' Skip To Content
Murder at Harvard | Article

Boston's Immigrant Population

Francis Tukey, Esq., City Marshall of Boston | The Bostonian Society

When Dr. George Parkman was first reported missing, Boston Marshal Francis Tukey and his police force began an investigation in the neighborhoods of the city's poor immigrants. Boston's immigrant population, mostly Irish, chafed against staid Boston Brahmin culture. It was true that increased immigration had brought an increase in disease and crime, but there were other reasons established Bostonians rejected the assimilation of thousands of foreigners in the years between 1845 and 1850. Boston had been on a mission. The 1840s were the city's greatest decade of reform. When the city was flooded with immigrants of a different type and number than it had ever received, its citizens saw their reforms unravel and perceived their Puritan community tarnishing.

In 1828, reformer Bronson Alcott — father of the novelist Louisa May Alcott — declared Boston, "The city that is set on high." Its morality, he claimed, "is more pure than that of any other city in America." Bostonians remained surprisingly close to their Puritan roots of moral high-mindedness well into the nineteenth century. They truly subscribed to the attitude that Alcott articulated, and they supported their ideals with action.

Urban Reform
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century Bostonians fought hard for temperance in Boston, even enacting a liquor prohibition law they tried for years to enforce. They established a board of health that set standards of sanitation, enforced by a system of fines and eventually the police, which lowered the outbreak of contagious diseases in the city. Bostonians worked hard to erase any evidence of crime or ill repute in their city. As Boston evolved from a town into an incorporated city, its peacekeeping and safety force evolved from merchant-paid nightwatchmen, to constables, to an official, paid police force headed by a city marshal. By the 1840s, the constant pressure for reform was paying off. Boston's police were considered the best in the nation, its mortality rate was low, and temperance had great support.

Managing Immigrants
Boston did have its problems in the decades preceding 1850. It had illegal brothels and bad neighborhoods. The political cohesiveness of city government was showing cracks. But immigrants had never been a major problem. Immigrants had trickled in in manageable numbers, and were mostly skilled artisans who became good citizens. Most immigrants did not see Boston as an ideal stopping ground — there was little space, and not enough industry to absorb them — so they moved on. As Oscar Handlin wrote, "Two conditions were essential before a large immigrant group would stay in Boston. First, the immigrants must be more interested in escaping from Europe than in what faced them in America. Secondly, they must have so little mobility that, once in Boston, they could not go elsewhere because poverty deprived them of the means, and despondence of the desire. For a long time this combination of factors did not apply to any migration that affected Boston." Most immigrants coming to America sought the fertile soil west of Boston, or the greater merchant and industrial opportunities found in other burgeoning American cities. Most had a little money to get to their desired destination. The potato famine in Ireland that began in 1845 changed all of that.

Boston Irish
The Great Famine struck an Ireland that was already struggling. Oppressive English rule had crippled many of Ireland's merchants, had drawn the Irish elite to England, and had prevented Ireland from reaping the benefits of the Industrial Revolution that swept Europe and America. The lower classes of Ireland were struggling to get by, and the potato famine devastated them. Thousands came to America between 1845 and 1850, and Boston was one of the main seaports of their landing. Many Irish immigrants barely had the means to make the trip, and had no money to move on once they landed in Boston. By 1850, 35,000 of Boston's 136,000 residents — 26 percent — were Irish.

Ireland's Poorest
Most of the arriving Irish were of the poorest classes of Ireland, and did not have the skills of previous immigrants to Boston. The city had no way to absorb them. Many of them turned to selling drink, and by 1851, 900 of Boston's 1500 liquor shops were run by Irishmen. The temperance movement was failing. Boston's health and safety reforms also lost major ground. Fanned by the desperation and overcrowding of immigrants caught in a city without the geographic or economic room to support them, disease, mortality and crime shot up in Boston.

A Divided City
The reform culture that had led Bostonians to pursue municipal perfection did not move them to accept their new Irish neighbors. Bostonians tried to close their city, their neighborhoods, and their shops to Irish immigrants, and exacerbated the division between the two cultures. Many of them turned their fervor to abolitionism, a cause that was safely distanced from their own neighborhoods.

Support Provided by: Learn More