|Dr. Levi Boone, Chicago's Know Nothing Mayor.|
Note: Anti-immigrant demagoguery is nothing new in American politics. Chicago’s Levi Boone was a spiritual and political Godfather to Donald Trump and his ilk.
Dr. Levi Boone was a mess of contradictions. A twig of the expansive Boone family tree—he was Daniel’s great-nephew—he overcame early poverty to become a university trained medical doctor and established a practice in Chicago just as the former trading post village was establishing itself as a city. He was admired for his skill, commitment to the community, and as a lay pillar of the Baptist Church. Yet he was also an avowed racist and a nativist who made keeping the city White, native born, and Protestant the hinge of his political career which included a tumultuous term as Mayor. You can see how well that project turned out. When he died on January 24, 1882 it was in a city where the “alien scum” he despised already outnumbered the “real Americans.”
Levi Day Boone was the seventh son of Squire Boone, Daniel’s nephew, and was born on the family farm near Lexington, Kentucky on December 8, 1808. In the tradition of the Boone family Squire marched off to join General Andrew Jackson in his war against the Creeks in 1814. He was severely injured at the climactic Battle of Horseshoe Bend which crushed the Red Sticks. Squire returned home a cripple and never really recovered. He died of the lingering after effects of the wounds in 1818 when Levi was only nine years old.
The family was left in dire poverty, but was still respectable. That helped young Levi gain admission Transylvania University, the first college west of the Appalachians and the training ground of the upper South’s political and social elite. While Levi was reading medicine there, Henry Clay was professor of law. He graduated in 1829. His medical degree made him one of only a handful of college trained doctors in the West.
In the Boone family tradition, Levi looked for opportunities yet further west. By 1831 he established practice in Hillsboro, Illinois, a still rustic pioneer village southwest of Springfield. When the Black Hawk War broke out he enlisted in the Militia. He rode with the cavalry under the command of Major Isaiah Stillman and took part in the humiliating defeat known as Stillman’s run. After his first enlistment expired, Boone re-enlisted in the more appropriate role of surgeon.
Back in Hillsboro, the young Doctor’s prospects immensely improved by the time honored method of marrying up and well. He wooed and won Louise M. Smith, daughter of Theophilus W. Smith, a Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. The fertile couple would go on to have 11 children.
The conclusion of the Black Hawk War opened up previously closed territory to the west and north of Chicago and the village began its rapid expansion as a regional transportation hub. Chances to advance in the world were much greater there than in a rural backwater like Hillsboro. Boone relocated there and hung up his shingle in 1834. A year later he was already a prominent citizen and was a founder and first Secretary of the Cook County Medical Board.
He was also an early and leading member of the First Baptist Church which was organized in 1833 just before his arrival and was just the third church in the town. His tenure there as an Elder was not without controversy. In 1843 he delivered a lecture at the church on the justification of slavery in The Bible which caused a schism in the congregation. Outraged, thirty-two members resigned their memberships and founded the rival Tabernacle Baptist Church which resolved in its Charter that “Slavery is a great sin in the sight of God, and while we view it as such, we will not invite into our communion or pulpit those who advocate or justify from civil policy or the Bible, the principle or practice of slavery.” Boone and pro-slavery Southerners remained in firm control of First Baptist. In an ironic modern note, First Baptist is now the Chicago anchor of the liberal American Baptist Convention (Northern Baptists) and has been an overwhelmingly Black church since the late 1960s.
Levi Boone was not the only member of the sprawling Boone clan to settle in Northern Illinois in those years up north in western Lake County, soon to be split off as McHenry County, Levi’s cousins and Daniels grandsons George and John Boone where they became the first White settlers of McHenry Township and established a grist mill on the Fox River. Within a few years after a nasty spate of land claim lawsuits, the brothers pulled up stakes and moved further west were they helped found Boone County.
|The annex of Bridgeport to the City of Chicago suddenly added thousands of mostly Irish Catholic immigrants to the voting rolls setting off a Nativist panic that Levi Boon rode to the Mayor;s office.|
Meanwhile Chicago received it City Charter in 1837 and the construction of the wagon roads and work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal began to attract large numbers of immigrant laborers to the area. Although most settled south of the new city limits, some had begun to bleed into the municipal boundaries alarming men like Boone. For them, the situation rose to a crisis when the Canal was finally opened in 1848 causing an explosion in population. Even more immigrants poured into the region spurred by the Potato famine in Ireland and the failed revolutions in the German states in 1848.
Bridgeport, at the head of the canal fast became a transportation hub and manufacturing center where Germans refugees and more recent Irish immigrants crowded alongside the families of the Irish laborers who had built the canal. When it was annexed into the City, the native Protestant ascendency was suddenly threatened.
Levi Boone saw the threat clearly and sprang into action. He hitched his star to the rising American Party, the political face of the semi-secret Know Nothing anti-Catholic and anti-Immigrant movement that was reaching its peak of national influence. In 1855 he swept to victory to be elected Mayor of Chicago over incumbent Lawrence Milliken with nearly 53% of the vote. His coat tails were long enough to carry along with him 7 members of the Board of Aldermen.
On close examination, Boone’s election might have been the result of the most massive voter fraud in the city’s tainted political history. Somehow few of the ballots from newly annexed Bridgeport were collected or counted.
|Drunken Irishmen and Germans were depicted as stealing elections by Know Nothing/American Party supporters.|
Despite the sputtering outrage of his new, but disenfranchised constituents, Boone pressed forward with a broad and aggressive anti-immigrant agenda. The first order of business was banning the non-native born from city employment regardless of citizenship status. Next up was a complete reorganization of the city’s multiple police forces. He combined the Day Police and the Night Watch into a single police force with 3 eight-hour shifts and required the police to wear uniforms for the first time.
