Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History

Khalid Elhassan - January 13, 2021

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.

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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)

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