"Portland Rum Riot:" Police and Militia Fire on Crowd Protesting State Prohibition Law

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"Portland Rum Riot:" Police and Militia Fire on Crowd Protesting State Prohibition Law

Portland (ME) City Hall, site of the Rum Riot of 1855
Photograph taken ca. 1880
[Image courtesy of https://www.mainehistory.org/]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 2, 1855

Today's post is devoted to an incident in the early history of the temperance movement in the U.S.


Maine became a state in 1820 as a result of the legislation commonly known as the "Missouri Compromise." At about the same time, religious changes were breaking down the Puritan ethic that had dominated New England culture since the founding of America's first colonies in the early 17th century. Many Protestant believers felt that it was possible to change one's behavior to achieve perfection and enter into heaven. Three major social issues dominated this discussion: the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and prohibition.

By the second decade of the 19th century, America's growing problem with alcohol was becoming obvious. Current estimates show that per capita consumption of alcohol in America reached its peak in about 1830. This abuse led to violence, spousal and child abuse, loss of work, and sometimes a night in a jail cell to "sleep it off." Recognizing these problems, physicians and religious leaders joined with recovering alcoholics in creating a loosely organized, grassroots temperance movement. Groups like the Temperance Watchman of Durham, ME, one of the first formed in1848, strove to set a moral example and achieve social control through the moderation of drinking.

One of the major proponents of the temperance movement was Neal S. Dow (1804-1897). Following his father into the tanning business, the diminutive Dow (he stood only 5' 2" tall) became an affluent leather manufacturer. Dow was a Quaker who helped found the Maine Temperance Society in 1827. He was a staunch believer in finding a legislative solution to the problem of alcohol abuse. [Dow volunteered as a firefighter to gain exemption from militia duty because of the reputation of militia musters to be drunken bashes.]

Neal S. Dow, ca. 1850-1860; Photographer unknown
Neal S. Dow, ca. 1850-1860
Photographer unknown

The first legislative attempt to impose prohibition in Maine was in 1837, when a bill made it out of committee but was tabled. Twelve years later, a similar bill passed the Maine Legislature but was not signed by the governor. In April of 1851, Dow was elected mayor of Portland as a Temperance Whig. He worked closely with the legislature to secure passage of the temperance measure. Then, despite the fact that many legislators expected the bill to be vetoed, Dow met with the new Governor, John Hubbard, who signed the bill into law on June 2. This quickly became known throughout the country as the "Maine Law," and propelled Dow to national fame. He was called the "Napoleon of Temperance." He had virtually single-handedly secured passage of prohibition in the state. By 1855, twelve states had their own dry laws.

Many Mainers flaunted the state's dry law, concocting liquor at home and selling it to neighbors in "kitchen bars." Farmers continued the age-old practice of turning apples and other fruits into hard cider and wine. Many Irish immigrants, who enjoyed a nip of alcohol on occasion, viewed passage of the "Maine Law" as a direct, racist assault on their culture. Pharmacies and groceries sold alcohol legally as medicines and flavor extracts. Some distilleries in Maine continued to operate, but only as long as their products were exported out of state.

However, a good deal of alcohol seeped back into Maine. This infuriated Mayor Dow to no end. After raids on every Irish "grog shop" in Portland failed to stem the local traffic in the demon rum, the mayor insisted on searching all trains, boats and wagons entering the city. Since Portland was the primary rail and sea connection with Canada, the delays this action created infuriated merchants up and down the eastern seaboard. Dow was even burned in effigy on Boston Common. In April of 1852, when Dow came up for re-election, merchants from all over New England funded his opponent, Albion K. Parris. As a result, Dow lost re-election by 542 votes out of 3300 cast.

Convinced of his cause's righteousness, Dow could not believe the fault was his. He was convinced he had been victimized by a conspiracy of merchants who provided fake papers for the 2200 Irish immigrants in Portland who went to the polls. Even worse, they almost all voted Democratic. Still, at least the new mayor was also a temperance man, if not quite as enthusiastic an enforcer of the law. So Dow retreated to his house to lick his wounds, and plan his comeback.

Under the theory that the only problem with his temperance law was that it was too weak, in 1853 Dow lobbied the state legislature in Augusta for amendments to the dry law. The new sterner temperance law which emerged from the legislature allowed a search warrant to be issued if three private citizens claimed liquor was present in an establishment. It also made the mere possession of alcohol proof of intention to sell. In other words, the amended law technically made every alcohol user in the state a dealer.


Neal Dow was re-elected Portland mayor in April of 1855, winning with a margin of a mere 46 votes. As part of his new duties, Mayor Dow and the city council were supposed to jointly appoint a committee to pick a new liquor agent, whose job it would be to purchase liquor which would then be legally sold to the apothecaries and industries of the city. However Mayor Dow was so certain of his own nobility, he appointed himself to the selection committee, and to save even more time appointed himself the temporary liquor agent. As such he purchased $1,500 of booze (in his own name) and had it shipped to and stored in City Hall's "Liquor Room." Only after it arrived did he notify the city council.

