Mob Town Defeats the Mobs, Builds a Model Fire Department in the 19th Century
By Rob Williams, Assistant Director of the Fire Museum of Maryland
“The townhouse is on fire! Sound the alarm!”
Bells ring throughout the neighborhood as flames threaten the entire block. Barreling down the street are 60 firemen pulling their 1,500 pound hand-pumper. Dogs and people race alongside cheering them on. From the north comes the Blood Tubs Street Gang ahead of a neighboring fire house. Like in a rugby scrum, only with bats and knives, the two opposing companies clash in front of your house. While your house burns to the ground, the two companies and their associated gangs are knocking heads over who will be first to hook up to the fire hydrant.
Scenes like these were typical in the pre-Civil War Baltimore. Historian J. Thomas Scharf described in 1881 the chaotic scene of firemen racing to the fire in the early 1830s:
“The alarm of fire, we are told, sounded to the peaceful citizens as a war-hoop, and the scene of conflagration was the scene of riot, if not invariably bloodshed. Gangs of disorderly blackguards, adopting the names of some of our fire companies, would marshal themselves under ringleaders, and armed with bludgeons, knives, and even fire arms, fight with each other like hordes of savages.”
In addition, the same gangs created riots during city elections to dissuade voters from casting their ballots against their respective parties. Finally in 1859, Baltimore citizens had enough of the violence and corruption. They created a reform committee and removed many corrupt politicians, the American Party, and the volunteer fire companies who held enormous power over the city. At the same time their efforts curbed the street gangs who threatened to take control of the city.
While most volunteer companies provided protection from fire and attacks by Native Americans and pirates in the early 1800s, several independent volunteer companies became complicit in keeping the gangs and crooked politicians in power. By the 1840s, this minority of rowdy fire companies that made up the Baltimore United Fire Department became so destructive to the culture and political structure of Baltimore that citizens formed bipartisan reform groups to force much-needed change. In the process, they created the current Baltimore City Fire Department, which became a model department in the 20th century.
By the 1850s, Baltimore had earned its moniker “Mob Town” as it grew into the 3rd largest city in the United States. Despite Baltimore’s port, located near vastly productive farmlands, population growth and the rapid cycles of prosperity and depression created uncertain futures and a criminal underclass.
Street gangs with names like the Foundation Rackers, the Cock Robins, the Blood Tubs and the notorious Plug Uglies, gained power and attached themselves to a number of city fire houses. The problems of the Baltimore United Fire Department and the gangs are detailed in Clarence H. Forrest’s Official History of the Baltimore City Fire Department (1898), Scharf’s The History of Baltimore City and County… (1881), and The Hanging of Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore’s Plug Uglies, 1854- 1860 by Tracy Matthew Melton (2004). This history and related photographs are documented in the Archives of the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville, MD.
Fire Companies and Political Power
Fire companies in major cities during the 1800s typically sprang up as semi-independent volunteer organizations – usually in response to a major fire. Volunteering gave men status and prestige in their neighborhoods, the fire houses were the community centers of the day. Several Baltimore fire houses even had lending libraries, held educational lectures for the working class, and provided space for dinners and celebrations. However, having up to 200 white males as members in each house provided a powerful voting bloc in every neighborhood where women, immigrants and other minorities were not allowed to vote. In many ways, the volunteer companies were similar to organized sports teams. The companies drilled their firemen and put on fierce competitions to see who had the best equipment and strongest firemen.
When the alarm sounded, 60 to 200 volunteers raced through the streets pulling their hand-pumped “enjines” to the fire. It took 60 men to pull the heavy fire engines and required many more firemen to keep the water flowing through the top-mounted nozzle. Up to 40 firemen, depending on the engine, took turns thrashing the pump handles up and down, 60 to 90 times a minute. Other firemen stood ready to jump in while others manned the hoses and raced in to gather up belongings inside the house. This dazzling display of bravery and strength drew in young males who hung around the fire houses waiting for action. Often when a fire bell rang, gang members, who were attached to that company, would race ahead to fight off other fire companies from hooking up to the hydrants.
The fighting escalated. Riots were common during fires and elections. Companies battled each other and destroyed each other’s fire engines and fire houses. Gangs became well-drilled armies who challenged rival gangs for control of their neighborhood. Murder, assaults and destruction of property were all too common.
At the same time, Baltimore politicians used the gangs’ affiliation with the volunteer fire companies to keep people in fear and themselves in power. Politicians from both the anti-immigrant American Party and the Southern-sympathizing Democrat Party were backed by gangs who helped sway elections. The gangs provided people who voted multiple times in different locations and they intimidated legitimate voters. Gang members began infiltrating city government and were running for the States Attorney’s office and the Clerk of the Court.
Finally on October 8, 1858, New Market VFD brawled with a social club inside Lexington Market, resulting in gunfire and several members of the social club getting shot. Members of the social club retaliated and vandalized New Market’s fire house. The public had had enough. After years of reform attempts, a bipartisan committee organized rallies calling for fair elections, and the ouster of American Party politicians and the Baltimore United Fire Department. Hundreds of citizens rallied on Monument Street.
The gangs were so incensed they held their own parade dressed in outlandish costumes. They shouted threats of violence from a small schooner mounted on a wagon while others struck hammers on a flaming forge pulled on a wagon. The hammer blows rang through the night. They threatened bloodshed at the polls should a democrat appear or if the reformers pushed their agenda. The Blood Tubs marched in unison behind a banner of a voter having his head pushed into a tub of blood.
At the same time, a reformed police department provided an armed force that was able to go up against the gangs. In February 1859, city government dissolved the Baltimore United Fire Department and the modern Baltimore City Fire Department (BCFD) was inaugurated. Many American Party candidates were defeated and by the Civil War the party moved into obscurity.
Over the next 15 years, the BCFD fine-tuned their ordinances, modeling their agency into the paramilitary career organization it is today. Engine Company No. 8 on West Mulberry Street was one of the four new stations built in 1871 as part of the reorganized BCFD. The façade and first floor of the fire house have been reconstructed inside the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville. To learn more about the volunteers and the history of urban fire service, visit the Fire Museum of Maryland, in Lutherville, MD. Open Saturdays, May – December and Wednesday – Saturday, June through August. Go to www.firemuseummd.org for more information.
The 1849 John Rodgers hand-drawn pumper, owned by Baltimore’s Deptford Co., one of the more rowdy fire companies that had affiliations with The Blood Tubs, according to writer Tracy Matthew Melton, The Hanging of Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore’s Plug Uglies, 1854-1860 (2004). On exhibit at the Fire Museum of Maryland, Lutherville, MD
The cast iron façade and first floor of Engine No. 8 Fire House, has been reconstructed in the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville. The exhibit contains the harnesses, horse, steam-powered fire engine, hose reel, cast iron pole and the hose tower. Engine 8, 1871 – 1912, was the first fire house in Baltimore to have a hose drying tower, which became standard in most city fire departments. It was located on West Schroeder and Mulberry Streets.
Engine Company No. 1 Steam Engine, from the 1870s. Steam-powered pumpers replaced hand-pumped engines in the new Baltimore City Fire Department, starting in 1859. Notice the driver rides (find correct spelling) –style on the lead horse for better control, from the Digital Archives of the Fire Museum of Maryland.