanted to undermine the free public school system, and get public money for their parochial schools. This kind of fiery rhetoric by anti-Catholic voices had counterparts on the other side: in July, a powerful bomb exploded in the front yard of Reverend J.Z. Armstrong, he of the “free concert,” although no one was hurt. Armstrong remarked “he has some enemy as it is not the first time he has been treated that way,” avoiding mention of his involvement in the anti-Catholic movement. Worse was to come three months later.
The A.P.A. defended itself, sending a “committee of well-known gentlemen" to speak to editors of the daily papers about the group’s aims. One of them, F.E. Nettleton, described as “the well-known railroad man” – he was the baggage agent at Union Depot – met with a Mail reporter. Nettleton denied the A.P.A. was “making war” on the ceremonies and services of the Catholic Church; only when the church “mingles in politics” is it time for “patriotic, liberty-loving citizens” to act. “Results show,” he said, without specifying which results, “that the most insidious scheming is constantly going on. If it were not so, pray explain how it is that 75, or might I say 90, per cent of our office holders are of that faith. It is not a coincidence. It is the result of a deep laid scheme, and this is what we are organized to fight.”
Early in September the A.P.A. applied to Kansas’ Populist Secretary of State for a charter, describing its mission as “to protect our country and its free institutions against the secret, intolerant and aggressive efforts that are persistently being set forth by certain religious political organizations of the United States and destroy our blood-bought civil and religious liberty, to maintain our free public school system and oppose the union of church and state.” The application was refused on constitutional and legal grounds, although the Times speculated that Populist politics had something to do with the decision: Populist leaders had been warning their members to stay away from the A.P.A., as they believed it was part of a scheme to “drive the voters from the Populist to the Republican party.” Populist state officials claimed to have information that A.P.A. lodges were “preparing to organize independent military companies, arming and drilling them as sharpshooters,” alarming to Kansans since the state had come close to a shooting war between Populists and Republicans early in the year. Now the Democratic press was representing the A.P.A. as part of a Republican plot. The A.P.A., the pro-Democrat Wyandott Herald claimed, was “taking Republicans by the thousand” and might soon be more powerful than the Farmers’ Alliance. W.A. Crawford, described as an A.P.A. “organizer,” and a “leading Republican politician,” was reported to have said that the A.P.A. would secure the return of Republicans to power “if he can succeed in stirring up a war between the Protestants and Catholics.”
Fears increased in late September after a clash between A.P.A. members and a hostile crowd of about five hundred at the A.P.A.’s hall at 21st and Belleview in Kansas City, Missouri.. A week earlier shots had been exchanged between pro- and anti-A.P.A. men; as a result, the A.P.A. asked for police protection and twenty patrolmen were sent. This night, about sixty A.P.A. members, many conspicuously armed with revolvers, entered the hall to jeers from the crowd. As the meeting adjourned, departing A.P.A. members were surrounded, the police contingent trying to keep the antagonists apart.
An A.P.A. man fired several shots, at his pursuers, wounding a packing house employee named Connors. In the Journal’s account of the incident, someone in the crowd fired back at him, a detail not mentioned in the Times account of the incident. Also not mentioned in that account were cries from the crowd of “Kill them,” “Shoot the ___ A.P.A.’s,” and “Get a rope and hang them.” Another A.P.A. member, C.M. Reed, was arrested for flourishing his revolver and making threats. As a policeman was taking him away he was struck and badly wounded; the policeman who’d arrested him was also injured. Rocks were thrown “indiscriminately,” according to the Times report, with many injuries. Two A.P.A.’ers were arrested, Reed and a switchman in the Fort Scott rail yards named Shafer, who was charged with inciting a riot for flourishing his revolver, which had “a gleaming barrel a foot in length,” to excite the crowd.
In its report, the Journal suggested that the riot was precipitated by efforts of the police to disarm the A.P.A’s., which created “a struggling mass of men in the street. Blows were struck with fists and canes and clubs, and stones were thrown by persons on the outer edge of the crowd. the crowd became a surging, howling, cursing mob.” The Journal report also makes the arrest of Reed and Shafer appear arbitrary: they were the only two who hadn’t managed to escape. The city charge against Schafer was dismissed a few days later.
