The Know-Nothing Riot of July 6, 1854

Frequent visitors to our Reading Room may have recognized the painting that was featured on Maine Public’s On This Day in Maine History series this Monday. Eagle-eyed patrons would have spotted some differences, as Maine Public’s image is a different version of the one that hangs on the East wall of the Reading Room. The painting of the South Church in flames is from one of at least six different sets created by artist John Hilling (1826-1894).

Hilling’s pair of oil-on-canvas paintings documents one of the most violent episodes in Bath history: the Know-Nothing Riot of July 6, 1854. The “naïve” or folk–art works illustrate different stages in the riots that led to the destruction of the South Meeting House, which had been rented to the local Catholic congregation. The larger painting captures the vandalism in full force as men ravaged the building after a political rally on the corner of Front and Centre Streets. The fire was just beginning and visible in a single window, while rioters threw shutters out windows and shouted from the tower, oblivious of the danger. The smaller painting shows the fire well advanced, consuming the building, while rioters and onlookers watched.

John Hilling, an English-born painter, was among the onlookers. As early as 1839, Hilling worked in Bath as a house, sign and “fancy painter.” His home at the time, with wife Nancy Jane Hayes and their children, was on Shepard Street, where the view of the fire would have been compelling—compelling enough to move Hilling up the hill to where the old meeting house stood burning. In May of 1855, the Weekly Mirror noted that “Mr. John Hilling of this city, has painted two representations of the old South, one as it was previous to the fire, and the other as it was at the time of the fire. They are perfect representations of the house and its destruction.

These works are tremendously important as period accounts of the event. Hilling was there as an eyewitness (although that doesn’t mean that artistic license did not play its part). Other versions of the paintings can be found in important folk art collections. The National Gallery of Art published a reproduction of their painting in American Naïve Paintings, which explains that “Hilling appears to have painted at least six almost identical pairs of paintings, each consisting of one representation of the church under mob assault and the other with the building ablaze. The multiple versions suggest a lively market for this theme.”

The Know-Nothing Party sought to stifle Catholics, immigrants, and other American minority groups by infusing American politics with nativist and Protestant values. The Party had risen to national prominence by 1854. Earlier that year, the Know Nothings had swept elections across Massachusetts. Nationally, July 6, 1854 is known as the day the Republican Party was founded, a significant step toward the abolition of slavery. As the Known Nothing Party disintegrated over the question of slavery, its abolitionist members would join the newly formed Republican Party to elect Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Adapted from: Haynes, Robin A.S. 2012 Art Inventory. Bath, Me. : Patten Free Library, 2012.

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