The Portland Rum Riot erupted on June 2, 1855, when the city’s Irish working-class residents found out their teetotaling, saloon-raiding mayor was storing $1,600 worth of liquor at City Hall.
At 5 p.m. that day, about 200 people gathered outside City Hall, hoping to see Mayor Neal Dow arrested. Dow had spearheaded passage of the Maine Laws, which outlawed alcohol exactly four years earlier. “Hypocrite,” cried the crowd.
By day’s end, the Portland Rum Riot would result in the death of one man and the wounding of seven others. It would cloud Dow’s political ambitions and end Maine’s first temperance experiment a year later.
War on the Irish
Neal Dow was born to a prosperous Quaker family in Portland on March 20, 1804. Even as a boy he hated alcohol with a passion. He hated slavery, too, believing rum and slavery fed off each other. They did. Rum, slaves and sugar fueled the triangular trade among the Caribbean, the United States and Africa.
Back then, Americans drank three times as much as they do today. Dow said Portland had as many as 300 drinking establishments along the mile-long stretch from lower Congress Street to Munjoy Hill, an Irish working-class neighborhood. He should have known; he ordered raids on them.
When he was 23, Dow co-founded the Maine Temperance Society. He gave speeches painting lurid pictures of the rum-swilling foreigners who had just arrived in America. From the 1840s, Dow was the bane of Irish immigrants who sold booze as he waged a fanatical war against their ‘notorious groggeries.’
In 1851, as mayor of Portland, Dow achieved his lifelong goal with the passage of the Maine Laws outlawing alcohol – except for medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing purposes.
Portland’s large Irish population viewed Dow’s war on alcohol as a war on them.
In 1850, 11 percent of Portland’s population of 21,000 dentified themselves as Irish immigrants.
The Maine Laws allowed towns to appoint an individual to buy alcohol for medicinal purposes. In the spring of 1855, Dow had gone ahead and authorized the city to buy $1,600 worth of ‘medicinal and mechanical alcohol’ for distribution to pharmacists and doctors. He was technically in violation of the law, as a committee hadn’t been appointed.
Word got out that Dow was storing alcohol in the city vaults. The news spread quickly through Portland’s Irish population. A state law allowed any three citizens to ask a judge for a search warrant if they believed a crime had been committed. On June 2, a local judge granted the warrant.
That day, a small crowd began to gather outside City Hall. The men with the warrant showed it at the door and demanded entry so they could search the premises. They were refused.
As men got off work in the evening, they headed to City Hall. It became became clear the police weren’t cooperating, and men started milling about angrily and threatening to rush the building.
Within a few hours, the crowd grew to as many as 3,000 people, mostly Irish. They started throwing rocks at the building that contained the liquor. The Eastern Argus reported,
Occasionally during the evening, stones and brick-bats were thrown against the door of the liquor store (the storage area in City Hall), breaking the glass and sashes, and otherwise injuring the door.
Dow called out the militia and ordered them to shoot. During the melee, John Robbins, a 22-year-old sailor from Deer Isle, broke a hole in the door of the liquor vault and unlocked it. He was instantly killed in a volley of fire. The militia continued to fire even as the crowd dispersed. Seven more people were injured.
Dow was criticized for ordering the militia to shoot, but he expressed no remorse. He was acquitted on charges that he’d improperly obtained alcohol. He lost re-election by a wide margin, and a year later the Maine Laws were repealed.
In 1861, when Dow was 57 years old, he enlisted as a colonel in the 13th Maine Infantry to fight the Civil War. He was wounded, captured and promoted to general.
Though he returned from the war a hero, the Portland Rum Riot ended Neal Dow's political ambitions. He never again held public office, despite running for governor and for the presidency of the United States.
The Friends of Evergreen Cemetery, where several significant players in the riot are buried, hold walking tours during the summer, including one of the rum riot on June 3, 2017. Click here for more information.
This story was updated in 2017.