Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lager Beer Riots

Until 1855, Chicago's streets were policed by a few county constables. That was the year the Chicago Police Department was founded. It was also the year of Chicago's first riot, in which CPD played a large role.

Chicago was always a town of newcomers, and that was certainly true in the 1850s, when over 60% of the population was foreign-born. The flow of primarily Roman Catholic German and Irish immigrants raised the degree of xenophobia in the native population, embodied politically in the Know-Nothing Party, which briefly held substantial legislative power in Chicago as elsewhere. At the same time, early Prohibitionists were active in the Illinois legislature, and had passed a state prohibition ordinance, which was to be voted on in 1855.

Chicago's German population, concentrated on the North Side, enjoyed their neighborhood beer gardens, and abhorred prohibition. The newly-elected Mayor, Levi Boone (a distant relative of Daniel Boone), lobbed a bomb into this incendiary atmosphere by ordering the police to enforce the city's Sunday closing laws, which had been mostly forgotten by that time. The police, composed almost entirely of native-born Americans, forced the North side bars to obey the ordinance, but allowed American bars on the South side to stay open.

On April 21, 1855, a mob of five hundred Germans massed outside the city courthouse at Clark and Randolph (pictured above), where one of their own was to be tried for liquor law violations that day. Mayor Boone ordered the newly-formed police squad to disperse the crowd, which they did at the business end of their clubs.

A few hours later, a squadron of over a thousand Germans marched back to the courthouse to continue the battle. The Mayor ordered the ends of the Clark street bridge (pictured below) opened, trapping about half of the rioters on the south side of the river, and a few hundred more on the bridge. The mob attacked the police, who had lined up in formation to defend the courthouse, and a firefight with pistols and shotguns, as well as clubs and chains, raged for over an hour. Some of the protesters stuck on the bridge claimed the police specifically targeted them.

In the end, however, while there were many injuries, there was only one recorded death, although rumors spread quickly that a score or so of the rioters were killed, leading to additional tension between the immigrant population and the police.

The police arrested sixty during the Beer Riots, but one two were convicted, and none were ever actually imprisoned. Later that year, the prohibition law was voted down, and open taps were the law in Chicago for another 65 years.

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