Here’s a fascinating topic you won’t find elsewhere: the Plug Uglies.
The Plug Uglies were a gang of nativist thugs that ran Baltimore for nearly seven years uninterrupted in the 1850s. The American Party sprung from the grassroots in reaction to the flood of immigration in the mid-1800s, which meant you had a substantial population of “native” English-speaking Protestant young men unemployed or barely employed because of stiff competition from low-wage immigrant laborers who had more grasp of Gaelic or German than English. Jacksonian Democrats ended up spawning Democratic Party machines—New York’s Tammany Hall led by Boss Tweed for example—on the ward and city levels that provided jobs and patronage to the successive waves of immigrants in exchange for votes, often leaving existing populations feeling unrepresented. As large populations of young males felt economically and politically displaced, especially when the main alternative to the Democratic Party, the Whig Party, went the way of the dodo bird, they began to organize a new political movement to express their frustrations (a major political realignment). A lot of strands of issues were in play here that extend into the present.
Local gangs of angry young men formed to support their new party and confront existing parties’ power, with polls and punches. The most vile anti-Catholic conspiracy theories imaginable spread like wildfire through these gangs, who came to believe that Irish Catholics and other “papists” were loyal to the Pope over the Republic. “America for Americans” was their motto, and they figured only Protestants could be true, loyal citizens. The American Party was also known as the Know Nothing Party (because of their vulnerable position as a fledgling third party and their penchant for murder and other crimes, they tended to only answer police inquiries with “I know nothing”). Once in the Spring Hill College library I found note of Know Nothing violence: not long after the college’s 1848 switch to Jesuit administration, French Jesuits newly arrived to teach at Spring Hill were shot and killed; two priests cornered alone in the local wetlands killed by Know Nothings in as many years.
But develop the party did, growing up from the grassroots to become a major factor in politics, winning the mayor’s office in New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, among many others. In 1854, Know-Nothing candidates even won control of the Massachusetts legislature.¹ The local grassroots backing for political parties in the mid-19th century has no equivalent today, especially when it comes to the American Party, which was a mass movement more organized than any grassroots thing today; Baltimore was divided into 20 wards, each with its own ward boss and political clubs (like the Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, Rough Skins, Regulators, Wampanoags, Calithumpians, Tigers, Butt Enders, Bloody Tubs, etc. supporting the Know Nothings, and also clubs for the opposing Democratic Party). The clubs often started as offshoots of volunteer fire departments, though this was a joke; the “volunteer fire companies” created more fires than they extinguished. Maryland Know Nothings had councils at the ward, city and state levels to coordinate handing out patronage jobs, organize events and campaigns, and groom and endorse candidates, a massive and complex organization doing incredible feats of coordination. 36% of Baltimore government jobs during American Party control were distributed to Know Nothing gang members as patronage appointments, though 89% of the jobs given to such “rowdies” were low-wage working class jobs, especially as ward policeman and the like.²
When Know Nothing thugs won an especially gory street battle against “upper class” voting rights reformers in New Orleans, the telegraph conveyed the news to Know Nothing clubs up and down the U.S., and Plug Uglies in Baltimore set off fireworks in celebration of the “triumph.” Affiliated gangs from Cincinnati and Philadelphia visited Baltimore several times throughout the 1850s to clink mugs and celebrate election “wins” in the center of American Party power. This was the most organized mayhem and thuggery EVER!
In New York City, the leading nativist “club” (gang) were the Bowery Boys, aligned with William “Bill the Butcher” Poole. He was depicted in the book Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury—informal, indeed, it’s quite heavily fictionalized, with much of the material acquired from interviews with aging gang braggarts in prison and some of it pure urban legend—and Daniel Day Lewis famously immortalized Bill in the Scorsese epic Gangs of New York (so loosely based
on Asbury’s book that it is set eight years after the real William Poole’s death, and unlike Casablanca or The Godfather which won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay Adapted from Another Work, Gangs was honored with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar). In the movie, Bill ran a small but formidable criminal fiefdom in the Five Points neighborhood, using the stovepipe hat-wearing Bowery Boys as muscle. In real life, William Poole was a member of the Bowery Boys but not a kingpin or neighborhood boss. He was involved in the Bowery Boys’ volunteer fire dept. that did more sabotaging and disrespecting rival gangs’ fire engines than actual firefighting. Bill campaigned for nativist candidates and his butcher shop—his nickname was literal, he cut and distributed meats to people who wanted to buy meats—became Know Nothing HQ. Among his contemporaries, he was most known for being really amazing at 19th century-style fists-3ft-out bare-knuckle boxing. Bill the Butcher was one of NYC’s most colorful characters, no doubt, but while the Bowery Boys shared the same habits, stovepipe hats, anti-immigrant sentiments and methods, their influence never even neared that of the Plug Uglies.
