History

Martyrs to the Nation

In 1844, a 19-year-old apprentice was killed in a street riot. What happened after shows how Trump-loving nativists want to use Ashli Babbitt’s death.

Nineteenth-century fireman's cape with "Shiffler" emblazoned on it.
Oil cloth cape, worn to protect a firefighter’s upper body from embers and water. Likely from the Shiffler Fire Hose Company No. 32, of Philadelphia, founded in 1846. Division of Cultural and Community Life, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution 

Nearly nine months after dying in her attempt to storm the U.S. Capitol, Ashli Babbitt is passing into both history and myth. Last week, the officer who shot her during the Jan. 6 riot said his life turned upside down after his name leaked to right-wing websites, where Babbitt’s veneration has been underway for months. No longer able to speak for herself, she has become a blank page on which others—Vladimir Putin, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump—can write their preferred story. Babbitt, they suggest, died not as a criminal, but as a patriot, whose stars-and-stripes backpack expressed her intentions and whose blood justifies her cause.

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If there’s any doubt about whether Babbitt’s story will continue to grip the right’s imagination, we need only look to history. Beat by beat, the story crystalizing around her death recalls the efforts by a previous generation of nativists to canonize a 19-year-old apprentice, George Shiffler, shot dead in a street riot on May 6, 1844. Though he had lived in obscurity, Shiffler’s public death made him internationally famous. Free to imagine his motives, actions, and even his words, nativists invented posthumous versions of Shiffler to serve their own agendas. Officially they mourned his death, but they also seized the opportunity it provided. For partisans hoping to build a movement, the most valuable adherent may be a martyr, and what happened in those years is a warning about what Babbitt’s death might come to mean now.

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The real Shiffler was born in 1825, probably in Kensington, which is today part of Philadelphia but was then an independent district. Historian Kenneth Milano has traced Shiffler’s lineage to a tobacconist father and a mother whose family built ships and wharves, but we know little about his early life. At some point he was apprenticed to a leather worker, but as Shiffler approached adulthood, he saw dimming prospects for apprentice craftsmen. In 1837, an economic bubble burst, leading banks to fail and employers to lay off hands. By 1842, thousands of workingmen were rallying in Independence Square in Philadelphia to lament “the want of employment among the industrious classes.” In December of that year, Shiffler’s father died by suicide, which an inquest attributed to “mental derangement.” With a widowed mother and several young siblings to support, Shiffler faced a hungry future.

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But if prosperity seemed elusive, teenagers like Shiffler, known at the time as “half-grown boys,” could find manhood in another way: joining one of Philadelphia’s storied volunteer fire companies. Officially dedicated to public safety, these rival companies spent as much time brawling with each other as they did fighting fires. They battled for access to fire plugs during emergencies, and raided each other’s fire houses on weekends. “Half-grown, mischievous and irresponsible boys have been admitted to full membership in some of the companies,” despaired one newspaper. From dusk, until midnight, they may be found about the locations of their several companies, indulging freely in the most vile and debasing habits.”

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Worse still were those who did not join the companies themselves, but instead formed affiliated gangs. Shiffler joined the “Hyenas,” who “ran with” the Independence Hose, one of the most violent fire companies in Philadelphia County. Perhaps he took part in the December 1843 brawl against the Northern Liberty Hose, fought inside a hotel, at the expense of the furniture. Or the January 1844 clash against both the Northern Liberty and the Kensington Engine, when combatants attacked each other with megaphones, wrenches, pitchforks, pistols, and “slung-shots”—buckskin straps weighted with lead.

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Youths like Shiffler could also take pride in having been born in the United States, unlike the thousands of immigrants finding their way to Kensington. Most were Catholics from Ireland, which was not yet in the grips of the potato famine, but already suffering from an economy that failed to keep pace with its rapidly growing population. These immigrants wove cloth, heaved coal, built churches, and generally tried to make themselves useful citizens. But anti-Catholic nativists denounced them as threats to both prosperity and liberty. By late 1843, they had begun to organize a nativist party—the American Republicans—to challenge the established Democrats and Whigs.

