They called it a Guy Fawkes plot when an “infernal machine” was discovered at St. Xavier Church downtown on April 17, 1875. Only the curiosity and quick action of two parishioners saved the lives of 100 people. To this day, the mystery has never been solved.
It was Saturday evening, and the church on Sycamore Street between Sixth and Seventh was packed as priests heard confessions. Construction equipment and materials lay all around the entrance because workmen were building a new and much taller steeple.
As two young men, Thomas Collins and John Dudley, left the church, they saw smoke steaming from a pile of discarded cement sacks. According to The Cincinnati Gazette [April 18, 1875]:
“The young men proceeded to investigate the cause of the smoke, and on removing the sacks, a bright blaze shot up into their faces. The flame proceeded from a small basket, in which were packed two sponges soaked with kerosene, a lot of cotton batting, also soaked with coal oil, and in the midst of the inflammable material, five tin cans, each containing about a pound of gunpowder.”
Dudley immediately threw the flaming basket into the street, where it exploded with a tremendous noise that rapidly brought a nearby fire company to the scene. The congregation inside the church rushed outside at the sound of the detonation, and rumors began flying immediately.
Most people seemed to think that the bomb was intended to damage the contractors hired to build the new steeple. Perhaps a losing bidder was behind the plot, or a workman dismissed from the job.
The Cincinnati Enquirer [April 18, 1875] suggested a much more nefarious intent, and pointed the finger at its competitor, The Daily Gazette, and in particular at the editor, Richard Smith:
“It is such an act as might have been provoked by a close reading of The Cincinnati Gazette during the late municipal canvass. The effect of those impassioned appeals upon the mind of an inflamed zealot cannot be calculated. We trust that Richard Smith has not personally resorted to this sort of warfare against the Pope.”
The “late municipal canvass” refers to the city election held, in those days, the first week in April. What sorts of impassioned appeals was Smith publishing during that election cycle? Turns out, a lot of his commentary in The Cincinnati Gazette was pointedly aimed at the city’s Catholics.
The big controversy of the day surrounded an initiative passed by the Ohio General Assembly called the Geghan Bill, which attempted to counteract the anti-immigrant sentiment expressed by many of the state’s residents, notably Republicans. Under the Geghan Bill, inmates of Ohio’s prisons and asylums would be guaranteed “ample and equal facilities” to practice their religious beliefs. This infuriated the Protestant majority. The guarantee offered relief to Catholics, and the “real Americans” saw it as an attempt to legislate Catholicism as equal to Protestantism. The Geghan Bill became a major issue in that year’s statewide elections, and Republicans, who promised to repeal the measure, swept to victory. The Gazette was a Republican newspaper. The Enquirer was a Democratic newspaper and supported the Geghan Bill.
In April, Smith saw nefarious intent behind every Catholic running for any elected office and continually repeated the claim that Catholics were loyal only to Rome and the Pope, not the United States. Catholics, he claimed, planned to divert American tax dollars to the papal coffers. In Smith’s mind, the Democrats and the Catholics were one and the same:
“The Democratic party, long the secret helper of the Church of Rome in its conspiracy against our liberties, is now its open ally. It has sold American principles for Papal support, and has gained it, for the present at least.”
Smith saw the Geghan Bill as the camel’s nose pushing into the tent. Although the law covered only prisoners and patients, Smith believed that Catholics would soon demand a share of money intended for public education.
“The next strike for the Catholics will be for a division of the school fund. Down with free institutions, and up with the Pope.”
When Smith discovered a Catholic priest was running for a position on the school board, he went apoplectic:
“Mr. J.H. Humble is doing his utmost to defeat the Catholic priest who is the Democratic candidate in the Third Ward for School Trustee. Mr. Humble will have the votes of all who believe that the Catholics are not the best trustees to act under a system with which they have no sympathy.”
Smith even suggested that Catholic priests should be denied citizenship because of their vows of loyalty to the Pope:
“Religious tests can not be made a barrier to citizenship, yet the denial of it to a Catholic priest, who must be false to his vows if he takes the oath of allegiance honestly, would only be a just political precaution against treachery.”
Despite its almost daily attacks on Catholics, no evidence emerged to connect the St. Xavier bomb to Daily Gazette editorials. No one was ever charged for the crime, and the new steeple (actually taller than the current structure) was completed in short order.