On June 1, 1857, members of the American nativist Know-Nothing Party carried out one of the District’s more unusual election day tactics, placing a cannon outside a polling station at the Northern Liberties Market, where the City Vista condos at 5th and K streets NW stand today.
The Know-Nothing Party was fiercely anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, established in 1843 as a secret fraternity known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner that confined its membership to natural Protestants. When questioned by non-members about their organization they replied, “I know nothing.”
On June 1, members of the Know–Nothings joined with fellow colorfully named political allies the Plug Uglies and the Rip Raps to disrupt voting procedures. Party members from Baltimore took the train down to assist local members to prevent non-natives and Catholics from voting in the election. Their antics, including the cannon, spread quickly and soon unrest broke out at other polling places in the capital. President James Buchanan responded to Mayor William Magruder’s request for help by calling in marines from the Navy Yard.
110 marines came to break up the riots. Upon their arrival, the marines fired on the unruly crowds, killing six men and injuring 21 more, according to Capital Losses. Buchanan was criticized for his authorization of force, but no one involved in the riots faced serious prosecution. Soon after the riots, the Know-Nothings in the North and South split over the issue of slavery, and eventually dissolved into other parties.
Image courtesy Library of Congress