An 1848 Sunday school picnic in South Reading leads to a melee

At 8 a.m. on July 19, 1848, the children of St. Mary's Sunday School in Boston's North End gathered at Haymarket Square, where they embarked upon the Boston and Maine Railroad accompanied by their parents. Six stops and 10 miles later, they reached South Reading, where they disembarked for a planned day of picnicking, sports, and games at Bancroft Grove.

As the Atlas newspaper would write two days later, however, the outing "resulted in any thing but pleasure to those who attended it." A fight would break out between parishioners and railroaders, leading to reports of one railroader killed and Father Patrick Flood seriously injured.

Though he did not accompany the group to South Reading, Bishop John Fitzpatrick provided one of the most detailed accounts of the events, as he heard them, in his diary of the following day.

The entry reveals that in the middle of the afternoon, while parishioners were engrossed in their activities, they were suddenly attacked by a group of men identified as local Irish railroaders. Wielding clubs and knives, they sent the parishioners fleeing until, realizing they were failing to outrun the railroaders, the male members of the parish stopped and "formed a body armed with sticks [and] made an onslaught of the assailants and dealing severe blows put them to flight."

The true cause of this sudden and unprovoked attack remains unknown. Bishop Fitzpatrick wrote that he heard two stories, the first of which involved a woman who had been hired to set up a stand selling "liquors" in the grove. On the day, however, she was "sent away ... by the gentlemen who superintended the excursion," causing the railroaders to become outraged at her dismissal and attack the group.

The second story claims that "some disorderly characters, not connected with the Sunday School," were lingering in the area and pretended to be part of that group. They began to cause trouble among the railroaders and their families, verbally assaulting them and even entering their homes. The residents, led to believe these unsavory characters were one with the parishioners, attacked the latter in self-defense.

The Atlas, in turn, claimed that the assailants were railroaders employed by the Boston and Maine Railroad on which the group had traveled to South Reading. The description is very vague, but states they had become intoxicated, began quarreling amongst themselves, then proceeded to the grove, where they were being disruptive. They were asked to leave and, refusing to do so, the parishioners attempted to "drive them off, which resulted in a general fight."

Whatever the cause, the conflict lasted throughout the afternoon as the parishioners awaited their return train to Boston, the men of the parish continuing to fend off their attackers even as the women and children of the parish boarded the train cars.

The following day, July 20, the Atlas published a short feature about "a serious fight ... between a party of Irishmen employed on the Railroad and the people attending a pic-nic of the Sunday School Society of St. Mary's Church." "The battle," it resumes, "was continued for some time with clubs, stones, and brickbats." It closes by stating that many were injured and, their informant tells them, "some of the railroad party were killed."

Bishop Fitzpatrick's diary entry of the same day reveals he learned similarly that one railroader was killed, many were wounded, and nearly all received some bruises. Both the Atlas and The Pilot reveal there were serious concerns about an injury caused to Father Flood who was attacked while attempting to make peace with the railroaders.

Fortunately, later stories correct those assessments, and in actuality, there were no fatalities nor were Father Flood's injuries as serious as initially thought.

- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.