When gangs con­trolled votes

Pol­i­tics may be ugly these days, but at least elec­tions are no longer deadly

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Charles W. Mitchell

On Nov. 6 we will cast gen­eral­elec­tion bal­lots amid al­most un­prece­dented par­ti­san bick­er­ing, ques­tions swirling around the role of so­cial me­dia in civic life and the usual wor­ries about low-voter turnout.

If these prob­lems make you cringe, con­sider elec­tion days in Bal­ti­more dur­ing the first half of the 19th cen­tury, when vi­o­lence earned the city the nick­name “Mobtown,” thanks to gangs with col­or­ful names such as the Plug Uglies, Rip Raps and Blood Tubs.

Bal­ti­more's fire de­part­ments were of­ten lit­tle more than po­lit­i­cal clubs pop­u­lated by job­less young men. They would race to fires and brawl with other “fire com­pa­nies” for the right to ex­tin­guish the blaze. Pay­ment was de­manded up-front from prop­erty own­ers, who re­sisted at the risk of watch­ing their homes or busi­nesses burn. More than half of the 225 fires in the city in 1858 were clas­si­fied as ar­son, gen­er­at­ing a rev­enue stream for these “fire­men.”

Bal­ti­more City in 1856 had a po­lice force of only 45 men, for a pop­u­la­tion of 174,000. The po­lice had lit­tle chance against the row­dies at elec­tion time. Gangs, de­ter­mined to see their can­di­dates win, staked out polling places to await vot­ers. Bal­lots were color-coded by po­lit­i­cal party and were, when cast, vis­i­ble to on­look­ers. The Blood Tubs were named for their cus­tom of dump­ing tubs of blood, fresh from slaugh­ter­houses, on those not vot­ing for the gang’s can­di­dates. Thugs kid­napped men off the streets, usu­ally im­mi­grants who spoke lit­tle Eng­lish, and marched them to the polls to vote for the can­di­dates backed by the gangs.

The 1856 city elec­tion was the high wa­ter mark of vi­o­lence. When men of the Em­pire Club from New York ar­rived to “cam­paign” for lo­cal Democrats, fisticuffs erupted with lo­cal Amer­i­can Party mem­bers, known as “Know Noth­ings.” When the New York­ers sought refuge in a house on Marsh Mar­ket (now Bal­ti­more) Street, en­raged Know Noth­ings launched an as­sault as the em­bat­tled Em­pire men de­fended them­selves with small can­non and firearms.

The Rip Raps and Plug Uglies, both Know Noth­ing gangs, used mus­kets, re­volvers, shot­guns and blun­der­busses against the Demo­cratic New Mar­ket En­gine Com­pany in a bat­tle that raged for over two hours in and around the Lex­ing­ton Mar­ket. Two Bal­ti­more­ans died.

An­other brawl erupted at the cor­ner of Mon­u­ment and Calvert streets, mov­ing west­ward as ri­ot­ers fired from be­hind mar­ble steps. Lib­eral use was made of mus­ket and can­non. The Amer­i­can Party can­di­date for mayor, Thomas Swann, won eas­ily. The city-wide tally that day: mul­ti­ple dead and sev­eral hun­dred wounded.

By the out­break of the Civil War, re­forms in the elec­toral process and the po­lice depart­ment had curbed much of the vi­o­lence, though gangs con­tin­ued to cause mis­chief. In April 1861, they helped in­sti­gate the Pratt Street Riot, an at­tack by a mob on North­ern sol­diers pass­ing through the city. That day’s tally in­cluded more than a dozen dead, scores wounded and Bal­ti­more en­shrined as the site of the first fa­tal­i­ties of the Civil War.

I, for one, will be thank­ful for an or­derly elec­toral process that per­mits me to cast a se­cret bal­lot without fear of Blood Tubs, Rip Raps or Plug Uglies lurk­ing at my lo­cal precinct.


The April 19, 1861, “col­li­sion” — known as the Pratt Street Riot — be­tween Bal­ti­more­ans sym­pa­thetic to the South and fed­eral troops on Pratt Street led to the oc­cu­pa­tion of Bal­ti­more through­out the Civil War.

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