Although this seems like a harmless, even progressive, step, the ouster of foreign born officers of the two original forces had disastrous consequences. The Germans, who were on those forces in large numbers, were culturally attuned to order and discipline and made excellent, and by the standards of the time, largely incorruptible servants of the local power structure. The Irish provided the muscle needed in crime ridden slum neighborhoods. The American born street toughs recruited by the city turned out to be, from the outset, highly corruptible and undisciplined. That was overlooked since their main function was not preventing crime or capturing offenders, but the intimidation of immigrants in their communities and at their jobs. They were an occupying army out to harass and intimidate a despised minority. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.
Next on the agenda was a so-called Temperance campaign. Boone himself was not an abstainer. He indulged in the perfectly American beverage of choice—whiskey. But as a Baptist he was pledged to temperance, which was understood as a movement to prevent the lower classes from becoming burdens on society from the abuse of alcohol and resulting crime, idleness, and destruction of families. It had been a current in Protestant Reformism since the late 18th Century but had taken off as a social movement in tandem with the rise of immigrant populations in big cities. It was the respectable, posing as beneficent, face of Know Nothing bigotry. In Chicago respectable upper and middle class reformers who would not publicly associate themselves with the crudities of Know Nothingism had supported Boone’s slate because of his pledge to rid the city of saloons.
|Boone's move to close working class taverns like this on Sundays led to the Logger Beer Riots.|
It seems that the main enemy was that alien drink, beer. Real Americans drank whiskey. But Germans made their Beer Halls the social centers of their communities—and a place where their radicals could stir up trouble. The Irish congregated in their grubby taverns and although traditional consumers of poteen and other liquors, had taken to beer as a cheaper way to get falling down drunk.
A state wide ban on liquor sales and taverns backed by the Know Nothings and powerful Protestant preachers, based on a recently enacted law in the state of Maine was widely expected to pass. Boone moved first in anticipation of that. Boone launched his assault by pushing through new license fees which raised the annual cost from $50 to $300, well beyond the means of many small proprietors, but affordable to the downtown Hotels, middle class resorts, and private clubs frequented by the better Protestant classes. Not only that, but licenses had to be renewed every three months with all of the attending bureaucratic inconvenience, inspections, and opportunities to deny renewal for petty offences. Almost immediately hundreds of taverns and beerhalls were unable to obtain or renew their licenses. Many, probably most, defiantly remained open anyway or moved to thinly disguise their operations as restaurants or grocery stores.
Things really came to a head, however, when Boone ordered his new Police Force to enforce a long ignored ordinance forbidding alcohol sales on the Sabbath. Sunday was the only day of rest for workers who labored ten, twelve, even fourteen hours the other six days at back-breaking jobs. In working class neighborhoods men—and often their wives and whole families—adjourned directly from Sunday morning Mass to friendly watering holes for the only social conviviality they were apt to enjoy all week. The attack on Sunday drinking was, directly, an attack on immigrants and Catholics. The targets understood that perfectly.
On April 21 several tavern owners were arrested in a police sweep. Outraged patrons chased the police and their Paddy Wagons—guess how they got that name—downtown to near the Cook County Court House where street fighting erupted. As word spread across south side working class neighborhoods, more headed to the central business district. Mayor Boone ordered the swing bridges over the Chicago River pivoted to prevent access. Scores were trapped on the bridges and police opened fire on them with their pocket revolvers. Some armed rioters returned scattered fire.
|Boone tried to protect the central business district from rioters by opening the swing bridges over the Chicago River like this one at Ashland shown later in the century.|
In the end the Lager Beer Riots resulted in tens of thousands of dollars of property damage in the business district, at least one dead rioter and scores more injured, and one police officer shot in an arm that required amputation. Even many of the cities hard drinking native workers lost sympathy with the Know Nothings. And the business classes who had supported the anti-saloon campaign were losing their enthusiasm for the project.
State wide the emerging new Republican Party checked the American Party’s ambitions and by means of an alliance with the growing German population largely engineered by a downstate lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, the state-wide alcohol sales ban was easily defeated. Meanwhile the national American Party was deflating almost as fast as it had blown up, divided by the rising issue of slavery.
In Chicago, Boone realized that he would not be able to disenfranchise Bridgeport and other immigrant neighborhoods a second time. Armed militias were being organized to guard the polls and ballot boxes and make sure that votes would be delivered safely to the County Court House for counting.
Boone was licked and he knew it. He didn’t even bother to run for a second one year term. His aldermen also either withdrew or were dumped by voters.
Boone’s short lived political career may have been over, but not his brushes with controversy. After the election of his old nemesis Lincoln as President and the outbreak of the Civil War the doctor swung his affiliations to the Copperhead Democrats. His primary allegiance was to the South and the preservation of slavery. In 1862 he was arrested on suspicion of helping a rebel prisoner of war escape and being part of network of southern sympathizers running a sort of reverse Underground Railroad. He was held for several weeks without being formally charged at Camp Douglas on the South Side until his friends secured his release on the grounds of his service to the community as a physician.
|The Boone family plot at Rosehill Cemetery. Levi's headstone far right.|
After that, Boone lived out his life quietly, practicing medicine and presumably basking in the affection of his large family and a few close friends. The city practically forgot him and little notice was taken when he died at the age 73. He was buried safely among the Chicago Protestant elite at Rosehill Cemetery.