Monday, May 4, 2015

A brief look at Baltimore's nickname, Mobtown

"The man out on the street was something without a human nature or a personality of its own. He was on a stage. The street was another world.” -- Elmore Leonard 3:10 to Yuma

"Baltimore, in fact, is chaos theory incarnate." -- Richard Price

 The city of Baltimore has had many nicknames: Charm City, The City that Reads, Clipper City, The Greatest City in America, and Smalltimore.  Baltimore also has another nickname: Mobtown.

John Quincy Adams himself said that Baltimore was "the Monumental City". The nickname Smalltimore is a recent one that speaks to the geographic size and that one always seems to be just a couple of degrees away from everyone else in the city. The nickname The Greatest City in America has it's origins in Martin O'Malley's mayoral term, reportedly there are still some benches around the city that still bear the name.

But the name Mobtown is a historical nickname, a nickname that has been in place for a long time, was enthusiastically used in my lifetime, and is still used sometimes today. Why is Baltimore known as Mobtown? Because the citizens of Baltimore have never needed much of an excuse to form a mob and riot. There are history books that have whole chapters dedicated to the nickname.

"For more than a century Baltimore was known throughout the nation under the unsavory name of "Mobtown". The title owed its origin to the speed and frequency with which the citizenry found excuse to riot. The Baltimore tough of the 19th century knew no peer. But there were also times when the best citizens took a conspicuous  part in these public disorders. In the early days political feeling ran high and politics often was at the bottom of the trouble. However, when the populace was in the mood for going on a rampage almost any reason would do."

The earliest print reference to the term Mobtown comes from The Baltimore Sun in 1838. The archives only go back to 1837 and the name was already well established by the time it made its first appearance.

There's a story from 1777 that involves a crowd of angry Baltimoreans who descended upon the house of a newspaper editor named William Goddard, who was critical of the American cause, they were armed with sticks and swords. They dragged him out to the streets and tarred and feathered him. Another mob gathered a couple of years later to go after Goddard. This time he was ready with his own sword, which he refused to relinquish during a meeting.

In 1794 Congress declared a 30 day embargo on foreign commerce. Captain Ramsdell lowed the flag of his ship to have mast as a sign of protest. The Captain and crew of another ship seized control of the Ramsdell's ship and tarred and feathered him. A judge issued an arrest warrant for the Captain and his crew. They marched to the court, and a large crowd gathered behind them. They were ordered to disperse or go to jail. The mob threatned to tear down the jail and destroy the judge's home. But the judge was no push over, he was Samuel Chase, signatory of the Declaration of Independance and eventual Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. The mob was won over by the fierce nature and eloquence of Chase and dispersed.

A turning point in Baltimore's mob behavior came on September 30, 1808, when the citizens really upped their game. In the buildup to The War of 1812, a piece titled "To the People of Maryland" appeared in newspapers. Baltimoreans were informed that the ship Sophia had arrived with 720 gallons of gin and that on its was to America it was forced by a British man-o-war to put into a British port, and pay a tax on her cargo before being allowed to continue. A town meeting was called and it was agreed that this "infamous tribute" could not be abide and that the only thing to do was to descend on the ship and destroy all of the gin. The owner of the ship, was well aware of the reputation of Baltimore mobs and promptly agreed to allow his cargo to be destroyed. This wasn't just a few guys from Baltimore's prominent families but a sanctioned, organized, political action.

"A monster parade was organized. In the van were 1,200 horsemen, preceded by a trumpeter. Following in line were 400 sailors and, after the sailors, ordinary civilians to the estimated number of 1,000. A conspicuous feature of the procession was a full-rigged barge on wheels from whose rigging were suspended patriotic slogans.

The procession moved out to Hampstead Hill on the east of the town where Patterson Park now lies. Here already was assembled a throng of some 15,000. The 1,200 horsemen formed a circle and in the center of the circle was erected a gallows. On the gallows was stacked the 720 gallons of gin. A band struck up "Yankee Doodle," a torch was applied, flames leaped high in the air and, to the accompaniment of the cheers of the crowd, the gin was consumed by the flames."

