5 Times People Fought Actual Battles Over Booze

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People have enjoyed drinking booze since the earliest human civilizations. It has become so ingrained into society that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it. While people know that it’s just a drink, they don’t realize how much it means to them until someone threatens to take it away.

5. Lager Beer Riot

In 1855, a man named Dr. Levi Boone became the mayor of Chicago. He blamed Irish Catholic immigrants for ruining the city, because they were opening so many pubs. During a speech, he went as far as to call them “depraved and worthless drunks.” In reality, the Irish immigrants worked 6 days per week, and over 12 hours per day doing manual labor. Since Sunday was their only day off, they crammed all of their family time, fun, and relaxation into that one day. In the mornings, they went to mass with their wives and children, and for the rest of the day, they drank with their friends in the pubs. Out of the 675 bars in Chicago, 625 of them were run by immigrants.

Mayor Boone created a new rule that all of the bars in Chicago must close on Sundays. He also increased the price of a liquor license from $50 to $300. In today’s money, that’s like asking for several thousand dollars. This was simply too expensive for most small business owners. Over 200 tavern owners in the city decided to break the law and stay open on Sunday, anyway.

Irish men with loaded guns began sitting at the entrances of these bars, waiting for the Chicago Police Department to try and stop them. After weeks of protecting their pubs from the police, thousands of Irish immigrants marched with loaded guns and showed up to City Hall to confront the mayor. This broke out into a brawl, and one protester died in a scuffle with a police officer. Even after all of this, Boone refused to change his policy.

Even though they lost that battle, they eventually won the war. Up until this point, most Irish immigrants never voted in local elections, despite making up about half the population of Chicago. The next year, millions of new people registered to vote. Boone was kicked out of office, and all of his policies were overturned.

4. The St. Scholastica’s Day Riot

In the 14th century, Oxford University was gaining power in politics and business, and the original townspeople were slowly being pushed out. These townsfolk began to secretly hate the professors, students, and administrators. Since Oxford students were usually from upper-class families, they also had an obnoxious sense of entitlement. This mutual disdain for one another eventually came to a head at a pub on February 10, 1355.

On this fateful day, two Oxford students were drinking pints at the Swindlestock Tavern. The beer apparently tasted awful, so they complained to the owner. None of the townspeople had ever complained before, and since it was coming from two Oxford scholars, the owner took this as a personal insult. He began to yell and curse at the students. They responded by tossing the beer in the owner’s face. He lunged at them, and the young men ran back to campus.

This bar fight became an excuse for people to let out their rage on one another. A mob of people from the town marched on campus with just about any weapon you can imagine. The townspeople shot students with arrows and burned textbooks. The scholars were armed as well, because the campus had swords and suits of armor on display. The fight went on for three days. Dozens of students and townspeople were killed, and it really didn’t resolve much of anything. Sadly, historians have never been able to determine whether the beer was, in fact, awful.

3. Wroclaw Beer War

And we’re right back in the 14th century, this time in Poland. There was a brewery and pub in the basement of the city hall of Wroclaw that locals nicknamed “The Rat,” because… well, as you may have guessed, it was infested with fuzzy little vermin. For years, this was the one and only option for people to drink. The city council took complete advantage of this, and even added an extra tax on beer.

Meanwhile, at a nearby monastery on Cathedral Island, the monks had perfected the art of beer-making. In 1380, they started to sell their brew to the townspeople after church. The monks’ beer was both tastier and cheaper than what was brewed up and served at The Rat. It was also far more convenient for churchgoers who were already on the island, anyway. The surrounding atmosphere and architecture of Cathedral Island is also exquisite, so it’s not surprising that people began to spend their Sundays there, instead of in a dark, rat-infested basement.

Of course, the town council was outraged. The monks were not only destroying their business, but they were also losing a tremendous amount of money in taxes. They claimed that the government were the only ones allowed to sell beer in Wroclaw. The Bishop told them that was not true, and their municipal rules meant nothing on the island.

So, they went to war. Well… a trade war, anyway. Whenever the monks needed something, their supplies were always delivered to Wroclaw first, and then they were sent to the island. The town council made sure they had to go through hell to get anything they needed to survive. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the Duke of Liegnitz sent the monks a Christmas present of several barrels of the best brew in the entire country. The city council confiscated their Christmas present and drank it all themselves. Then, they rubbed it in the monks’ faces.

