BALTIMORE, JULY 28, 1812 -- Armed with torches, hatchets, clubs and crowbars, the mob rushed into the courtyard of the Baltimore Jail just after sunset. A military drum and fife could be heard in the distance. Thirty to forty men swarmed in and brushed past the remaining guards.
The city’s militia commander had already retired to bed after dismissing his troops, but most hadn’t reported for duty in the first place –– they viewed the prisoners inside as traitors. The soldiers who did appear were instructed not to carry ammunition and rely on their bayonets for protection, but not all obeyed that order either.
A hot-tempered shoemaker led the rioters, whose ranks were filled with a combustible mixture of shopkeepers, craftsmen, disgruntled militia and working-class immigrants –– mainly Irish and German. Many had come from Fell’s Point, a gritty dockside neighborhood outside Baltimore’s Old Town, where the jail was located. Whether foreign or native, laborer or master craftsman, the rioters were united in their mission on this night.
“Where are those murdering scoundrels who … slaughtered our citizens in cold blood!” the shoemaker yelled as the mob charged into the jail yard. “We must have them out; blood cries for blood!”
It was no idle threat. The shoemaker had recently been the ringleader of another mob and was once convicted of beating, tarring and feathering a British shoemaker who had made “anti-American” remarks.
Inside the yard, the mayor, sheriff and a handful of citizens stood by, hoping to prevent further violence. The mayor was sympathetic to the rioters and no fan of the imprisoned agitators he was now charged with protecting. He approached the mob’s leaders to assure them that the prisoners would not be let loose on bail.
“It is not yet too late, support me, and we may prevent the horrid scene,” he said.
But the mob would not be dissuaded and the mayor was pushed aside. The shoemaker and his fellow rioters began attacking the wooden jail door with axes and hatchets, while another group of men circled around to the front steps. The jail door opened, possibly from the inside by a sympathetic jailkeeper, and the mob burst into the brick building. Using sledgehammers and crowbars they went to work on a heavy inner door protected by metal gratings, eventually forcing it open and gaining entry to the passageway leading to the cells.
Trapped inside on the bare floor more than a dozen men contemplated their fates. This cell was usually reserved for the “rogues,” but these were no ordinary criminals. Their ranks included a general who fought alongside George Washington, a Revolutionary war hero, and their young leader –– a twenty-six-year old newspaper editor named Alexander Hanson.
Hanson’s gravitas sprang from his intellect rather than his physical stature. He was a man of slight features and diminutive build, usually well dressed and groomed. Like most young men of his era, Hanson had abandoned the powdered wigs of his grandfather’s generation in favor of a more classical and natural look –– clean shaven, save for a pair of long sideburns, with a head of short unruly curls. Unruly could also apply to his personality, for his patrician upbringing belied a fierce temperament.
Hanson and his fellow prisoners heard the beating drums and knew the mob had gathered outside, yet they clung to hope that the local militia commander would return to offer protection. At some point during the night the fire bell began to ring, but no help was forthcoming. The whoops and hollers of the rioters grew louder and one last door stood between the prisoners and the mob. The cell door was locked, but somehow the rioters ended up with a key.
With the mob closing in, the prisoners formulated a quick plan. They were vastly outnumbered and outgunned, but still they hoped the element of surprise might allow some of them to escape the massacre they feared was coming. Some in the group counseled a direct frontal assault with the few weapons on hand, but Hanson knew that would only take down a few men and further enrage the mob. He convinced his fellow prisoners to follow an alternate course even though it put his own life in peril. As the final heavy iron door swung open, the prisoners sprang into action.
The aftermath of the confrontation would end lives, launch careers, capture headlines and leave a bloody stain on the halls of the jail and the city of Baltimore itself. When the dust eventually settled, the episode sent shock waves across the country and ultimately helped shape the course of a war, a political party and the nation’s very notion of freedom of the press.
It all began with a headline.