Politics may be ugly today, but at least it's no longer deadly

On Nov. 6 we will cast general-election 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 slaughter houses, 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.

Charles W. Mitchell (cmitchell1954@gmail.com) is editor of “Maryland Voices of the Civil War” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

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