The church responded by excommunicating the council members and sentencing their eternal souls to damnation. Eventually, the Bishop decided that if they couldn’t have their beer-making supplies from the city, then the citizens didn’t deserve their connection to God. They stopped having mass on Sundays, and locked the church doors. Some of the religious citizens in the town were genuinely afraid that without going to church, they would burn in Hell. So they contacted the Pope, and in 1382, the King of Poland had to send the military to force them to re-open the church.  

2. The Portland Rum Riot

In 1851, Maine became the first state to experiment with prohibition. Portland mayor Neal Dow declared that the city could no longer sell alcohol, since he thought prohibition could help end slave trade. Sugar plantations were run by slave labor in the Caribbean, and a large amount of sugar is necessary to brew and distill liquor. Dow believed that if Americans stopped drinking alcohol, it would decrease the demand for labor, and slaves could go free.

A noble thought process for sure, but in retrospect ending slavery would never be that simple. Still, the citizens of Portland were willing to try. Instead of buying ready-made bottles of liquor, they started making home-brewed cider from apples, and sold drinks out of their homes to their neighbors in cozy “kitchen bars.”

Unfortunately, this rule extended to all types of alcohol. After a few years, doctors and pharmacies could no longer clean wounds or sterilize their surgical instruments, so Dow created a legal loophole to allow alcohol into the city for medical purposes. He knew that if these bottles were sold in stores, citizens may try to buy it to drink. He felt that he had to control the distribution, and lock it all in a massive vault. In order to get this plan in motion, he used taxpayer dollars to buy $1,600 worth of alcohol. The bottles were delivered directly to City Hall in 1855. Back then, that amount of money could buy such a massive supply that it could supply the town with alcohol for years.

When the locals heard about the delivery, they were outraged. Many people believed that the mayor was actually buying this liquor for his own enjoyment. Over 200 people surrounded City Hall, shouting and calling him a hypocrite. They even went to court for a search warrant, accusing the mayor of committing a crime. The judge refused to allow the people to go inside. The mob grew to over 2,000 angry people who were throwing rocks at the windows and trying to break down the door. At this point, the mayor sent his private militia to defend him.

During the scuffle, a 22-year-old man named John Robbins made it all the way to the liquor vault. Just as he tried to open the door he was killed, as the militia riddled his body with bullets. Seven other people were shot and seriously injured. The people tried to get Dow put in jail for breaking his own liquor law; however, when the judge heard the whole story, he let him off. Dow lost when he ran for re-election, and citizens voted in someone who allowed alcohol to be sold again.

1. The Brisbane Beer Riots

Brisbane, Australia has a very large military base. During World War II, thousands of soldiers were stationed there, waiting to be called into action. With so many young soldiers, it was like one big frat party. In the evenings after military training exercises, they spent their time and money drinking all night, every night, and flirting with local girls. Bars and hotels stopped serving alcohol at 11 p.m., which left drunk people walking the streets. This was awful for people who had to get up early for work, because the noise kept locals awake well past midnight. In order to combat this issue, the local government created a new rule that bars must stop serving alcohol at 8 p.m., and close on Sundays. The soldiers decided to ignore the new law, and continued partying as much as they wanted.

Since everyone was ignoring them, the city council wanted to show a sign of force. On October 26, 1940, police officers were ordered to show up to bars and hotels on Queen Street. It was a Friday night, so at 8 p.m., many of the soldiers were just getting started on their first pint when the cops showed up, telling everyone to pack it up and go home.

The soldiers blocked the street to prevent cars and trolleys from driving through, and they began fist-fighting with the police. People who had been in the movie theaters started to come out to witness the fight, because it was far more entertaining than any film they could pay to see. Journalists and photographers showed up to take pictures, but they were quickly pushed out by the mob. The soldiers destroyed the journalists’ cameras, so there would be no photographic evidence of who participated in the brawl. The mob took advantage of the chaos to break into the Grand Central Hotel. They smashed windows, and stole kegs of beer. The fight continued until 12:30 a.m., when peace was finally restored – presumably because the sight of soldiers rolling a giant keg of beer down the street singing “Roll Out the Barrel” is something that should make everyone smile.

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