The Plug Uglies grew and grew to be the most powerful and feared club of nativist thugs in history, the term “plug ugly” itself becoming genericized to mean any such stovepipe hat-wearing street tough. While the Bowery Boys cornered the market on crime in one neighborhood, the Plug Uglies ran an entire city, sometimes even nearing power in all of Maryland. Controlling the streets and only allowing wards to vote for American Party (know nothing) candidates was their path to power. One way they steered elections was especially extraordinary: they would “coop” any vulnerable immigrants, homeless people and men weaker than them in basements or shacks, 40-90 men to a shack, then herd them to vote over and over again in different wards wearing different clothes. Edgar Allan Poe was slipped a mickey and “cooped” by Plug Uglies right before his death, and was seen at different polling places in unfamiliar clothes. Poe experts still speculate about the poet’s death. For her part, Poe’s cousin’s daughter and important Poe scholar Elisabeth Ellicott Poe, placed blame squarely on the Plug Uglies’ shoulders, writing a piece marking the centennial of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth and recounting his history, that “On the night of October 4, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe arrived in Baltimore from Richmond. He was going North to be married, and was last seen to alight from the Richmond train in Baltimore and go into a near-by saloon. What happened after that, in brief, was this: His drink was drugged under
direction of a gang of plug-uglies and he was voted about the city next day in the elections as a repeater while still drugged. The plug-uglies were members of a secret political organization, and their lips were sealed. But a certain Passano of that society, in after years said that Edgar Poe was kept in his coop that night. After the plug-uglies had finished with the unfortunate man he was thrown carelessly into the street, left to die if he willed. …he never recovered sufficiently to give the details of his dreadful plight.”³
Back then, you brought your own ballot with you to the polls, and they were typically brightly colored and easily identified—the American Party’s ballot was emblazoned with red stripes—hardly secret balloting. Plug Uglies would famously discourage any voter who showed up with a ballot in hand of another color, not the red-striped ballot, by shoving a shoemaker’s awl into them, sometimes kneeing unsuspecting victims with awls strapped to their knees, or throwing them out of the nearest window. An allied nativist gang, the Blood Tubs, discouraged immigrants from voting by dunking them in tubs full of pig blood; seeing a guy or two returning to your neighborhood covered in gore really had a chilling effect. Controlling the voting was how Know Nothing gangs controlled city officials and thus Baltimore, lock, stock and barrel.
The shoemaker’s awl, a short (and easily-concealed) spike intended for poking holes in shoe-leather became the Plug Uglies’ symbol, both indicating their status as sons of the working class and for humorous effect. Shortly before the presidential election in 1860, in one of their largest (and last) mass demonstrations, the Plug Uglies hired a blacksmith to pound out awls with his hammer and anvil in public, forging them en masse during the rally and handing them out to supporters. They would march in massive torchlight processions, “grand illuminations,”carrying awls and awl signs and banners, one hugely inscribed with the words “with this [picture of awl] we will do the work,” more often an enormous banner depicting an awl and nothing else. They would shout “the Third Ward is Awl right!” and “come and vote, there’s room for AWL!” while marching to polling places.
A large part of what makes the Plug Uglies interesting is their uniquely American sense of humor, common-man camaraderie, and that hard-to-capture spirit of Loki, chief of tricksters, pranks, disobedience, mayhem, chaos and the like, in Norse mythology.
This was a gang without parallel. The Plug Uglies had their own city, their own judges (who sometimes heard cases while inebriated), their own American Party mayor (Mayor Swann) and governor (Thomas Holliday Hicks), and they even had their own club song. At the height of their influence, the Plug Uglies even had a Know Nothing presidential candidate, ex-president Millard Fillmore, and managed to sway Maryland’s votes in his favor in the 1856 presidential election, making Maryland the only state in the union he won.
