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10 Cockamamie Causes of Riots

by Gary Pullman
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Riots have occurred in many places for many reasons, but they are often sparked by serious and significant situations, circumstances, or events: in prisons due to overcrowding, insufficient food, inadequate healthcare, or other grievances; at protests, when people who are discriminated against demand equal treatment under the law; during acts of civil disobedience, in which citizens clash with law enforcement personnel; at assemblies whose attendees challenge the authorities suspected of having committed crimes against a suspect.

The Boston Tea Party protested the Tea Act, which was seen as subjecting American colonists to “taxation without representation” since the colonists were British citizens but were not represented by any of the members of the British Parliament that had imposed the Tea Act. However, not all large-scale acts of violence result from egregious offenses or grievances. Some are prompted by less important, or even relatively trivial, incidents, as these 10 cockamamie causes of riots amply demonstrate.

Related: 10 Historical Riots With Important Consequences

10 Oliver Twist

According to an article in the April 3, 1949, edition of The Washington Evening Star, during the 1940s, selected members of the Motion Picture Export Association previewed movies to decide which they thought should be forwarded to the U.S. Army’s Civil Affairs Division (ACAD). Once the ACAD received the films, its personnel also reviewed them to ascertain whether any of the pictures cast aspersions on the United States, denigrated life in America, or otherwise violated “broad policy directives” in any way. Despite such diligence, one of the movies that was approved for showing to American soldiers in Berlin was deemed an offender: the British production Oliver Twist (1948).

What was offensive about this adaptation of Charles Dickens’s famous novel? Allegedly, it was anti-Semitic; moreover, it had “caused a riot and supplied grist for the communist propaganda mill.” The article does not explain what was allegedly anti-Semitic about the movie, nor does it provide any details about the riot itself that the movie caused. However, the piece does list some of the other films found too offensive for American troops to see. Some of the more surprising titles include The Maltese Falcon, which Brigadier General Robert A. McClure, who commented on the banned movies’ problematic contents, said contained “too much blood and thunder” for the troops; 30 Seconds Over Tokyo because “the Germans took too much delight in seeing other people [i.e., the Japanese] getting shellacked”; and This Land Is Mine, which “tended to remind the Germans of their triumphant days during the Nazi occupation of France.”[1]

9 King Creole

Elvis Presley – Trouble (1958) Complete original movie scene HD

In 1958, Paramount Pictures released King Creole starring Elvis Presley and Carolyn Jones. It was a huge hit across the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Mexico was an exception, where the movie caused a riot. As Jay Allen Sanford explains in his 2011 article on the melee, in 1959, “Mexico was in the midst of a huge anti-Elvis backlash.” The famed American singer was called a racist and a homosexual. According to columnist Federico de León, who made these false allegations, Presley had told him, “I’d rather kiss three black girls than a Mexican.”

The columnist’s scurrilous article was read on-air over Mexican Radio Exitos. Mexican journalists “suggested Elvis’s hip-wiggling and mannerisms proved he was either maricón (homosexual) or actually “a woman in reverse,” a woman in drag. The insolent artist was boycotted, his records were burned, and he was lampooned in a “musical spoof” the promotional posters for which depicted “Elvis in drag, being shot by rifle-toting men in sombreros, under a banner reading ‘Die Elvis Presley!’”

The same Mexican newspapers that had advertised the movie as Melodia Siniestra (Sinister Melody) reported that when the Américas Cinema showed King Creole in Mexico City in May 1959, the event caused a riot. Clearly, the anti-Elvis propaganda, based on false allegations by Federico de León, repeated by de León’s peers, and promoted in a musical spoof, was taken seriously enough to prompt violence in the nation’s capital.[2]


8 “Die Wacht Am Rhine”

Die Wacht am Rhein [Patriotic anthem][+English translation]

A patriotic German song, “Die Wacht Am Rhine” (“The Watch on the Rhine”), was also at the center of a riot. As reported in The San Francisco Call’s November 13, 1904, edition, the behavior of German scholars led to broken skulls in an altercation between them and Italian scholars at the University of Austria. More specifically, the article explained that the Germans had removed their own hats when they’d begun singing “Die Wacht Am Rhine,” and they’d insisted that everyone else join them in doing so. The “refusal [of] “Italians, Slavs and other non-Germans” to doff their hats led to bloodshed after the German students “knocked off their opponents’ headgear and trampled their hats and caps in the dust.”

As a result of the incident, the Italians mounted a counter-demonstration, singing their country’s national anthem, to which the Germans responded by attacking the counter-demonstrators and driving them from their position. In the ensuing melee, “sticks and umbrellas were freely used, and many heads were cracked.” Since the authorities were able to restrict the rioting to the campus, the police didn’t make any arrests.[3]

7 Insulting a Woman’s Feet

Forgotten Streetcar Tunnels of Chicago – IT’S HISTORY

The April 26, 1913, issue of The Day Book seems to delight in reporting a riot that occurred in the Windy City. When a male streetcar passenger “stumbled over” a young woman’s feet just after midnight, he added injury to insult. By voicing the unflattering observation that the woman’s shoes were outsized, he caused a riot.

The damsel in distress was aided by a knight in shining armor in the form of 20-year-old Walter Jones, newly arrived in Chicago, he said, from Kentucky. Jones’s altercation with the cad spilled over, becoming “a general mix-up” with the other passengers, many of whom “tried to jump from the crowded car.” After police quelled the riot, the woman’s protector and an 18-year-old youth were taken into custody, but the valiant “Jones was released after telling his story.”[4]


6 Failure to Resign

MPs behaving badly (Part 1)

A Tuesday, November 14, 1912, report in The Day Book advises the newspaper’s readers that James Lowther, the Speaker of the House of Commons, ordered the grand body’s adjournment until the following Monday. Members needed a cooling-off period, he believed, after the November 13 riot in which they’d engaged. In doing so, the speaker “severely rebuked” Prime Minister Asquith. It was he, Lowther stated, who had precipitated the violence by his having refused to resign following the government’s “defeat…on the home rule bill.”

