Think Baltimore's a rough place now? Try the 1850s

Hanging Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore's Plug Uglies, 1854-1860

Tracy Matthew Melton


Maryland Historical Society / 493 pages / $35.

Baltimore's sad history of violence begins a long time before the latest murders on the mean streets of today's drug world.


Baltimore was already "Mobtown" by the lawless decade of the 1850s that Tracy Matthew Melton describes in Hanging Henry Gambrill. In the 1830s even Philadelphians called Baltimore "the headquarters of mobocracy" and "a new Sodom," according to a historian writing in the American Antiquarian Society's online journal Common-Place.

Melton says Mobtown had a reputation for a great number of beautiful women but also "a greater number of blackguards, for its population, than any other city in the Union."

He focuses on the era of the American Party and the nativist, anti-Catholic Know-Nothings who dominated politics in Baltimore with their fists, bricks, stones, clubs, knives and, increasingly, firearms through the decade before the Civil War. The Know-Nothings asserted the superiority of American institutions by beating up immigrants, frequently Germans and Irish in those days but also the occasional African-American.

The Know-Nothing ruffians or "roughs," mostly hard-drinking, brawling young men in their teens and 20s like today's drug thugs, congregated around the city's volunteer fire companies in gangs with names like Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, Black Snakes, Blood Tub, Regulators, Rough Skins, Double Pumps, and Calithumpians. Plug-ugly has entered the language as a city rowdy "who adopts intimidatory methods."

The Plug Uglies were excellent intimidators of voters. With their bloody help, the American Party in 1857, for example, won 19 of 20 wards in Baltimore with 76 percent of the vote and took control of the city and state government. Baltimore roughs were so good, they were recruited to control voting in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Henry Gambrill came from a prominent Plug Ugly family, and the murder for which he was hanged was a fairly typical Plug Ugly action. A night watch officer was shot when he tried to arrest a drunken gang member. Another officer, who witnessed the killing, was shot in his own parlor after Gambrill was convicted.

Three men were hanged for the crimes, all on one day, along with a fourth man convicted of an unrelated murder. The Plug Ugly trio objected to being hanged with him because he was African-American.

This book emerged out of research begun when Melton was a doctoral student at the University of Maryland. He seems to have read every Baltimore newspaper published in the 1850s, plus a lot more. He says he wanted to write a narrative history accessible to the common reader. He has written a book full of incident, with a smashing and unexpected O. Henry ending.


1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs - The Election That Changed the Country

James Chace

Simon & Schuster / 323 pages / $25.95.

No one has yet thought of writing a 1912 Overture, with or without cannon fire, but James Chace calls 1912 "a defining moment in American history" and pretty much demonstrates that this was when modern times began in the United States.

The presidential election of 1912 was the clash of American titans: the incumbent Republican, William Howard Taft, his Democratic challenger, Woodrow Wilson, and the insurgent former president, Theodore Roosevelt. Rounding out the competition was a benign revolutionary Socialist, Eugene V. Debs, a decent man, Chace says, "of such moral force that he was prepared to go to prison for his beliefs." And he did, often.

Chace, a professor of government at Bard College, tells his story of this fateful year with verve and authority.


The issues of the day related to conservation, women's suffrage, African-American participation in society and the excesses of big business. As today, there was trepidation about meeting the challenges of a new century without sacrificing the democratic values of the founders.

Roosevelt called for a "New Nationalism" to regulate the great trusts; Wilson offered a "New Freedom" to restore competition in "a world dominated by technology and mass markets"; Taft stood pretty much for the status quo; Debs' platform proposed federal control of basic industries and broad-based trade unionism.

The Democratic Convention was held in Baltimore at the 5th Regiment Armory. It was a time of banners, posters, brass bands, torchlight parades, long speeches and dreary backroom politics.

Wilson's New Jersey delegation stayed at the Stafford Hotel, now apartments on Mount Vernon Square. William Jennings Bryan, H.L. Mencken's whipping boy, stayed at the Belvedere. He had been the Democrats' presidential candidate three times and was still a force in 1912. Wilson's major opponent was James Beauchamp "Champ" Clark, speaker of the House of Representatives.

A grueling nomination struggle went on for four days and 46 ballots before the assembled Democrats chose Wilson.

In Chicago the Republicans stuck with Taft, and Roosevelt split away to form the Bull Moose Party.


Then, after vigorous speechifying and whistle-stop campaigning, Wilson won the presidency, Roosevelt came in second, Taft a fairly remote third. Debs finished with 901,873 votes, the largest share of the popular vote ever recorded by a Socialist candidate.

Ultimately, Chace says, the 1912 election began the conflict between the conservative values that ripened with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and the progressive idealism "incarnated" in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and the Democrats who followed.

And Theodore Roosevelt? "With his heroic virtues and condemnation of materialism, [he] represents the road not taken by American conservatism."

Red Trolley Days

Ben Herman

The Gamaron Press / 188 pages / $20.


Ben Herman, the nostalgic memorialist of old Dundalk, found a remnant of the old No. 26 red trolley at the streetcar museum and remembered his first ride with his father. They stood in the gray dawn at the St. Helena stop on Dundalk Avenue to catch the car marked Sparrows Point.

"The tall silver-haired motorman turned the shiny black knob with his big gloved hand and off we went full speed," Herman writes in his latest book of memoirs.

"We whooshed past the dark red foundry ... passed the airfield with a red sun just rising over it. ... Going so fast we were swaying from side to side. ... We rocketed over the bridge still swaying, leaving a shower of green sparks. ... Long black sheds glowing orange inside. ... Into the dusty red village of Sparrows Point and the screeching of trolley brakes at Fourth and D. End of the line."

The red trolley is long gone, and with it the silver-haired motorman, the foundry, the airfield, even the town and most of the steel mill.

Herman spent most of his life in Dundalk and loved almost every minute. He taught school in the neighborhood almost 20 years. He has written about Dundalk for nearly a half century. His new book is a collection of old and new vignettes, sketches, loving portraits of his mother and father, his grandparents and uncles, and strangers who passed through his life and left a bright glow.

The red trolley took him back and forth between Dundalk and Jewish East Baltimore, where he studied Hebrew at the old Talmud Torah school, off Broadway, and visited his grandfather's shoe repair shop at 1516 Pratt St.


He remembers dreaming of Africa with his boyhood friend Mickey, who died in World War II in a ship sunk off Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. And years later he did visit Africa and Kilimanjaro with "the snows shining white in the morning sunlight."

His red trolley tales take you on a lovely ride to a personal land where his memories shine as bright as those snows on Ernest Hemingway's African mountain.

Maryland Steeplechasing

Christianna McCausland

Arcadia Publishing. 128 pages. $19.99.

Steeplechasing in the Green Spring and Worthington valleys and at Elkridge and My Lady's Manor is at the other end of the social spectrum from Dundalk. This is a book full of Smithwicks and Fenwicks and Griswolds and guys with IIIs and the odd IV after their names.


But a steeplechase race is splendid spectacle, the horses beautiful, graceful animals with tremendous heart, the riders undeniably courageous as they take their horses over fences nearly 5 feet high. There are extraordinary photographs of crashes in this book, notably Fugitive in the 1933 Maryland Hunt Cup who fell with Randy Duffy aboard. Duffy then remounted to finish fourth.

This is an Image of America book, and there may be one or two too many pictures of horses going over the fences for all but the most devoted aficionado. But you will learn that steeplechasing got its name from 18th-century Irish horsemen riding cross-country from one church steeple to another.

Carl Schoettler writes each month about books of interest in Maryland.