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Chicago Historical Context: Mayor Levi Boone was a terrible mayor & the Larger Beer Riot of 1855

Mayor Levi Boone - Raise a glass and toast to him every Sunday
Mayor Levi Boone - Raise a glass and toast to him every Sunday

April 21, 1855.  Chicago has been incorporated for 18 years now.  The Illinois & Michigan Canal was completed 7 years earlier.  The United States Civil War would not start for another 5 years and 356 days.  

There was civil unrest in the streets of Chicago though.  The people were hopping mad in fact.  Levi Boone, nephew of the legendary Daniel Boone, had just been inaugurated mayor of Chicago on March 13, 1855.  Mayor Boone had come through on his promise to curb drinking in Chicago.  From his inaugural address and on the subject of Grocery and Tavern Licenses:

Both my supporters and my opponents will expect me to take decided ground upon this important subject; and my own impression is, that neither will be disappointed, either in my opinions or action. It is well known that for many years I have been decidedly opposed to licensing any body to sell intoxicating liquors.

Both parties in the recent contest, came to the ballot box one week ago to-day, with this issue fairly in view. The liquor influence, from the wholesale dealer to the most unfortunate victim of intemperance, was directed in one solid column against me, demonstrating most conclusively that they were not mistaken in my position. The friends of temperance and humanity generally, (I wish I could say universally,) came with as firm, if not as boisterous a front to my support; thus showing that they were equally confident of my position on this great question. The result of that contest placed me where I now stand.

The result of his actions would lead to a riot on April 21,1855.  Read more for how the Larger Beer Riot came to be.

Levi Boone's words may sound rational and in fact his entire inaugural address displays a great concern for the city.  His words preceded Chicago raising the city streets to get above the swampland and shifting the direction of the Chicago River to fight cholera epidemics.  Boone could have been a great mayor but he got caught up in the national politics of his political party, the Know-Nothings.  Their movement became popular in the United States in the 1840s when German and Irish immigrants started arriving in large numbers.  Know-Nothings generally did not like their Catholicism and the heavy drinking habits of many in their ranks.  The Know-Nothings wanted to see new laws put into place that would make immigrants have to wait 10-20 years to become citizens, restrict political office to native born Americans or even just Protestants, restrict the use of languages other than English, restrict immigration from certain countries, and restrict if not outright prohibit the sale of alcohol.

That's where Boone thought he had his calling.  Upon becoming mayor, he raised the tavern license from $50 a year to $300 every three months.  This was an attack on the Irish who would gather at the local taverns.  Imagine what a 2,400% operational increase would do for prices across the board at the bar.  Boone also enforced an old law that mandated taverns must be closed on Sundays.  This was an attack on the Germans who would traditionally gather with their families on Sunday and everyone would celebrate a day of leisure together.  Yes, the Irish would just drink alone while the Germans were with their families but that's an entirely different story for another day.  The main point is that the Irish and Germans were both very angry about the changes and attacks on their lifestyle.

Boone even found a way to implement the more national points of the Know Nothing policy.  He knew he was going to be facing major resistance so he tripled the size of the Chicago Police Department.  The CPD would only hire people who could prove they were born in the United States.  They might have even demanded to see the long-form birth certificate.  You can probably correctly guess that applicants like 'O'Malley' and 'Fleischer' got more scrutiny than 'Johnson'.  God help you if your last name was 'Biermann'.  When the police force was large enough, Mayor Boone ordered for the arrests of several tavern owners on Sunday, April 15, 1855 while letting certain other taverns remain open in non-Catholic parts of the city.

In their arrests, the tavern owners became martyrs.  The Irish and the Germans had seen enough discrimination in the land that was supposed to be their golden opportunity.  It was time to fight back.  A large force planned to meet together on the city's north side and storm City Hall on that April 21, 1855 day.  They made it up to the Clark Street Bridge on the Chicago River.  At that point, the Mayor created a scene reminiscent of Batman Begins and ordered the bridge raised.  Once there were enough cops put together, the bridge were lowered and the rioters stormed the police.  Despite a free for all that involved guns and a crowd with a running head start, only one person, a German rioter, died.  This is most remarkable too because the Clark Street Bridge skirmish was the flash point of the riot but not the end.  Little battles were fought throughout the city that day.  When all was said and done, sixty rioters were arrested but only fourteen were charged and no one served any jail time.  

Mayor Boone was an ironic figure (yes, not iconic) because his actions caused Germans and Irish to register to vote in massive numbers.  His political party the Know-Nothings were said to be semi-secret.  They were called the Know-Nothings because when asked about joining the party, members were supposed to respond, 'I know nothing'.  It's ironic because I look at their party platform and conclude that they 'knew nothing'.  Two months after the riots, the good people of Illinois voted down a statewide prohibition law.  Boone choose not to run for re-election in 1856 and the Know-Nothings became nothing.

When thinking about the downfall of Levi Boone, it strikes me that when you openly lead with a policy of discrimination and hate, you will justly should be met anger.  I applaud the actions of the Germans and Irish who got angry but then gathered together at the ballot box.  As the great Irish brew Guinness will be served at Toyota Park for the first time tonight, I will proudly raise a glass and toast to their memory and the downfall of Mayor Levi Boone.