The Lager Beer Riot (4-21-1855)

4-21--tavern scene.jpg

The growing metropolis of the Midwestern plains had its first riot today.  The issue was one of Personal Liberty.  That was a polite way of saying the government shouldn’t interfere with the people’s beer.

Chicago had just elected Dr. Levi Boone as mayor.  Boone had run as the candidate of the anti-immigrant American party—better known as the Know Nothings.  About half the city was foreign-born, but Boone had won, anyway.

Once in office, Boone went to work restoring his version of American values.  All foreign-born policemen were fired.  The saloon license fee was raised 600%.  The mayor also announced he would enforce the long-ignored law that banned public drinking on Sundays.

Chicago’s immigrants were mostly German.  Many of them had fled their fatherland because of political repression, and they were in no mood to be pushed around.  Some of the saloon-keepers refused to close on Sunday.  They were arrested, then released on bail.

The cases were going to trial at the downtown Court House on April 21.  That morning, hundreds of Germans marched down from the North Side to show their support.  They ringed the Court House, yelling and banging drums.  After about a half hour, the police drove the demonstrators back across the river.

By 3 p.m. the Germans had regrouped.  Now about a thousand of them advanced south on Clark Street.  They carried clubs and shotguns.

Now the mayor ordered the bridge raised.  While the Germans were trapped north of the river, Boone redeployed his cops and rounded up the city militia.  Then he had the bridge lowered.  The Germans stormed across.

Crying “Shoot the police!” the mob attacked.  Shots were fired and skulls were bashed.  The battle lasted an hour, until the police again drove the demonstrators back to the North Side.  That evening, the mayor hauled out cannon and placed them at strategic points.

Despite the fierce fighting, only about twenty people were injured in the riot.  One of the Germans blew off a policeman’s arm with a shotgun blast, and was immediately killed by another officer.  His death was the only fatality.

Sixty rioters were arrested.  Fourteen of them eventually went to trial.  No one ever served jail time.

Two months after the Lager Beer Riot, Illinois voters decisively defeated a proposed Prohibition law.  And in the next city election, the Know Nothings were voted out of office.




4 Responses to “The Lager Beer Riot (4-21-1855)”

  1. 1 kyle L April 21, 2015 at 8:52 am

    Is Dr. Levi Boone a relative of Daniel Boone? I have thought of those early settlers as moving westward after Chicago grew into a sizeable burg.
    Were the Kentucky natives (and their progeny) who made up much of early Chicago a political force into the second half of the 19th century?

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt April 21, 2015 at 9:28 am

      Mayor Boone was a grand-nephew of Daniel Boone. Chicago’s Kentucky-expats were responsible for naming Ashland Avenue, after Henry Clay’s home in Lexington. The most prominent of them was Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. Unlike Mayor Boone, Harrison promoted “Personal Liberty”–which helped him getting elected five times.

  2. 3 Rob Warmowski April 21, 2015 at 9:35 am

    If you’re compelled by this story — and what Chicagoan wouldn’t be? — come and check out the re-enactment of the Lager Beer Riot this Saturday 4/25 in Bridgeport. The hostilities are being re-imagined as a clash…on the dodgeball court. 😀

  3. 4 Ryan April 21, 2015 at 9:43 am

    YES according to WIKI… Boone was born near Lexington, Kentucky, the seventh son of Squire and Anna Grubbs Boone. His father, Squire, was a nephew of Daniel Boone’s, making Levi Boone Daniel Boone’s great-nephew.

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