There is a reason that “Mobtown” is one of Baltimore’s nicknames. It is actually one of the older epithets for the city, dating back over 200 years. So I could not refrain myself from a cynical, out-loud laugh when on Saturday, April 25, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, with all earnestness, the following statement during a news briefing:
“Our city [Baltimore] has a long history of peaceful demonstrations”
The evidence shows the case to be exactly the opposite.
Baltimore earned the nickname of Mobtown in 1812 when mobs of several hundred people leveled the offices of Alexander Contee Hanson’s Federalist leaning newspaper, Federal Republican, over its anti-war stance. Rioters smashed the presses and destroyed the building. Defenders of the newspaper clashed with the attackers, shooting some. Days later, the enraged crowd attacked again, this time at the jail where the Federalists were being held for their “protection.” In the end, one Revolutionary War general, James Lingan, was killed, while another, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, was beaten nearly to death. Another man was set on fire.
Order was eventually restored, but Baltimore’s reputation was sealed in blood, condemned by newspaper editors in Philadelphia and Boston as being “the headquarters of mobocracy,” with a population composed of “foreigners, FUGATIVES OF JUSTICE, the OUTCASTS OF SOCIETY AND THE DISGRACE OF IT.”
As the nineteenth century rolled on, mob violence remained the rule in Baltimore. In 1835, the failure of the Bank of Maryland triggered another riot, and the maddened crowd attacked the homes of several of the bank’s directors. Only the intervention by General Sam Smith, a veteran of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (Smith was in his eighties at the time), along with some 3,000 volunteer militia restored order.
But the next several decades saw no end to street violence. Gangs with names such as Plug-Uglies, Red Necks, Blood Tugs, Know-Nothings, and Butt Enders, exerted their brand of rough justice, intimidating neighborhoods and elections with muscle.
Perhaps one of the most infamous of Baltimore’s riots took place on April 19, 1861. The American Civil War was just beginning and as part of the Union’s mobilization, soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts were passing through a Maryland that was sympathetic to the Confederate argument for states’ rights and secession. Because rail gauge varied among various railroad companies, the Massachusetts regiment had to change from one railway line to another. The route from the President Street Station to the B&O Station took the soldiers down Pratt Street. It was along Pratt Street that all hell broke loose as the first blood of the American Civil War was shed when the Baltimore mob attacked the “invading” troops.
Rioting in Baltimore did not end with the end of the nineteenth century, and lest we dismiss mob uprising as a product of the distant past, consider the similarities between current events and those of 47 years ago. The assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968 triggered an eruption of rage in urban, mostly black, ghettos in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, DC, and, yes, Baltimore. Fires were lit. Stores were looted. Gangs of youth rampaged through the streets. The National Guard had to be called in.
So mayor Rawlings-Blake was partially correct. Baltimore does have a long history, but her assertion that it is a history “of peaceful demonstration” may be a stretch. Like most politicians, the statement is more of a reflection of how we wish things to have been, rather than what history bears out.