BY PETER F. STEVENS
Once, the Boston Irish knew what it was to be “wetbacks.” Of course, the epithets that hateful, narrow-minded Nativists and “Know Nothings” of the 1840s and 1850s employed to deride Irish immigrants were “Paddies, Bridgets, and Papists,” but in the lexicon of prejudice, those terms were, and are, interchangeable because of one ironclad trait – spiteful and willing ignorance.
In a recent edition of the Dallas Morning News, Tea Party US Senate wannabe Chris Mapp asserted that “ranchers should be allowed to shoot on sight anyone illegally crossing the border onto their land” and referred to such “anyones” as “wetbacks” while calling President Obama “a socialist son of a bitch.” Mapp added that use of the slur “wetback” is as “normal as breathing air in South Texas.” Once, that same brand of hate was as “normal as breathing air” in Massachusetts. That same fear and loathing of the “outsider,” the “newcomer,” plagued the Irish and fueled the St. Patrick’s Day Murders of 1845.
Last year in this space (August 2013), I wrote a piece entitled “Of ‘Hoodies’ and Historical Amnesia,” which compared the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin to the aforementioned murders of three Irish immigrants in Hanover, Mass., on March 17, 1845. The article brought a letter from historian, retired Boston Police superintendant, and BIR reader John Gallagher. The author of the fine local history “Rum, A Tailor’s Goose and a Soap Box: Three Murderous Affairs in the History of Hanover, Massachusetts,” Gallagher has delved deeply into the tragic saga, uncovering a great deal of forgotten facts about the case. The following account owes an enormous measure of thanks to John Gallagher and his painstaking research of old records, newspapers, and other archival material.
Featured on the Hanover Historical Society’s July 2000 Calendar was an old photo showing a house and shed and bearing the inscription “Three Irishmen Shot Here by Seth Perry in 1845.” What had started as a St. Patrick’s Day 1845 celebration for three Irishmen working for the Old Colony Railroad to build a track from Boston to Plymouth ended in an explosion of violence.
In the early afternoon of March 17, the trio of Irish laborers – James Stapleton, Patrick Stapleton, and Pierce Dowlan (Dolan) – strode with other workers from a worksite near Hanson to a “noted groggery” in Hanover. The Irishmen’s plan was to celebrate their “old sod’s” patron saint on his holy day.
A “shanty” run by 52-year-old local Seth Perry, the groggery was deemed a loathsome affront by its neighbors, and Perry had been arrested and jailed several times for serving liquor without a license. After a few rounds, Patrick Stapleton and Dowlan started to argue with a man named Enos Bates, Perry’s cousin. Words fueled by liquor escalated to blows between Stapleton and Bates, and soon the brawl moved outside the shanty. Suddenly a musket pealed. Stapleton toppled dead to the ground as Seth Perry, standing nearby with the smoking weapon, reloaded.
Most of the Irish railroad workers fled in every direction, but not James Stapleton and Pierce Dowlan. James lunged at Perry. For a second time the musket belched flame and smoke. The ball tore into James Stapleton’s chest and killed him instantly. As Dowlan started to run, Perry, with another musket close by, picked it up, leveled it, and fired. Dowlan must have turned. The round slammed into his face, crushing his jaw into shards of bone and flesh. He would survive the grievous wound.
Constables later that day seized Perry and tossed him into a cell in Plymouth. That night, a mob of temperance zealots, likely motivated by their hatred of alcohol rather than any sympathy for the two dead Irishman and their wounded companion, destroyed the shanty and were about to burn down Perry’s house when constables stopped them.
Because St. Mary’s Church in Quincy was the sole Catholic church between Boston and Hanover at the time, the brothers Stapleton were buried in unmarked pauper’s graves in the church’s cemetery. As for Seth Perry, he was indicted by a Plymouth County grand jury on April 14, 1845, charged with two counts of murder and one count of assault with intent to kill. He languished in jail without bail as both the “prosecution and defense petitioned the court to try Perry for the murders of Patrick and James Stapleton together, but the court denied their request, and ordered that Perry be tried first for the murder of Patrick.”
Few Irish immigrants likely believed Perry would be convicted. The disdain that many New Englanders heaped upon the “ragged Irish” of the era was rife with brutal stereotypes of “drunken Paddies,” Nativist newspapers and magazines were clotted with other ethnic caricatures of “Paddy and Bridget.”
On June 17, Perry stood trial in front of a twelve-man jury. It was truly a jury of his peers, as not one Irishman was among them. The verdict came two days later. Perry was found guilty of manslaughter only in the death of Patrick Stapleton. Gallagher notes: “The district attorney dismissed the charge of murder in the death of James Stapleton when Perry agreed to plea guilty to manslaughter. The prosecutor chose not to pursue the charge of assault with intent to murder Pierce Dowlan.”
If Perry had cut down two “native New Englanders” and wounded a third, he might well have been hanged. Still, given the unbridled contempt so many Yankees harbored toward the “ragged Irish,” any sentence at all for the murders of the Stapletons must have surprised many locals. As Gallagher noted in his letter to me, Thomas O’Connor, in “The Boston Irish: A Political History,” writes that the Irish of the era were viewed by Yankee Protestants as “little more than ‘wild bison’ ready to leap over the fences that usually restrained the ‘civilized domestic cattle.’”
“Wild bison” notwithstanding, Perry’s sentence was ten years for killing Patrick Stapleton and three years for the murder of James Stapleton. From June 28, 1845, till his release in 1858, Perry was incarcerated in the grim stone-and-brick confines of Charlestown State Prison. He went back to Hanover, where he would die on November 25, 1874. No one knows the exact spot where he was buried, the murderer sharing the same fate in death as the two Irishmen he had murdered.
At 1359 Broadway in Hanover, the house that Seth Perry’s groggery flanked remains. The combination of brogues and too much St. Patrick’s Day revelry ignited something murderous in Seth Perry, something so dark that even his Yankee neighbors could not ignore one savage fact: he had gunned down two men. Irish though those men were, and even though Yankee prosecutors and a Yankee jury could not bring themselves to convict Perry of outright murder, they had held him to some account even in a day of antipathy toward the Irish.
Today, the era of anti-Irish, anti-Papist prejudice is distant. But when such bigots as
Chris Mapp of Texas and scores of men and women in Congress and in many state legislatures begin to speak, the stark evidence is that nativism and bigotry sadly remain intact in these United States. Yesterday’s “Paddies” are today’s “wetbacks.”
For further reading about the St. Patrick’s Day Murders of 1845, the BIR recommends “Rum, A Tailor’s Goose and a Soap Box: Three Murderous Affairs in the History of Hanover, Massachusetts.” (Available on amazon.com)