Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History

Khalid Elhassan - January 13, 2021

Today, most people live in societies where the power of the state is omnipresent, and the rule of law is taken for granted. From time to time throughout history, however, that power has slipped, and violent unrest, rioting, or outright rebellion came to rule the day. Sometimes the unrest is caused by serious unaddressed grievances and injustices. Other times, it is the result of silly frivolity. Following are thirty things about some of history’s more fascinating bouts of violent unrest.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Uncle Sam and Britannia arm in arm was not always a thing. Quora

30. Today, Britain is America’s Closest Ally, But it Was Not Always So

Today, Canada might be the United States’ closest partner, but for more than a century, Britain has been America’s greatest ally. Whether taking on the Kaiser in World War I, Hitler and Tojo in World War II, or Saddam Hussein and the Taliban more recently, British and American troops have fought side by side around the globe. The result has been powerful and enduring geopolitical links that well deserve the designation of a “special relationship” between the two countries. It was not always so.

In the nineteenth century, things were often heated. A track record that included the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 when Redcoats torched the White House, and the Civil War, when Britain got too friendly with the Rebels, left a sour taste in American mouths. One of the odder manifestations of popular anti-British sentiment occurred in 1849, when New York City was swept by deadly unrest and rioting over – of all things – the question of whether the best Shakespearean actor was American or British.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
A Henry VIII performance at the Globe Theater in London. Lit Charts

29. When Shakespeare Plays Were Taken Seriously Enough to Trigger Unrest and Rioting

With the superabundance of entertainment options available to us today, Shakespeare’s plays performed in a theater might seem quaint to many. Back before 500 channels on cable and streaming movies on the internet – and before movies were even a thing, for that matter – theater was it if one wanted to see acting. In the nineteenth century, however, theater was a mass phenomenon, and among theatrical productions, Shakespeare was king in both Britain and America. Star actors had not only loyal followers, but fanatical ones.

Today, it is hard to imagine Broadway attendees brawling over who they think is the best actor. In the 1800s, mobs of theatergoers were not above beating the daylights out of each other to express for preference for one thespian over another. Especially if nationalism was involved, as was the case in the first half of the nineteenth century. Back then, US-born actors were often seen as second rate. Especially when compared to British actors, who dominated American theaters. Then Edwin Forrest arrived – the first American superstar thespian who was considered just as good, or better, than Britain’s best actors.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Edwin Forrest. Wikimedia

28. The Question of Whether an American or British Shakespearean Actor Was Best Turned Deadly

With nationalist feelings aroused – especially on the US side of the Pond, a heated controversy developed as to whether or not American actor Edwin Forrest was better than Britain’s best Shakespearean actor, William Charles Macready. Edwin Forrest was a great actor, but he was also a great jerk. Among other things, he followed Macready around – sailing to Britain to do so – in order to heckle and criticize his performances. Media, especially in America, ate it up, and devoted countless columns over the years to the rival actors and their merits.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
William Charles Macready. Art Ware Fine Art

The thespian rivalry fed into a growing alienation from Britain in American cities – fueled by Irish immigrants who loathed the British. There was also a class divide component, with working-class Americans supporting Forrest, while Anglophile upper-class elites backed Macready. By 1849, the rivalry between Forrest and Macready had grown so heated that the British actor feared to perform in NYC. Against his instincts, however, he decided to tour the Big Apple. As things turned out, perhaps he should have heeded his instincts: it all came to a head in a bout of deadly unrest that claimed dozens of lives.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
The Astor Place theater. Pinterest

27. National Theater Rivalry Comes to a Head in 1849

Despite being hounded by Edwin Forrest’s rabid fanbase, who pelted William Charles Macready with rotten eggs and potatoes, the British actor persevered and put on masterful performances. To cap off his tour, he decided to go head-to-head against Forrest by performing Macbeth in his favorite theater, The Astor Place in Manhattan, on the same night, that his American rival was putting on a Macbeth performance elsewhere. Macready scheduled his final New York City tour performance for May 10th, 1849.

