Chicago, circa 1850, was a rough-and-tumble city crouching by the chilly, windy waters of Lake Michigan, a final outpost on the edges of the great western frontier. An argument can be made as to which was more hazardous — the city or the frontier.
The city’s population numbered some 80,000 souls, with newcomers arriving daily, most looking for work in the burgeoning stockyards or on the lake-front docks. The poor and working classes outnumbered the moneyed elite by almost five to one. Saloons, beer gardens, and taverns outnumbered other businesses two to one, and churches almost fifteen to one. The good people of Chicago liked to drink.
Crime, especially burglary and vice, was epidemic, a fact which disturbed many citizens, especially the upper crust. Chicago’s constabulary, believe it or not, was comprised of a whopping nine men, so little could be done to curb the city’s increasingly chaotic tendencies. The situation came to a head in 1855, and Chicago empowered its first official Police Department. A noted volunteer fireman and occasional private detective named Cyrus P. Bradley was appointed Chief of Police. He reported directly to the newly-elected mayor, Dr. Levi D. Boone, who, in addition to being Daniel Boone’s grand-nephew, was an important member of an up-and-coming political party called the Native Americans, or Know-Nothings. Generally speaking, the Know-Nothings were in favor of civic order and “traditional American values,” while being vehemently anti-foreigner, anti-Catholic, and anti-alcohol.
When Mayor Boone and his lackeys set out to restore order, they beganby asking themselves a question. Why was Chicago such a dangerous vice-sodden cesspool? Well, answered the Native Americans, two factors lurked at the center of the issue. One, there were too many foreigners in the city, particularly on the North Side, which was populated almost exclusively by Germans; and two, there was too much liquor, especially beer—beer brewed, as it happened, by those same treacherous, non-English-speaking Germans. So, you want to rid the Windy City of crime? All you gotta do is get rid of the beer and the Germans. And while you’re at it, you might consider doing something about those Irishmen and Scandinavians hanging around.
Chicago’s German citizens were a standoffish, almost tribal lot. They maintained their own schools and churches, sanctioned their own quasi-legal law enforcement agents, published their own German-language newspapers, and stubbornly refused to learn English. To make matters worse, they operated dozens of breweries and literally hundreds of taverns and beer halls, which made them quite popular among local and national liquor interests. Before gaining its reputation as a vital hub of shipping and agricultural commerce, Chicago was, first and foremost, a beer town. A German beer town. The nativist Know-Nothings didn’t like that one bit.
Mayor Boone had been in office for all of about fifteen seconds when he went to the City Council and suggested that liquor license fees should be increased from 50 dollars a year to 300, and that the terms of each license would last only three months instead of the usual year. The Council passed both measures with the speed and alacrity common among lickspittles. Mayor Boone then ordered Police Chief Bradley to immediately begin enforcing an existing statute ordering all taverns and beer gardens to close on Sundays. (The blue law had been on the books for 12 years, but enforcement had been, for beer enthusiasts, blessedly lax.) And so, energized by a sense of mission, and some spiffy new uniforms, officers from Chicago’s new PD fanned out through the city intent upon showing tavern-owners and other dangerous nogoodniks the exact definition of the word “compulsory.”
Problems were evident from the outset. The cops hit joints on the North Side—German Town—like swarms of aggravated bees, closing doors and issuing enough tickets to throw a fair-sized ticker-tape parade. They also targeted Chicago’s central neighborhoods, where Irish-owned establishments received the same treatment. On the South Side, however, where “Americans” lived, taverns and other businesses serving alcohol were allowed to continue operating on Sundays using their rear and alley doors.
Mayor Boone, a strict prohibitionist, believed that a nationwide ban on hooch was imminent, and stated that the Sunday raids and licensing-fee increases were intended to “root out all the lower classes of dives, and leave the businesses in the hands of the better class of saloon-keepers, who, when the temperance law should go into force, could be rationally dealt with.”
For the ultra-conservative, xenophobic Know-Nothings, the phrase “lower classes” was shorthand for German, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrants in particular, and drunkards in general. Someone should’ve informed Mayor Boone that these were proud people, and that it would take a lot more than his signature on a piece of paper to make them roll over and play nice.
