American Protective Association

Dec 28, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Safe in the Vatican, Pope Leo the Thirteenth was probably not aware in the spring of 1887 that a stack of lumber in front of the W. J. Young Lumber Company in Clinton, Iowa, was about to cause him some grief. That lumber was the first domino in a chain of bigotry that got out of hand.

A popular Clinton mayor, Arnold Wallicker, had been defeated after refusing to let the lumber company continue to pile its lumber in the street. The company's Irish employees had voted against him, and the Irish were Roman Catholics.

Sensing that somehow, Rome was behind the defeat, Clinton attorney Henry Francis Bowers, a friend of Wallicker, gathered six friends in his office on March 13th, 1887, and formed the American Protective Association to preserve America's protestant way of life against foreign powers and principalities. In other words, the Pope.

The Association, patterned after the fraternal lodges popular at the time, had a secret oath and rituals. Bowers assumed the presidency and set about trying to influence a local school board election.

Like a prairie fire, the American Protective Association spread across the United States until it claimed more than two million members influencing state and local elections and fanning the fires of anti-Catholicism. The timing had been perfect. A new generation of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and eastern Europe willing to work for less, were pushing in on the earlier generations of English, Germans, and Scandinavians. There was also a growing rift between urban (and Catholic) America and those regions such as the Midwest, which were rural and strongly Protestant. By 1894, the American Protective Association could claim a hundred members in Congress.

As for Henry Bowers, he harbored a dark secret unknown to the members of his organization. As an attorney, he had saved several of his many Catholic friends in Clinton from bankruptcies. Worse, over the years he donated fancy bedspreads and pillowcases to be raffled off at church benefit fairs at St. Mary's Catholic Church. And even worse: he had embroidered them all himself.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.