The Astor Place denied entry to hundreds of Edwin Forrest supporters who had bought tickets in order to heckle and pelt the British actor, so they loitered in front of the theater. Soon, their numbers grew to over 10,000. In the meantime, the few Forrest fans who had managed entry tried to burn the theater down. Despite the mounting mayhem, Macready and his troupe continued on with their performance – although they were forced to mime the end of the play when the sounds of rioting and bricks smashing through windows got too loud. They then hurriedly took their bows, and escaped from the theater in disguise.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
The Astor Place Riot. Art Institute of Chicago

26. When New York City Rioted Over Shakespeare

Even after William Charles Macready and his Shakespearean acting troupe had fled from the Astor Place in disguise, the unrest outside the theater kept getting worse and worse. Although the play was over and the hated British actor was long since gone, Edwin Forrest’s rabid fans kept on trying to burn down the theater. To quell the unrest, the authorities called out the militia, who were immediately set upon by the American actor’s supporters, resulting in the injury of many militiamen.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
The authorities putting down the Astor Place rioters. New York Public Library

After repeated warnings, the soldiers lined up and opened fire, first into the air, followed by several volleys directly into the riotous crowd. Dozens were killed and wounded. The following night, thousands attended a rally in City Hall Park, where speakers urged them to seek vengeance against the heavy-handed authorities. An angry mob headed up Broadway towards the Astor Place, while others set up improvised barricades from which behind which they fought the militia. By the time order was finally restored, around 30 people had been killed, and over 120 had been injured.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Charles of Anjou being crowned as king of Sicily. Gallica Digital Library

25. A Crude Proposition Kicked Off Weeks of Unrest and Massacres in Sicily

In 1266, Charles of Anjou, a member of the French royal family, invaded and conquered Sicily, and crowned himself its king. The new monarch brought with him a vast retinue of French courtiers, bureaucrats, officials, and nobles, who treated the locals contemptuously. Sicily was taxed heavily to fund Charles’ endeavors elsewhere, while Sicilians nobles were shut out of any role in ruling their own island. Understandably, the Sicilians resented the exploitation and disrespect. The result was The Sicilian Vespers, a massacre of thousands of French that kicked off an island-wide rebellion.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
A French soldier’s lewd propositioning of a married Sicilian woman triggered an island-wide massacre. Imgur

By the time it ended six weeks later, three thousand French men and women had been killed, and French control of Sicily had come to an end. It began on Easter Monday, March 30th, 1282. Sicilians were celebrating at the Church of the Holy Spirit near Palermo, when they were joined by a group of drunk Frenchmen. One of them dragged a married woman from the crowd and crudely propositioned her. He ended up stabbed to death by the woman’s enraged husband. When the other Frenchmen tried to avenge their comrade, the Sicilian crowd fell upon and killed them.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
The Church of the Holy Spirit, where the Sicilian Vespers began. Wikimedia

24. A Tongue Twister That Spelled the Difference Between Life and Death

As Palermo’s churches rang their bells for Vespers, messengers raced throughout the city calling on the public to revolt. Angry Sicilian mobs formed, crying “Death to the French!” They killed any French man, woman, or child, whom they came across outdoors, then began breaking into French houses and butchering the inhabitants. Once Palermo’s citizens got started on killing the French, there was no stopping them. Before long, they took to breaking into convents and monasteries to kill any French nuns or monks they could find.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
‘The Sicilian Vespers’, by Erulo Eroli. Google Arts and Culture

Those claiming not to be French were made to say “ciciri” – a word that French tongues had difficulty pronouncing. Those who failed the test were put to death. Within a few days, the rebels controlled Palermo, and over two thousand French had been killed. As word of the violent unrest spread throughout Sicily, the rest of the island joined the revolt, and more massacres took place. The uprising swept away French control of the island within six weeks. As described by a Medieval author: “By the time the furious anger at [French] insolence had drunk its fill of blood, the French had surrendered to the Sicilians not only their ill-gotten riches, but their lives as well“.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Inside the cover of ‘The Knout and the Russians’, a book about the brutal repression propping up Russia’s Tsardom. Irrusianality

23. When the Cossacks Got Fed Up

During the reign of Catherine II, Russia’s elites adopted western culture, technologies, fashions, and foods. However, the new western way of living was expensive. To pay for it, Russia’s landed elites squeezed their serfs dry. That led to mounting resentment, serfs fleeing their landlords’ lands, unrest, and rebellions. In the decade from 1762 to 1772, the Russian Empire witnessed over 160 localized uprisings. The accumulating grievances finally erupted into a massive mega uprising, The Cossack Rebellion of 1773 to 1775. It was a major popular revolt that terrorized Russia’s elites and shook the state to its foundations.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Pugachev’s followers taking on Russian troops. Pinterest