Upon being told of Dow's action, the council members got into a shouting match with the mayor. One of them leaked details of the shipment to the Portland Eastern Argus, a local newspaper with a political tilt towards the Democratic Party, as well as an opponent of the "Maine Law." On Saturday June 2, 1855 the paper printed up and posted handbills all over the city, which laid out the facts, in particular that the liquor had been bought under the name of Neal Dow. The handbills then asked:

"Where are our vigilant police...who think it their duty to...often push their search (of the poor man's cider) into private houses, contrary to every principle of just law? We call upon them by virtue of Neal Dow's law to seize Neal Dow's liquors and pour them into the street....Let the lash which Neal Dow has prepared for other backs be applied to his own when he deserves it."

As the handbills spread throughout the city, the general public became aroused to an extent not seen in many years. By late afternoon, a crowd of about 250 people were milling about in front of City Hall. As the day progressed, workers from the locomotive yards and factories were let out of work and joined the throng. By 7:00 pm, the mob had increased to between 1000 and 3000 people (considering that Portland's population at that time was about 21,000 citizens, this was a large crowd).

Portland Rum Riot

Mayor Dow assembled about 10 policemen to protect the Liquor Room in City Hall. After seeing the crowd getting angrier, he sent for a unit of local militia. The mob began to throw rocks at City Hall, which prompted Dow to tell the police to fire over the heads of the multitude. This only prompted the mob to begin throwing trash and garbage at the policemen, causing them to retreat into City Hall. The officers barricaded themselves in the Liquor Room, apparently taking no further action that night. [I have read varying accounts of the Rum Riot, so I am speculating on the chain of events.]

By 10:00 pm a unit of 20 local militiamen appeared, marched through the crowd and lined up in front of City Hall. Mayor Dow took command of the unit, and ordered the mob to disperse. This only prompted a further barrage of rocks and garbage. Dow then ordered the militia to fire over the heads of the assemblage to chase them off. The militia commander demurred, saying he needed more men, and the unit marched away.

With the militiamen apparently gone, the crowd became even more agitated, trying to break into City Hall using a makeshift battering ram. After several minutes, the militia returned with another company reinforcing the original unit (this brought the total number of militiamen to perhaps 30-40 men). Forcing their way through the mob, the militia took up position in front of the City Hall entrance. Dow again ordered the crowd to disperse.

At this point, an Irish-American sailor named John Robbins got the mob's attention. He harangued the crowd, saying that the militia was only firing blanks and wouldn't dare use live ammunition on them. Robbins then led the multitude in a surge toward the thin line of militiamen guarding the entrance to City Hall. At this crisis point, the order was given and the militiamen loaded their flintlock muskets and fired directly into the surging mob. John Robbins was shot and killed, one of the first men to fall. After 20 minutes and a bayonet charge by the militia, the crowd finally broke and ran. The Portland Rum Riot was over.


In addition to Robbins, seven other members of the mob were wounded. Only the fact that the militiamen were armed with slow-loading flintlock muskets kept the casualties low. Among the supporters of the dry law this incident became the "Rum Riot;" among Democrats and opponents of the law it was known as the "Portland Massacre."

Footnote #1: Shortly after the riot, Mayor Dow was brought to trial for violation of his own law. After a one-day trial, he was acquitted. In 1856, Dow didn't even bother to run for re-election. That same year, Democratic majorities were elected to the state legislature, and the "Maine Law" was repealed.

Brigadier General Neal Dow, USA, ca. 1861-1864; Photographer unknown
Brigadier General Neal Dow, USA, ca. 1861-1864
Photographer unknown

Footnote #2: When the Civil War broke out, Neal Dow volunteered for service at age 57, and was appointed colonel of the 13th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. His unit participated in the capture of New Orleans in 1862. Dow was assigned to command Forts Jackson and St. Philip, two captured Confederate forts which guarded the southern approach to the city on the Mississippi River.

Footnote #3: While convalescing from wounds, Dow was captured by the Confederates and held for eight months. He was exchanged in February of 1864, for Confederate General William Henry Fitzhugh Lee (known as "Rooney" Lee, the second son of Robert E. Lee). With his health degraded by his incarceration, Dow resigned his commission in November of 1864.

Footnote #4: After the war, Dow continued his advocacy for temperance. In 1880 he ran as the candidate of the Prohibition Party. He came in fourth with just over 10,000 votes, with James A. Garfield winning the election. Dow died in 1897.

Neal S. Dow House, Portland ME today [Image courtesy of http://www.panoramio.com]
Neal S. Dow House, Portland ME today
[Image courtesy of http://www.panoramio.com]

Footnote #5: Built in 1829, the Neal S. Dow House is located on 714 Congress Street in Portland. Dow was an ardent abolitionist, and used his house as a station stop for the Underground Railroad. It is currently owned by the Maine chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974.

Footnote #6: There is a Rum Riot Brewery in Portland. There is also a Polish musical group called the Portland Rum Riot (if you speak Polish, maybe you can leave a message on their Facebook page).

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