Tavern keepers, brewers and concerned citizens gathered to express their outrage over being persecuted. Many German and Irish beer joints adamantly refused to close on Sundays and, when faced with Boone’s contemptible license-fee hikes, simply continued operating without them. Over 200 men and women were arrested, but when it dawned on Boone and other city officials that so large a number of cases, each requiring a separate trial, would bung-up Chicago’s courts for years, they sought a compromise. The lawyer for the accused protestors met with the City Attorney, and they decided to conduct a single test case, the outcome of which would apply to all 200 defendants. The trial was scheduled for April 21, 1855, and would be presided over by respected Police Magistrate Henry L. Rucker.
Rucker had barely settled into his chair before the proceedings were interrupted by a roar of angry voices outside the court house. A reporter named John J. Flinn was on hand and described what happened next.
“The…saloon-keepers had collected their friends on the North Side, and, preceded by a fife and drum, the mob, about 500 strong, had marched in solid phalanx upon the justice shop, as many as could entering the sacred precincts. After making themselves understood that the decision of the court must be in their favor if the town didn’t want a taste of war, they retired and formed at the intersection of Clark and Randolph, and held possession of these thoroughfares to the exclusion of all traffic. The uproar was deafening.”
The unrest lasted about a half-hour before Mayor Boone ordered Captain of Police Luther Nichols to disperse the protestors. Nichols, joined by 20 officers armed with cudgels, attacked the mob, beating them savagely and hauling nine away to jail. The demonstrators retreated back to their North Side stronghold, bloodied but not beaten.
The trial finally got underway. Meanwhile, on the North Side, the Germans and their allies summoned additional bodies to their cause and began planning another assault on the courthouse. Upon learning of the German’s intentions, Mayor Boone called in every police officer in the city and pressed into service an additional 150 emergency deputies.
Around four o’clock that afternoon, the crowd of protestors, now numbering more than a thousand, marched down Clark Street, armed with shotguns, knives, clubs and assorted kitchen implements. They were met by a solid line of 200 lawmen blocking off street access to the court house. A yell arose from the German contingent—“Kill the police!”—and the two armies went for each other. The battle lasted well over an hour before the protestors fled North and the cops retreated South. Surprisingly, only a single death resulted from the action—a German named Peter Martin, who was cut down by a shotgun blast.
Realizing he had underestimated the protestors’ willingness to fight, Mayor Boone summoned two companies of the Illinois state militia, complete with artillery, to guard against further violence. The test trial was abandoned, and those arrested were freed on bail. An uneasy peace settled on the city, and it was decided that Boone’s prohibitionist statutes would be put to a city-wide vote at a special election to be held on the first Monday in June, 1855.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, temperance advocates arrived in Chicago from all over the country. They cooked up anti-alcohol newsletters and canvassed the length and breadth of the city decrying the evils of liquor, wine, and beer. They invaded saloons and hassled the peaceful patrons therein. They marched in solemn processions, and warbled depressing hymns, smugly confident that the coming vote would be a crippling body-blow against Demon Rum.
Oh, how wrong they were.
It’s estimated that nearly 75 percent of all Chicagoans showed up at the polls—the heaviest turnout in Illinois history. The people turned out, and they were heard.
The prohibitionist statutes lost by more than 15,000 votes—a shattering, crushing defeat for the forces of temperance. Beer halls all over town stayed open until dawn and, come the following Sunday, opened early to serve a thirsty, thankful populace.
American Prohibition didn’t spring to life, fully-formed and ready to rumble, like Athena from Zeus’ head, on that dark day in 1919. No, fanatical dries tried—and failed—many times before seeing the Volstead Act signed into law. The Chicago Beer Riot was one of their more spectacular failures. In 1855, prohibitionists went toe-to-toe, both physically and in the courts, with brewers and drunkards, and were thoroughly Whack-A-Moled. We can, and should, learn from this bit of our exciting drunken history.
(Note: the Author is indebted to the works of Herbert Asbury; as well as the editors of the Encyclopedia of Chicago, and Gregg Smith at BeerHistory.com