History of the Portland Rum Riot: A Spirit Worth Rioting over

By Poppy Milliken
Posted in The Field Guide to Drinking in America, on May 31, 2016

On June 2nd, 1855 the working class residents of Portland, Maine discovered their teetotaling mayor Neal Dow was storing $1600 worth of rum inside City Hall. Citizens gathered outside the building that evening expecting to see the arrest of Mayor Dow. What they got instead was a riot that left one man dead, seven others wounded, permanently damaged Dow’s political career, and ultimately led to the end of Maine’s first experiment with temperance in 1856.

Perhaps these early entries in the temperance movement are why 21st century Mainers have swung so far to the other side of the aisle. Distiller Ned Wight of New England Distilling (the featured professional for Maine in The Field Guide) suspects it might be. The recent proliferation of craft distillers and drinking establishments such as Ebenezer’s Pub, named Best Beer Bar in the World by Beer Advocate magazine, certainly supports that theory.

 Portland City Hall

The path that led to the Maine Rum Riot is a fascinating study of early American culture.

  • The harsh views of largely Puritan New England started to give way at the turn of the 19th century. By 1820, changes in religious attitudes in the region led to a widespread era of reform.
  • Protestants believed anyone could achieve perfection in their lives and be granted entrance into heaven. Communities formed whose aim was self-reform. Abolition of slavery, the fight for women’s suffrage, and organized efforts to care for the indigent all have roots in this era.
  • Utopian societies were founded by notable families, like those of Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott, based on the new Protestant model of helping your fellow man. In these communities, efforts were made to assist escaping slaves, women were granted an equal voice, and aide was given to anyone who needed it. Women, such as Maine’s own Dorothea Dix played active roles in leading these communities.

As this movement progressed, many in New England started to turn their attention to the growing problem with alcohol in their communities:

  • Per capita consumption of alcohol in America was rapidly increasing, peaking in the 1830s.
  • The abuse of drink led to violence, abuse, loss of work, and frequent imprisonment for disorderly behavior.
  • Drunkenness in children was far from a rare occurrence.

In response to such problems, doctors, religious leaders, and recovering alcoholics created a loosely organized, grassroots temperance movement. One such group was the Temperance Watchmen of Durham, Maine, formed in 1848, which aimed to set a moral example and achieve social control through the moderation of drinking. 

Neal DowPoliticians eventually joined the side of the temperance movement (once they appeared to be a sizable number of eligible voters). With the introduction of the legislative approach to the cause, the nature of the battle changed as well. Rather than an attempt to change people’s attitudes, political temperance reformers like Neal Dow could change laws. The movement was no longer restricted to preaching moderation. Instead, Dow branded all drinkers as rum dealers. His zeal for the cause soon left the moderates of the movement behind including wine drinker Governor William King who had founded the first statewide temperance association.

In 1851 Dow’s Maine Law was passed in the state legislature and Maine became the first dry state in the union. It started a domino effect as several neighboring states passed similar anti-liquor reforms.

Dow’s passing of the Maine Law earned him the nicknames the Napoleon of Temperance and the Father of Prohibition.

Maine's immigrant communities were noticeably absent from the Maine Law support ranks. Irish-Americans, whose young men especially tended to embrace the stereotype of public drinking, often seemingly to spite Yankees such as Dow, were given the brunt of the blame for the remarkable number of outbreaks of violence. In the 1830s, 40s and 50s Portland had a high instance of riots, often related to alcohol. Not surprisingly, some of the first of these immigrants made their fortunes from brewing and the hundreds of kitchen bars that appeared after 1851. The growing middle class, still largely Yankee, took a more relaxed view of temperance; they enjoyed an occasional drink, but came to view excessive drinking as a lower class, foreign, or youth problem.

Rum Riot political cartoon

With the tensions between the ultra strict temperance politicians such as Dow and the growing population of Irish-Americans, who saw the Maine Law as a thinly veiled racist attack on their culture; it was virtually inevitable that the news of stores of rum being kept in city hall would result in a serious backlash.

The law stated that the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the state of Maine was illegal except for medicinal and mechanical purposes. When the public got wind of a shipment of $1600 worth of alcohol in the city vaults, the detail that it was intended as medicinal and mechanical alcohol for distribution to pharmacists and doctors (which was fully permitted under the law) was omitted. 

With Dow already far from a popular figure among the Irish-American population, this incident cast him in the light of extreme hypocrisy. Dow’s Maine Law had a stipulation whereby any three voters could apply for a search warrant if it was suspected someone was selling liquor illegally. Three men appeared before a judge and a warrant was issued.

On June 2nd, a crowd gathered outside the building where the rum was being held and the numbers grew from around 200 at 5pm to somewhere between 1000 and 3000 by evening. As the crowd grew, shoving and rock throwing began. The Portland police weren’t able to deal with the growing crowd and Dow called the militia. Details become jumbled from there, but it is known that after ordering the crowd to disperse, the militia fired into the crowd on Dow’s orders, killing one man and wounding seven others.

The crowd did indeed disperse, but Dow’s heavy handed tactics drew wide criticism. He was later prosecuted for violation of the Maine Law for improperly acquiring the alcohol. Dow was acquitted, but the whole fiasco is cited as the major contributing factor to the repeal of the Maine law in 1856.

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of drinking in Maine despite its temperance-tinged past, Niki Ganong’s The Field  Guide to Drinking in America is a good place to start.