Of ‘Hoodies’ and Historical Amnesia

A great many Irish Americans have forgotten that their ancestors’ brogans and workers’ caps were the ‘hoodies’ of their day

No matter where one comes down of the verdict in the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case, ignoring the issue of profiling is morally and historically myopic. What brought this to my mind, at least, was hearing well-known local attorney and cable network talking-head legal expert Wendy Murphy pontificate that Zimmerman was justified in shooting and killing Trayvon Martin because Zimmerman feared for his own life. That Zimmerman undeniably left his vehicle with his handgun – legally licensed – and “encountered” the teen matters not a whit in the world of Murphy and too many other pundits to list here, many bearing Irish surnames.

I’m not a lawyer, but I believe every person is familiar with profiling, with knee-jerk reactions to certain fears, though few will ever admit it. The reason for delving into all this is that Ms. Murphy and numerous others whose people hail from the old sod either ignore or don’t grasp the fact that at one time, it was their own ancestors who were profiled – for their brogues, their brogans, their worker caps, their religion, their very existence in a place where the majority loathed them, feared them, and viewed them as dangerous and criminal.
The sad case of Zimmerman and Martin evokes some echoes to one in Massachusetts of 1845, one in which profiling and fear of the “other” fueled tragedy. What should be truly disturbing to all Americans in 2013 is that a 1845 jury composed solely of white Protestant men rose above their own prejudices to their own profiling of Irish Catholics to focus solely on the law and render a verdict that was controversial for exactly the opposite reason than that of George Zimmerman’s jury.
On St, Patrick’s Day 1845, an Irish workman slipped and stumbled up a South Hanover, Massachusetts, sand bank. Just below him, a local named Perry paused, leveled his gun, and squeezed the trigger just as the Irishman lurched to the crest of the hill. The round tore into the Irishman, and he toppled lifelessly to the sand. In a local “watering hole” nearby, two of the man’s companions, fellow Irish laborers, lay sprawled on the floor, also slain by the gunman. What had started as a St. Patrick’s Day 1845 celebration for the three Irishmen, who were workmen on the Boston to Plymouth railway project, had ended in an explosion of violence.
A Hanover Historical Society Calendar featured an old photo showing a house and shed and bearing the inscription: “Three Irishmen Shot Here By Seth Perry in 1845.” Broadway, the road outside the dwelling, has been razed since 1845, but the sand bank where the third Irishman was gunned down is still there.
A question, however, lingers about the identity of the killer, “Seth Perry.” The Hanover Mariner relates that while one of the Perrys did murder the trio of Irishmen, the assailant may have been Perez Perry. Local chronicler Charles Gleason’s version of the crime was told in a July 19, 2000 Mariner article by Barbara Barker: “The Perry family were among the first in the Old Colony, and their progeny are wide-spread. Some of the early families were very prolific. For instance, Cephas (Perry) was the father of 14 children, some of whom settled in South Hanover or nearby. When the Boston to Plymouth railway was being built, around 1845, several Irishmen celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by coming to a certain house in South Hanover to buy liquid refreshments.”
Likely fueled to a boisterous pitch by those “refreshments,” the trio of Irish workmen passed from mellow to belligerent, by some accounts. Perez Perry, not Seth, says Gleason, may have perceived that the laborers posed a grave threat – so grave that the local dashed home, grabbed his gun, strode back to “the certain house,” and blasted away at two of the Irishmen. As the pair crumpled to the floor, the third railroad worker fled the house, ran to the sand bank, and lurched up its face. Perry pursued him and pumped a bullet into his quarry’s back.
Local constables soon arrested Perry. Although antipathy toward Irish immigrants ran high in Massachusetts in 1845, swollen by the aniti-Catholic, anti-foreigner rancor of Nativists (native-born American Protestants), the jury at Perry’s trial faced both a legal and moral dilemma. They could accept the defense’s contention that Perry cut down the first two Irishmen, raucous and “menacing,” in “self-defense.” However, chasing an unarmed man and blasting a hole in his back reeked of cold-blooded murder. No matter the probable Nativist leanings of at least several jurors, they returned a guilty verdict. According to Gleason, the convicted killer died in prison.
Still, the question lingers: Which Perry pulled the trigger? The History of Hanover (1910) refers to Perez and Seth Perry, but a reading of the material makes the identity of the murderer even murkier. Perez Perry, born in 1803, died in 1855, had a son named Perez, who died a bachelor in 1855. Seth Perry’s birthdate was 1793, and he died in 1874. Which one did the violent deed remains uncertain. But the sad saga of three Irish railway workers, as Barbara Barker writes, “still stands.”
In 1930, a man named Joseph P. Hennessey wrote a letter to the Rockland Standard needling Hanover for the less than red-carpet treatment locals accorded the Irish in the 1840s: “About 1840…the laborers employed on the job (now it would be called a project) were immigrants from Ireland, who were at that time such a rarity to the inhabitants of our sister town of Hanover that three boys from there walked six miles over to South Hanson to get a look at an Irishman.”
The disdain that many New Englanders heaped upon the “ragged Irish” of the era was rife with brutal stereotypes of “drunken Paddies” and nativist newspapers and magazines clotted with other ethnic caricatures of “Paddy and Bridget.” In Hanover, the combination of brogues and too much St. Patrick’s Day revelry ignited something murderous in a man named Perry, something so dark that even his Yankee neighbors could not ignore one savage fact: He had shot a man in the back. Irish though that man was, the deed was murder, plain and simple.
Today, the actual site of the “certain house,” where locals could toss down “liquid refreshment” despite the temperance movement gaining steam in the era, is long forgotten. The South Hanover sand bank where the third Irish worker met his terrifying end on St. Patrick’s Day of 1845 still rises in mute testimony to the crime.
Then and now, no two trials are ever completely alike. Still, Ms. Murphy and the legion of legal and political pundits (NBC’s David Gregory wondered if anyone could really deny that the Zimmerman trial was fair) might do well to look back at cases of old when profiling proved a key component. It especially holds true for Irish Americans too willing to assign the same instant menace to an African American in a hoodie as Irish immigrants once were deemed menacing for wearing battered workman’s caps and brogans.