The Chicago Lager Beer Riots
In the mid-1800's, 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 theaters. This was all too foreign for him to bear and he considered the drinking of beer 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.
He increased liquor license fees by 500 per cent (from $50.00 to $300.00) 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 that Boone was targeting all those small taverns located on the North Side of town where the Germans lived near their beloved breweries and close to their Irish allies.
On the first Sunday of enforcement the German inhabitants went about their 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 temporarily avoided.
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 Siders had armed themselves. Firing broke out and both sides suffered wounded. As night fell, things quieted but the beer lovers had made their point.
In the time that followed, Boone eased his campaign of hatred against the Germans and their beer. Soon after, 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 Siders' 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 the 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 its brew.
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For further reading, please see Rudolf A. Hofmeister’s The Germans of Chicago. It is available in print from the Stipes Publishing Company.