Friday, June 8, 2012

The Chicago Beer Riot

On Wednesday, Ron posted a small excerpt about a beer riot in New York City in 1857. This got me thinking about what other times has beer been at the center of civil unrest? I'm not talking about a bunch of drunk sports fans turning over cars because their favorite basketball team won (or lost) it's championship—or any other drunken disorder, of the like. What I'm getting at is riotous behavior as a result of politically motivated actions—true civil unrest over a pint of beer.

That led me to an incident, related to the riot noted by Ron, which happened two years earlier and 1,000 miles from New York, in the booming cow-town of Chicago. Although the location was different, I suspect the  underlying sentiment of the riots was the same. Both of theses incidents weren't about "Oh no, we've run out of beer, let's riot." Their roots lay in the political an social discord of mid 19th-century America. Absolutist conservatism was on the rise across the country—anti-slavery, anti-drink, religious zealotry and xenophobia all were contributing to a social and political tempest which would eventually lead, ten years later, to the American Civil War. There was no room for tolerance, only absolutism. You are wrong, and I am right—and blood would spill because of this thinking.

The Chicago Beer Riots have their beginnings in the mayoral election of 1855. The American Party—better known as the Know-Nothings—was gaining popularity in the city of Chicago during the mid-1850s. The Know-Nothings were a national, pro-American, anti-German and anti-Irish Catholic, political faction, bent on curbing immigration—by any means necessary. To the Know-Nothings, immigrants spoke another language—which was wrong—they drank beer—which was wrong—and they practiced their own religion—which was wrong. The xenophobic group would back, along with the city's temperance-minded groups, mayoral candidate Dr. Levi Boone (nephew of American folk-hero Daniel Boone) against incumbent Democratic mayor, Issac Miliken. Before I go any further, I want to make sure something is clear here—The Chicago I'm talking about isn't the city of today, in fact it wasn't much of city at all. Chicago, in 1855, was a fairly small town with only about 40,000 residents—New York City on the other hand had a population of just over a million. Chicago's smaller size made it ripe pickings for absolutist groups, like the Know-Nothings, to get a foothold in politics with a relatively small number of followers. That's exactly what happened in 1855. Boone won the election and brought his nativist views with him to City Hall.

Boone was infuriated by the growing relationship between the German and Irish immigrants within the city. He saw not only their alliance, but their growing neighborhoods, churches and spreading customs as a threat to what he considered to be true "Americans." It became Boone's goal to decimate Chicago's immigrant population and he chose beer—something beloved by both groups—as his instrument to do that. Boone's first tactic was an increase of nearly 600%—from $50 to $300—on liquor license fees, followed by an issuing suspension of those licenses. Boone's biggest hit, however, came when he re-instituted a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Although "American" bars and taverns continued to operate on those days without recourse. On the first Sunday Boone's revived law was in effect, Chicago police arrested more than 200 barkeeps and tavern owners in and around the city's German populated, northern neighborhoods.

The Clark Street Bridge
On the morning of April 25, 1855 a group of mostly Germans tavern keepers marched down Randolf and Clark streets, toward the Cook County Court House, in protest of a hearing set for that day on the matter of the previous arrests. The mob was unarmed and at first peaceful, albeit a bit threatening—stating that the court should find in their favor, less the town "... have a taste of war!" The crowd was intercepted by police officers armed with cudgels. The police laid into the unarmed crowd, savagely beating them and arresting nine protesters. The group retreated, bloodied but not beaten. The situation escalated later that afternoon when the protesters returned, in greater numbers, and armed with knives, clubs and shotguns. When the crowd began crossing the Chicago River, Boone ordered the Clark Street Bridge, a draw bridge, to be opened—effectivly splitting the mob in two, with one group on the north side of the bridge, and the other to the south. This tactic incensed the rioters and it was at this point that small arms fire broke out between the northern faction and the police department. Amid shouts of "Kill the police!" and "Pick out the stars!" more than a thousand protesters battled two-hundred police officers for over an hour. Boone would eventually call in the militia and as night fell, the riot subsided. Hundreds were wounded, but only one—a German immigrant named Peter Martin—was killed.

Within days, the liquor license fee was restored to $50, and the city's prohibition of alcohol sales on Sundays was lifted. Although terribly violent, the riots did succeed in unifying the immigrant population of Chicago. An unprecedented turnout—nearly 75%—of the city's Irish and German population voted in the following year's mayoral election. Boone was ousted and the turnout effectively discredited the Know-Nothing party within the city—setting Chicago on the political course for which it is known for today—that of ethnic, urban, machine-based, municipal politics.

Beer–1, Tyranny–0.   


  1. Thanks for adding some background to the riots.

    1. I'll be honest Ron, I was a little stuck as to what to write, and your post gave me a little inspiration!