Skip to comments.April 21, 1855-Chicago's Lager Beer Riot
Posted on 04/21/2005 8:39:14 AM PDT by toddlintown
The Lager Beer Riot, April 21, 1855, One-Hundred and Fifty Years Ago Today
from my first book, The History of Beer and Brewing in Chicago, 1833-1978.
"Oh, lager beer! It makes good cheer, And proves the poor mans wealth; It cools the body through and through, And regulates the health.author unknown
During the early years of Chicago's development, the city's growth was tenuous, at best. The Financial Panic of 1837 had ruined many investors whom had bought land in the area at wildly inflated prices, only to find the speculative bottom fall out. A lack of hard currency, high inflation and the introduction of President Jackson's Specie Circular had caused such a tightening of the money market that banks throughout the United States suspended business. Illinois was virtually bankrupt.
William B. Ogden, benefactor of early Chicago brewers and the first mayor of Chicago in 1837, used the money of a group of wealthy New York investors and his own calming influence and leadership to allay the fears of Chicago's early business men, many whom were now saddled with crippling debt. Responding to his leadership, Chicago's business community began to recover, offering jobs to thousands of newly arrived Irish and German immigrants. After much personal lobbying, Ogden persuaded Cyrus McCormick to move his farm implement plant to Chicago in 1847. The Illinois & Michigan Canal, dug chiefly by Irish immigrants and opened in 1848, allowed passage from the Mississippi to Lake Michigan. Congress, during this period, freed up much needed federal funds for port improvements, greatly increasing Lake Michigan commerce to the city. Construction of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad and the Illinois Central Railroad, along with a laying of track towards Michigan and Indiana, made Chicago, by the 1850's, the most important railroad hub in the Midwest.
The Rise Of Immigration In response to the abundance of jobs available in the growing city and the economic stability that these positions offered, a steady stream of foreigners was drawn to Chicago. By 1850, more than half of the Chicago population of 28,269 was foreign born, the Irish comprising about 21%, the Germans, 17%.i The lot of the German immigrants in the New World was, for the most part, less trying than that of the Irish. Some of these new German immigrants were university educated or accomplished tradesmen, many having fled the 1848 Revolution in Germany. A later study of the educational and trade backgrounds of Chicagos early German immigrants confirms that almost sixty-two percent of these immigrants were either professionals, white-collar workers or skilled craftsmen. These advantages are indicated by the quickness in which they were able to establish themselves in the local brewing trade and successfully conduct their business in the English speaking New World so soon after their arrival. ii
Some of Chicagos early brewers and future members of brewing peripheral trades were included in this second wave of German immigration. Conrad Seipp had wisely left his homeland after serving as a Hessian guard during the Revolution. Arriving in Chicago soon thereafter, Seipp established himself as the owner of a successful downtown hotel. With the sale of his profitable business in 1851, he entered the brewing trade, soon to become one of the most famous brewers in Chicago history. Robert Schmid, who studied architecture in Berlin, arrived in Chicago and began working with the famous architectural firm of Van Osdel and Olmsted before leaving for an independent position as a designer of breweries. As the malting trade developed in Chicago in response to the growing number of breweries and distilleries in the area, positions were quickly filled with German immigrants whom had worked in the trade as malsters back home. The Irish, on the other hand, were less fortunate, forced to flee a feudal land system, crop failures and near starvation with nothing more than the shirts on their backs.
During this early wave of immigration, the German brewers brought to Chicago the technical knowledge and appreciation for lager beer, the golden colored, highly carbonated, smooth tasting brew, heightened in taste by the use of bottom fermenting yeast and a long, cool secondary fermentation. Up until the mid-1840's, when one spoke of beer in the United States, one meant the sometimes dark, highly hopped, low carbonated malted liquor called ale which utilized a more primitive top fermenting yeast. The knowledge and understanding of the secrets of lager brewing, along with the importation of the lager beer yeast to the United States in the early 1840's and the Germans' appreciation of its smooth, familiar taste, helps explain the preponderance of early Chicago breweries owned and operated by Germans for Germans.iii
This new peculiarity of drink was initially shunned by much of the non-German population. Although ale was the only alternative malted beverage and a familiar drink of native born Americans, whiskey was the drink of choice. The distillation of whiskey from corn was an economic way of using up a bulky and perishable surplus harvest. In this liquid form, corn whiskey was not only used as a pleasant diversion but also as a portable trade bartering tool, especially in the rural areas where money, script or bank notes were often unavailable.
