Little Bits of History

Portland Rum Riot

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 2, 2015
Neal Dow

Neal Dow

June 2, 1855: The Portland Rum Riot took place. Neal Dow was a native of Portland, Maine born in 1804. He served as both the 9th and 11th Mayor of the city, first from 1851-1852 and again in 1855-1856 taking office on April 24. He earned the nickname of the “Napoleon of Temperance” and the “Father of Prohibition”. He first tried to legislate against alcohol in 1837 where his bill made it to committee but was tabled. Then in 1849 the Maine Legislature passed the bill but the Governor did not sign it. When Dow was elected in 1851 as a Whig and Prohibitionist, he pushed through the bill making the production and sale of alcohol illegal except for medicinal and mechanical use. A newly elected Governor signed the bill into law on June 2, 1851. Dow lost re-election but was back in office in 1855.

Rumors began to spread that Mayor Dow had authorized a shipment of “medicinal and mechanical alcohol” and the $1,600 worth of spirits were stored in the city vaults. The Maine Law was as unpopular as the man who sponsored it, especially with the city’s large Irish immigrant population. The new Irish-Americans saw the law as a racist attack on their culture. When rumors of the stash began to spread, the mayor’s position was elevated from simply overbearing prohibitionist to hypocrite. The law, as Dow had sponsored it, stated that any three voters could apply for a search warrant if it was suspected that illegal alcohol was stored or sold. Three voters appeared before a judge, requesting such a warrant and the judge was compelled to issue one.

On this date, a crowd began to gather outside the building where the contraband was stored. By 5 PM there were said to be about 200 people milling around. The crowd grew in size as evening approached and eventually there were between 1,000 and 3,000 people present (Portland’s population at the time was 21,000). As more people arrived, the crowd became restless and rock throwing and shoving ensued. The exact details are lost to history but what is known is that Dow called out the militia. The protesters were ordered to disperse and when they did not immediately vanish, shots were fired into the crowd on Dow’s orders. One man (an immigrant and mate on a Maine sailing vessel) was killed and seven others were wounded. The crowd dispersed.

Dow was heavily criticized for his part in the day’s events. He was also prosecuted for violation of the Maine Law for improperly acquiring alcohol. He was eventually acquitted but the Rum Riot was a major factor in the law being repealed in 1856. Dow’s reputation was ruined and he lost his bid for Governor. He served in the army during the Civil War and his house was part of the Underground Railroad (part of his prohibitionist stance was based on the use of slaves in the rum trade). After the war, with slaves at least theoretically now free, he went back to prohibition as his cause célèbre. By the end of his life, he was seen more as a caricature but eventually, the entire country would try Prohibition, which didn’t work any better nationally than it had in Maine.

Freedom is what prohibition ain’t. – Merle Haggard

A prohibitionist is the sort of man one wouldn’t care to drink with — even if he drank. – Henry Louis Mencken

Prohibition is better than no liquor at all. – Will Rogers

I was one of those who was very happy when the original prohibition amendment passed. I thought innocently that a law in this country would automatically be complied with, and my own observation led me to feel rather ardently that the less strong liquor anyone consumed the better it was. – Eleanor Roosevelt

Also on this day: Erotica or Pornography? – In 1740, an author was born.
Wedding Bells – In 1886, President Cleveland married.
All Work; All Play – In 1925, Lou Gehrig was put in as first baseman.
Ground Ball – In 1763, Fort Michilimackinac was built by the French.
Multiple Bombs – In 1919, the Galleanists set off eight bombs.


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