It began with a rumor that Tsar Peter III, who had been murdered in 1763, was still alive. He was said to be hiding amongst the Cossacks from his former wife, Catherine, who sought to prevent him from abolishing serfdom. In reality, the person claiming to be Peter III was a Cossack and former Russian army officer named Yemelyan Pugachev. Pugachev had fought in the Seven Years War before deserting the Russian army to wander southern Russia among Orthodox religious fundamentalists. With them, he hatched a plan to pose as the dead Peter III, and in that guise he became popular with Cossacks and peasants.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Captured aristocrats and officials being tried in Pugachev’s court. Wikimedia

22. The Imposter Who Claimed to be Russia’s Dead Tsar

Posing as “Tsar Peter”, Pugachev promised to repeal unpopular poll taxes and forced labor. Thousands flocked to his side, and before long, he had gathered a large army of Cossacks, peasants, and non-Russians. In their first battle in 1773, Pugachev’s rebels defeated a Tsarist army sent to disperse them. They then advanced into Russia’s heartland, promising the masses an end to oppression. The rebels formed an alternate government that emphasized freedom from the nobility. Yemelyan Pugachev, as “Tsar Peter”, held court to punish abusive landlords and officials who fell into rebel hands.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Pugachev being taken to his execution. Imgur

The rebellion gathered momentum and grew, and at its height, the rebels controlled vast tracts of Russia. However, in April, 1774, the rebels suffered a defeat, and their leader fled to the southern Urals. There, Pugachev revived the revolt by raising a new army and returning to the fight. The rebels fought a series of battles on the Steppe, particularly around the city of Kazan, which was put to the torch. After further defeats, the rebels were forced back to the Volga River, where they were decisively defeated. Pugachev was then betrayed by the authorities, and the Cossack Rebellion ended with the capture of its leader. He was executed on January 21st, 1775, as a warning against future unrest.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Jan Hus. Bildarchiv

21. This Bout of Unrest Rocked Fifteenth-Century Bohemia

In the early fifteenth century, Bohemia – today’s Czech Republic – was rocked by violent religious unrest known as the Hussite Revolution. Jan Hus was a pre-Protestant Bohemian advocate of religious reform, who was condemned as a heretic by the Catholic Church and burned at the stake in 1415. After Hus’ death, many Bohemian nobles and knights vowed to protect his followers from further persecution. They were tolerated by Bohemia’s King Vaclav IV. Vaclav died in 1419, however, and was succeeded by his brother Sigismund, who loathed the Hussites.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Hussites mopping up defeated soldiers sent to suppress them. Wikiwand

King Sigismund’s hostility to the Hussites led to unrest. When the Hussites prevented Sigismund from entering Prague, he got the Pope to issue a Bull that declared the Hussites heretics, and sanctioned a crusade against them. Eventually, the forces of the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire launched five crusades against the Hussites, who defeated all five. They then went on the offensive, participating in the wars of neighboring countries. The Hussites’ rebellion was marked by the adoption of innovative military tactics and technologies that revolutionized warfare.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Hussites taking on and bringing down mounted knights. Pinterest

20. These Medieval Rebels Were Revolutionary in Many Ways

The Hussites formed themselves into a large infantry force, and pioneered the extensive use of handheld gunpowder weapons such as muskets and hand cannons. They also adopted innovative tactics such as the use of war wagons in circular formations similar to those of American pioneers fighting off Plains Indians. Supplemented by trenches in front of the wagons, the Hussite army could quickly turn any grounds they occupied into a fort. From behind their defenses, the Hussites could beat back charges by armored knights, shooting them down with bullets or crossbows, before going on the counterattack and putting their foes to flight.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Hussites fighting from their war wagons. Weapons and Warfare

The Hussites maintained strict discipline. Between that, the new weapons, and creative tactics, they won a series of stunning victories under the leadership of Jan Zizka, until his death in 1424. The revolution finally ended in 1434, after the moderate Utraquist faction of the Hussites defeated the more radical Taborite faction. The Utraquists then negotiated a peace with the Catholic Church and the Kingdom of Bohemia, whereby they agreed to submit, in exchange for the right to practice Catholicism with a Hussite bent, and using modified rites.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
A muster of German peasants – they often used a shoe as a banner. Imgur

19. A Flighty Aristocrat’s Frivolous Orders to Her Serfs Triggered Medieval Europe’s Biggest Bout of Popular Unrest

Medieval Europe’s biggest bout of violent unrest was the German Peasants War of 1524 – 1525. Also known as The German Peasants Rebellion, it was actually Europe’s largest popular uprising ever prior to the French Revolution of 1789. The conflict, which shook Central Europe and the Holy Roman Empire’s Teutonic core was marked by exceptional brutality and viciousness by all sides. The levels of bloodthirsty violence during both the revolt and the suppression that took place in its aftermath were unprecedented.

