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Know-Nothing Riot of 1856

Know-Nothing candidate Thomas Swann was elected Mayor of Baltimore in 1856 amidst violence and a heavily disputed ballot.

The Know-Nothing Riot of 1856, some of the worst rioting of the Know-Nothing era in the United States, occurred in Baltimore in the fall of 1856. Street tensions had escalated sharply over the preceding half-dozen years as neighborhood gangs, most of them operating out of local firehouses, became increasingly involved in party politics. Know-Nothing candidate Thomas Swann was elected Mayor of Baltimore in 1856 amidst violence and a heavily disputed ballot.


  • Origins 1
  • 1856 mayoral election 2
  • Legacy and continuing violence 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6


The American Party, also known as Know Nothings, had gained control of the local government in Baltimore during the October 1854 municipal election, making Samuel Hinks mayor and winning a majority in the Baltimore City Council. The party lost ground at the subsequent municipal election the following year. In 1856, both the Americans and their Democratic Party rivals girded for the coming contests.

1856 mayoral election

The campaign season opened with a deadly September confrontation between American Party members and Democrats on Federal Hill. Partisans battled over the following weeks.

In October 1856 the Know Nothing Mayor

  • Andrews, Matthew Page, History of Maryland, Doubleday Doran & Co, New York City (1929).
  • Melton, Tracy Matthew. Hanging Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore's Plug Uglies, 1854-1860 (2005)


  1. ^ a b Andrews, p.476
  2. ^ a b c Andrews, p.477
  3. ^ a b c Andrews, p.478


See also

In 1857, fearing similar violence at the upcoming elections, Governor Thomas W. Ligon ordered Steuart to hold the First Light Division, Maryland Volunteers in readiness.[3] However, Mayor Thomas Swann successfully argued for a compromise measure involving special police forces to prevent disorder, and Steuart's militia were stood down.[3] This time, although there was less violence than in 1856, the results of the vote were again compromised, and Swann was re-elected in a heavily disputed ballot.[3]

Legacy and continuing violence

Emphasis must be placed on the fact that the partisans involved were overwhelmingly well-known fighting men with deep connections to the street violence of the fire companies. During the fighting at Lexington Market, Rip Raps specifically targeted the house of Petty Naff, the New Market's most notorious rowdy. The violence was not a spontaneous event but a well-organized, well-planned series of assaults committed by experienced combatants.

At the November presidential election, the fighting was more severe yet. One died near Fell's Point and eleven in the neighborhood of the Bel Air Market in the northeastern section of the city.

Rip Raps clashed with the Democratic rowdies of the New Market Fire Company at Lexington Market. Plug Uglies fought with Democrats in the Eighth Ward, which was popularly known as "Limerick" because of its large Irish population. Five partisans died in the combat, including an American who had come up from Washington, D.C. The result of the mayoral election, in which voter fraud was widespread, was a victory for the Know Nothings by around 9,000 votes.[2]

As a result, during the October municipal election, serious violence broke out on polling day, with shots exchanged by competing mobs.[1] In the 2nd and 8th wards several citizens were killed, and many wounded.[2] In the 6th ward artillery was used, and a pitched battle fought on Orleans St between Know Nothings and rival Democrats, raging for several hours.[2]


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