The Board of Police Commissioners held a hearing on the riot, with members of the A.P.A. present to complain that the police had allowed the crowd to congregate, then instead of controlling it began to search A.P.A. members for weapons, giving troublemakers a chance to launch assaults on A.P.A. members, including Reed, who charged he was not protected by the arresting officer. The Board seemed to agree, suspending the duty Sergeant and arresting office. After this, announced Police Commissioner and street railway magnate Bernard Corrigan, “there will be no more mobs at the A.P.A. meetings. The meetings must and will be peaceful and on this we are determined.” Sufficient police to deter rioting would in future be dispatched, and neither side would be allowed to carry arms.
The A.P.A. continued to portray itself as a victim rather than purveyor of prejudice. An A.P.A. man living near the group’s meeting hall complained that he and his family were being “abused” by neighbors and their home had been stoned “by small boys of the neighborhood.” An A.P.A. “Committee” placed a “card” in the Times referring to the “lower element of society” that had been breaking up A.P.A. meetings. The A.P.A., it insisted, is “composed of law-abiding citizens” who “denounce all acts of violence toward meetings of peaceable citizens,” a sentiment at variance with the rhetoric of A.P.A. speakers. The four “principles” of their organization are, they said, unobjectionable: an honest ballot and correct count in elections; unimpaired continuance of the public school system; continued separation of church and state; and unqualified allegiance to “the stars and stripes” alone. Apparently innocuous, each “principle” conceals an anti-Catholic dog whistle within, audible to an 1893 reader. Concealment, deceit, and indirection were the organization’s métier, but Shafer, with his foot-long revolver, was its real face.
To everyone’s relief, the next meeting of the A.P.A. a week later was “peaceful as a mill-pond,” said the Times, thanks to the presence of fifty uniformed police officers and a dozen detectives, accompanied by Commissioner Corrigan and Chief of Police Speers in person. No crowd showed up; none of the almost three hundred A.P.A. men attending the meeting displayed revolvers. Chief Speers commented that there would be no more trouble; the crowd of the week before had been “made up exclusively of hoodlums,” he thought, “whose actions were condemned by all good citizens.”
But the A.P.A. remained a live issue, as did the debate over immigration that lay behind its machinations. In October, Alabama Congressional representative William C. Oates introduced a bill to amend the naturalization laws to provide that “no alien ever convicted of a felony shall be naturalized, nor one who holds anarchist views, or favors polygamy, or who has evaded any immigration law or regulation.” Further, applicants for citizenship must have lived five years continuously in the U.S. and be able to read the constitution.
Though Oates’ career as a white supremacist devoted to denying blacks the vote ought to have raised suspicion about his intentions, the editors of the Republican Journal approved of Oates’ bill because, they wrote, “we must raise the character of the voter.” Referring to a scandal over a recent vote in Kansas City in which recent immigrants had voted for the city hall “ring,” the editors asserted “This criminal vote has been imported and is largely not only ignorant of our form of government but really ignorant of what they are doing. The real authors, or those by whom this mass has been brought here, were the great corporations.” After Chinese laborers were sent back at the insistence of “sand-lot demagogues,” a reference to agitation by West coast politicians against Chinese immigrants, “the corporations imported the worst dregs of Europe that have made the Oates bill a living thing.”
The Reverend J.Z. Armstrong was still busily attacking Catholics as the year ended. In November he delivered a sermon with a triple-barreled title “The United States of America, the Battle Ground for the Nations; or Christianity and Romanism in Conflict” at his Independence Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church. Armstrong told his congregation that the Catholic Church was “permeated with idolatry and systems perverse, cold, bloodthirsty and unchristian.” Armstrong predicted “a great battle is soon to be fought here,” the Pope having turned his attention to the U.S.:“If he gets a firm footing here he will hold sway for centuries. If he fails his power is gone. … I am facing a foe that is reaching out its fingers for the heartstrings of what I love best – free government.”
There was talk at year’s end that a new secret society, the Society of Liberty and Loyalty, had appeared in Denver in opposition to the A.P.A. and would soon be setting up lodges in Kansas and Missouri. It claimed to have 10,000 members in Colorado, and opposed discrimination based on religious belief. Nothing much was heard of the Society of Liberty after that, however, because the A.P.A. was fizzling out. It was effectively gone as a national political force within a year, though it lingered on into the new century.