To put it mildly, the 19th century was a time of tremendous social unrest, which means it was chock-full of riots. Some were political riots; many were racially charged. But there were also some insane 19th century riots with shocking and bizarre displays of mob violence that were positively bonkers.
This list gathers instances of ridiculous 19th century riots that went beyond your standard, History 101 civil disturbances. These crazy riots featured cross-dressing, Shakespeare, clowns, fish, beer, and, sadly, a giant hydrogen balloon savagely torn to shreds.
Read on to learn all about the most insane, over-the-top, and downright bizarre riots of the 19th century.
The Toronto Circus Riot of 1855: Clowns vs. Firefighters
It's a recipe for disaster: Friday the 13th, a brothel, drunken clowns, and pissed-off firefighters with a history of violence. Mix them together and you get the Toronto Circus Riot of 1855, which ended with the Big Top on fire and a troupe full of clowns beaten to a brightly-colored pulp.
It all started when clowns from SB Howes’s traveling Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus decided to end their night at a "house of ill-fame" on King St. in Toronto. They got into a drunken scuffle with members of the Hook & Ladder Firefighting Company, a local volunteer fire brigade known for inciting an earlier riot with a competing brigade. The clowns seriously injured two firefighters, which they would later learn was a big mistake.
The next day - Friday, July 13, 1885 - the Hook & Ladders, along with an angry mob of stone-throwing supporters, destroyed the circus with pikes and axes, mercilessly walloped the clowns, and almost set the animal cages on fire (the otherwise blind-eyed police, fortunately, thwarted that plan). A local militia swooped in and calmed things down, allowing the terrified carnies to gather what remained of their circus and hightail it out of town.
The Newlyn Fish Riots of 1896: Holy Mackerel!
A three-day riot over whether or not it's okay to catch fish on the Sabbath? Holy mackerel!
In 1896, the fishing port of Newlyn in Cornwall, England was a hot spot for fishermen, local and otherwise. The local Methodist fishermen didn't think it was cool to fish on the Sabbath, but the non-Cornish thought it was, quite literally, fair game.
On May 18, 1896, Newlyn fisherman and a mob of 1,000 supporters seized 16 non-Cornish boats and threw approximately 100,000 mackerel overboard. Over the next three days, the rioting escalated so much, the military had to come to town to calm things down. Fortunately, the only serious recorded injury was to a local police inspector who got knocked on the head by a fish box.
The Eggnog Riot of 1826: West Point Gets Sloppy
West Point is now synonymous with order and discipline, but in 1826, the military academy had a full-scale riot on its hands, all thanks to eggnog.
Earlier that same year, West Point banned alcohol, abolishing the annual Christmas Eve tradition of nog and revelry. Several cadets, however, thought it would be a great idea to smuggle whiskey into the barracks (pictured at far left) and throw a big party. Nearly 100 drunken cadets - including Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy - had way too much to drink and began smashing windows, furniture, and crockery.
Violence escalated throughout the barracks, with some cadets threatening their superior officers with swords (one even fired his pistol, but the bullet just hit the door jamb). In the end, 19 cadets were expelled, but not Davis: he passed out too early into the night to cause any real trouble.
The Balloon Riot of 1864: RIP Brittania
British ballooning pioneer Henry Coxwell was a pretty big deal. About 50,000 people came to check out his latest and largest hydrogen balloon, the Brittania, in Leicester, England, on July 11, 1864. But someone in the crowd spread a rumor the Brittania was not, in fact, his largest balloon. The crowd, feeling duped, pressed in closer to Coxwell and his craft, with several in the mob climbing in the Brittania, "demanding an instantaneous ascent."
Coxwell had enough: to quell the onslaught, he let the gas out of the balloon, which further enraged the crowds. Police helped him escape, but he was forced to watch as rioters tore his balloon to shreds, fought over the pieces, and even set the basket on fire.