Most of history’s great riots were triggered by social unrest or political turmoil, but sometimes all it took to cause an uproar was a few too many drinks or a tragic misunderstanding. From a booze-fueled rampage at the nation’s most prestigious military academy to a melee over a ballooning exhibition, get the facts on six public disturbances that were as ridiculous as they were destructive.
The “Eggnog Riot” of 1826 might be history’s most extreme example of a holiday party gone wrong. The hubbub began on Christmas Eve, when cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point gathered for their traditional end of the year soiree. West Point had instituted a ban on alcohol earlier that year, but a few cadets—including future president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis—smuggled in several gallons of spirits and mixed up a batch of potent eggnog. By 4 a.m., their carousing had grown loud enough to draw attention. When faculty members tried to snuff out the party, the school’s North Barracks erupted into chaos. Around 90 inebriated cadets ignored orders and began breaking windows, smashing furniture and even threatening their superiors with swords. One reveler beat a barracks monitor with a log, and another shot at a faculty member with a pistol as the man tried to break open a barricaded door. It took until dawn before the drunken cadets finally came to their senses. By then, many had more than a hangover to worry about. Nineteen rioters were charged for their role in the disturbance, and 12 were expelled. Jefferson Davis managed to dodge a court martial, but only because he’d been ordered to his room and passed out before things got out of hand.
It’s hard to imagine classical music leading to violence, but that’s precisely what happened on May 29, 1913, when composer Igor Stravinsky’s avant-garde ballet “The Rite of Spring” debuted at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. Eyewitness accounts differ, but most suggest the uproar began shortly after the curtain rose and the piece’s first notes rang out. Audience members hissed and jeered at the performers, and some hurled objects at the stage. As the orchestra struggled to continue playing over the din, fights broke out between rival factions of spectators. One of the musicians would later write, “Many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was pulled down by an opponent over his eyes and ears, and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat.” According to some accounts, the scuffles eventually poured out onto the streets, and one man challenged another to a duel before the police arrived and made arrests. It’s still not entirely clear what triggered the melee. Some argue the crowd was simply jarred by the dissonant sounds and unusual dance choreography, but others suggest the disturbance was pre-planned by enemies of Stravinsky and ballet choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky.
In his famous work, “The Jewish War,” the ancient chronicler Josephus recounts a particularly unusual disturbance that occurred between Jews and occupying Roman soldiers in the 1st century A.D. The incident began during Passover, when scores of Jews gathered for a celebration at a temple in Jerusalem. Roman troops stood guard over the ceremonies from atop battlements, and according to Josephus, “One of the soldiers, raising his robe, stooped in an indecent attitude, so as to turn his backside to the Jews, and made a noise in keeping with his posture.” This ancient instance of “mooning” sent the crowd into an outrage, and many began yelling insults and lobbing stones at the Roman soldiers. A terrified Roman commander called in reinforcements to quell the riot, and the troops attacked the Jewish worshippers in force and tried to drive them from the temple. According to Josephus, the ensuing rush to escape the building “was so great, that they trod upon each other, and squeezed one another, till ten thousand of them were killed.”
On February 10, 1355—St. Scholastica’s Day—two university students in Oxford, England, complained to the barkeep of the Swindlestock Tavern about the low quality of the wine being served. When the tavern owner responded with “stubborn and saucy language,” the students threw their cups at the man’s head and beat him senseless. This seemingly minor bar fight sparked three days of bitter rioting between the Oxford townspeople and university scholars. After ringing church bells to help rally their numbers, both sides clashed with fists and weapons and set fire to nearby buildings. The fighting reached a bloody climax on February 12, when a mob of some 2,000 townspeople descended on the university’s academic halls and beat, stabbed and even scalped several scholars before putting the rest to a rout. When the dust finally cleared, 63 students and 30 townspeople lay dead. King Edward III later launched an investigation into the incident, and levied harsh fines and penalties against the town of Oxford. For several hundred years, the town’s mayor was forced to march to the university church each St. Scholastica Day and hand over 63 pennies—one for each student killed during the rioting.
Accounts differ as to how the “Doctors’ Riot” of 1788 first began, but one of the most common stories describes a young boy or some other passersby spotting the severed arm of a corpse dangling from the window of the New York Hospital. At the time, the city was awash with rumors—no doubt partially true—of doctors and medical students robbing graves to procure fresh cadavers for dissection, and the misplaced limb was enough to whip people into a frenzy. A mob quickly gathered and stormed the hospital laboratory, where they found three mangled bodies in the process of being dissected. Enraged at what they believed were stolen corpses, the rioters ransacked the lab and burned much of its equipment. New York police locked the hospital’s doctors and medical students in jail for their own protection, but the mob returned the following day and continued to scour medical dormitories and physicians’ homes in search of more bodies. A 5,000-strong crowd later besieged the jail where the doctors were being held and tried to break in with bricks and pieces of wood, only to be pushed back and fired upon by militiamen and jailers. Several people were killed before the mob finally dispersed. Amazingly, the New York Doctors’ Riots weren’t the only public disturbance caused by allegations of grave robbing for medical purposes. Between the 1760s and the 1850s, there were as many as 13 other “anatomy riots” from Maryland to Vermont.
On July 11, 1864, British ballooning pioneer Henry Coxwell appeared in the town of Leicester to put on an aerial display of his new balloon, the “Britannia.” Around 50,000 people came to watch the exhibition, but some excited onlookers pushed too close to Coxwell and prevented him from making his ascent. As the aeronaut pleaded with them to back way, a rumor spread through the crowd that the hot air balloon on display was small compared to Coxwell’s other vehicles—a “cruel libel,” he later wrote—which only further incensed the spectators. When the impatient mob began to damage the basket by hanging on it, Coxwell carried through on a threat to let all the gas out of the balloon, “so as not to endanger the lives of my passengers, among whom were two ladies.” As the “Britannia” deflated, the situation devolved into an all-out riot. Coxwell had his clothes ripped by angry members of the mob, and only escaped injury after police helped lead him to safety in a nearby house. While he made his getaway, he was forced to watch as spectators grabbed his prized balloon and tore it to shreds before setting the basket ablaze. A few members of the crowd gathered bits of the wreckage to sell as souvenirs, and others triumphantly paraded the remains through the streets. Leicester later blamed the incident on out-of-town visitors, but a group of locals chipped in to compensate Coxwell for his wrecked balloon.