1812 was the year that Baltimore's reputation as Mobtown solidified. A mob, armed with axes, hooks, and other weapons, went after another newspaper editor, destroying his office and the press. The mayor and a judge were present and did nothing. The editor in question holed up in a house armed with muskets and fought the large mob. This fight became so large that the militia was called in and negotiated a peace before eventually escorting the editor to prison. There was sufficient peace that the powers that be dismissed the militia. That evening an angry crowd gathered in front of the jail. The mob, finding that the militia had been dismissed, stormed the jail killing a prisoner and injuring eleven others. This was the bloodiest and deadliest mob violence in Baltimore so far. Members of the mob were brought to trial but all were acquitted.

The bloodlust of Baltimoreans was satiated for more than 20 years until the Bank riot of 1835. In 1834 The Bank of Maryland closed and other financial institutions failed causing millions of dollars in losses. One of the Directors of the bank was a man named Reverdy Johnson. 17 months after the banks closure Baltimore residents stormed Johnson's house and smashed his windows. The Mayor gathered 30 armed horsemen to guard the banker's house when another large crowd gathered. The crowd changed course and went to another banker's house that lived in the area that wasn't being guarded. Upon arrival they methodically tore down his house. They managed to tear down the entire front wall of the house before the armed horsemen and policemen could be re-deployed. They fired weapons into the crowd but could not make it disperse. The next day the crowd stormed Johnson's house, ransacked his possessions, and burned his extensive law library in the street. The mob moved on to at least four other homes.

"Baltimore fully merited the name of Mobtown that Sunday night while the populace pursued its grim work of destruction by the light of the bonfires and amid the shouts of the throng, the discharge of small arms, bloody fist fights and the crashing down of walls."

Then there was the Nunnery Riot of 1839. A woman wearing a habit was running through East Baltimore with a story that she'd escaped the Carmelit Convent. Her story drew a crowd and they decided to to march on the convent. The 1850's saw the rise of political clubs. So each election year groups like the "Rough Skins", "Rip-Raps", Blood tubs", and others, working in conjunction with a corrupt police force, used a shoemakers awl to get people to the polls or to keep them away.An election in 1856 saw eight people killed and 250 wounded. The march of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry across Baltimore caused a riot in April of 1861. 1877 saw several thousand people rioting in connection to the B&O Railroad strike in that year. In 1895, another election year, there was a small outburst of violence.

By the time of the 1968 riots the racial makeup of the city had changed (though Baltimore did have at one time the largest African American population of any city in the nation) but those acts of violence weren't tied into the the history of mobs in the city. Was this because of the racial makeup of the rioters had changed? Or because a substantial period of time had passed between significant mob gatherings and the city had finally outgrown the reputation that was at its worst in the early 1800s ("a place which is without government", "the headquarters of mobocracy", "a new Sodom")?

Mobtown now is a nickname that people use but have no idea of the history behind it (eg: there is a group called Mobtown Mommies, a Facebook page called Mobtown minute, the Mobtown Ballroom, Mobtown espresso coffee, Mobtown Meat Snacks, Mobtown Florals, and many others). There is a lot to think about with the death of Freddie Gray and the aftermath and the ongoing concerns. But I definitely took a few minutes last week to ponder, again, Baltimore's relationship with violence and to try and place the riots of 2015 in a historical context.

I find this stuff interesting, and there is much more to be said on the subject, I hope you get something out of it. 

Further reading:

The Amiable Baltimoreans by Francis F Beirne

Baltimore: A Not Too Serious History by Letitia Stockett

Wicked Baltimore: Charm City Sin and Scandal by Lauren R Silberman

Maryland: A Middle Temperament 1934-1980 by Robert J Brugger

The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore by Bill Barry

From Mobtown to Charm City by Jessica Elfenbein, John R. Breihan

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is so interesting. I'm not from Baltimore, but I have friends who live there. I wonder if they know this. I will forward. Thank you.