On May 3, 1844, the American Republicans staged a rally in a vacant lot in the Third Ward of Kensington, less than half a mile north of Shiffler’s home and workplace. Predictably, the Third Ward’s many Irish Catholic immigrants took offense, heckling the speakers and eventually chasing them away. No one was hurt, and the hecklers even helped an old man off the nativists’ improvised stage before they dismantled it. But the nativists vowed to return.

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On Monday, May 6, the nativists rallied in larger numbers back at the same vacant lot, only to be hit by a freak rainstorm that drove both nativists and hecklers to seek shelter in a nearby covered market, where Protestants and Catholics began brawling. Hoping to calm matters, an Irish Catholic fireman rushed to the market from the nearby Hibernia Hose House, which had been celebrating the arrival of a new bell. As he begged everyone to go home, someone—history doesn’t record who—shot him in the face.

Image of a crowd with several members carrying a body.
Courtesy of Zachary Schrag
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Young men, Shiffler among them, poured into the street. One witness spotted him at the corner of Germantown Road and Master Street, in the middle of the action, among other youths throwing bricks at a rival mob. But while the nativists had to make do with whatever projectiles they could gather from the street, Irish American Third Ward residents could run home for their guns, then take up positions in windows and behind fences. One fired at Shiffler’s group, hitting Shiffler in the right arm and chest with a “heavy charge from a musket,” reported to consist of “about a dozen slugs and a handful of shot.” Shiffler staggered against a fence, then collapsed. Others pulled him a block south to a drug store—as close to a trauma center as 1844 Kensington could provide—but he died soon after. By the end of the day several more nativists had been shot. William Wright, also nineteen, died from a musket ball through the heart, while two nativists in their early twenties were mortally wounded.

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Nativists immediately framed Shiffler’s death as a sacrifice to the American cause. “The scene which exhibited itself around this dying man was too much for every one possessing the ordinary feelings of sympathy to bear without shedding a tear,” wrote one newspaper. “One grey headed old man, in the midst of his tears, raised his staff aloft, and exclaimed in the fulness of his heart—‘On, on Americans! Liberty or death.’“ By the end of three days of riots, seven more Protestants were dead or dying, and nativists would collectively term them the “Kensington martyrs.” But as the first to fall, Shiffler earned special attention. On May 9, his body was borne to its burial place, accompanied by three hundred mourners. The coffin contained a silver plate attesting to his status as “The first Martyr in the Native American Cause.” And it was draped in a flag that, the nativists now claimed, Shiffler had been clutching at his death.

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Within days, nativists embellished the tale to claim that Shiffler had been expressly targeted by Irishmen for the offense of waving that American flag. One poem (if we can call it that) described the nativist rally as a meeting of those

Who would not see their Banner invaded,

By any Foreign crew, be them Papist, Turk, or Jew,

But would rather die than see it degraded. 

It went on to praise

Young Shiffler the first, of those Martyrs on the list,

Whose blood stains the page of our hist’ry,

Who left a mother’s heart, to suffer the keen smart,

And to cry, “ye kind powers assist me.”

Lithograph, “Death of George Shifler,” J.L. Magee, lithographer.
Lithograph, “Death of George Shifler,” J.L. Magee, lithographer. Library of Congress
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Lithographer John Magee of New York drew the dying Shiffler gripping an enormous American flag, which he holds aloft even as he collapses to the ground. As he falls, he is supported by three companions, presented much in the way a Renaissance artist would depict disciples supporting the body of Jesus as they lower it from the Cross. In Magee’s composition, Shiffler even gestures to the bleeding wound in his side, which looks more like the piercing of a Roman spear than the crater from a blast of buckshot.