For generations, German peasants had experienced a steady curtailment of their ancient rights to fish, hunt, bear arms, or collect wood from common lands. In the meantime, their aristocratic overlords’ exactions grew increasingly onerous. The conflict was reportedly – and perhaps apocryphally – sparked by the Countess of Lupfen’s orders to her serfs to stop tending their crops in order to collect snail shells for her to use as thread spools. Neglecting their fields and crops meant starvation, so instead of doing that the peasants took up arms.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Rebellious peasants surrounding a knight. Wikimedia

18. Germany’s Downtrodden Serfs Turned to the Protestant Reformation to Support Their Cause

Wherever and however the German Peasants War began, shared and widespread grievances ensured that once it commenced, the violent unrest spread swiftly among the downtrodden serfs. The pent-up resentments also ensured that when the peasants finally turned to violence against their noble lords, they turned to violence in a big way. Atrocities abounded, and a noble or landlord who fell into the rebels’ clutches was in for rough treatment. An aristocratic captive being forced to run a gauntlet between rows of peasants wielding clubs and whips was considered to be at the milder end of the spectrum.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Title page of The Twelve Articles of the Christian Union. Bauern Kriege

Quite a few amongst the rebelling peasants were inspired by changes brought about by the new Protestant Reformation, recently launched by Martin Luther. Guided by Luther’s writing, the uprising’s leaders invoked divine law to support peasant rights and freedom from oppression by the nobles and landlords. The peasants’ demands were encapsulated in a manifesto titled The Twelve Articles of the Christian Union, which also provided biblical justification for the rebels’ cause. As seen below, that document would influence events long after the peasants’ rebellion was over.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Contemporary woodcut of German peasant rebels. Bauern Kriege

17. The German Peasant Uprising Inspired the French Revolution and the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights

Some prominent Protestant reformers, such as Thomas Muntzer and Huldrych Zwingli, supported the German peasants and the justice of their cause. Martin Luther, however, knowing on which side his bread was buttered, wanted nothing to do with the rebels. He sided with the aristocrats instead, and penned a pamphlet titled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. In it, Luther castigated the serfs, and called for their ruthless suppression and violent reprisals to prevent future unrest.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
German peasants in arms. Steam Images

The revolt spread quickly through Germany, and at its height, over 300,000 peasants were under arms. However, their lack of organization, military training, artillery, or cavalry, doomed them to ultimate defeat. As with most peasant uprisings, the revolt was crushed once the forces of reaction gathered their strength. The peasantry were subjected to widespread retaliatory vengeance in which over 100,000 were massacred. Notwithstanding the revolt’s failure, it had a lasting impact on history. The Twelve Articles – the document listing the peasants’ demands – has been described as an inspiration for the French Revolution and a model for America’s Bill of Rights.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Christmas was not always so wholesome. Good Housekeeping

For generations, Christmas has been the quintessential family holiday that most Americans associate with a bundle of positive emotions and images. The holiday is as wholesome as wholesome gets in popular imagery. A blanket of white snow; Santa and his reindeer; malls playing non-stop Christmas music for Holiday shoppers reveling in an orgy of spending; presents in gift wrapping paper under a decorated and beautifully lit evergreen tree; family and loved ones gathered around a dining table groaning beneath a sumptuous feast.

The only controversial thing about December 25th nowadays seems to be that slice of the population who grow livid at hearing “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. It was not always so. In centuries past, for example, many Americans viewed Christmas as a time of violent unrest and drunken riots, in which the streets were transformed into free for all brawls fueled by copious amounts of alcohol. Today, some get riled up by a non-existent “War on Christmas” and pine for a past when the holiday was more revered. It was in the past, however, that there was an actual war on Christmas: celebrating the holiday was literally a crime.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Nineteenth-century Philadelphia toughs. Philly History

15. Back When Celebrating Christmas Actually Was a Crime

Unlike today, there used to be a time when many feared and loathed Christmas because it was associated with public unrest and disorder. In the 1600s, for example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made celebrating Christmas a criminal offense. The Puritans were not upset so much by the religious devotions, as by the disorders that accompanied Christmas celebrations. Many families commemorated the holiday with wholesome outdoor activities such as skating or watching horse races, but for single men, Christmas was a time to get wild.

