1859: Randall Holden to Stephen Holden

This letter was written by Randall Holden (1829-1906), the son of Joseph & Nancy Clinton (Brown) Holden of South Hartwick, Otsego county, New York. Randall’s father was a farmer and store and tavern keeper in the village of South Hartwick until 1852 when, due to ill health, he relocated to Manassas, Virginia. When Randall wrote this letter in November 1859, he was attending Medical Lectures in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from the Baltimore Medical College in 1861 and served as an Assistant Surgeon in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He died at his home in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1906.

Randall’s brother, Capt. Stephen Holden of Co. H, 152nd New York Infantry.

Randall wrote the letter to his brother, Stephen Holden (1832-1909) who began teaching a district school in 1849-50 but in 1852 entered the Delaware Literary Institute at Franklin, Delaware county, New York. He then attended Yale College, earning his A. B. and then began teaching Latin, Greek, and mathematics in the Delaware Literary Institute where he was working when this letter was written in 1859. He studied law and was admitted to the New York bar before the Civil War began but entered his country’s service, enlisting in Co. H, 152nd New York Volunteers, rising from private to Captain. He was shot in the face at the Battle of the Wilderness but survived and returned to Otsego county.

Randall’s letter provides us with a great description of the election day violence that took place on 2 November 1859 in Baltimore, Maryland—dubbed “Mobtown” by most Americans at the time. By the 1850’s, Baltimore’s population had swelled with Irish and German immigrants who were taking the jobs away from or otherwise lowering the wages of the “Nativists.” This resentment was so strong that the “American” or “Know Nothing” Party emerged, following the breakup of the Whig Party. They were opposed by the Loco Foco, or Democratic Party (“Reform Party”) who had a much higher percentage of emigrants and Catholics among their members. Gangs from each party roamed the streets, particularly on election day, pushing away, intimidating, or otherwise roughing up known members of the opposition party to keep them from casting their ballot. The poorly staffed police force were overwhelmed and ineffective in controlling the abuses.

For a great article on the violence of this particular election day, see Jill Lepore’s 2008 article in the New Yorker, “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”

Cartoon of Mobtown’s Plug Uglies


Baltimore [Maryland]
November 13, 1859

Dear Brother,

I received your letter yesterday. I presume it has been in the office 3 or 4 days but I don’t go there more than once or twice a week. It is about a mile from my boarding place. I received your letter too late in the day to get that check cashed, but I presume I can do so without any difficulty. However, I would rather have such small amounts in bank notes for these bankers are so still that sometimes they will not condescend to notice such small affairs. I would prefer that you should send what you send next time all in one lump. I had rather wait a little longer for it until you can get it in proper shape. I can’t well pay out these checks without getting them cashed for I don’t have occasion to pay out but small sums at a time. I have taken all my tickets for the lectures but dissection which is $10 only and I don’t care about taking that yet.

I pay my board weekly. You can pay for me what is necessary towards Grandmother’s support, provided you can send me the amount I wrote for besides, I intended you should keep the rest that is due and apply it there as it is needed. By the way, I have never received any account of her expenses but once and that was about 2 years ago and without date.

I have received a letter from home since I wrote you before. It contained no particular news I believe. As you say the annual row has passed off in Baltimore and a row it was—especially in the fore part of the day. There were several persons shot, some of them of the most respectable class. Those of the Reform Party who were endeavoring to maintain their rights and crowd up to the polls to deposit their votes. I went out to take a look about 10 o’clock a.m. but everything was tolerably quiet then. The Know Nothings had possession of the polls in nearly every ward in the city, and no reformer attempted to vote after that—or but few. And htose who did were knocked down, beaten, stabbed with awls, and prevented from voting. And if they made any show of defense, were immediately arrested by the police and taken to the watch house and the rowdies were not molested.

The Daily Ohio Statesman, 3 November 1859

I only went to one of the polls and in sight of another where I squinted around a corner but thought it was not exactly safe to venture too near for there had been one killed there about an hour before and 6 or 7 others wounded by pistol balls. I saw the man that was killed at the infirmary where he was taken to have his wounds dressed. I saw them bandage his head, but I knew he would soon die for the ball passed through his eye and came out back of his head. He lived until about 2 o’clock p.m. Fortunately, he was one of the Rip Raps. Pity that more of them had not shared the same fate. I suppose that there were more respectable men taken to the watch house on that day that there is usually in a whole year. Prof. Frick told me he only has 3 brothers in the city and they were all in the watch house in the course of the day where they never were before, and he came near being taken there himself.

It is thought that the police were instructed to arrest the reformers where ever they could have the least excuse for so doing, and not to arrest their own party. One of the Policemen resigned on that day. He said if he could not be allowed to do his duty, he would not serve. When I was at the polls, I saw a band of rowdies calling themselves the “little fellows,” about 15 in number, not one of which I was told belonged in that ward, each take a Know Nothing ticket as they came down the street and deposit it in the ballot box. They then started for another ward and I presume they voted in nearly every ward in the city.

I don’t know that I have anything new to write you about medical affairs. Everything passes along in regular rotation. We have ben examined once or twice in Practice & also in Anatomy. Examinations will commence soon in several other branches. I shall join nearly all the examination classes. I flatter myself that I pass as good an examination as several of the 2nd course students that I have heard examined. I think that if some of them pass, they have got a heap of work to do between this and the first of March. I know I can answer more questions now than several who are on their 2nd course. I presume I shall be able to see as much of society here as my time will permit. I have several very pleasant acquaintances here, some of them I have called on and some I have not and I don’t know that I shall call on them all.

We have had very pleasant weather here lately. It rained a little here this morning and has now come off very cool in consequence of this rain. This morning I attended the church nearest my boarding place—the Methodist Protestant. Last Sunday I attended the Presbyterian. Sunday before the Methodist Episcopal, and Sunday before that, Baptist (Doctor Fuller’s). Last Sunday afternoon I attended the Cathedral (Catholic). I heard some very fine music there and saw them go through with several performances such as the burning of incense &c., but they have no preaching at that hour. I hope you will be successful with your lectures next term if you give any. Give my regards to Grandmother if you get this letter before you see her and all the rest of our friends at Hartwick. Write me all the Hartwick news while you are there if you have time. If you see those persons who owe me letters, you may tell them I am at Baltimore where I shall be very happy to hear from them.

Affectionately, — R. Holden

[to] Stephen Holden, A. B.

November 14th. I have just shown that check to a broker. He says I can get it cashed by bringing in someone that knows me so it will be all right.

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