The Irish who instigated the Portand Rum Riots

The then Mayor of Portland said during a visit to Ireland alcohol was the cause of the country’s poverty

Mayor Neal Dow the ‘Napoleon of Temperance’.

Mayor Neal Dow the ‘Napoleon of Temperance’.

 

On the evening of June 2nd, 1855 the recently re-elected Mayor of Portland, Neal Dow, found himself besieged in City Hall by a crowd of more than 3,000 protesters, largely drawn from the Irish and German communities of the city. They believed city officials were hoarding $1,600 worth of illicit alcohol in the vaults beneath the municipal offices. Rocks were thrown and tempers began to flare. The militia was called in to reinforce the local police and after the crowd attempted to gain entry to the basement of the building the mayor ordered the soldiers to open fire on them, killing 22-year-old John Robbins and wounding seven others.

The events of that night were the culmination of the ongoing battle between pro and anti-temperance factions within the city.

Long before this, Dow had been viewed as a polarising figure. Dubbed the “Napoleon of Temperance”, he had been the driving force behind the introduction of the contentious 1851 “Maine Liquor Law” the first state-wide ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. The only exemption was alcohol needed for “medical, mechanical or manufacturing purposes” which could be obtained by special dispensation from a municipal committee.

Portland City Hall in the 19th century.
Portland City Hall in the 19th century.

Within two weeks of the new legislation being enacted public houses, saloons, taverns and distilleries across the state were shut down, and only a handful of illicit “grog-shops” remained in operation. Working class and migrant communities viewed the new law as a targeted attack on their way of life and their homes were frequently subjected to police raids. About 11 per cent of the city’s population were Irish immigrants, most of whom had recently fled the horrors of the Great Famine and who mainly lived in the rundown Munjoy Hill neighbourhood, where the majority of the searches for contraband liquor took place.

For them Dow became a symbol of the upper classes’ near fanatical desire for order at the expense of liberty. His staunch defence of the act also drew the ire of several of the state’s leading businessmen who were crippled financially by the new legalisation, frustrated to see bootleggers profiting where they could not and desperately fought to have him removed from office and the law repealed.

The Drunkard’s Progress in 1846. A typical temperance illustration produced in the 19th century.
The Drunkard’s Progress in 1846. A typical temperance illustration produced in the 19th century.

A Quaker by birth, Dow never did fully embrace the way of life of his religious community; he spurned pacifism (indeed he later became a Brigadier General in the Union Army) and enjoyed dressing in outlandish clothing. However, he did uphold their beliefs regarding abstinence and remained a committed abolitionist throughout his life.

Such was his hatred for alcohol in fact that after being promoted to fire chief he allowed a local liquor store to burn to the ground rather than extinguish it. During a visit to Ireland in his later years, he rather short sightedly surmised that alcohol was the cause of Ireland’s poverty rather a manifestation of her hardships:

“A glorious country Ireland is, but the people are reduced to a condition of the most extreme poverty, largely by whiskey,” he said.

His comments were also an oversimplification of reality and echoed earlier speeches he had made in Portland while campaigning for prohibition. His “liquor swilling foreigner” trope ignored the fact that only two decades earlier, on the eve of the Great Famine, more than 3 million Irish people had subscribed to Fr Mathew’s abstinence society, many of whom later found themselves in the USA allied to the temperance movement there. However, unlike Dow, most of them felt that the decision to abstain should be made willingly rather than by coercion. His lack of compassion and hard-line approach alienated many potential supporters and would cost him dearly.

The liquor store at City Hall. Licensed and contraband liquor was stored here during prohibition.
The liquor store at City Hall. Licensed and contraband liquor was stored here during prohibition.

In the wake of the protests he was tried for his role in what was later dubbed the “Portland Rum Riots” but was acquitted. However, public opinion had gone against him and he failed to be re-elected the following year. His opponents also successfully overturned the Maine Liquor Law under his successor and the bars were reopened. Maine’s experience of prohibition was a forerunner of what would play out across the nation in the wake of the enactment of the 18th amendment to the US Constitution. Huge numbers of citizens would flout the law and find ways to circumvent the restrictions imposed on them by authority figures, often by indirectly supporting local criminal enterprises, before the legislation became unenforceable and the amendment was revoked. Perhaps if the political establishment had taken greater heed of the public response in Portland, led by the Irish community there, a lot of unnecessary hardship might have been avoided.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Nathan Mannion, senior curator of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world

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