Posted by: Don Bemis | August 9, 2017

A Toast to the Lager Beer Riot!

‘Tis time to raise a toast to the Lager Beer Riot of Chicago.

The 1845-1849 Irish Potato Famine resulted in Ireland losing a quarter of her population to starvation, disease, and emigration.  Many of them came to the United States and were made most unwelcome.  After all, they were poor and hungry, and their English, although English, was hard to understand.  Most of them also were Catholic, which didn’t sit well in a land largely ruled by Protestants.  What would they do if the Pope told them to do one thing, but the American government expected them to do otherwise?

Then there were the Germans.  Germany was modernizing and mechanizing, leaving traditional German farmers behind.  They, too, flocked to the United States, clustering in places like Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest.  They were mostly farmers, not barons of industry.  Sure, a lot of them were Lutherans or Anabaptists instead of Catholics, but they couldn’t speak English.  How could you know what they were saying?

But they could drink beer, and so did the Irish.  When people thought of Irishmen and Germans, they thought of beer.

That wasn’t all people thought of, though.  Immigrants were unpopular.  They took jobs away from good Americans; never mind that the jobs were available because good Americans didn’t want to do them.  “No Irish Need Apply” signs were posted right by the “Men Wanted” signs.  And the Germans were just thickheaded; fine if you needed something heavy moved from Point A to Point B, but nobody to lean on if finesse was called for.

Enter the American Party.  Founded in 1849, they had no use for foreigners and Catholics, who might be secretly plotting the takeover of the United States.  However, secrecy was okay if you were a member of the American Party.  It was a secret organization.  If members were questioned about it, they would reply, “I know nothing.”  That is where the party got its more common name: the “Know Nothings.”

Fade to Chicago, Illinois.  It was already an industrial powerhouse, hub of rail and shipping on the northern coast of America’s breadbasket.  The iron industry was beginning to take off.  Immigrants swarmed in.  They might not be popular, but there was plenty of work to be done.  That meant Irish, Germans, and Beer.  There was a law on the books prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays, but it was largely unenforced.  One could discuss the merits of the law over a pint at pretty much any liquor establishment in the city on any Sunday afternoon.

In 1855, Chicago elected a new Mayor:  Dr. Levi Boone, great-nephew of Daniel Boone, veteran of the Black Hawk War (on the winning side), father of eleven, graduate of Transylvania University in Kentucky, and Know-Nothing.  Seven Know-Nothing aldermen also were elected.  Unsurprisingly, they had run on an anti-immigrant platform and prevailed with 53% of the vote.  There was some suspicion that votes from German neighborhoods weren’t counted, but who knows?

Mayor Boone reorganized the Chicago police and gave them uniforms.  Foreign-born persons need not apply.  There was no such thing as the Irish beat cop.  Not in Chicago.

One of the police department’s first tasks was enforcement of the Sunday closing law.  One day of the week, Chicago’s good citizens wouldn’t have to look at inebriated foreigners.

The City Council raised the annual price of a liquor license from $50 to $300.  That would be tidy revenue from an untidy business.  The licenses would only run for three months at a time, so problem establishments and their unruly clientele could be more quickly shut down.  For some reason, people perceived a slight against the Germans in particular and the Irish by extension.

On April 21, 1855, the police arrested a number of tavern keepers for being open on Sunday.  It was a Saturday, but maybe the idea was that the 22nd would be more sober.  Other tavern keepers might take the hint.

The clientele was miffed.  A mob of miffed clientele stormed toward downtown Chicago to express their displeasure, and Mayor Boone ordered the bridges opened so they couldn’t get into town.  At that time, the river bridges were mostly swing bridges, not the bascule bridges that grace the Chicago River today.  This left a number of people stranded on the bridges.  Somebody on the Clark Street bridge shot a policeman in the arm.  This wasn’t terribly bright, since the shooter wouldn’t be going anywhere, and the cops also had guns.  The shooter lost his life, and the policeman lost his arm.

No other lives were lost.  Mayor Boone didn’t run for a second term.  The Irish, Germans, and everybody else are still drinking, even on Sundays.

It wasn’t the end of anti-immigrant sentiment, though.  Sixteen years later, the Great Chicago Fire began in or near the barn of an Irish immigrant named Catherine O’Leary.  A Chicago Tribune reporter claimed that her cow had kicked over a lantern while it was being milked.  (The cow, not the lantern.)  He eventually admitted fabricating the story, but the damage was done.  The fire was variously blamed on a drunken Mrs. O’Leary, her tavern keeper son playing craps with friends in the barn, or an Irishman stealing milk, among other things.  The reality was that Chicago was built almost entirely of wood, even the sidewalks, there was a severe drought, there already had been other fires, and the fire department reported to the wrong address after the first alarm.

Fast forward 89 years.  An Irish-American runs for President.  His father had done well in the importing business during Prohibition.  Some fear that the son will listen too much to the Pope.  The son is elected anyway, in a squeaker that hinged on the Chicago Democratic machine and its Irish-American Mayor.

Fast forward another 56 years.  The grandson of a German immigrant is elected President, in large part due to his opposition to immigrants.

Maybe we should all celebrate the Lager Beer Riot next April 21.  Take the day off work.  It’ll be a Saturday.

(Full disclosure notice:  I have plenty of German and Irish blood myself.)

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