One Baltimore #36, Losing Control


Content warning: description of a first-hand experience of gun violence in the first paragraph below, and some other, less graphic descriptions of violence throughout.

“…I was struck from behind a severe blow on the back of the head, which would have knocked me down, but the crowd which had gathered round us, some thirty or forty in a cluster, was so dense that I was, as it were, kept up; after I received this blow I drew a dirk knife, which I had in my pocket, with which I endeavored to strike the man, who, as I supposed, had struck me, I then felt a pistol placed right close to my head, so that I felt the cold steel upon my forehead; at that moment, I made a little motion of my head, which caused the shot of the pistol to glance from my head; my hat showed afterwards the mark of a bullet, which I supposed to have been from that shot; the discharge of the pistol, which blew off a large piece of the skin of my forehead and covered my face with blood, caused me to fall…”

— The testimony of George H. Kyle to the Maryland state legislature, describing his experience when attempting to vote in downtown Baltimore in 1859 (as quoted in “The Baltimore Police Case of 1860”, published in Maryland Law Review in 1966, to which I’m largely indebted for many of the tidbits below, 

Imagine yourself, for a moment, as Mr. Kyle. You knew, going to the polls, that it was likely to be a dangerous struggle, but you and your brother (who didn’t make it — I didn’t include that part of the testimony, because I thought it could be a bit too upsetting) had decided to brave it anyway. Maybe you thought that Mayor Swann’s promise to quell the violence was credible, or maybe exercising your civic duty just meant enough to you that you didn’t care about the potential consequences.

Not so long ago, for you and your fellow Baltimoreans of the mid-1800’s, the biggest danger associated with attempting to vote was “cooping” — being snatched up and stowed away in a basement, forced to drink way too much cheap whiskey, and then brought out by your captors to vote multiple times at multiple polling places (or even at the same polling place, after swapping clothes — voter registration wasn’t a thing in Baltimore until 1856). In fact, Edgar Allen Poe was said to have died after being cooped in 1849, having vanished after a drink with a friend and then appearing four days later on election day, passed out in the gutter in clothes not his own.

Yet as fearful as the practice of cooping was, things had gotten dramatically worse in the last few years. The streets of Baltimore had long been violent, but it used to be that all-out street battles were mostly just between rival gangs of volunteer firemen. That changed during the September elections of 1856, when gangs of partisans of the political party popularly known as the Know-Nothings had started a riot by attacking the home of a prominent local Democrat in Federal Hill. The street was described as being piled high with bricks that had been pulled up from the sidewalk and thrown. Fighting across the city lasted on and off for weeks, through the subsequent elections in October, and in total at least fourteen people were reported killed and hundreds more wounded.

The efforts of the Know-Nothings to keep their opponents from voting were brutal and creative. There was the notorious Blood Tub gang, whose members would get pig’s blood from the slaughterhouse and fill a tub with it, dunking anyone who showed up to vote for the other party and sending them running down the street as a warning. And then there was the widespread use of awls, sharp shoemakers tools that were easily concealed. Some of the gang members would strap them to their knees and jab people in the legs and backsides who showed up at the polls with the wrong voting ticket. There were even reports of cannons in the street on election days. 

Now flash forward a little over 160 years. It’s Tuesday, February 4th, 2020, the day of the special primary election for Maryland’s 7th District Congressional seat, and you, the ghost of Mr. Kyle, are watching me, the humble author of this column, work the polls outside of Waverly Elementary School, handing out bright green flyers for State Senator Jill P. Carter (who, though she lost that race, will be on the ballot again in April, The first thing you might notice is the quiet. It’s a peaceful evening, with people slowly but steadily trickling in and out of the doors of the school, unmolested except by volunteers like me asking them to please consider our preferred candidates. 

After that, I imagine you might notice the way that, in between interactions with voters, I’m chatting amiably with a volunteer for a rival’s campaign. Rather than trying to brain her with a brick, stab her, shoot her, or dunk her in blood, I’m giving her tips about homebuying incentives in the neighborhood — she lives out on the edge of the city and has been on the hunt for a new home, and she’s been impressed by the good spirit and friendliness of the voters here. 

Both of us are also having a friendly conversation with Joe Kane, who’s catching people as they walk back to their cars and reminding them that there’s another election coming up in April in which he’s running for City Council ( The only hint of animosity comes from the fact that none of us are talking to the volunteer for Thiru Vignarajah who’s handing out literature a little further down the sidewalk. Still, the height of conflict that occurs is me muttering “Free Adnan Syed though” as he passes at the end of the night.

What an amazing turnaround, you might think! How free we are, how lucky, how blessed with tranquility! The bad old days of political violence are a far-distant memory!

