Philadelphia: William Smith, . Original hand-colored lithograph, 14.5" x 11.5" (sheet); printed area ca 12.5" x 8" including caption. Trimmed at upper and lower margins, two or three short tears at edges, with general minor toning: Very Good or better. Image foreground depicts a fallen Shifler, bleeding from a wound to the chest, surrounded by three comrades as he clutches an American flag. In the background can be seen rioters against an architectural backdrop.
A poignant image, depicting the first casualty of the 1844 Philadelphia Anti-Catholic riots, which roiled the city in both May and July of that year leaving dozens dead and hundreds wounded. As was the case in many other large cities on the Eastern seaboard, Anti-Catholic sentiment in Philadelphia had grown throughout the 1840s in response to the arrival of waves of Irish immigrants fleeing the Famine. Tensions came to a head in 1844, amid false rumors that Catholics were attempting to remove Bibles from the public schools.
The first series of riots began on May 6th, when the American Republican Party (a nativist precursor to the Know-Nothing Party) staged a rally in the Kensington neighborhood, home to a large Irish immigrant community. The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (online resource) describes in some detail the events depicted in the present lithograph: "Heckling yielded to fistfights and then gunfire. The first killed was nativist George Shifler, whose death is depicted in this lithograph published soon thereafter. Shifler (or, Shiffler) was just nineteen years old at the time of his death. He was depicted as a patriot, killed in the act of standing up for his country." Shifler, an apprentice tanner, was the first casualty of the riots and his death was widely used as a propaganda tool by the Know-Nothings, who claimed that Shifler had perished while trying to save the American flag from desecration. "Shiffler's death made him a martyr for the Nativist cause with resulting in a large funeral with poems, songs, and prints created in his honor and Nativists parading the flag around the city with a placard exclaiming that the flag "was trampled on by Irish papists (see National Museum of American History website, "Death of George Shifler"). In the annals of flag-draped nativism the event is hardly unique, but we find this image – paradoxically produced by the hand of an Irish-American lithographer, Jonathan L. Magee – to be unexpectedly affecting; the delicacy with which Shifler's dying visage is delineated (has the artist imposed a hint of remorse in the expiring boy's features?) especially so.
A later version of the print, published by DeWitt in New York (probably issued after the July riots) includes in the caption the names of further fallen (Nativist) heroes; a copy is held at the American Museum of Natural History, pictured on-line. OCLC notes additional copies (of uncertain issue) at AAS, LOC, and Villanova; we also note a copy at LCP.