Poor Millard Fillmore was the unlucky 13th President of the United States, only becoming commander-in-chief by accident when newly-elected president Zachary Taylor died of dysentery-like symptoms. President Taylor became ill after seeking solace from the oppressive heat of Washington, DC following his first
Fourth of July celebration as president (which included the groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Monument) and downing cold milk and cherries to cool off. The milk was evidently even more disturbed by the heat than Taylor, as the new president quickly developed gastrointestinal distress. The not-so-knowledgeable doctors of the time sought to treat poor Taylor’s “bilious diarrhea” with calomel (mercury chloride, which causes mercury poisoning and vomiting) and ipecac, an emetic—vomit inducer—of such explosive power that under the auspices of modern medicine, it has been banned for many years. These lethal prescriptions, given in mega doses of 40 grains each, finished off President Taylor; that he endured as many days as he did can only be attributed to what a strong, big bear of a man he was.
So, Taylor’s vice president, the unremarkable upstate New York functionary Millard Fillmore, whose military feats’ greatest extent was leading a militia to defend Buffalo, NY from Mexican invasion during the same war Taylor won improbable victories at Palo Alto and Monterrey, became president, to general confusion, disbelief and shouts of “Millard what the who?” The entire cabinet resigned, and bad blood was high. Taylor, though a slave-owning Virginian himself, in fact the last slave holding president ever—and the last southern man elected president until LBJ, had always taken the Andrew Jackson position on Southern radicals, that secession was off the table, and anyone inciting rebellion would be hung without hesitation and he would gladly lead the Army into South Carolina himself. Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready,” the old Mexican War hero and tough, manly military man, was given the Whig Party‘s presidential nomination after much political wrangling and deal-making, then Whigs consolidated support behind the general during the campaign, with speeches on his behalf in every state and favor and trust growing up around Taylor. Presidential campaigns don’t just promote one candidate to chief executive, they build a national coalition with enough support to actually govern, a coherent governing coalition coalesces behind a specific president. No such Whig consensus existed for Millard Fillmore, and that Taylor died—just as William Henry Harrison, the only other Whig president died, early in his term—meant the death knell for the Whig Party (more on the Whig Party in a future post). Fillmore was the last president aligned with the Whigs.
Unlike Taylor, Fillmore was an early “Doughface,” a northerner with southern-sympathies, called doughfaces for leaning toward beardless southern gentility amid bearded, northern manly men⁴ (for more on politics, perceived masculinity and facial hair, check out my essay on the North-South manliness inversion). Not only was Fillmore a doughface, southern-sympathizing before the term doughface was even popularized, he was a doughman; I’d unequivocally call him America’s doughiest-looking president. The Fillsmorey Doughboy. And he was quickly despised by all sides.
I don’t quite understand why Fillmore is consistently ranked as one of history’s worst presidents by historians. Yeah he inherited a bunch of intractable problems, and he wasn’t as well-suited as Zachary Taylor to steer a ship of state on the brink of sinking due to sectional strife, but who was?? He supported the Compromise of 1850 and was instrumental in its passage, which few historians denounce as totally terrible. Fillmore was responsible for California (in its present configuration, not split) being admitted as a U.S. state and a free state, the Mormons getting a territory of their own, Utah Territory with Brigham Young appointed territorial governor, and he got the Texans—who were preparing for war—to calm down and give up their territorial claims on much of eastern New Mexico, though they got to keep El Paso. All these accomplishments in one compromise bill. The worst thing that can be said of the Compromise is it included the loathsome Fugitive Slave Act, which required the North to aid in the capture and return of escaped slaves. This riled up the North, and northern Whigs like Abraham Lincoln began to think of third party efforts. But the Compromise was nothing as inflammatory as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which compelled settlers to flood into Kansas and out-vote and out-kill each other over the slavery question, and caused the Democratic Party to split, the last vestiges of the Whig Party to disintegrate, and a third party—the Republican Party, founded in 1854—to rise from its ashes with much the same platform, except a hard-line against slavery.
