Maine: Temperance and Rum Riots

And once again, your beer journalist has gone international. This time, I’m spending a short period in Maine, busying myself with some academic pursuits. Whenever I travel, particularly if it’s outside of Canada, I love checking out the local beer scene. I’ve discovered that Maine has a thriving craft brewing industry, mostly centred in Portland.


This is actually fairly ironic, given Maine’s beer history. Maine was one of the first states to start heavily pushing for prohibition. Legislation to enact prohibition in Maine was tabled in 1837. And yes, I mean prohibition, rather than temperance. Maine cut straight to the chase with its alcohol legislation. Considering the American Temperance Society was established in 1826, followed by Upper Canada’s first society in 1828, an 1837 call for all-out prohibition feels early indeed!

But this early legislation ultimately failed to pass. Another attempt was made in 1849, but that one never got off the ground, either.

And then, Neal Dow was elected.


Neal Dow (1804-1897) was elected

Neal Dow (courtesy
Neal Dow (courtesy

mayor of Portland in April, 1851 as a “Temperance Whig.” He has variously been called “the Napoleon of Temperance,” “the Prophet of Prohibition,” and “the Father of the Maine Law.”

This is what my MFA’s faculty would call “foreshadowing.”

Dow was a strict temperance advocate with strong patriotic and religious beliefs. Alcohol had no part in Maine as he saw it, and so he crusaded for prohibition in the state. If nothing else, Dow was a man committed to his cause: Governor John Hubbard signed Dow’s proposed legislation into law on June 2, 1851. Known as “the Maine Law,” it prohibited the sale of any “beverage alcohol” in the state (that qualifier of “beverage alcohol” is important—we’ll come back to that). The Maine Law proved popular amongst temperance politicians in other states, too. By 1855, twelve other states had gone dry.

However, the Maine Law was decidedly unpopular with working and immigrant classes, particularly the Irish, who saw prohibition as an attack on their culture. I like to think that this was one reason behind Dow losing the mayoral seat in the next year’s election, but that may be wishful thinking on my part. Regardless, Dow used the next few years to travel the US and Canada, spreading the good word of prohibition, before getting re-elected in 1855.

Did you know that Portland had a Rum Riot in 1855?

Me neither.

After Dow resumed the mayoral mantle, rumours spread that he was stockpiling alcohol at City Hall. Remember—he was a staunch temperance advocate, so this seemed dodgy, to say the least. A search warrant was issued, and on June 2, 1855, four years to the day after the Maine Law was passed, a crowd assembled outside City Hall, some 2000-strong. The hordes turned violent, and Dow ordered the local militia to open fire. One man, John Robbins, was killed, seven were wounded, and Dow was soundly criticized for his overly-harsh response.

Looking towards Portland's City Hall just after the Great Fire of 1866. Portland couldn't catch a break. (courtesy the Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views)
Looking towards Portland’s City Hall just after the Great Fire of 1866. Portland couldn’t catch a break. (courtesy the Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views)

As it turns out, there was alcohol in Portland’s City Hall. But it was intended for Portland’s medical community (thus slipping neatly through the loophole prohibiting only the sale of beverage alcohol—see, it was important!). Ironically, Dow had acquired the alcohol improperly, and thus violated his own law. In any case, the Maine Law was repealed the next year, in 1856.

And so it seems that American beer history is just as delightful to explore as our own. Their beer’s pretty good, too! (The standouts so far are a lovely, citrusy IPA and a complex brown ale with an interesting, lingering fruitiness.)

The Stowaway IPA from Baxter's Brewing Co.
The Stowaway IPA from Baxter’s Brewing Co.
Old Gollywobbler Brown Ale, from Sea Dog Brewing Company.
Old Gollywobbler Brown Ale, from Sea Dog Brewing Company.

To Queen and country!

PS. Back at Black Creek, our Lemon Balm Pale Ale will be available in the historic brewery very shortly! For a refresher on this fresh summer ale, click here!

2 thoughts on “Maine: Temperance and Rum Riots

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