"A scene of horror and murder ensued, which for its barbarity has no parallel in the history of the American people…" - Report from Maryland House of Delegate (Donald Hickey, “The War of 1812, A Forgotten Conflict”)
Journalism is a dangerous and even deadly business. So much so that the “Journalists Memorial” at the “Newseum” in Washington, D.C. contains the names of over 2,000 reporters, photographers and broadcasters who have died bringing us the news.
Alexander Contee Hanson (1786-1819), founder and publisher of the Federal Republican in Baltimore, is not so honored. A case, however, could be made for his inclusion. About a month after President James Madison signed the declaration of war against Great Britain in June 1812, a savage mob beat Hanson to within an inch of his life. The native of Maryland never fully recovered from his injuries and died at age 33.
The attack on Hanson and those who supported him came during the “Great Baltimore Riots of 1812.” The Arlington House at Arlington Cemetery commemorated the event yesterday with a program that featured an interpretive talk, walking tours of War of 1812 graves, drum and fife war music, and a procession to the grave of General James Lingan, a supporter of Hanson who was beaten to death during the riots.
In the months leading up to the war, Baltimore, the fastest growing and third largest city in the country, held strong anti-British and pro-war feelings. In an act they called “impressment,” the Royal Navy has been seizing American merchant sailors for their war against France. Maryland men numbering in the thousands had met this fate.
Politically, Baltimore supported the Madison administration (Republican party). Hanson, pro-Federalist, was a natural rival. Three times a week his oddly-named newspaper, fully titled Federal Republican and Commercial Gazette, attacked the President’s policies.
Fairly or unfairly, Baltimore would soon earn the nickname, “Mobtown.” Another reason for the increase in civic unrest was a change in the way Americans got their news. Stephanie R. Hurter (“A Riotous Affair”) writes:
In the port city of Baltimore, the world of the public sphere was experiencing a huge transition from an oral culture dependent upon spoken rhetoric to a print culture dependent upon publications began to occur. Newspapers, such as Hanson's Federal Republican or the democratically led Whig, began publicly airing debates that previously had been restricted to those few men gathered in the local tavern. The consensus and homogeneity previously enjoyed by the inhabitants of Baltimore was crumbling and the tensions that emerged erupted against Hanson.
Mobs had torched or torn down buildings before, but mostly refrained from killing. In his Journal of History article, author Paul A. Gilje notes:
…the near anarchic and brutal massacre at the jailhouse is an example of the disintegration of the traditional Anglo-American mob behavior and the emergence of a new form of rioting.
Hanson and his partner published their newspaper on Gay Street. On June 22nd, an angry mob torn down the building and destroyed the presses. Hanson retreated to Georgetown and printed at 30th and M Street in Georgetown. A passion for politics ran high in the family. In a largely honorary position, Hanson’s grandfather, John Hanson, served as the first president of the Continental Congress from 1781 to 1782.
That summer, the mobs continued to own the night. They picked fights in the streets, dismantled ships in the harbor and destroyed property of African-Americans. Standing somewhere between stubborn and brave, Hanson returned to Baltimore and began publishing at 45 S. Charles Street.
On July 27, another rowdy bunch gathered in front of the three-story brick building. A week or so later, when the rioters threatened again, police force and militia quelled the disturbances. On this lawless night, however, the mob ruled. Lubricated in some instances with booze, the crowd began to throw stones and break windows. Some in the crowd were riffraff, but leadership came from men such as Dr. Thadeus Gale. Some others were members of the militia.
Hanson, Lingan, Harry “Light Horse” Lee and about two-dozen supporters were armed and ready for the attack. When the mob broke down the door, the Federalists shot and killed Gale (Hanson was charged and found not guilty.)
At daylight, a truce of sorts was worked out. 23 of the Federalists who had stayed the night were taken into custody and hauled to the city jail. Strengthened by ruffians, the crowd proceeded to destroy and loot the house. That evening they rumbled to the city jail. The mayor tried calming measures, but his words of authority were no longer enough. The mob stormed into the cell. A dozen or so of the Federalists escaped while the rest, including Hanson, Lingan and Lee, did not and were repeatedly beaten and tortured.
