The Great Rum Riot
On the ninetieth anniversary of Prohibition, it’s worth looking back at Maine’s central role in outlawing alcohol. The history i
By Whit Richardson
Image from Collections of Maine Historical Society/Coll. 2093
When Chandler Racklyffe arrived in Portland on the afternoon of June 2, 1855, he found a large crowd gathered around City Hall, which at the time stood where the Soldiers and Sailors statue now looms over Monument Square.
Men loitered in the square with an air of impatience. A cache of liquor had been seized in the basement of City Hall, Racklyffe was told. The rumor circulating that day was that the liquor belonged to Portland’s mayor, Neal Dow, the “Father of Prohibition” himself. And, since liquor had been illegal in Maine since 1851, thanks to a law drafted by Dow himself, the crowd — made up of Irish and Democrats, according to pro-Prohibition newspaper accounts — planned to destroy the liquor, with violence if necessary, to publicly humiliate Dow.
What had begun as a peaceful Saturday would end with blood in the streets of Portland. One man was killed and several wounded in the ensuing riot.
Racklyffe, a Westbrook resident, was one of several witnesses who testified before a committee investigating the episode that became known as the Portland Rum Riot.
Later, during an investigation into the rum riot, it was determined the liquor did not belong to Dow, but had arrived earlier that day for sale in the city’s agency liquor store on the ground floor of City Hall. Under Maine’s Prohibition law, an agency store was allowed to sell liquor for medicinal and industrial purposes.
As afternoon turned to evening, the crowd of between a thousand and three thousand strong became more agitated. The violence began not long after 8 p.m., when it was clear the liquor would not be brought out and destroyed. Rocks and bricks began to fly, smashing the agency store’s windows. Dow deployed policemen to the store and called out the militia to deter the crowd.
Attempts to convince the rioters to disperse failed. When throwing bricks was deemed inadequate, the crowd began trying to gain entry. In the ensuing struggle, John Robbins, a twenty-two-year-old man from Deer Isle and a mate on the barque Louisa Eaton, was shot and killed by police. Several other men, including rioters and innocent bystanders, were injured.
The Portland Rum Riot exhibits how controversial the early Prohibition laws in the state were. Dow had hammered the first Prohibition law through the state legislature in 1851, making Maine the first “dry” state in the nation. It also made Dow a national celebrity. By 1855, thirteen other states had passed laws similar to the “Maine Law,” though many of these would be repealed as abolition became the dominant political topic. Federal Prohibition, in the form of the Eighteenth Amendment, didn’t catch up to Maine until seventy years later in 1920.
Robbins was apparently buried in the old Eastern Cemetery, at the base of Munjoy Hill. An editor of an anti-Prohibition newspaper in Portland declared Robbins a martyr and predicted his grave would be remembered for all time while Dow’s was “lost among the wild grasses and weeds that spring from carrion carcasses, in places hideous to human tread.”
While the Portland Rum Riot did have a negative effect on Dow’s future political career — he was not reelected as mayor and twenty-five years later would suffer defeat as the Prohibition Party’s candidate for president — many praised him for upholding the law in the face of anarchy. A group of temperance women in Biddeford sent him a silver pitcher. Dow, in fact, would be remembered, while John Robbins would be forgotten, except by those immersed in Portland’s arcane history.
To understand Dow’s anti-alcohol zealotry, it’s important to understand the world he grew up in. Alcohol was a major part of early American society, and Maine was no exception. While water still had the sometimes mysterious effect of making one sick, beer and liquor seemed safe in comparison. “In colonial times, alcohol was seen as a medicine,” says William Barry, a librarian at the Maine Historical Society. The societal pressure that exists today about the use or abuse of alcohol did not exist then. “In the old time, to be drunk frequently was not to lose standing, or, indeed, even to excite unfavorable comment,” Dow writes in his memoirs, published in 1898.
It was normal for workers to drink on the job, for ministers to drink before delivering a sermon, or for a gentleman of society to get beastly drunk and dance a jig on top of a table at a public gathering. The town bell rang at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. as a reminder for workers to break for some rum, which employers were expected to provide.
