The Chicago Beer Riot

In the mid 1800s, America had many worries, not only were the southern states threatening secession but there were very severe strains between more recently arrived German and Irish immigrants an those whose parents and grandparents immigrated from Europe earlier. Those who most feared that the country was being taken over by so many immigrants gravitated towards to a group that called itself the “American Party”. In time they became known by the name “Know-nothings” because of the semi secret organization of the party. If a member was asked about their activities by an outsider they were supposed to reply with the phrase “I know nothing”.

By 1855 Chicago had become a hotbed of tension between the immigrant groups and the party. That year Levi Boone was elected Mayor running on an anti-immigrant platform. Mayor Boone was a moralist, if not technically a “know-nothing” and he was outraged by the pleasure that the Irish and Germans found in drinking beer and chose that drink to bring pressure on the immigrant communities. After Boone was elected, he first barred immigrants from any city job. Next, he increased the cost of a city issued liquor license by 2,400%, from $50 annually to $300 quarterly. Then he ordered that an old law be brought back, prohibiting sale of alcohol and beer on Sundays.

On the first Sunday that the newly reenacted law was in effect, the immigrants on Chicago’s north side went about their business as usual, gathering in their neighborhood taverns for the traditional Sunday afternoon beer. Suddenly, and without any warning, the Chicago police showed up, ordered all the taverns to be shut down and arrested more than two hundred people for drinking on Sunday. The magistrate on duty at the courthouse released those who had been arrested and set a hearing date for April 21, 1855.

When that day arrived, an unruly crowd of some 300 barkeepers marched towards Courthouse Square, shouting threats against the judge and being led by a traditional Yankee fife and drum. Chicago police stopped the crowd and moved them back to the north side and a clash was averted. But not for long! About three that afternoon the crowd returned. And again the police were prepared for their arrival. Their tactic this time was to allow about half the crowd to cross the Chicago River and then open the swing bridges which effectively cut the crowd in half as well as trapping some on the bridges themselves. This tactic, while effective, infuriated the protesters and very soon both sides were shooting at each other.

Immediately rumors began that some of the protesters had been killed but there is no historical evidence for this claim. The fact that the Mayor had ordered the cannon in the courthouse square be loaded in anticipation probably helped fuel the rumors. As night came on, tempers cooled off and the demonstration broke up, their point made. The next year, Levi Boone lost his bid for re-election and the prohibition against selling beer on Sundays was repealed.

And so ended the great “Lager Beer Riot”; the only time in U.S. history that drinkers have rioted in support of their favorite beverage.