Chicago’s Lager Beer Riot: Fight For Your Right (To, Among Other Things, Drink Beer on Sunday)
Do you drink beer on Sunday? I usually do. More specifically, are you in Chicago when you enjoy those pints? I’m not, either.
Stay with me, though, it’s an interesting story…
1855 was a rough time in Chicago. Having only been incorporated eighteen years earlier, possessing a police force of only nine for a population of eighty thousand, and coming off a cholera epidemic in 1854, it’s safe to say that they were still “searching for their identity” as a urban center. Indeed, that was eighty thousand and counting as immigrants arrived daily looking for work and a home to call their own in a new country. As one can imagine, this led to a large discrepancy between the lower and upper class, the former outweighing the latter by as much as five to one.
If you’re an elite member of society, this is, in your opinion, outrageous. Crime and vice (as you believe it to be) are running rampant in your city and somebody needs to do something about it. Enter the Know-Nothings (also known as the now-ironic “Native Americans” or more officially as the American Republican Party, not to be confused with today’s GOP). Without getting into an in-depth discussion of this group, they were a manifestation of the growing sentiment that immigrants (most especially lager swilling Germans in the Midwest and whiskey sodden Irish in the East) and Catholics “posed a threat to the economic and political security of native-born Protestant Americans.” Their name comes from their penchant for secrecy; when asked about the party’s doings, members would reply, “I know nothing.” And, in addition to the anti-immigrant/anti-Catholic planks, wouldn’t you know that the growing movement for national temperance also had a companion in the Know-Nothings?
Where this kind of opinion became problematic is in a town where the general population is not interested in voting. This means a candidate (or party) with an extreme point of view can get elected in to office with relative ease (realistically, there is more to this portion of the story, but this is a blog about beer, not politics). That’s exactly what happened in Chicago.
Dr. Levi Day Boone, up-and-coming member of the American Republican Party and Daniel Boone’s great-nephew, was elected as mayor of Chicago on March 6, 1855, on promises of cleaning up the city’s two main problems: too many immigrants (which in Chicago, were mostly German) and too much alcohol (brewed mostly by Germans – weird coincidence).
By the end of March, Boone began following through with his campaign promises, as he wasn’t the only “Native American” voted into office, it wasn’t difficult. He empowered the first official Chicago Police Department, appointing a chief, bolstering their numbers with Americans who could prove they were born in U.S., and for the first time, requiring that officers wear uniforms. He then went to the city council and passed and increase in liquor license fees from $50 per year to $300 per quarter. That’s an increase of2400%. To seal the deal, Boone ordered the police chief to use his new police force to begin enforcing an existing statute requiring that all taverns and beer gardens close on Sunday. For the twelve years this particular law had been on the books, it had been brought to bear in a very relaxed way. For the Germans, it was a social custom to spend time in parks, beer gardens and social halls with your family and drink beer on Sunday. Boone knew this. And Boone didn’t like it.
Looking at the numbers of bars in Chicago, of 675, only 50 were American-owned. The writing was on the wall for the Germans and Irish. It should be noted, however, that many of these tavern-owners didn’t have licenses in the first place and these dives were breeding grounds for gambling and prostitution. It should also be noted that American-owned bars continued serving their customers on Sundays through their back doors.
Suffice it to say the anger of the immigrants was reaching a boiling point. Eager to show off their newly held power, police officers arrested over 200 saloonkeepers in the weeks that followed enactment of the new laws. On April 20, 1855, a test case was to be tried for thirty three of the arrested violators, meaning each side agreed to choose one defendant and the rest would have to abide by the court’s ruling. So many supporters showed up in the courtroom, that the judge had to have them removed. This only made them angrier and they gathered outside the courthouse to continue their protest. Fifty officers came down on the group and, without organization, they fell back.
Knowing that brewery and saloon owners were gathering more support, Mayor Boone quickly swore in 150 more officers. At three o’clock, a mass of six hundred Germans and Irish marched down Clark Street towards the courthouse, armed with shotguns, knives, clubs and various household implements. Boone quickly realized he had under-estimated the protestors’ willingness to fight. When about half the crowd had crossed the Clark Street Bridge, the officials opened the drawbridge and split the opposition. Not surprisingly, this only served to ignite the powder keg and fighting broke out. Some accounts say the fighting lasted minutes, some say it lasted over an hour. In any event, the protestors fled North and the police fled South. Officially, one police officer suffered a gun shot would in the arm that required amputation and one German, Peter Martin, took a shotgun blast to the back from a deputized citizen and died three days later in the County Jail. It is said “that a number of mysterious funerals in the German community resulted from the riot.” 
The Illinois state militia was brought in to guard against further violence. The trial was abandoned and a peace fell over the city, albeit a shaky peace. It was decided that Boone’s statutes would be put to citywide vote in a special election slated for early June. Despite a campaign led by temperance advocates that flooded the city from around the country, a turnout that set a record in Illinois history, up to that point, soundly defeated the proposed laws.
The Know-Nothings lost their bet. Mayor Boone served only a single one-year term, his influence severely brought down for the balance of his time in office. And, within a few years, the American Republican Party had faded from Chicago and nationwide prominence. By the time Civil War rumbled in, they were dissolved. The teetotalers lost this battle but a movement for national temperance was growing. They wouldn’t be completely successful until 1919 when the states passed the Eighteenth Amendment and Congress passed the Volstead Act, which went into effect January 17, 1920. But this is a whole other story.
Chicago’s Lager Beer Riot proved to the immigrants that through collective will, they could have an effect on elections and express their culture more freely. Drinking was not a crime against morality. Sure, there were problems, but by-and-large, it was an illustration of their way of life and an attempt to find leisure and companionship in a city (and country) full of struggle. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing in America. Families no longer lived in small, sparse communities on the land they tilled. Now, they were in large, concentrated urban environments, working six or seven days a week in harsh, borderline inhumane, factories, mills and mines.
Drinking on Sundays was all they had left. And they were going to fight for their right to do it.
1. “April 21, 1855-Chicago’s Lager Beer Riot” by Bob Skilnik (4/21/2005). http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-bloggers/1388212/posts
2. “How Unpopular Was Levi Boone?” by Adam Selzer (11/15/2010). http://www.mysteriouschicagoblog.com/2010/11/how-unpopular-was-levi-boone.html
3. “No Beer, No Peace. When Drunkards Revolt: The Chicago Lager Riot of 1855” by Richard English in Modern Drunkard Magazine. http://drunkard.com/issues/52/52-no-beer.html
4. “Know-Nothing Party” (rev. 1/2/2014). http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/320530/Know-Nothing-party
5. “The Chicago Beer Riots” by Gregg Smith. http://www.beerhistory.com/library/holdings/greggsmith5.shtml
Author’s note: While the main points of the story remained the same, almost every source had different takes on the specific details of the events described. I did my best to take a middle tack through the vagaries.