By 1823, Portland had a population of about nine thousand and more than two hundred places licensed to sell liquor, according to Dow. All along Congress Street, shops had barrels of liquor to allow people to quickly wet their whistles. Dow cites a city report in 1840 that estimated one thousand of Portland’s 12,000 residents were “addicted to the excessive use of intoxicants.”
Dow believed Portland was a city of heavy drinkers because men who fought in the Revolutionary War brought back bad habits from the military camps. These habits thrived in the lumbering camps and on the fishing boats where many of the veterans worked upon returning to Maine. Another factor was Portland’s place as an important port of trade with the West Indies. “Portland wharves groaned beneath the burden of West India rum,” Dow writes.
Between 1820 and 1850, Dow estimates Mainers consumed more intoxicating liquor in proportion to their numbers than the people of any other state. “The effects were to be seen in neglected and badly cultivated farms, shabby, dilapidated buildings, in tumbledown schoolhouses and other public buildings,” Dow writes.
To someone like Dow this state of affairs was unacceptable. In the early nineteenth century, America was still a new nation and Americans considered themselves a new race of people capable of beginning from scratch to form a perfect society, according to Herb Adams, a local historian and state representative from Portland. “No one was a truer believer in this than Neal Dow,” Adams says. “Prohibition was Maine’s one homegrown contribution to the struggle to make America perfect.”
Neal Dow’s home is now a museum, owned by the Maine Women Christian Temperance Union, the Neal Dow Memorial, tucked between a 7-11 and a coffee shop on Congress Street in Portland’s West End. He was born in 1804 in his parents’ house across the street, about where the Rite-Aid stands today.
Robert Quatrano, the Neal Dow Memorial’s caretaker, enthusiastically regales visitors with stories of Neal Dow the abolitionist, Neal Dow the Civil War general, and, of course, Neal Dow the prohibitionist. Quatrano believes Dow is Portland’s most famous resident. “I know Longfellow wrote poems. Whoopy ding! He didn’t change the U.S. Constitution!” Quatrano says. During his day, Dow was very well known, Quatrano continues. His ninetieth birthday in 1894 was celebrated in London. “I consider him the Elvis of his time,” Quatrano says.
The Maine Law was not set in stone from 1851 onward. Subsequent lawmakers in Augusta changed it many times over the years, sometimes loosening it to a point where it was almost ineffective, sometimes strengthening it with increased enforcement. “They tinkered around with it every couple of years,” says Barry. “They’d water it down, and then some minister would go on a tear and they’d strengthen it again.”
In one roller coaster stretch of a few years, lawmakers strengthened the Maine Law in 1855, only to repeal it the next year for a law that allowed limited licenses for some places to sell liquor, including hotels. “Inn holders were authorized to sell only to travelers and strangers who were guests and lodgers, but no inn holder was allowed to keep a bar for selling liquors. The licensed persons were forbidden to sell to minors, Indians, and so forth, as was usual,” writes Henry A. Wing in a series of articles on “Maine’s War Upon the Liquor Traffic,” published in the Portland Evening Express in December 1908 and January 1909.
In 1858, lawmakers reenacted the prohibitory law. In 1883, the state amended its constitution to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol. So, in one form or another, Maine had temperance laws on the books throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and straight through the period of 1920 to 1933 when the federal government outlawed the liquor trade.
Dow was proud of his law and was glad to share with whomever would listen about how it had improved Portland. But despite the claims of Dow and his fellow prohibitionists, liquor continued to flow quite freely in Portland, albeit behind closed doors. “They never really shut it down,” says Barry. In Portland, where the law was enforced more strictly than other towns, “the legitimate taverns and hotels aren’t selling it, but all of a sudden you have more than a hundred little kitchen bars.”
One of Dow’s staunchest critics was his own cousin, John Neal, who wrote in 1869 that liquor was still readily available in “grog shops and Irish boarding houses and Negro shanties where liquors were kept in oil cans and pickle jars, under the beds and in outhouses. . . . The most ingenious evasions were resorted to. Liquors were sold in the shape of books, made of tin, painted and lettered with some attractive title, such as ‘Drops of Comfort,’ ‘Consolation for the Afflicted,’ and ‘Hints for the Ungodly.’ ”
Perhaps the best evidence that the liquor trade was still alive and well can be found in a newspaper account from nearly two months after the rum riot. During one week that July, the Portland Advertiser reported that local police had seized 123 gallons of liquor from a grog shop on Munjoy Hill, 60 gallons from a cart in the street supposedly carrying barrels of flour, 10 gallons from a steamer at the wharves, and 57 gallons from the schooner Comet. The same article also recounts how police found four kegs of liquor packed in salt inside four barrels of “mess pork.” The barrels of “pork” were addressed to a man in Mechanic Falls, who quickly claimed “he had no knowledge of the transaction, had never ordered any liquor at all.” Obviously, liquor was finding its way into Maine.
