The first serious public disturbance in the history of Chicago was the infamous Lager Beer Riot of 1855.
Even before the Civil War, the state of Illinois had a very strong prohibition movement. By the beginning of 1855, they had managed to force a drastic prohibition law through the Illinois legislature, which was to be submitted to the voters in June of 1855. It was also during this time period that the anti-immigrant Know Nothing party was becoming active in American politics.
Over sixty percent of Chicago’s population was foreign-born, and much of the animosity from the prohibitionists and the Know Nothings was directed toward the city’s large German population on the North Side. There they kept their own language and customs, maintained their own schools and newspapers, and made little or no effort to adopt the ways of the country where they had sought refuge. In the eyes of the prohibitionists, they maintained several hundred beer gardens and were the darlings of the liquor interests.
In the city election of 1855, the Know Nothings elected as mayor of Chicago Dr. Levi D. Boone, the grandnephew of American hero Daniel Boone. The Know Nothings also controlled the city council and made sure that every man on the police force was a natural born citizen. Dr. Boone’s first action as mayor was to recommend to the city council that the fee for a saloon license be raised from $50 to $300 a year and that no license be issued for more than three months. Boone did this in preparation for the eventual passage of the prohibition act, hoping that the increased fees would weed out the “lower class” of dives and leave only the bigger and more respectable establishments, which then could be easily dealt with when the act was passed.
The Germans saw this as an attempt to deprive them of their rights. The ordinance also drew the ire of the Irish and Scandinavian immigrants of the city, who joined with their German brothers “against the fanatical party.”
A week after the passage of the higher-license ordinance, Mayor Boone told the police to begin enforcement of a Sunday closing law, which had been ignored for over a dozen years. The German beer gardens and saloons were closed up tight, but the bars on the South Side that were run by Americans were permitted to open their back doors while the police looked the other way. In protest, the Germans refused to close the next Sunday or pay the higher license fees and over two hundred men were arrested, but all were released on bail.
On April 21, 1855, the first trial for one of the protesting Germans was set to begin at the city courthouse. The freed saloon keepers, joined by a mob of over five hundred immigrants stormed into the courthouse and declared that they must be found innocent if the city didn’t want a taste of violence. The mob then moved to the intersection of Clark and Randolph streets, yelling and holding up all traffic. After a half-hour of protest, the police attacked with their clubs and the crowd dispersed, vowing to return.
At three o’clock, a mob of a thousand men armed with shotguns, knives, and clubs marched down Clark Street back towards the courthouse. As the mob was crossing the bridge over the Chicago River, the Mayor ordered the bridge to be drawn up, splitting the mob into two groups. The mob did everything they could to have the bridge lowered, but the bridgekeeper refused to leave his stone bridgehouse or give in to their threats. Finally, after the mayor had his plan in place, he ordered the lowering of the bridge and the rioters swarmed across, only to be met by a solid line of over two hundred well-armed policemen.
With cries of “Shoot the police!” the mob attacked, firing guns and brandishing their other weapons. The battle raged for more than an hour before the rioters turned and fled back to the North Side. Many men were wounded, but there was only one official death, a rioter that had been shot by a policeman after he had blown off the arm of a fellow officer. The police had taken sixty prisoners and fourteen were tried for rioting. Two Irishmen were convicted of these charges, but were granted new trials that were never held.
In June of 1855 the people of Illinois overwhelmingly rejected the state prohibition law in an election featuring the heaviest voter turnout in the history of the state.