I also don’t understand what possessed Fillmore to run for president again on the Know Nothing ticket. Just the fact that he’s seeking a non-consecutive second term as President (a really weird feat, accomplished only once in American politics, by Grover Cleveland) is baffling enough. That his running mate was Andrew Jackson‘s nephew Andrew Jackson Donelson is
even stranger. Andrew Jackson had nearly nothing in common with the Know Nothing movement; in fact, it was Jacksonian Democrats brawling in the streets against the Plug Uglies. I suppose Millard Fillmore became an American Party candidate out of opportunistic urges, and because so many Whigs—the ones that didn’t flock to the newly-mobilized Republican Party anyhow—were absorbed into the American Party. Know Nothings didn’t stump on the issue of slavery, maybe that was appealing to Fillmore, but they took a strong pro-Union position, disagreeing with radicals on both sides. This was especially true of Baltimore Know Nothings, who described themselves as “warm friends and advocates of the Union against the fire-eaters and free soilers.” Of course, many American Party men held to crazy conspiracy theories that secession was an evil plot by the Pope to destroy the U.S., so placing them on a political spectrum or finding their views in relation to other parties of the era might be too strenuous.⁵
This part of the Plug Ugly official club song shows their support for Fillmore:
We don’t like the Demmy’s, for Fillmore is our boast,
And here in old Maryland he is a perfect host,
Nor do we love the Argus, with all its boasted eyes,
For our motto is “ever on,” root hog or die,
For we are the native party…
But as we are all natives; and proudly we can brag,
As true sons of America, we’ll fight beneath its flag,
Nor from the field of honor, never will we fly,
But as good Plug Uglies we’ll root hog or die.
For we are the native party…⁶
Go to the link in the 6 footnote for a much more complete rendering of the lyrics.
By “Demmy’s” it’s clear they mean the Democrats. “Nor do we love the Argus” took some research; the Argus is a giant with a hundred eyes in Greek mythology, and newspapers tended to take its name as a symbol of the reporter (some still bear the name). Apparently, the Daily Argus was a leading Democratic-leaning newspaper in Baltimore that the Plug Uglies disdained. “Root hog, or die” is an American idiom expressing self-reliance and hard-scrabble reality; root out your own living because no one’s going to do it for you. The idiom found its way into numerous 19th century and early 20th century songs.
Even after the 1856 election, shouts of “Go Fillmore!” were common among Plug Uglies. Typically, polite society doughy types like Fillmore were horrified at the “rowdyism” of the Plug Uglies and affiliated gangs. The public drunkenness and open carrying of revolvers (usually combined) put off more respectable Know Nothings. One Harry Shriver, in the mercantile business in Baltimore, left the American Party, denouncing its “informal rascality.” “I want to be an American, but not a friend of rowdyism.” To such polite society types, the Plug Uglies would say, “come on up, there’s room for AWL! Heh Heh!”
But the Plug Uglies had serious blood on their hands; gore and death isn’t so funny. When the Plug Uglies launched a major riot in Washington, DC in 1857, the Rip Raps, and Shifflers from Philadelphia in tow, there was panic in the White House. President James Buchanan called in the U.S. Marine Corps, who didn’t play around; they shot to kill the attackers. Unfortunately, more Washingtonians trying to vote were killed than the nativist thugs bringing mayhem across state lines. See Know Nothing Riot, Washington, DC
Their most violent battles were what the Plug Uglies called “battle royals” against Democratic party groups; some election day brawls left both sides with a half-dozen of their brothers earless, limbless or deceased. The worst of the battle royals accompanied the 1856 municipal elections. Rioting spread city-wide, with simultaneous brawls in multiple wards. One climatic ward battle was of such a grand scale that it included old artillery piece sending cannonballs into enemy lines. The stovepipe hats the gangsters wore were part of the battle gear, not formal wear used to accessorize on the way to the ball, kiddos! They stuffed their top hats with leather and wool scraps to cushion the skull against blows, and pulled down the hats over their ears in hopes of keeping both ears.