The story of Portland’s Prohibition past isn’t complete without a discussion of the city’s Irish residents. In 1850, there were 2,244 Irish-born immigrants living in Portland, a full 11 percent of the city’s total population of 20,420, according to James H. Mundy, who quoted census reports in his book Hard Times, Hard Men: Maine and the Irish. For the most part, Portland’s Irish were poor, and prohibitionists, including Neal Dow, blamed them for much of the city’s drinking problems.
Not surprisingly, the Irish residents saw the Maine Law as discriminatory toward them and their heritage, and they had no love for Dow. “The Grand Pooh-bah of temperance, Neal Dow, lived right in Portland and his name became a curse on Irishmen’s lips,” Mundy writes.
Bootlegging became a profitable enterprise for many Irish residents in Portland. The most famous was James McGlinchy, who arrived in Portland with his three brothers from County Derry in 1840. “Handsome Jim,” as he was known, was a man of many trades, including brewer and rum seller. During the late nineteenth century, he and his brother, Patrick McGlinchy, operated the Casco Brewery, the last brewery to operate in Portland during Prohibition.
(The fact a brewery existed in Portland during Prohibition may seem paradoxical, but it was because of a loophole in the law during the late 1800s that McGlinchy’s brewery was able to produce beer, but only for sale outside of Maine, says Matthew Barker, a local historian who writes about Portland’s Irish population. Though, McGlinchy certainly skirted the law at times to sell his wares in Maine, as well.)
When James McGlinchy died in 1880, his estate was worth two hundred thousand dollars (calculated for inflation, that would equal roughly $4.4 million today).
When federal Prohibition went into effect in 1920 with the Eighteenth Amendment, Maine had officially been dry for nearly seventy years. Unofficially, however, it was never impossible to find a drink in Portland. “Maine was officially a dry state for over eighty years, the longest of any experiments in the United States. Unofficially, human nature hasn’t changed all that much, so I imagine with the right word you could get a glass here or there,” says Adams.
The highest concentration of speakeasies during the 1920s was in the vicinity of the Customs House on Portland’s waterfront. For the more distinguished members of Portland society, Adams says a discreet bottle could be had at the Cumberland Club or the Portland Club — institutions that still exist today.
Much of the booze came from Canada, either by sea or land. Three miles offshore, the line of jurisdiction for the Coast Guard became known as the Rum Line because Canadian ships loaded with booze would form the Rum Row, ready to transfer their bootleg liquor to rum runners that would then motor the illicit liquor into one of Maine’s thousands of small coves and inlets.
When federal prohibition was repealed in 1933 with the Twenty-first Amendment, Maine still held on for another year until it repealed its state constitutional amendment.
However, beer with a low alcohol content — 3.2 percent alcohol by weight — was made available July 1, 1933, and was apparently quite a celebration. An article in that day’s Portland Evening Express tells of cases and kegs of beer piled on the sidewalks in the morning before the restaurants had opened. The drinking began at 6 a.m. “The first customers in Portland ordered the new brew before it had been chilled,” the newspaper said.
Another leftover relic from Portland’s Prohibition days can be found in the old front atrium of the Cumberland County Courthouse. There in a corner is the original directory of offices, carved in stone when the courthouse was built in 1910. At the bottom, nearly blocked from view by the top of a wooden bench, the stone letters say “Liquor Deputies,” referring to the special law enforcement officers dedicated to enforcing Maine’s prohibitory laws.
“When they built the Cumberland County Courthouse it had been a long struggle against the alcohol trade and Maine’s crusaders thought the pinnacle had been reached at last and Prohibition would last forever, so they literally carved it in stone,” Adams says.