Beer riots of 1884 brought 'violence and bloodshed' to Iowa City
Mob fought against state law prohibiting alcohol
The mob was out for blood, and it was all about beer.
Guns were loaded, and some had already been fired among the crowd of a couple of hundred people. A rope was brought for the expected hanging. An attorney had been tarred; the following spring he’d be attacked again, his face “pounded almost to a jelly.”
In the end, it was only a woman near death herself who prevented any killing.
This was supposed to be a trial. Instead, it came to be called the Iowa City beer riots, a little-known piece of history that occurred 130 years ago this Wednesday, on Aug. 13, 1884, when two brewery owners were facing charges of violating Iowa’s new law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol.
“It’s just so brain-splitting ... because we have such a different view of Iowa now, if not the Midwest,” Vernon Trollinger, an Iowa City author who wrote about the riots in his book “Haunted Iowa City,” said of the violence.
“It is just insane,” he added.
The term “prohibition” is generally associated with the constitutional amendment banning the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933.
But by then, Iowa already had a lengthy history with what before 1900 often was called the temperance movement. In fact, historians often group Iowa with Kansas and Maine as the three states with the strictest alcohol laws of that era, said Lisa Ossian, who teaches history at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) and has written about prohibition.
Iowa intermittently had laws restricting or even banning alcohol going back to soon after it became a state in 1846. One of those took effect in July 1884, and as with the others, it was ignored in some communities.
In Iowa City, there were three large breweries, all located in what is now the Northside Neighborhood just north of downtown.
The brewery owners “dominated the economics of most of downtown,” said Marlin Ingalls, who has studied the beer riots and is an archaeologist with the Office of the State Archaeologist at the University of Iowa. “By far they were the wealthiest people, and they were the largest employers.”
They hired people to make the beer, craft the large wooden barrels it was stored in, bottle it, load carts and make deliveries and more, he said.
Alcohol also was cultural. For Germans and Irish Catholics, drinking beer was a regular part of life, even sometimes for children.
The temperance movement, on the other hand, was dominated by Protestants, particularly Methodists. Women, upset by the harm caused by hard-drinking men in their lives, were very active, Ossian said.
So Iowa’s 1884 alcohol prohibition brewed a strong mixture of culture, religion, economics and politics that would explode in Iowa City.
That July, Iowa City residents who supported the law had their homes stoned, received threatening letters and in one instance a rope was left on a lamppost with a card that said, “To the informer, death,” according to a correspondence attributed only to “Citizen” published in the Aug. 31, 1884, Iowa State Register newspaper that’s in the State Historical Society of Iowa’s collection.
One of the chief instigators was Conrad Graf, who owned Union Brewery in the building at the intersection of Linn and Market streets where Brewery Square sits now.
The caves where beer was stored in a naturally cool environment are still under the building. About 35 feet below the surface, countless bricks make up two caves with arched ceilings. Holes for ventilation and remnants of clamps to support the large vats are visible. So is debris from a fire in the early 1900s. A shallow channel is cut into the floor of one of the rooms.
Up above, 130 years ago, Graf landed in trouble with the law.
A July 25, 1884, article in the Evening Gazette in Cedar Rapids reported a judge had issued an injunction forbidding Graf from “keeping and maintaining a place for the illegal manufacture and sale of liquors.”
“This scores another victory for prohibition,” the paper added, inserting its opinion as was common at the time.
On Aug. 13, Graf and John P. Dostal, who owned the large Great Western Brewery, were to stand trial for violating the alcohol law. It was to take place at the home of Justice John Schell, a few miles east of Iowa City.
The brewers, however, were a powerful lot not only economically but politically. The third main brewer in Iowa City was John Englert, who ran City Brewery and also was a member of the City Council. His family is a prominent one in Iowa City history, and its name still adorns the downtown theater they built.
Englert was among about 150 supporters of the two accused brewers who went to Schell’s house, according to an Aug. 14, 1884, account in the Daily Iowa Capital newspaper that carried the headline, “Whisky and Beer Riots at Iowa City — Violence and Bloodshed.”
The mob attacked a man named C.G. Swafford, who was to serve as a witness for the prosecution, shouting, “Shoot him! Hang Him!” the newspaper reported.
He escaped with the help of one of the prosecutors, William H. Bailey. The crowd then turned on Bailey, who was tarred and threatened with hanging.
A constable with the last name Parrot helped save Bailey and was stabbed in the leg.
The newspaper reported men shot at the house before being told Schell’s mother-in-law was upstairs on her deathbed. They were persuaded to leave, but on their return to town, Englert got them to turn back.
They threatened to burn down the house unless the men inside surrendered, according to the Daily Iowa Capital. A deputy sheriff said he’d shoot the first man who broke down the door and Graf dared him to do it. The mob finally backed down and left because of the condition of the sick woman.
The activity continued in Iowa City into the night. Swafford was found and beaten but was helped into a downtown store before worse could happen.
The riot attracted national attention. And closer to home, it drew many reactions, including a suggestion in the Aug. 20 Evening Gazette to move the State University of Iowa, as the University of Iowa was then known, from Iowa City should laws not be respected.
The writer went on to report that the Johnson County Board of Supervisors had granted six permits to saloon keepers to manufacture and sell alcohol. Graf was the only one denied.
On Jan. 17, 1885, the Evening Gazette reported that a grand jury did not indict Graf and other rioters. The final line of the article was: “The red noses on that jury told the story.”
In 1886, a jury awarded Swafford $7,000 in a case brought against Graf, Dostal, Englert and others, according to the Evening Gazette. That sum is equal to approximately $170,000 in today’s dollars, but Ingalls said the brewers all chipped in from their considerable wealth to cover it.
For another player, the violence did not end with the riots. In May 1885, Bailey, the attorney who was tarred, was attacked by Graf and Graf’s “teamster,” the Evening Gazette reported.
“Bailey’s face was pounded almost to a jelly, and there are large lumps under his eyes,” wrote a Gazette correspondent who saw him.
Ossian, the DMACC instructor, said most people don’t realize how violent rural America could be at the time, including Iowa.
“We’re not as passive a state as most people would claim,” she said.
Trollinger, the Iowa City author, believes the riots were a signal that the national prohibition on alcohol the following century would not work.
“You’re going to try to take a habit, practice, tradition away from people,” he said.
Ingalls finds the beer riots, which he wrote about for an Iowa City magazine last year, very relevant to the current tenor of downtown Iowa City.
There’s the UI’s status as a top party school and concerns about binge drinking, ongoing alcohol control and enforcement by the city government, and the politics of downtown bars, such as the elections on the bar-entry age.
“It’s still very much a political subject,” Ingalls said.
l John McGlothlen and Diane Langton contributed research for this story.