Awl-Mighty Mobs

By Brennen Jensen (Baltimore City Paper, 10/28/1998)

Photo by Jefferson Jackson Steele

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.

Continue reading “Awl-Mighty Mobs” at Baltimore City Paper.

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