The Rise Of Nativism In Chicago The enjoyment of lager beer drinking, along with a host of other alien customs, habits and taste, eventually brought the Chicago German population into increasingly hostile situations with native born Yankee Americans. Some of this anti-German sentiment was brought upon the newly arrived immigrants by the Germans themselves and their uncomplimentary criticisms of American customs and institutions. Ironically, after failing to bring about social and political changes during the 1848 German Revolution, these often well educated expatriates clearly expected to bring about sweeping changes in the United States, a feat that they were unable to achieve in the Vaterland. One observer described their attitude in Eugen Seegers' Chicago: The Wonder City. "On Sundays they were in the habit of marching through the streets of the city to the strains of blaring bands, preferring to parade past crowded churches on their way to the picnic grounds, where they amused themselves to their hearts' content while guzzling enormous quantities of beer. In short, with more 'courage and vigor' than diplomatic consideration, the German lifestyle was demonstrated in order to show the Yankees once and for all what it means to be a 'free German of backbone' and then they enthusiastically assured each other that it was 'just like in Germany' ".iv
The Irish were also not immune to the scorn of the American born citizenry. Looked upon as minions of the Pope, who preached that religious laws were above civil laws, the Irish papists also began to feel the hostile wrath of the American born, so-called nativists. Beginning in 1853, the Chicago Tribune editorial pages began a jingoistic attack on the Catholic (read: Irish) population of Chicago. Another popular publication, The Literary Budget, also allied itself with the views of the nativists. Soon, the xenophobic philosophy of nativism began to come together. In Chicago, the members of the Native American Party, sometimes known as the Know-Nothing Party, began forming a fragile coalition of abolitionists, nativists and teetotalers, eventually connecting drunkenness with the German and Irish immigrants.v
Levi Boone In 1855, the local Know-Nothing Party offered up former city physician Doctor Levi Boone as candidate for mayor of Chicago, along with a host of other politically like-minded candidates for key city offices. Much of Chicago's population, ironically including a goodly number of immigrant Germans, appeared to have found something they liked in Boone's candidacy, ignoring the party's knot-holed political planks that sometimes ran contrary to their own interests and beliefs.
The dichotomy of the stormy political situation during Boone's mayoral campaign can be seen in the inherent prejudices of many of Boones supporters amongst the local population. The Germans, as a rule, were strict abolitionists. German Protestants from the northern states of the fatherland, however, were suspect of southern Bavarian Catholics and the papist Irish, as were most nativists. The teetotalers were against the consumption of alcohol as practiced by the "whiskey sodden" Irish and "lager beer swilling" Germans. Leading this unbelievable coalition were the American born nativists, fearful of a further onslaught of foreigners to Chicago. The intertwining philosophies of nativism and prohibition would continue to surface in Chicago politics for the next sixty-five years.
It was an early example of Chicago coalition politics at its worst. With hate and prejudice as the common denominator, the Know-Nothings were swept into office on March 6, 1855, giving Levi Boone the mandate he needed.
A week later, in his inaugural address, Boone unveiled his program, including his opinion on saloon licensing and Sunday closings of saloons. I would therefore recommend the Council to refuse to license the sale of intoxicating liquors after the first day of April Should the Council differ with me upon the propriety of licensing, I would then advise another alternative, that is, to grant licenses to such persons as desire to take them at the maximum price fixed by the (city) charter, that is $300 per year I wish to bespeak your active co-operation, in closing, all places where liquor is sold upon the Sabbath day
Refuting accusations made in the local press that he had been a Know Nothing candidate , he went on, nonetheless, with a theme central to the ideology of nativism. I cannot be blind to the existence in our midst of a powerful politico-religious organization, all its members owning, and its chief officers bound under an oath of allegiance to the temporal, as well as the spiritual supremacy of a foreign despot vi
On March 26, the Committee on Licenses of the City Council set the annual liquor fee at $300, setting off a flood of petitions to the Council from local saloonkeepers to reduce the licensing fee, but to no avail. Three weeks later, the Council adopted a resolution by the Grand Jury of the Recorders Court to prevent the sale of liquor on Sunday, effectively closing down all saloons on the Sabbath.vii Of the 675 saloons in the city, native born Americans owned only 50. The remainder of the watering holes was owned by German and Irish immigrants. The immigrant owners of the city saloons perceived that a large degree of these rulings by Boone and his City Council was directed toward their establishments and not the American owned, indicating to them that the crackdown was not necessarily a sign of reform or temperance.
Few of the affected saloonkeepers were willing or able to pay the new high license fee. It should be noted though, that many of the saloonkeepers had been derelict in securing a license even at the old $50 fee. A neutral observer would have had to admit that some sort of regulation of the saloons and additional revenue enhancement for the growing city was necessary. Gambling, prostitution and public drunkenness were on the rise in the wild young city, especially in the unlicensed dives. The perception though by the mostly foreign born saloonkeepers of the liquor license increase was one of a concerted campaign by local nativists to exclude them from the benefits of the American free enterprise system.viii
The truth was probably a blending of both sides' opinions. As a result of the strict licensing enforcement, some saloon proprietors soon went out of business. Others continued doing business, ignoring the new fee and the Sunday closing law. Approximately 80 native born American police officers were sworn in to ensure that all current liquor licenses were in order and that the rarely enforced, state mandated Sunday closing blue law would be observed. In the weeks that followed the license increase, two hundred saloonkeepers were arrested for violation of the new license fee or for staying open on Sundays. The Germans were especially vocal about the arrests and hit hardest by the crackdown. They argued that the blue law was a violation of their personal rights and an infringement on a traditional Teutonic practice of enjoying beer on Sundays.