The tendency to get crazy on Christmas – and the corresponding concern about the out-of-control loud and frequently violent celebrations – reached its peak in America during the nineteenth century. In cities such as New York and Philadelphia, marked by sharp racial, ethnic, and economic divisions, Christmas was a time for dangerous mob actions. During the holiday season, working-class young men got liquored up, dressed up as women or put on blackface, and hit the streets looking for trouble.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
A Callithumpian band. Yesteryear Once More

14. Instead of Spreading Good Cheer, Christmas Celebrants Used to Spread Unrest and Hooliganism

Nineteenth-century Christmas celebrants in America often donned masks – a forerunner of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade. That led contemporaries to label them as “fantasticals“. They were also referred to as “callithumpians” – partly from their habit of thumping things (and people). Instead of spreading good cheer and peace toward men, the celebrants often went about spreading unrest, violence, and hooliganism. Christmas partiers back then often gathered in groups, and mocking real music by banging on pots, cowbells, improvised horns, and singing off-key, made their way from tavern to tavern. There, they demanded free drinks, and beat up anybody who objected.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
A nineteenth-century Mummers Parade. Harper’s Weekly

Forming themselves into gangs, the drunken celebrants, many of them a collection of the unemployed, the criminal, and the ne’er do wells, often paraded – or staggered – into rich neighborhoods. There, they would beat drums, sing loudly, ring doorbells, express social discontents, smash windows, fire their guns, and otherwise make themselves disagreeable and “make the night hideous“. Knifings, shootings, arson, and other acts of mayhem and murder were common. It was a reminder to the day’s upper classes that class conflict and violence seethed beneath America’s surface.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Nineteenth-century New York City mob violence. Bowery Boys History

13. It Took the Creation of Modern Police to Put an End to Christmas Hooliganism and Unrest

The authorities in the nineteenth century could do little about Christmas unrest and disorders, and respectable citizens condemned the holiday season as a disgrace. Newspapers railed against “the drunken men and boys in the street” and the “black sheep … who made night hideous with Galathumpian doings“. In 1844, a New York Ledger editorial deplored the streets being overrun with a “riotous spirit … our city has almost daily been the theater of disorders which practically nullify civil government “.

That inability to exert the power of government to enforce the rule and of law and impose basic law and order grated. Pressure from above finally led to the creation of modern police forces capable of effective crowd control. They kept the celebrants out of the business districts and wealthy residential areas, and confined their riotous behavior to their working-class neighborhoods. A cultural shift also took the wild partying from holy Christmas, and made the secular New Year’s the time for cutting loose instead.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Medieval illustration of The Jacquerie, from a manuscript by Jean Froissart. Ricardo da Costa

12. The Jacquerie: Medieval France’s Biggest Peasant Uprising

In 1358, France was rocked by the Jacquerie, a peasant revolt that terrified the kingdom’s aristocracy and threatened to overthrow the social order. The violent unrest got its name from the nobility’s habit of contemptuously referring to all peasants as Jacques or Jacques Bonhomme (“Good Man Jacques”), after a padded over-garment worn by them called a “jacque”. France at the time was undergoing a rough patch following the outbreak of the Hundred Years War.

The peasantry, upon whose labor all rested and through whose fields the armies marched, looting and pillaging, endured the roughest patch of all. Their overlords, the French nobility, were not doing well, either, and their prestige had sunk to a low ebb after decades of humiliating defeats. Early in the fourteenth century, France’s aristocrats had turned tail and fled at the Battle of the Spurs, leaving the commoners in the infantry to be slaughtered. More recently, they had suffered catastrophic defeats at the hands of the English in the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
The English captured the king of France and his son at the Battle of Poitiers. British Battles

11. Repeated French Defeats in The Hundred Years War Set the Stage For Violent Unrest

The French defeat in the Battle of Poitiers was particularly humiliating to France’s aristocratic elites, because, in addition to getting decisively defeated in the field of battle, France’s nobles had allowed the French king’s capture. The consequences went far beyond the prestige of the nobility and questions of its honor and shame. Although it was the French nobles who had been defeated and humiliated, it was the French peasantry that ended up paying. The English demanded a huge ransom for the French king’s release, which ransom was ultimately squeezed from the peasants.

