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The Chicago Beer Riots|
by Gregg Smith
How would you characterize the personality of a beer? A good many people would
consider the social conditions under which a beer is consumed and come up with
descriptions such as amiable, friendly, congenial and maybe even brotherly.
Generally this would be true, but under certain unfortunate circumstances the
adjective might be deadly.
Throughout history there have been occasions when events conspired to put beer
at the center of disturbances. These were not barroom brawls in which beer
inflamed the spirit of the combatants, it was more of a subject and a cause.
How? To fathom the cultural significance of beer drinking it's necessary to
understand its relationship with the development of a community. The most
important early change in social structure was when mankind evolved from a
nomadic hunter-gatherer to a group settled in an agricultural society. Some
historians claim this came about because our ancestors wanted to produce the
raw ingredients for beer. The corresponding formation of towns brought with it
civic problems the inhabitants were ill equipped to deal with. Among these was
pollution. Wherever these villages were founded the rivers and streams soon
became fouled with refuse and the waterborne pathogens which made the populace
ill. But those who drank beer were spared these ravages and so beer became a
vital part of daily life. So much that it was nearly as natural to drink beer
as breathe. No wonder from earliest times a shortage of beer would cause
discontent among an area's inhabitants.
Modern instances of beer related disturbances can be found in Europe where
more than anywhere else beer was inextricably intertwined with daily routine.
In England there is the story of the conflict between the Jacobites,
supporters of James II and those who championed the house of Hanover. The
loyalists to the Hanoverian cause organized themselves into loose associations
which gathered at Taverns and became known as Mug-house clubs. On October 31,
1715 both groups made the mistake of occupying the same ale-house. A
confrontation occurred, fighting erupted and soon spilled out into the
streets. In the days which followed there was a series of violent street
brawls which thereafter became known as the Mug-house riots.
In Germany too, beer led to organized conflict. In the 1840's (a time of great
civil and social strife in the Germanic countries) a small number of brewers
had gained a position of great influence. In an attempt to control the market,
they engaged in what is now called price-fixing. Frequently between the years
of 1844 and 1910 the masses rebelled against attempts at price control with
what were called the beer riots. But perhaps the worst occurred in Munich on
18 October 1848 when the brewers raised the cost of beer by one penny. This
was considered such outrageous gouging that a mob of angry protestors
organized and marched upon the Spaten brewery. There they encountered an
equally determined military blocking the entrances. Unfortunately, neither
side would back down and several fatalities were recorded as a result of the
fighting which followed.
Even recent history has its examples. In mid-1995 a neighborhood group in
Munich attempted to regulate the hours of that city's famous beer gardens. The
government was ill-prepared for the resolve of more than 20,000 marching
protestors who bore a petition exceeding two hundred thousand signatures.
All that is great in Europe but nothing of the sort could happen in the United
States. Actually it did. The most well known of these disturbances were the
Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, but in both of these Beer was used
as an agent to embolden the crowd; it was not the cause of the violence.
However there was an occasion when beer was the agent of conflict and it
happened in the Windy City. Of course because it was Chicago there were
unavoidable political overtones.
Through the middle to late eighteen hundreds the discontented of Ireland
aligned themselves with the Germans against the English. This alliance was so
strong it even extended as far as Chicago and there a group who hated anything
to do with foreign culture was about to come to power.
The Know-Nothings, an ultra-conservative "Americans only" group, managed to
ride a surge of ethnic bias to power. So it was that their candidate, Dr. Levi
Boone, came to the Mayor's seat. Boone had a bone to pick with the Germans; he
resented the manner in which they had formed their own neighborhoods,
churches, trade unions and even theater. This was all too foreign for him to
bear and he considered beer drinking as one of those evils uniquely German and
definitely un-American. Boone was further exacerbated by their alliance with
the Irish, a group looked down upon throughout the country. Taking it as a
personal challenge he set out to right this alien wrong and harm both groups
as much as possible. The weapon he chose was beer.
In a move calculated to strike at biased conceptions about both groups he
increased liquor license fees by 600 per cent and coupled this with a three
month moratorium on issuing licenses. Next he ordered reenactment of an old
law prohibiting alcohol and beer sales on Sunday. There was no doubt who Boone
was targeting; it was all those small taverns located on the North Side of
town where the Germans lived near their beloved breweries and close to their
On the first Sunday of enforcement the German inhabitants went about business
as usual, or so they thought, until the police arrived and more than two
hundred German beer drinkers were arrested. A hearing on the matter was set
for April 21, 1855.
As the trial date dawned a crowd of 300 barkeepers approached Courthouse
Square complete with fife and drum and threats directed at the judge.
Proceeding to Randolph and Clark streets the column was headed off by the
police and forced back toward the North Side. Though incensed, the crowd
backed off without a fight; confrontation had been avoided, temporarily.
Later, about three o'clock in the afternoon, the protestors returned. As the
mob approached the police were once again prepared. After about half the crowd
had crossed the river they opened the draw bridge and split the opposition
forces. This only further ignited the crowd and it was then the police learned
the north side'ers had armed themselves. Firing broke out and both sides
suffered wounded. As night fell things quieted but the beer lovers had made
their point and Boone eased his campaign of hatred.
Though the cost of the fighting was heavy, the ethnic neighborhoods were able
to return to the now seemingly "All American" practice of a Sunday afternoon
beer. In fate's curious way, the north side of Chicago would become one of the
more desirable residential sections of the city and various aspects of the
north side'ers culture would become celebrated fixtures in Chicago society.
More important was the long range effect of what became known as the "Chicago
Lager Beer Riots". Essentially the disturbance successfully discredited the
Know-Nothing party which faded from both the national and Windy city's
political scene. It also solidified Chicago's reputation as one of the great
beer cities in America. Great enough to fight for their brew.
Gregg Smith was named beer writer of the Year in 1997 and was a runner up in
1996 & 1998. He is Author of "Beer in America - the Early Years" and the "Beer
Drinker's Bible" - named Best Beer Book of 1998
Gregg Smith reserves all rights that pertain to the text of his articles, in any form that it appears.