Chicago's rapid growth in the 1840's and 1850's was due in large part to German and Irish Catholic immigrants. These immigrants settled in their own neighborhoods, German immigrants congregating mainly on the North Side, across the Chicago River from City Hall and the older, Protestant part of the city. The German settlers worked a six-day week, leaving Sunday as their primary day to socialize; much of this socialization took place in the small taverns that dotted the North Side. German-language newspapers, the Turners, and German craft unions gave the German population of Chicago a high degree of political cohesiveness; the Forty-Eighters among them were use to demonstrations as a political tool.
As in much of the rest of the country, distrust of Catholic influence produced a backlash in the form of the "Know-Nothing" movement. In the election of 1854, the Temperance Party candidate, Amos Throop, lost by nearly 20% points to Isaac Lawrence Milliken. Nevertheless, after winning the election, Milliken declared himself in favor of temperance as well. Milliken lost the following year to Levi Boone, the American Party candidate. Boone, a Baptist and temperance advocate, believed that the Sabbath was profaned by having drinking establishments open on Sunday. Boone's actions were in anticipation of Illinois enacting by referendum a Maine law that would prohibit the sale of alcohol for recreational purposes. The referendum failed in June 1855, by a statewide vote of 54% to 46%.
On March 6, 1855 a "Law and Order" coalition swept city elections. The coalition was formed by anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativists (Know-Nothings) and temperance advocates who were interested in moral reform and public order. With most municipal services either privatized or organized at the neighborhood level, city elections in the 1840s and early 1850s had been nonpartisan contests of little interest to anyone except real-estate owners. The extremely low voter turnout permitted this quietly mobilized coalition to win control of city hall with a thin base of popular support.
Once elected, Mayor Levi Boone and the new council majority hiked liquor license fees 500%, from $50 to $300, shortening license terms from one year to three months and being renewable quarterly. A three month moratorium on issuing licenses was also ordered by the mayor. Expecting resistance, Mayor Boone "reformed" the city's police force: tripling its size, refusing to hire immigrants, requiring police to wear uniforms for the first time, and directing them to enforce an old, previously ignored ordinance requiring the Sunday closing of taverns and saloons. These were intentionally provocative acts aimed at Germans and Irish accustomed to spending their leisure hours in drinking establishments.
Boone made hundreds of arrests for violation of the Sunday temperance ordinance and soon the courts were clogged with cases. Germans organized to resist the $300 license ordinance, raising defense funds for tavern owners arrested for noncompliance. Judge Henry Rucker was given the job of presiding over a test case for the ordinance enforcement on April 21, 1855. This, in effect, scheduled the riot.
On April 21, 1855 after several tavern owners were arrested for selling beer on Sunday, protesters clashed with police near the Cook County Court House. Waves of angry immigrants stormed the downtown area and the mayor ordered the swing bridges opened to stop further waves of protestors from crossing the river. An armed group from the North Side German community decided to rescue the prisoners, but Boone held them off by keeping the Clark Street drawbridge raised until he was able to assemble more than two hundred policemen. When the bridge was lowered and North Siders surged across, shooting began. This left some trapped on the bridge. Boone called in the militia, and the riot ended in minutes.
Captain Leander Hunt from Hyde Park lost an arm in the riot. Rumors flew throughout the city that some of the protesters were killed, although there is no evidence to support this. Loaded cannons set on the public square contributed to these rumors. The following year, after Boone was turned out of office, the prohibition was repealed.
The riot, resulted in 1 death, 60 arrests, and the beginning of political partisanship in city elections. It mobilized Chicago's immigrant voters. In March 1856, a heavy German and Irish turnout defeated the nativists, causing the $50 liquor license to be restored. More important was the renewed attention to city elections on the part of political party leaders, ending the era of municipal nonpartisanship. Never again would city elections be of such limited interest that a small group of extremists could win surreptitiously.
Captain Leander Hunt was awarded the Bravery Medal for his actions in the Beer Riots. Hunt Avenue, located at 8817 South runs on a Southwest diagonal from 2000 to 2048 West, was named in his honor. The street was previously named Somersett Terrace and Hilliard Street.
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