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5 greatest bar brawls in American history

It’s Friday, and many of you, dear readers, may be headed to the pub this weekend. Now, I know none of you would ever think of being involved in a bar fight, but to discourage you just in case, we present this list by Christine Sismondo, which originally appeared on Brow Beat and is reposted with permission.

1. The Philadelphia Election Riots, 1742
No reported deaths, several injured, one election lost.

Never piss off your bartender. That’s a time-honored rule understood by all regular drinkers. Obviously, this wouldn’t include Quakers Thomas Lloyd and Israel Pemberton, Jr., who had headed off to Philadelphia’s Indian King Tavern one election-day morning to see what they could do about defusing a potentially violent situation.

At stake was the election of the Assembly (the colonial lower house which represented the people), which many Anglicans felt was being rigged by Quakers ‘bussing’ in unregistered German immigrants from outlying areas to support the Quaker candidate.

At the Indian Head, the two Quakers urged tavern-keeper Peter Robinson to stop serving the rabble and to cut off anyone who was getting “too warm.” Many of the warmed-up patrons were sailors working on their morning buzz before the polls opened. Robinson responded that he’d serve whomever he pleased and proceeded to pour a huge glass of rum for the chief agitator, one Captain Mitchell.

“Every man his dram and then we march,” said Mitchell, ignoring Lloyd’s and Pemberton’s pleas for calm.

At 10 in the morning, sailors armed with clubs stormed from the tavern with the expressed intent of knocking down the “broad brims.” In the end, the sailors’ actions backfired as many voters, horrified by the ensuing violence, readily defeated the Anglican candidate.

2. The Astor Place Riots, 1849
An estimated 25 dead and the “Scottish” play’s reputation further damaged.

Hard to believe that one of New York’s most shocking riots started over rival interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Apparently, the bad-luck Scottish play came by its reputation honestly.

In 1849, it was opening at the freshly-minted, hi-falutin’ Astor Opera House on Broadway, with William Macready on the marquee. Macready was a staid, traditional British actor, who had long feuded with American thespian Edwin Forrest, the people’s choice for Macbeth.

Five Points saloon-keeper Isaiah Rynders saw this as an opportunity for mischief, since theatergoing was one of his patrons’ most passionate pastimes. Shakespeare was the NASCAR of its day and Forrest, who had debuted at the Bowery Theater, was the working classes’ favorite actor.

Rynders, one of the most powerful men in the city thanks to his control of the gangs of New York, bought tickets to the Astor House performance and distributed them to every ruffian in his network of watering holes. But not before winding them up on booze and anti-British sentiment.

The drunken mob descended on Astor Place, took their seats, and began pelting the stage and audience with rotting fruits and eggs, forcing actors to pantomime the rest of the show, since nobody could hear the dialogue. As they say, though, the show must go on, and, three nights later, Macready took the stage again. This time, Rynders’ crew had swelled to some 10,000. This brought out the militia and, in the end, a reported 25 deaths before the riot was quelled. The Astor Place became known as the Dis-Aster Place and was converted into a library not long after.

3. The New York City Draft Riots, 1863
Over 120 dead, more than 2,000 injured.

Fourteen years after the Astor Riots, Rynders had lost considerable influence when it came to winding up a mob. Unfortunately, firemen at the Black Joke Engine Company 33, who wielded their political and social influence out of the Ivy Green tavern on Elm (now Lafayette) below Canal in lower Manhattan, were happy to pick up the slack.

The troubles this time stemmed from the draft for Civil War soldiers—a draft that had no effect on the rich who could simply buy their way out of service for $300. “Copperhead” Democrat politicians, who didn’t support the Republican war, turned to saloon allies, including the Black Joke, which rallied a crowd of 500 on July 13, marched to the draft office, and burnt it down.

The mob then headed to Bull’s Head Tavern on 44th Street and demanded free booze. When refused, it burnt down the tavern, then grew intensely violent. A black orphanage was attacked, as were the mayor’s office and those of newspaper publisher Horace Greeley.

All told, over 120 were killed and more than 2,000 injured. Many of the attacked and tortured victims were black, since rioters perceived them to be the root cause of the Civil War.

4. The Atlanta Race Riots, 1906
Estimated 25 to 40 dead, not including the saloon.

Black saloons, white Atlanta residents felt, were the root of an awful lot of evil—vagrancy, loitering, and attacks on the white population, particularly white women. Ironically, it was drunken white residents pouring out of white saloons who would cause the all the havoc in this case.

On Saturday, Sept. 22, Atlanta was getting its drunk on in saloons that were alive with talk of the forthcoming gubernatorial election, but also of a recent police raid on the black saloons on Decatur Street. Uncovered in this raid were ‘racy’ pictures of white women that black men were accused of gazing upon while consuming gin—gin that allegedly caused them to relapse into an animal state in which they could no longer control their urges. On top of this, for the preceding two months, local newspapers had been whipping up a yellow journalism scare about an “epidemic” of black assaults on whites.

That night, the mob spilled out of the saloons and made its way to Decatur. While many of the black saloons were demolished, the estimated death toll of 25 to 40 would surely have been higher if patrons had not caught wind of the rioters and abandoned shop. Georgia voted to go dry not long after, and riots like these helped boost the popularity of Prohibition in the South.

The Black Cat Tavern Riots, 1967
Three injured, many arrests, one cause advanced.

As most revellers were kissing at Los Angeles’ Black Cat Tavern to ring in the New Year of 1967, some patrons, apparently, pulled out their stop-watches.

These were the undercover cops—known in the gay community as “Betty Badge” or “Lily Law” —who were working another of their sting operations. When it was determined that the kissing had lasted longer than could be deemed suitable for the occasion and had strayed into lewd and disorderly behaviour, gay and lesbian couples were arrested on the spot.

It was not uncommon for police to resort to this tactic to bust gay bars. Life Magazine had reported that the LAPD sent out police “dressed to look like homosexuals—tight pants, sneakers, sweaters or jackets” to save the city from the “aggressive” homosexuality, which was only “getting worse” because of increased “homosexual activity.”

That night, the patrons protested the raid and a small riot spilled out onto the streets. Police responded by beating two bartenders unconscious. Another protest followed shortly thereafter and the small surge in awareness and political action is thought to have been responsible for Richard Mitch and Bill Rau’s decision to start their own gay publication—The Advocate. It also foreshadowed the far more dramatic Stonewall Riots two and a half years later.

Christine Sismondo is a writer and lecturer in Humanities at York University in Toronto. She has written numerous articles about film, literature, drinking, and vice, and is most recently the author of America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. Listen to an interview with Sismondo here.

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  1. [...] into the habit or enticed men with free food or free beer to persuade them to carry on drinking. Alcohol-fueled violence and disorder, although perhaps not epidemic, were certainly significant problems in urban [...]

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