Doctor Duncan’s Hat & The Cincinnati Catholic “Riot”


Did the Catholics of Cincinnati really riot in 1834?

According to Rev. Thomas Brainerd’s Cincinnati Journal & Western Luminary, they did, and all because of Dr. Alexander Duncan’s hat. An incendiary report was reprinted all over the East Coast, including the Newark, New Jersey, Advocate on February 12, 1835:

“Riot in Cincinnati – We regret to learn by the Cincinnati Journal that a serious riot occurred in that city a short time since, on the occasion of the consecration of the Catholic Chapel. It appears that Dr. Alexander Duncan (a member of the Ohio Senate) happened to be standing in the street through which the procession passed, and not aware that the rules of their church require every person to uncover his head in the presence of the bishop on such occasions, he neglected to take off his hat. On the arrival of the procession opposite to where he stood, he was requested to uncover his head immediately. He replied that he was in a public street, and that how much soever as he respected the forms and ceremonies of the Catholic religion, it ill comported with his dignity as an American citizen to do homage to any man. On saying this he was immediately surrounded by a large number of those in the procession, his hat forcibly torn from his head, his clothes torn, and himself beaten in a most shocking manner. Several other persons who had the hardihood to stand in the presence of a foreign bishop with their hats on, shared the same fate as Dr. Duncan.”

The Catholic chapel in question was the Church of the Holy Trinity on Fifth Street, near Mound in the West End, dedicated on 5 October 1834. Presumably the “riot” would have taken place during that ceremony.

While the Cincinnati Journal and the eastern newspapers highlighted the horrific nature of the riot, most Cincinnati papers had little to say about the event. Some of that reticence may have to do with the nominal victim, Alexander Duncan.

Duncan was a bright fellow regularly knee-deep in some controversy or another. He was medical doctor and when he decided to go into politics, earned a law degree from Cincinnati College. He served two terms in the Ohio House and one term in the Ohio Senate before being elected twice to the United States Congress from Hamilton County’s first district. He was, unusual for a Democrat, a staunch opponent of slavery. Duncan was not fond of Catholics.

Duncan provided his personal account of the incident to the Cincinnati Journal, which published it on January, 23, 1835. Duncan told Rev. Brainerd his interest in submitting the report was:

“ . . . to wake up the citizens of Cincinnati to the ghostly usurpations of the Roman Catholic church.”

On the day of the Holy Trinity Church dedication, Duncan wrote, he wandered over out of curiosity. That curiosity was not unbiased. Duncan recorded his disgust at the Catholic vestments and regalia. He attributed the doffing of headwear to ignorance, superstition, and “man-worship.”

“Now the procession was passing before me—but my attention was turned from the gaudy pageant by a rustling noise behind me, and I had scarcely turned myself in the direction whence it proceeded, before my hat was forcibly torn from my head, by a gentleman, shall I call him? No! But by a bigot, whose whole appearance made it quite doubtful, whether his devotion to Bacchus, or his zeal for the Pope, were predominant.”

The eastern newspapers were appalled at the behavior of these recent Catholic immigrants, beholden to the dictates of a foreign religion, taking orders from a faraway power. The opinion of the Springfield, Massachusetts Republican [14 February 1835] was typical:

“The Catholics who have emigrated to this country are very numerous. They enjoy all the benefits of our free institutions. The liberty of speech, of the press, and of conscience is guaranteed to them by the Constitution of our Government—and there is no necessity of resorting to violence as a means of promulgating their religion.”

But, was there really a riot? There were doubters. James Hall, the cantankerous and hardly pro-Catholic editor of the Western Monthly Magazine, addressed the Duncan case in a lengthy analysis of “The Catholic Question” [June 1835]:

“There was a perfect storm in a teakettle over Mr. Alexander Duncan’s hat, and Cincinnati was supposed, by persons at a distance, to be in a state of civil commotion, when in fact the legend of the hat had not been heard of by a majority of its citizens, and to this day there are thousands who doubt the story.”

This doubt, Hall, noted, did not stop a New York cartoonist from selling many copies of an engraving of the brave Dr. Duncan surrounded by a vicious Catholic mob:

“In the foreground stands the suffering martyr, clinging, for conscience sake, close to his hat, which a furious, two-fisted Irish catholic, is endeavoring to force from his head—a priest holds up the cross, and an armed mob are rushing upon the devoted heretic—while a gallows in the back ground shows the fate that awaited the unfortunate Alexander Duncan, had he not been rescued by the civil authority from the hands of the infuriated papists!”

In any event, Cincinnati’s Catholics survived the bad press. Alexander Duncan went on to the United States Congress. He retired to his farm in Madisonville. He died there in 1853 when he suffered a stroke and fell under a wagon loaded with lumber and was crushed. He is buried in Madisonville’s Laurel Cemetery.

Alexander Duncan’s monument in Madisonville’s IOOF (international Order of Odd Fellows) Laurel Cemetery.
Alexander Duncan’s monument in Madisonville’s IOOF (international Order of Odd Fellows) Laurel Cemetery.

Photograph by Greg Hand

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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