Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday Beer Blogging: Chicago Beer Riot Edition

Today's blog o' beer comes from Modern Drunkard magazine. Yes, there is such a thing. In this issue they have an article about the 1855 Chicago Beer Riot. I'm not sure it has anything on the drunken 1992 Bulls "Repeat" celebration in downtown Chicago that I (drunkenly) participated in, but it is, nonetheless, an interesting story.

[Chicago] Mayor [Levi D.] 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.”

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.”

Now, I want to stop here for a minute to point out the the intersection of Clark and Randolf today is the site of the James R. Thompson Center, the huge State of Illinois office complex that only a drunken mob could love. Coincidence?

Anyway, back to our story...

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.

For the rest of the story, go to the Modern Drunkard piece.

Have a happy weekend!

Hat tip to Rich Miller for the pointer to this piece of history.

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