Of course, it figures that, as I was drafting this tale of contrasts, I read that Council President Brandon Scott had been punched by a campaign volunteer for Sheila Dixon outside of a Mayoral forum the other night ( I guess politics does still have the power to arouse a fight in our town. And to be fair, the special election was just among members of a single party… if out-and-proud Trump supporters had shown up, things plausibly could have gotten rowdier. Still, I think we can all agree that things have changed — incidents of election day awlings are, today, practically non-existent. 

The issue that spurred that violence though (and not just in Baltimore, there were similar riots in at least eight other major cities during those tumultuous years) is still all too present — anti-immigrant sentiment. See, famines and failed revolutions in Europe led to massive immigration to the U.S. in the 1840s. In Baltimore, Irish and German immigrants were especially common, and foreign-born individuals made up fully a quarter of the city’s population in 1850. In reaction to this trend arose The American Party, popularly called the Know-Nothings because members, when asked about the purposes and activities of the party were to say “I know nothing.” 

The Know-Nothings started as a secret society, making members pledge never to vote for immigrants or Catholics (they REALLY hated Catholics). As their ranks swelled, they slowly transitioned to become a public (though still notoriously secretive) political party. 

In Maryland, the Know-Nothings found success such as they rarely saw anywhere else in the country. We were the only state in the nation that sent in its electoral college votes for Millard Fillmore, then the Know-Nothing candidate for president, in 1856. In Baltimore in particular the party did extremely well… not so much because they were extremely popular, though they did have a large number of followers, but rather because they were extremely violent. They seized upon the existing local institution of street gangs and organized new ones — the Rip-Raps, Plug-Uglies, Blood Tubs, and others that helped give us the name Mobtown — to ensure that only the people they approved got to cast their votes. They were so successful that in many wards, only one or two Democratic votes were recorded, presumably because a result of zero would have been a little too obvious.

Mayor Thomas Swann, a Know-Nothing candidate elected in the midst of this chaos, refused to do a thing about it, despite officially disapproving of the violence. As for the Baltimore Police Department? Well, it had just been formed three years before, replacing an earlier system of night watchmen, and its members were themselves often engaged in the mayhem, having been infiltrated just as thoroughly by the Know-Nothings as the other organs of city administration.

The Know-Nothings reigned supreme in the state legislature for a while too, but by 1860, they were finally in the minority, and the reformers who replaced them were damned if they were going to let this chaos continue. They kicked out some of their Know-Nothing colleagues, declaring their elections to have been invalid, and they disbanded the nascent city police force, setting up a new Baltimore Police Department run by a four-person commission appointed by the Governor in its place. The commission was responsible for drawing up the budget, which the Mayor would then be obliged to levy taxes in order to pay.

The number of officers in the state-run BPD was set at 350, with the ability to increase it to up to 450 if needed. I find that an interesting statistic in light of the total population of the city in 1860 being approximately 212,000. Today, there are approximately 3,100 members of the Baltimore Police Department and the city’s overall population is approximately 614,000, meaning that while our city is just under three times as large as it was then, the force is almost nine times as large. 

I digress though. The point is that this wild set of circumstances is how Baltimore City lost control of its power to police itself. We, the city’s residents, have basically NEVER had direct control of our law enforcement. It’s an extremely unusual situation — while other cities also had the state or the federal government take their police force from them, especially during the Civil War, almost all of them got them back eventually… as far as I can tell, though my research may be deficient, Kansas City may be the only other major city where this state of affairs still persists today.

It’s past time for that to finally change. Next week I’ll talk about why, how it could be achieved this year, and what the next steps could look like. For now, though, if this topic interests you, mark your calendars for the evening of Friday, 2/21, when Baltimore for Border Justice is holding an organizing meeting to talk about pending state legislation for local control, as well as a bill that would end private immigrant detention in Maryland.

OH, also — Keith Davis, Jr. is still innocent and still in prison and that fucking sucks. Free Keith!!





Cultural Event of the Week: This Friday, 2/14, Bunns of Steele is presenting V-Day Baltimore 2020, a production of The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center. Proceeds will benefit Force, the powerhouse local activism outfit that fights rape culture. If the cause or the awesome people who’ll be onstage (shout-out to River! <3) isn’t enough to send you there, then go for the piece itself, which, if you haven’t already seen it, is a unique and powerfully moving masterwork. /

Green Event of the Week: This Thursday, 2/13, join Flowering Tree Trails of Baltimore and TreeBaltimore for their first Mulch & Munch event. Volunteers will be caring for trees in Druid Hill Park along the Jones Falls Trail; afterwards, attendees will hang out together for lunch (bring or buy your own).

A 1951 illustration by Baltimore Sun cartoonist John Stees.

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