The Lager Beer Riot and the Birth of Law and Order

by Emmet Stackelberg


One Saturday in April of 1855, a large group of German immigrants assembled around the courthouse in downtown Chicago, hoping to attend a hearing at which nineteen saloonkeepers would stand before a judge for violating one of two new laws enacted by the new nativist mayor, Levi Boone, who had promised during his campaign to curb liquor consumption. One banned the sale of alcohol on Sunday, while the other mandated a three-hundred-dollar fee for a liquor license (up from fifty dollars in previous years). As constables tried to move the crowd out of the street, a tussle broke out. The Chicago Tribune fashioned the crowd as monsters. The street, it claimed, was “crowded with a multitude of the most desperate and savage characters in the city, ready for any blood, rapine or murder.” It’s true that the crowd was angry and agitated, but it was the show of force by a constable that turned the assembly into a melee, a mob against the police.

Working-class taverns were often the center of immigrant community life, especially on Sundays, the one day most workers had off, and the liquor license fees threatened to make the cost of running one too high. What the Chicago Tribune later framed as an “ordinance requiring them to close their Lager Beer Halls on the Sabbath, and restrain their Bacchanalian revels for one day,” was in practice a great challenge to leisure and to community. German and Irish immigrants quickly found their own taverns and Bierstuben raided on Sundays, and owners of establishments in immigrant neighborhoods faced arrest for not paying the higher fees. (Drinking establishments frequented by the elite, many just blocks from the city hall and courthouse, quietly broke the law without interruption.) The Germans who assembled that Saturday feared the loss of their neighborhood life — in fact, many worried that German-style lagers, brewed mostly in Wisconsin would cease be exported to Chicago entirely without a healthy collection of Bierstuben.

When the fighting broke out, as more patrolmen showed up, the crowd began retreating north, back up the street and across the Chicago river. Eight men were arrested and placed in the jail beneath the courthouse. A mob formed on the north side of the river, determined to free the eight. The mayor had the newly constructed pivot bridge of Clark street swing open, cutting off the mob on the other side of the river from the courthouse. He handed out stars to a force of temporary patrolmen. But with the police still greatly outnumbered, he called in three independent militia as well. After a few hours, and with the assembled men on either side having not dispersed, officials decided they had to briefly swing the bridge back around to relieve backed up traffic. The moment the bridge connected both sides, the mob in the north rushed over it. In the confrontation, shots rang out, shattering a window, but in the end only two deaths were recorded: one cop and the man who shot him. The militia arrived shortly after to fully clear away bystanders. Boone declared martial law, and militia patrolled the streets that night. Two cannons sat at the ready, aimed at the scene where the mob and patrols had met.

In the week that followed, some of Chicago’s most prominent figures advertised a “Law and Order” meeting to discuss ways to “preserve the public peace.” J. Young Scammon, owner of the Marine Bank and one of the financiers of Chicago’s first railroad, was elected president of the meeting. Those present advocated for the formation of a unified police force. At the time, Chicago had two sets of police. Daytime constables and night watchmen both worked part time, with roughly the same responsibilities. They were not professional defenders of the peace; they were by and large elected directly by city residents. In fact, they didn’t even have uniforms — only small star-shaped badges.

There are two origin stories for police departments in the United States. As historian Sam Mitrani notes in his book on the origins of Chicago’s police department, the earliest departments were Southern ones, organized like militaries. They came into being to control large populations of slaves. The archetype of these was in New Orleans, a uniformed and armed force called the “Gendarmerie” that briefly patrolled between 1805 and 1806. Then there were the industrial cities’ police departments, like New York City’s and London’s, which arose out of the need to control dense populations of workers in newly crowded neighborhoods. The impetus to found London’s department — the first municipal force to have men assigned to patrol neighborhoods at all times — came out of riots surrounding the return of Queen Caroline to England in 1820. Sir Robert Peel, the department’s architect and strongest advocate, modeled it almost entirely on the department he led in Dublin — one run as an explicit arm of English power over Ireland. In New York, a series of riots in 1834 and looting after the great fire of 1835 provided the spark of encouragement to professionalize and militarize a set of constables that had originally been established in 1741, after a failed slave revolt. In both the South and North, the object was at its core the same — to try and diminish the power that comes from a lot of otherwise powerless people gathering together in a space; riots and revolts, not theft and murder, were what police departments were first made to combat.

A week after the meeting, Chicago’s city council passed sweeping police reforms: night watchmen and day patrolmen would regularly trade shifts, wear uniforms, and take orders from a superintendent of police. It followed the New York City model, with armed officers organized like a military force, designed in large part to keep the urban poor from demonstrating.

In 1856, immigrant communities rallied together behind the Democratic candidate, named Thomas Dyer, defeating Boone’s effort for re-election. The Republican Chicago Tribune declared that Dyer would likely preside over “such a police as the mob which rallied in our streets after the battle would elect. What vindicators of law and order they will be let their shouts, blasphemies and orgies on the day of the ‘big drunk’ bear witness.”

That phrase, “law and order,” which seems to gesture toward all of the ideals of urban civilization, of a clean and polite city filled with obedient citizens, had circulated in discourse about urban unrest since the turn of the nineteenth century, but with the emergence of professional police forces, its cultural meaning became solidified. Since then, the phrase has remained the essential rhetorical shorthand of police advocates — it had a particularly potent moment during the Republican electoral successes in the nineteen sixties — helping sell ideas about strengthening drug laws, restoring state death penalties, building prisons, and more heavily arming officers. From their beginnings all the way to today’s black sites and armored vehicles, police forces have been haunted by a military spirit. Armed forces and law enforcement are two guns of different gauge, forged by the same maker.

It Was a Riot” is an occasional series about riots in American history.

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