During the riot, such “missiles [as] papers, books, [and] hats” were thrown about the chamber with wild abandon, one such projectile “blackening…[First Lord of the Admiralty Winston] Churchill’s eyes and scratching one side of his face.” The rain of missiles was accompanied by cries of “traitors, grinning apes, and other pet names” calculated to hurt the feelings of targeted individuals who did not succumb to the more tangible objects with which they were pelted.[5]

5 Poor Streetcar Service

A streetcar was the scene of another riot as well. This one occurred at Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, fifteen miles from Pittsburgh, according to The State-Line Herald’s November 5, 1909, edition. After “1,000 Westinghouse employees completely wrecked the cars of the Pittsburg [sic] Street railway company running between Pittsburgh and East Keesport, about twenty persons,” half of whom were women, were injured. The Westinghouse employees’ actions notwithstanding, the article’s headline blames “mad patrons” for wrecking the cars.

Apparently, some riders disagreed with the street railway commission’s prohibition of passengers’ riding on the front platform when no standing room remained in the car. As a result of the riot, “several cars were badly wrecked,” service was stalled for an hour, and two police officers were “badly hurt by flying stones.”[6]


4 Silk Hat

You’re the Top! A History of the Top Hat

One of the more cockamamie causes of riots has to be the silk hat that occasioned a 1797 riot in London. Apparently, John Hetherington, the proprietor of a Strand haberdashery shop, was proud of his silk hat or, perhaps, of its size. The hat was so huge that it actually terrified some passersby. The September 25, 1913, edition of The Wahpeton Times reported that it attracted “a mob of such proportions that Hetherington was arrested and charged before the lord mayor with inciting a riot.”

The arresting constable testified that Hetherington had had the audacity to wear the offending headgear, “a tall structure he called a silk hat, having a shiny luster and calculated to frighten timid people.” As a result of this outrage, women fainted, children screamed, and dogs yelped. Cordwainer Thomas’s young son received the worst of it. Having been “thrown down by the crowd,” the lad broke his right arm.

In defense of himself, the mad hatter decreed that, as an Englishman, he had the right “to wear any hat he chose.” Despite his contention, the haberdasher was “bound over in $2,500 to keep the peace.”[7]

3 Slouched Hat

KINGS OF SPAIN – EPISODE 10 – CHARLES III

In recounting an event that almost ended in mayhem, the St. John’s Caledonian newspaper of October 23, 1896, describes how, in the Netherlands, nobles, following the example of their king, who had donned his hat after his address to the states-general, likewise put on their own hats. When commoners, who lacked their privilege, did the same, the nobles objected. A near-riot threatened to break out until the resourceful king made the dispute irrelevant by again removing his hat, causing both groups to follow suit. Thanks to the king’s quick thinking, wholesale violence had been averted between the two groups.

Twenty years earlier, the Spanish had not been as fortunate. King Charles III thought that the “flopping brims” of his peasants’ slouch hats, like the streets of Madrid, looked untidy. To solve both problems, Charles decreed that all brims must be pinned up and that all homeowners must “clean the street opposite his premises.” The good residents of the nation’s capital were okay with the street cleaning but incensed about the hat brim decree and took up arms, rioting for a week, except from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m., when the rioters and the Spanish soldiers opposing them took time out for a siesta.

The riots continued, and Charles was terrified. He abandoned Madrid and considered making Seville the new capital of Spain. Dissuaded from this proposal by his ministers, he decided it was best to compromise with his stubborn, valiant subjects. Although, “within the walls of Madrid” itself, men must continue to pin up the floppy brims of their slouch hats, they could “let it slouch outside the city’s confines.” The rioting was finally over.[8]


2 Stale Egg

As Benjamin Franklin noted, ultimately, “for want of a shoe…the kingdom was lost.” Thanks to a stale egg, a similar state of affairs happened in Portland, Oregon, according to an article in the December 11, 1917, edition of the Hopkinsville Kentuckian newspaper. While they were in the process of moving furniture, a pair of men were almost struck by the egg, which had been thrown at them by “a practical joker.”

Instead, the egg struck an upholstered chair. The sight of the “splash of yellow” that the missile left on the chair’s upholstery triggered the man who owned the furniture. Seizing an ax, he chased an innocent bystander, apparently mistaking him for the joker. The bystander grabbed a stick to defend himself, and the fierce fight broadened further, becoming general, as others in the vicinity pitched in, throwing bricks. The melee continued until two brave police officers armed with clubs used violence to end violence.[9]

1 A Kiss

As Louis Armstrong and a host of other singers have sung in “As Time Goes By,” “a kiss is just a kiss”—at least until it sets off a riot. That’s just what happened in Rock Island, Illinois, the Rock Island Argus newspaper’s August 12, 1918, edition advises its readers. The city’s canteen committee had secured the presence of a police matron to make sure that women did not walk alongside a train carrying troops through the city and converse with the military men. In defiance of the prohibition and despite the presence of the police matron, a young man aboard the train leaped out of the window to kiss a petite woman—his friend—who was accompanied by another, larger woman.

When a female member of the canteen committee caught the smaller woman, her companion came to her assistance, pulling the canteen committee woman’s hair. A “free-for-all” fight then took place, constituting a small riot, until the matron and a police officer managed to quell the disturbance. Since nobody was keen on pressing charges, the women were allowed to leave, the matron instructing them to “go home.” Sometimes, it seems, a kiss is not “just a kiss,” after all.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

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