Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
The mob outside City Hall was rowdy that June night. They’d dispersed around suppertime but later came back hurling insults, catcalls and rocks. They wanted to see Mayor Neal Dow arrested and his illegal booze dumped out on the ground. But the little mayor with the big mutton chops was having none of it.
Without a warning, he ordered the city militia to shoot into the crowd. The rifle balls found their marks, wounding seven men and killing an eighth. Dow and his armed men celebrated their victory with crackers, cheese and cold water.
So ended Portland’s famous rum riot 162 years ago this week on June 2, 1855. I’ve told this well-trodden story before. But it’s impossible to overstate the cowardice and callousness of Neal Dow. He was a holier-than-thou tyrant who thought he knew what was best for everybody. In the end, he was willing to shoot those who thought different.
It’s a story well worth re-telling as Portland struggles with just how powerful a mayor it wants to have.
Mayor Dow was a Portland native. He was also a businessman, state legislator and, later, a Civil War general. Nationally, they called him the “Napoleon of Temperance.” He ran for president several times on the temperance ticket.
To say he was dead set against alcohol would be a vast understatement. As a city fire chief, he once ordered his men to let a liquor store burn to the ground. He also was a bigot who disliked immigrants — especially Irish Catholics, who mostly enjoyed a snort from time to time and who did not support him at the polls.
Shortly after becoming mayor of Portland in 1851, he lobbied Augusta lawmakers to ban booze statewide. They did, making Maine the first “dry” state in the union.
A loophole in the law kept expensive wine by the barrel legal while banning one-drink-at-a-time sales. This effectively made drinking illegal for the poor but perfectly legal for the rich.
Liquor also was legal for “mechanical” and “medicinal” uses but you had to buy it from a licensed agent of the state. On May 31, Dow signed for a huge shipment of booze delivered to the agency store at Portland City Hall. The problem was, he wasn’t an agent. Technically, he’d broken his own law.
Word of his ironic misdeed spread fast, especially among folks who didn’t like him in the first place. The mob gathered at City hall on June 2 when it became clear that Dow was not going to get arrested for it.
Dow called out the city militia when the mob started breaking windows at the agency store. The first company to show up was Greene’s Light Guards. They refused to fire on the crowd.
So, Dow called on a second company, Roberts’ Rifle Guards. They followed him into City Hall and down to the agency store. Dow screamed the order to fire from the darkened interior, not even first warning the crowd.
Roberts’ men reloaded and fired again, twice. The violence had its intended effect. They crowd left Dow and his hooch alone. Even today, the irony is almost overwhelming. Dow was so anti-drinking yet was willing to kill to protect the city’s stash of alcohol.
Later, while Dow and the militia were enjoying their crackers, a doctor came in and asked Dow if he knew a man lay dead outside.
Dow’s only response was: “Is the body Irish?”
No, the doctor told him. It’s American.
Dow later went to trial a couple times. Turns out he didn’t even have the authority to call out the militia. He got off with acquittals both times.
He didn’t bother to run for re-election.
Note: Today’s story is brought to you, in part, by William Lemke’s great book, “The Wild, Wild East: Unusual Tales of Maine History,” published in 1990.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.