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Depicting Shiffler in this way could help distract viewers from the events of May 8—two days after Shiffler’s death—when Protestants had torched two Catholic churches, along with the adjacent rectories and other Catholic buildings. That arson had shocked the nation, but nativists hoped that the deaths of Shiffler and other Protestants at Catholic hands would win the outrage sweepstakes. “Let them call us rioters and church burners,” wrote one, “and we’ll point them to our Shiffler, and Rhinedollar, and Wright, and Ramsey, and Hammit, and others, whose precious blood still calls for justice.”

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The dead Shiffler also served as a symbol for the growing American Republican Party. During a massive July 4 parade, party members carried banners depicting eagles, the Bible, George Washington, and George Shiffler. New York nativists founded a Shiffler Club; Philadelphians founded a Shiffler Association. When the nativists launched a miniature frigate, the Native American, it was accompanied by a smaller boat, the George Shiffler. That autumn, the party triumphed in local elections, and a newspaper predicted the beginnings of a national movement. “Remember the grave of the immortal Shiffler,” it crowed, “the glory of whose name will live to be still brightened by the fires of the judgment day—millions yet unborn will hail his name with feelings of patriotism—whilst that of his base murderers will be forgotten, only when associated with the most depraved and contemptible of mankind.”

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As Shiffler’s death receded into the past, stories about him became more fanciful. In an 1845 version, he is carried, wounded, to the door of a Catholic-owned drug store, which refuses to admit him. By the 1850s, as nativism peaked as the Know-Nothing movement, accounts placed Shiffler not on a street corner, but on a speaker’s stand, repeatedly raising the flag before “a bullet at length pierced his heart.” In 1855, anti-Catholic (and anti-Mormon) novelist Orvilla Belisle published The Arch Bishop, mixing real events of the 1844 riots with a melodramatic, fictional plot. Belisle’s imagined Shiffler is no ruffian, but a well-spoken, humble youth who wants only to care for his family and win the hand of Irene Freeman, a blue-eyed Catholic orphan. But a priest abducts Irene, leading Shiffler to join the nativists. He dies with Irene’s name on his lips, and “with his Nation’s flag gathered around him, true to it in death as he had been in life.”

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Others commemorated Shiffler’s more aggressive side. By May 1845, a youth gang known as “the Shifflers” was brawling with the rival “Buffers.” The following year, nativists founded the Shiffler Hose Company, which gained renown for fighting German and Irish immigrants. At the peak of its violence, in 1856, thirty-three members of the company were arrested en masse for murder and riot, though none were ever convicted.

Late in the century, some nativists asked Shiffler’s surviving acquaintances how the real Shiffler measured up to the legend. He was, one old-timer admitted, “a young man of meager education, whose schoolhouse was the Fire Company’s headquarters, of no promise of marked ability, and a member of a gang of toughs and sluggers … It is all bosh about his having any more love of country, but his love of a free fight was what took him there and he being killed with an American flag in his possession did not make him a better man than his previous life shows him to have been.” That was enough to prevent the naming of additional lodges for Shiffler, but not to discredit him entirely.

We may never see an Ashli Babbitt Hose Company, but her admirers have already devised a “Babbitt Flag” (one version bears the motto “Vengeance”) and composed rap songs and poems in honor of “this brave American.” “Ashli Babbitt American Patriot” T-shirts were briefly sold by Sears and Kmart. “An innocent, wonderful, incredible woman, a military woman,” Trump has called her, falsely claiming that she was trying “to climb out of a broken window,” not crashing into the Speaker’s Lobby.

Like Shiffler’s chroniclers before them, Babbitt’s champions hope that her blood will cleanse them of their sins. We may learn more facts about her, and her reasons for coming to Washington, but they will matter no more than what little we know of the real Shiffler. What counted, nativists understood, was not how Shiffler had lived, but how he had died. “Whatever he was or was not,” one wrote, “one thing is sure, he was considered as representing an idea and a principle when he fell.”

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