Blaine Tayor (Military Heritage, October 2011) writes:
Lingan was fatally stabbed in the chest while on his knees, begging for mercy as the crowd danced with glee. Children clapped their hands and women shouted, “Kill the Tories.”
Some of the victims tried to play dead but were cut in the face with penknives. Hot candle grease was poured into their eyes.
The irony behind the murder of Lingan, born in Maryland and raised in Georgetown, was a cruel one. During the Revolutionary War, he rose from the rank of Lieutenant to General. Fighting at the battle at Fort Washington in 1776, a Hessian bayonet pierced his chest. Imprisoned for three years, Lingan refused an offer to don a British turncoat against his country.
The General survived and became a respected merchant in Georgetown. He was one of the original property owners who conveyed land to George Washington in the forming of the new Federal capital in 1791. Around the turn of the century, Lingan built the “Prospect House” in Georgetown, and served as a founding member of the Society of Cincinnati, the nation’s oldest patriotic organization.
The beating and stabbing at the jail kept coming, and nearly killed Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, and a Revolutionary War veteran himself. Hanson suffered internal injuries, damage to his spinal chord and collarbone, wounds to his head and hands, and a broken nose. About a dozen of the others were bludgeoned, stripped of clothing and piled into a heap.
Hanson survived and served in Congress for several years, but suffered relapses and succumbed in 1819. According to the “Encyclopedia of Media and Propaganda in Wartime America,” “he never fully recovered from the injuries he had sustained which contributed to his early death on December 23, 1819.” Hanson was buried at the family plot behind the Belmont Manor in Elkridge, Maryland.
The massacre shocked the nation. The funeral in Washington for Lingan, a native of Maryland and resident of Georgetown, drew thousands of mourners. George Washington Parker Custis, step grandson of George Washington and builder of Arlington House (“Custis-Lee Mansion”), gave a fiery speech denouncing the actions of the mobs and noting the end of innocence.
(Lingan’s body had been hastily buried in Baltimore, then moved a year later to Georgetown. In 1908, his remains were re-interred at Arlington Cemetery).
In 1996, Rob Hiaasen of the Baltimore Sun wrote an article about Lingan (“When an editorial could get you killed”). The Newseum, then located in Rosslyn, had honored the General by placing his name on the Journalists Memorial. Further research by the Freedom Forum, however, revealed he was not a journalist. His name was removed from the Memorial.
Hanson has not been so honored by the Freedom Forum, but perhaps they will some day. Either way, it is important to remember the bravery this publisher showed 200 years ago. The First Amendment gives Americans the right of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, as well as the right of the people to assemble. Please note, however, it says to do so “peaceably.”
"The Baltimore Riots of 1812 and the Breakdown of the Anglo-American Mob Tradition," Paul A. Gilje, Journal of American History (1980)
"Rioting in America," Paul A. Gilje
"The War of 1812, A Forgotten Conflict," Donald Hickey
"Encyclopedia of Media and Propaganda in Wartime America," Martin J. Manning, Clarence R. Wyatt
"The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812," Troy Bickham
"A Riotous Affair," Stephanie R. Hurter
Historic American Buildings Survey, Prospect House, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C
Newspaper accounts by Nancy Piper
"A Site for the “Federal City”: The Original Proprietors and Their Negotiations with Washington" Louis Dow Scisco
"Maryland: A History of Its People," Suzanne Ellery Greene Chapelle
"The Story of Belmont," Barbara Brand (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974)
My special thanks to Mary Ellen Baker, General Manager of the Belmont Manor and Historic Park, for showing me the final resting place of Hanson in Elkridge, Maryland.
To help preserve the Manor, please visit the SaveBelmont website.
Thank you also to Patty Rhule of the Newseum for answering my inquiries. I suggested Hanson be considered for the Journalist Memorial. They looked at his case previously, but are considering a re-look, if you will.
Nine of the victims appeared before John Fleming, Justice of the Peace for Montgomery County on August 12, 1812, and gave their testimony.
Peregrine Warfield, Richard I. Crabb, Charles J. Kilgour, Henry Nelson, Ephraim Gaither, Robert Kilgour, John A. Payne, H. C. Gaither, and Alexander C. Hanson.