Photography not being widespread in the 1850s, nor typically pointed at street toughs, I wasn’t able to find a picture of one. Thus, I’ve taken up the task of cartooning a member of the Plug Uglies based on contemporary descriptions, complete with awl:
The end of the Plug Uglies was the end of Baltimoreans’ patience with all their brawling and election day brutality. The testimony of gang violence and polling place thuggery on the day of the 1859 municipal elections to the Maryland legislature was so game changing and important that it was transcribed and widely distributed; I even have a copy (it’s easily found here on the Google). The fire companies run by “volunteers” (thug clubs) were replaced by a professional, city-run fire department. The city’s management and functions like city policemen were removed from local control and taken over by a panel of reformers who rooted out corruption. Many Plug Uglies skipped town, notably to Richmond, Virginia, to avoid prosecution under the new regime.
Ultimately, American politics also had little room for a party that was relatively silent on the slavery question that was tearing the country apart. While fire-eaters on one side argued for secession and free-soilers ranted against the “machinations of the Slave Power“ on the opposing side, the American Party’s leading voice in the U.S. Congress, Rep. Henry Winter Davis, often at the head of the table at even the most raucous Plug Ugly celebrations in Baltimore, instructed party men that the only answer to the slavery question was “to be silent.” That just didn’t fit the bill, and like the Whigs before them, the American Party shattered and was lost in the smoke of the Civil War and forgotten.
Of course, the Plug Uglies and affiliated gangs didn’t vanish overnight. Allan Pinkerton himself warned Abe Lincoln of a plot by Blood Tubs to kill the president-elect in Baltimore; for this, the Tubbers even merited mention in Shelby Foote‘s immortal series “The Civil War: A Narrative.” Some blamed the Plug Uglies for the deadly Pratt Street Riots of April 19th, 1861, when a secessionist mob attacked Union soldiers passing through Baltimore to get to Washington, DC, because whenever there’s blood in the streets of Baltimore, the Plug Uglies naturally come to mind.
A telegram unearthed by Harry Ezratty in his 2010 book Baltimore in the Civil War: The Pratt Street Riot and a City Occupied from the man in charge of Baltimore police, Marshall George Kane, shows Kane, not Plug Uglies more to blame: “Streets red with Maryland blood; send expresses over the mountains of Maryland and Virginia for the riflemen to come without delay. Fresh hordes will come down on us tomorrow. We will fight them and whip them or die.”⁷ Still, anti-secessionist Plug Uglies were deemed responsible in the popular imagination. In New York, the 6th New York Regiment sailed from Staten Island for immediate deployment, “death to the Plug Uglies” their slogan.⁸
Across North America, from New Orleans to New York, from Maryland to Manitoba, “Plug Uglies” became a synonym for 19th century thuggery and Baltimore got the worst reputation of any major U.S. port city. The gangs of The Wire weren’t the first to rule the roost in Baltimore. The Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, Blood Tubbers, etc. and their predecessors stretching back to the War of 1812 and beyond gave B’more its fearsome “Mobtown” reputation.
Guerrilla violence against immigrants, ward battles and mayhem, tubs of gore, public intoxication, forced intoxication then cooping, repeat voters, riots, awls aimed at buttocks with different politics, doughfaces and dysentery…you won’t find this in AP History! Hope you found it interesting.
1. “American Party”, Ohio History Central, July 1, 2005, http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=838
2. Towers, F. (2004). The urban south and the coming of the civil war. (p. 134). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. Retrieved from Google Books Preview, p. 133
3. Poe, E. E. (1909, February). Poe, the weird genius. Cosmopolitan magazine, XLVI(3), Retrieved from Google Books Preview, p. 252
4. Goodheart, A. (2011). Chapter three: Forces of nature. In 1861: The Civil War Awakening New York, NY: Knopf.
5. Towers, F. (2004). The urban south and the coming of the civil war. (p. 100).
6. Silberman, L. R. (2011). Wicked baltimore: Charm city, sin and scandal. (pp. 64-65). The History Press. Retrieved from Google Books Preview, chapter “Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, Bloody Tubs, Oh My!”
7. Ezratty, H. A. (2011). Baltimore in the Civil War: The Pratt Street Riot and a City Occupied (Kindle Locations 880-882). The History Press. Kindle Edition.
8. Hannings, B. (2010). Every day of the civil war: A chronological encyclopedia. (p. 81). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. Retrieved from Google Books Preview, p. 81