France’s nobility failed in their basic function and the raison d’etre that justified their high status, of protecting the populace from enemy depredations. Unchecked by the peasants’ aristocratic overlords and supposed protectors, bands of English and Gascon mercenaries roamed the countryside, pillaging, raping, and murdering at will. The environment was thus ripe for violent unrest. When it came, few could have anticipated just how violent things would get. When the lid finally blew, the uprising found a leader in a well-off peasant from Beauvais, about 50 miles from Paris, named Guillaume Cale.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
French peasants assailing nobles. Wikimedia

10. Downtrodden French Peasants Hated the Aristocrats So Much They Forced Them to Eat Other

On May 21st, 1358, matters came to a head when peasants from a village near the Oise River killed a knight. They then roasted him on a spit and forced his children to eat his flesh. The revolt spread quickly, as peasants razed local castles and slaughtered their inhabitants. Soon, the disparate rebel bands in the countryside began coalescing under the leadership of Guillaume Cale, who then joined forces with Parisian rebels under Etienne Marcel. The revolt burned hot, but it also burned out quickly.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
The defeat and suppression of the Jacquerie. Wikimedia

The undisciplined and untrained rebels were routed once the militarily trained and better-armed nobles organized and set out to suppress the revolt. The Paris uprising collapsed after its leader was assassinated. Guillaume Cale, with his peasant army, assembled to meet that of the nobles, and unwisely accepted an invitation for truce talks with the aristocrats’ leader, Charles the Bad of Navarre. When Cale showed up, he was treacherously seized, then tortured and beheaded. The now-leaderless peasant army was then ridden down by knights and routed. Afterward, as a warning against future unrest, the peasants were subjected to massive collective reprisals and a reign of terror in which around 20,000 were killed.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
English Peasants’ Revolt. Flickr

9. The Fourteenth Century Also Saw England’s Biggest Peasant Uprising

Across the English Channel, the fourteenth century also saw serious peasant unrest: The English Peasants’ Revolt. This was a major uprising across much of England that rocked the kingdom in 1381. The revolt’s roots traced back to mid-century, in the aftermath of the Black Death which killed a third to a half of England’s population. The depopulation led to a severe labor shortage. That enabled surviving workers to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions, especially from landowners desperate to have their fields tilled.

Landowners and employers responded by getting the government to enact the Statute of Laborers in 1351, fixing wages at pre Black Death rates. That led to steadily mounting discontent amongst peasants and the laboring classes. The popular discontent came to a boil in 1381, with the enactment of an unpopular poll tax. That May, officials attempting to collect the tax in Essex met violent resistance. The resistance and unrest spread, catching the government of the then-fourteen-year-old King Richard II by surprise with its vehemence and speed. Rebels seized and burned court and tax records, emptied the jails, and visited rough justice upon unpopular landlords and employers who fell into their hands.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Medieval depiction of John Ball encouraging the rebels, with Wat Tyler in red, front left. British Library

8. Angry Peasants Seized the Tower of London and Chopped Off the Heads of Unpopular Officials

Disparate peasant bands demanded an end to serfdom, a lowering of taxes, and the dismissal of unpopular officials and judges, as they coalesced and marched on London. On June 13, 1381, a Kentish contingent encouraged by a priest named John Ball and led by a man named Wat Tyler entered the city. Once in London, they massacred Flemish merchants, destroyed the palace of an unpopular uncle of the king, and seized the Tower of London. The king’s chancellor and his treasurer, widely blamed for the hated poll tax, were captured and beheaded.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
The death of Wat Tyler. Antiwar Songs

The teenage King Richard II agreed to meet the Peasant Rebellion’s leader, Wat Tyler, on the outskirts of London. However, Tyler was treacherously killed at the meeting. To quiet the unrest, the young king then claimed that he would be the rebels’ leader, and promising reforms and agreeing to their demands, convinced them to disperse. They soon had cause to regret their dispersal. As soon as sufficient military force was available, the king reneged on his promises, and the peasants were brutally suppressed. When a peasant delegation reminded Richard II of his promises, he contemptuously dismissed them, sneering “Villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain!