In the meantime, American bartenders at the more respectable establishments such as the Tremont House and the Young America, established watering holes of the Know-Nothing constituency, simply directed patrons to a side door for their familiar Sunday constitutional of American whiskey, shunning the foreign tasting lager beer and the restrictions of the Sunday blue law.
The Germans were incensed at this double standard of enforcement and began to organize against it. German brewers and their patrons gathered at North Market Hall, pledged $5 each and formed a society to combat the high liquor license fee. John Huck, owner of the John A. Huck Brewery, took on the leadership of the pro-beer society.ix
The motives of Huck and the other Chicago brewers were pecuniary as well as of genuine indignation. The enforcement of the Sunday law had closed Huck's beer garden, Sunday considered a family day at his establishment. In addition to the effect of closings on Sunday sales, the brewers were also fearful of losing valuable retail outlets, legal or not, in which to sell their beer.
The Lager Beer Riot A test trial of thirty-three of the violators was scheduled for April 20, 1855, in the courtroom of Judge Henry Rucker. Shortly before the trial, both sides elected to choose one defendant for trial, the others to abide to whatever ruling the court chose. On April 20, Judge Rucker was delayed out of town and sent word to reschedule the trial for the following day. The next morning, fortified with one more day of brooding and the offerings of the numerous lager establishments located up and down Randolph Street, a threatening number of Germans armed themselves and marched upon the Cook County Court House. So many supporters in the crowd accompanied the defendants into the small courtroom that Judge Rucker had to ask them to leave. Those that complied, angrily milled about the outside of the courthouse. Blocking the thoroughfare, some fifty police agents descended upon the unruly crowd. Confused and disorganized, the crowd began to fall back.
While the brewery and saloon interests were marshaling their forces, Mayor Boone swore in an additional force of one hundred and fifty policemen. About three o' clock that afternoon, the Germans, accompanied by a swelling number of Irish saloon owners and their patrons, now numbering an unruly mob of six hundred, made their way down Clark Street to the bridge spanning the Chicago River. Swarming across, they met a solid phalanx of police forces. With a shout of "Pick out the stars! shots were fired. Someone in the crowd of rioters discharged a shotgun at Officer George Hunt, hitting him in the left arm. With the perpetrator was Peter Martens, a German cigar maker who concurrently fired a revolver at Hunt. Attempting to flee, Martens was shot in the back by a deputized citizen. Martens died three days later of his wounds in a cell in County Jail. Hunt's injury was so severe that his arm had to be amputated the next day.
A young Alan Pinkerton was in the midst of the fray, dragging the wounded and whatever prisoners he could into the court house. With the addition of an Irish military group known as the Montgomery Guards, the all-American Chicago Light Guards and a battery of two small cannon, the riot was finally suppressed with at least sixty of the rioters arrested.
Although only one death was officially recorded, it was said that a number of mysterious funerals in the German community resulted from the riot. A review of the list of those in custody attested to the fact that most of the rioters were indeed German. A lesser number of Irish names could be found as well. Of the sixty arrested, fourteen were brought to trial. Boone would continue the struggle, later vetoing an order by the nervous City Council to dismiss all suits against those violating the liquor license ordinance.
Eventually, two perpetrators named Halleman and Farrell were convicted of rioting. Isolating two hapless Irishmen out of hundreds of German protesters indicated perhaps, a fear by Boone and his administration of further German disturbances. The two men were granted new trials but they were never held and the men were eventually released.x
Boone's Recollections In a Chicago Times interview some twenty-two years later, a reporter noted Boone's interpretation of the events of 1855. "Doctor Boone...took occasion to remark that his actions at the time were considerably misunderstood, as he had never taken occasion to correct false impressions. (He) stated...what he did he did conscientiously, as he believed, it was for the good of the whole community, and not on fanatical grounds. He also told of his belief that the business in the hands of the better class of saloon keepers, who, when the temperance law should go into force, could be rationally dealt with."xi
But the damage had been done. The intensity of the riot and the clumsy treatment of the brewers and the German and Irish saloonkeepers and their patrons, affected the fragile coalition that Boone had patched together. The party's alliance with the drys added to its woes. With the voters rejection of a state prohibition law in June of 1855, and a mayoral term of only one short year, Boone's government became a lame duck administration and faded away after the next year's election.
The first assault on the personal rights of imbibers versus teetotalers in Chicago had ended in favor of the wets and the German beer and Irish whiskey drinking communities. The nativists disturbing attitude towards foreigners and the influence of the prohibitionist movement in Chicago would be only temporarily suppressed, the larger questions of slavery and state secession looming on the country's horizon.
Germans and Irish rioters - sounds like a soccer game.
It's all about the beer.
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