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Charmed Life

Awl-Mighty Mobs

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 10/28/1998

On Nov. 3, Baltimoreans (well, about half of them anyway) will march to the polls to vote. Public schools will be closed and the evening's sitcoms will be interrupted as the results trickle in. All in all, it's likely to be a pretty quiet day. Electioneers won't besiege each other with brickbats and muskets. Voters won't be plunged into tubs of blood, stabbed in the sternum with shoemaker's awls, or kidnapped off the streets. Apathy, not anger, surrounds contemporary elections. What a difference 140 years make.

Baltimore's nickname "Mobtown" can be traced back to the street brawls and riots that greeted the start of the War of 1812. But the city really earned its menacing moniker in the 1850s, when politicking was a blood sport and election days had both a vote count and a body count. Chief agitator in this turbulent time was a secret fraternal faction that grew into a nasty, xenophobic political party. Billed as the American Party or the Supreme Order of the Star Spangled Banner, it was more commonly called the Know Nothing Party (from its followers' penchant for proclaiming "I know nothing!" when asked about their dastardly deeds). The party members hated immigrants (Germans and Irish in particular) and Catholics (who were often German or Irish). Organized locally into "clubs" with charming names such as the Plug Uglies, the Black Snakes, the Red Necks, and the Rip Raps, the Know Nothings took to terrorizing the populous on election day.

Their methods were crude but effective. While today we vote in secrecy, voters of that era brought their marked ballots to the polls with them. Know Nothing ballots were gaudily striped and easy to spot. When a voter approached carrying Know Nothing colors, he was greeted with backslaps and smiles. When a rival ballot was spied, thugs chanted "Meet him on the ice!" and pounced like feral dogs. Fists, paving stones, and knives were part of the arsenal, but the favorite weapon was the easy-to-conceal awl. Shoemaker's used these pointed tools to punch holes in leather; the Know Nothings used them to punch holes in their rivals.

"Cooping" was another election-day gambit. Drunkards, vagrants, visiting farmers, shore-leave sailors, and other hapless souls were yanked off the street, corralled in dank cellars, and then dragged en masse to the polls and forced to vote the Know Nothing ticket--sometimes dozens of times. (This practice predates the Know Nothings--they simply copied it; a besotted and ill Edgar Allen Poe is said to have been "cooped" just days before his death in 1849.) One Know Nothing clan--the aptly named Blood Tubs--thrust opposing party members into buckets of blood trucked in from the slaughterhouse. Terrified and dripping with gore, these victimized voters discouraged others from opposing the Know Nothing ticket.

In 1854, the Know Nothings gained control of the City Council. Two years later, in a violent election wherein 10 people were killed and dozens wounded, Maryland was the only state to give its electoral votes to Know Nothing presidential-candidate Millard Fillmore. Know Nothing Thomas Swann was elected mayor. (Though thuggery helped get him elected, Swann was an otherwise progressive politician who, among other notable deeds, birthed the city park system; under a different party affiliation he was later elected governor.) Election Day violence returned in 1858. Swann's mayoral opponent was strong-armed into voting against himself and conceded hours before the polls even closed.

And where were the Baltimore police during all this? Understaffed and under a Know Nothing mayor's thumb, the force was as corrupt as it was ineffective. The rival Democratic Party had some rough-and-ready gangs of its own. (The Irish-dominated city wards were particularly well defended.) Many polling stations became armed camps bristling with musket barrels. A cannon was employed during a bloody skirmish around Belair Market in 1856.

But fighting fire with fire was not the answer to ending the outrage. State-level anti-corruption reform began in 1859. The Know Nothings reacted to the reform movement with a huge rally in Monument Square, chanting "Come and vote, there is room for awl!" The speaker's platform was decorated with a giant awl, and a blacksmith was on hand to make and distribute the threatening tools.

But by 1860, when the state plucked the city police force from the mayor's private purview, the Know Nothings were out of business. Just in time, of course, for Baltimore to be divided--and the streets bloodied--by the Civil War.

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