Thursday, March 29, 2012

Patrick Dempsey and the Rum Riots

City Directory, 1876
America has long had a love-hate relationship with alcohol.  Our history shows these periods of temperance and intemperance.  The 19thth century is ideal to reflect on the people involved in the never ending debate, and Lowell was no exception.  Let’s take the case of Patrick Dempsey.

His obituary reads like the cause for canonization of a saint.  He was a man of few words, but when he spoke they had worth.  His name appears as a regular contributor to a number of causes, especially to St. John’s Hospital where he contributed preserves, sugar, and a child’s bathtub.  He was one of the founding members who donated heavily to the hospital’s opening.  His name appears frequently for sending floral tributes to funerals of friends, neighbors, and employees.  He was so well known to his fellow Irish that he was asked to be a pall bearer at Father John O’Brien’s funeral.  It was said that he was the first of Lowell’s Irish immigrants to have earned considerable wealth. 

His financial status enabled him to buy considerable real estate, centering in the Acre.  He bought an estate on Salem Street where he made his home for his 2 wives and a dozen children.  Though he could have moved into any of the newer neighborhoods, he chose to remain in the Acre.  The property attached to his home was called Dempsey’s Place and was a heavily crowded series of tenements typically rented to other Irish.  He also bought property in Salem, Mass where he had a summer home, and his family often made trips across the country.  His son, however, would move into a great home on Andover Street following his father’s death. 

At one point he was sued by a neighbor for erecting a high stockade fence which she argued caused  an unhealthy lack of light resulting in sickness and even a death in her home.  And then there was the case where Mr. Dempsey sued the Congregational Church on Merrimack Street for water damage from the church’s gutters that flooded Dempsey’s liquor business on Lowell (Market) Street.  He made it a point to stay out of politics, but could be quite outspoken if there was a possibility of his property being rezoned or of taxes status being altered.
Lowell Cultural Resource Inventory
So where did his wealth come from?  Alcohol.  Born in County Wicklow, Patrick Dempsey came to America and began work in a print and dye factory.  He moved from place to place until landing in Lowell.  He rented a basement on Lowell Street where he brewed root beer.  He was so successful that he branched into beer and other spirits.  Within a few years he became the leading saloon owner not only in Lowell, but in the entire state.  He turned brewing into big business opening shops and bars across the city and dealing sprits across the state.  And that brings us to “the rum riot.”

The 19th century was a period of great change.  The temperance movement had begun in the early part of the century and made advancements throughout the decades.  Across the country laws were being passed on restrictions of who, where, and how much alcohol could be brewed.  Massachusetts was no exception.  The state sent sheriffs out to seize barrels of the stuff during a particularly strict period of prohibition in 1870s.  When they came to Lowell, Dempsey, since he was the largest, was also the first establishment to be visited.  As soon as word got out that they were at Dempsey’s a crowd gathered from amongst “the lower strata of the population.”  “The roughs collected, ready for a row or fight.”  The crowds began stoning the officers.  One of the roughians used a hoe to strike an officer.  The officer’s gun fired during the melee hitting one of the crowd.    The man who struck the officer, Pender, was arrested and held for bail, but his case was quickly moved since his family was known to have small pox.  The next day the crowd returned, but was informed of undercover constables in the crowd who were ready to stop any trouble before it erupted.  The establishments that were visited read like a list of Lowell’s Irish who’s who.  There was Lynch, Cummiskey, and Collins.  It goes on.  The constables came back yet a third day when the crowds started up again.  This time the constables came back in full force.  They were supported by women and girls waving handkerchiefs and shouting, “Huzza,” cheering on the police.   Over the 3 days, hundreds of barrels of alcohol were confiscated and placed under guard until they could be shipped to Boston.  There were fears that the crowds might attempt to remove the spirits.
Lowell Sun, 1902
Things must have changed quickly, for very shortly Mr. Dempsey was back in business and his advertisements were back in the papers.  His son took over the business and even moved it to Boston where the Dempsey name was exported across the country.  His son was rumored to have tried influencing Lowell’s politicians by swaying elections.  Dempsey died in 1902.  The church where he worshipped for over 50 years was filled to near capacity.   He was laid to rest in the Catholic Burial Ground, and the era of the old Irish immigrant making good came to an end. 

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