By Jared Olar
In recent weeks, this column recalled two local historical events that may be called “the worst and the first.” The Little Mine Riot of 1894 was Tazewell County’s worst riot, while Pekin’s first riot happened in 1851.
In both cases, the riot involved a group of workers, but the similarity between the two riots begins and ends there. In 1894, it was an acrimonious dispute between miners and the mine’s owners, but in 1851 it was simply a case of a steamboat’s deck hands drinking to excess.
The standard histories of Pekin and Tazewell County offer much more information about the Little Mine Riot than of the 1851 riot in Pekin. We know many of the details of the Little Mine Riot, but of the 1851 riot we know only the date (the Fourth of July), that the group of rioters was large, and that they worked off their fines on a chain gang doing maintenance on Pekin’s streets.
Pekin historian William H. Bates wrote the first-ever historical sketch of Pekin about 19 years after the riot of 1851, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he doesn’t even provide the name of the steamboat, let alone the exact number of rioters who were arrested. Much later, Pekin old-timer Emil Schilling said there were about 30 or 40 rioters – but it seems it would have been an unusually large steamboat to have had that many deck hands.
These gaps in Pekin’s historical record can be filled in with information found in a newspaper report of the riot of 1851. No doubt news of the riot made the papers in Tazewell County. Even without radio, television, or the Internet, within days rumors and hearsay of the riot would have spread throughout central Illinois. And so, less than two weeks later, Tazewell County’s neighbors in McLean County were able the read the following report in the Bloomington Pantagraph of July 16, 1851:
“Considerable of a riot occurred at Pekin on the 4th inst. It seems that the hands belonging to the steamer Lucy Bertram got on a spree while she was lying at that place, whereupon they assaulted some of the citizens, but no very serious damage was done. Eighteen of the crew were immediately taken before the mayor to be tried for rioting. Seventeen of them were convicted and fined $55. One was acquitted, one paid the fine, one gave security, and the balance were placed upon the streets to work out their fines.”
This report – a copy of which was graciously provided by Ken Lacey of the Manito Historical Society – provides the steamboat’s name (the Lucy Bertram) as well as the number of deck hands arrested (18 – a good deal less than 30 or 40), even informing us of the disposition of the charges against the 18 deck hands. Only 15 of the hands had to work on the chain gang to pay off their fines of $55 each (quite a considerable sum in those days).
These are the kinds of details that naturally fade from memory with the passage of time. The inflation of the number of deck hands from 18 to 30 or 40 is the kind of thing that, like a tall tale, grows in the telling and retelling.