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Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Medieval fashions. Mediovo Italiano

7. Back in the Days, Fashion Was Literally Policed and Was Cause For Unrest

Fashion rules nowadays are not taken as seriously as they were in centuries past. Take medieval Europe, where fashion rules were enshrined in highly restrictive sumptuary laws. “Fashion police” back then was not a figure of speech, and breaking fashion rules was an actual crime. For example, England enacted sumptuary laws during the reign of King Edward III, which dictated what colors, types of clothing, furs, fabrics, and trims, people of various ranks and incomes were allowed to wear. Violators were subject to criminal and civil penalties.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Medieval fashions. Fashion and Design

The goal was to reinforce social hierarchies and prevent people from “dressing above their station“. Fashion rules were specifically targeted at commoners, especially the emerging class of rich commoner merchants and businessmen who were as wealthy and sometimes wealthier than nobles. Governments eventually stopped policing fashion, and left that to public opinion. Public opinion being what it is, the result was unrest. At times, fashion rules were enforced by violent mobs, like the time when riots erupted in American cities over the choice of hats.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
President Calvin Coolidge at a baseball park in a straw hat. Medium

6. Yanking Hats Off Peoples’ Heads Used to be Quite Popular

The wearing of straw hats by men became popular in nineteenth-century America. The light and permeable headgear was typically worn during summer, often at sports outings. Most popular was the straw boater, originally worn at boating events. The era’s fashion police initially frowned upon the use of straw hats. However, they gradually won acceptance, and by the late nineteenth century, straw hats were standard summertime male headgear. There was a caveat, though: an unwritten rule developed, decreeing that straw hats were strictly summertime wear.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Straw boaters. Getty Images

September 1st emerged as an arbitrary end date for straw hat season. It was later extended to September 15th, which came to be known as “Felt Hat Day“. A tradition emerged, whereby those wearing straw hats past the cutoff date had them snatched off their heads and destroyed by friends and acquaintances. It was all good fun at first. Then it morphed into widespread crime, when strangers began taking the liberty of snatching straw hats off the heads of people they did not know. That led to violence, unrest, and eventually, widespread rioting.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Straw hats used to be super popular. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not

5. The ‘Fashion Mobs’ escalate to public bullying

Today, the rules of fashion are not taken anywhere nearly as seriously as they were in the past. Indeed, modern fashion rules are so slack that even sweatpants and hoodies can be treated as acceptable boardroom attire. Things were different in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when fashion – especially headgear fashion – was serious business. Rigorous rules against men wearing straw hats after September 15th meant that those who defied that bit of convention ran afoul of the fashion police – or more accurately, the fashion mob.

A man wearing a straw hat after September 15th was fair game for anybody on the street who wanted to snatch it off his dome and stomp it to smithereens. Many went along, good-naturedly. Some, however, treated having their private property seized and destroyed by strangers more seriously; it was a crime. Resistance did not end the practice, though. It only led the fashion police to gather in mobs for mutual protection – or mutual bullying – and get more violent.

Related: Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Nineteenth century New York City thugs. American Yawp

4. The Steel City Pioneered Straw Hat Riots

One of the earliest recorded instances of widespread criminal unrest, violence, and rioting at the end of straw hat season occurred in Pittsburgh in the early twentieth century. On September 15th, 1910, Felt Hat Day demonstrations were organized. Mobs descended upon the straw-lidded to snatch away and destroy their headgear. Some resisted the destruction of their straw hats and stood up for their right to wear whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, only to get beat up and nearly destroyed themselves by the demonstrators.

As crime and violence spread, some straw hat wearers used firearms to protect their headgear. Elsewhere in the city, some had their straw hats taken off their heads at gunpoint. Eventually, police were mobilized to disperse the rioters, and serious bloodshed and loss of life were narrowly avoided. The following day, many newspapers wrote it off as “youthful exuberance“. As the scale of the September 15th rioting grew in subsequent years, however, the public’s and the media’s patience with such exuberance grew thin.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
A New York City policeman with some children in 1908. Internet Archive Book Images

3. Youth Gangs Led the Straw Hats Unrest By Appointing Themselves Fashion Police

Violent youth gangs causing unrest by roaming city streets and assaulting hapless passersby have probably been around since cities first came into existence. However, it has probably been a long time since such youthful gang violence was driven by an intense dislike of the victims’ fashion choices. Once America’s youth got it into their heads that, come every September 15th, they were entitled to yank straw hats off of people’s heads and destroy them, it was tough to put that genie back in the bottle.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
New Yorkers in straw hats in 1912. Library of Congress

As many newspapers reporting on Pittsburgh’s 1910 straw hat disturbances noted, things were bound to get worse. They were right. Bad as Pittsburgh’s 1910 straw hat unrest and rioting had been, it was eclipsed by New York’s 1922 Straw Hat Riot, which put that of the Steel City to shame. It began in Manhattan’s Mulberry Bend, when some urchins decided to ignore the September 15th cutoff. Instead, they decided to get a head start on their annual crime spree, and began snatching and destroying straw hats on September 13th.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Article on the Straw Hat Riots. New York Tribune

2. The Big Apple’s Straw Hats Unrest Put Pittsburgh to Shame

New York City kicked off the Straw Hat Riot by targeting some dockworkers. The dockworkers did not see the humor in it, got mad, and fought back. Things escalated, and that night, widespread mayhem and crime engulfed Manhattan. After getting their asses handed to them by the dockworkers, the kids regrouped in ever-larger and increasingly more violent gangs. Soon, mobs of out-of-control youth were snatching hats off heads, attacking people en masse, and beating up any who resisted.

The Big Apple’s 1922 Straw Hat Riot went on for days. The initial unrest and mayhem on the night of September 13th grew so widespread and got so bad that it halted traffic on the Manhattan Bridge. Police reinforcements were rushed in to end the rioting, but the relief was only temporary. The following night, the crime spree intensified when youth gangs returned to roaming Manhattan’s streets, some of them armed with nail-studded clubs. Straw hat wearers who crossed their path were lucky to get away with just losing their hats. The unlucky ones lost their hats and got beaten to a pulp.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Headline about the Straw Hat Riots. New York Times

1. An NYPD Lieutenant Made Parents Spank Their Delinquent Kids in the Precinct as a Condition For Releasing Them

Police were helpless, and the rioting went on for days, spreading from the East Side to the rest of Manhattan. The Upper West Side became particularly dangerous for the straw-lidded, as witnesses reported a mob of more than 1000 snatching straw hats on Amsterdam Avenue. The city’s days-long 1922 Straw Hat Riot was accompanied by many injuries and many arrests. However, since many culprits were underage, they did not stay behind bars for long, before they were released to their parents.

In the East 104th Street Precinct, the police lieutenant in charge insisted that the parents spank their kids then and there, as a condition for their release. The straw hat-smashing tradition continued. Although there was no recurrence of widespread rioting on the scale of 1922’s mayhem, the end of straw hat season continued to be attended by unrest and violence. In 1924, for example, one man was murdered for wearing a straw hat after September 15th. The violent tradition finally came to an end when straw hats went out of fashion during the Great Depression.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Alexander, John T. – Autocratic Politics in a National Crisis: The Imperial Russian Government and Pugachev’s Revolt, 1773-1775 (1969)

Bainton, Roland H. ­- Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1978)

Blickle, Peter – The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants War From a New Perspective (1981)

Cliff, Nigel – The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America (2007)

Cracked – The 5 Most Embarrassing Things Angry Mobs Have Rioted Over

Davis, Susan G., American Quarterly, Volume 34.2 (Summer 1982) – Making the Night Hideous: Christmas Revelry and Public Order in Nineteenth Century Philadelphia

Digital History – Holidays and the Invention of Tradition

Dunn, Alastair – The Great Rising of 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution (2002)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Hussite Wars

Encyclopedia Britannica – Jacquerie

Encyclopedia Britannica – Sumptuary Law

New York Times, September 16th, 1922 – City Has Wild Night of Straw Hat Riots

New York Tribune, September 16th, 1922 – Straw Hat Smashing Orgy Bares Heads From Battery to Bronx

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Cade, John [Jack] (died 1450), Rebel Leader

Pittsburgh Press, September 16th, 1910 – Straw Hat Riot

Runciman, Steven – The Sicilian Vespers (1958)

Slate – The 1922 Straw Hat Riot Was One of the Weirdest Crime Sprees in American History

Vallance, Edward – A Radical History of Britain (2009)

Wikipedia – Astor Place Riot

Wikipedia – Jack Cade’s Rebellion

Wikipedia – Straw Hat Riot

Zagorin, Perez – Rebels and Rulers, 1500-1660 ­(1984)