President Abraham Lincoln Pardons One of the June 1857 Know-Nothing Rioters

Rioters had been jailed under a charge that they intended to kill U.S. Marines.

Likely the pardoned man volunteered to join the Union Army, leading to the pardon

In the mid-1850s, the controversial, nativist “Know-Nothing” Party was immensely powerful in Washington, D.C. The mayor, John T. Towers, was a member of that party. When he declined to run again for the June 1857 election, the Know-Nothings...

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President Abraham Lincoln Pardons One of the June 1857 Know-Nothing Rioters

Rioters had been jailed under a charge that they intended to kill U.S. Marines.

Likely the pardoned man volunteered to join the Union Army, leading to the pardon

In the mid-1850s, the controversial, nativist “Know-Nothing” Party was immensely powerful in Washington, D.C. The mayor, John T. Towers, was a member of that party. When he declined to run again for the June 1857 election, the Know-Nothings nominated Silas H. Hill to succeed him. The city’s Democrats, Republicans, and remaining Whigs all banded together as the “Anti-Know-Nothing Party” and nominated William B. Magruder. After one of the fiercest campaigns in the history of Washington, Magruder won the mayoral election by a mere 13 votes.

On Election Day, June 1, in what became known as the 1857 Election Riots, the Know-Nothings recruited a street gang from Baltimore, the Plug-Uglies, to come to Washington, and with its own hometown heavies, intimidate the voters at the polls. They turned away anti-Know-Nothing voters with rocks, guns, and knives, until some citizens brought weapons of their own and the violence grew into mob rule. When the rioters reached levels of over 500, Magruder closed the polls and requested military aid from President James Buchanan. Marines arrived after the rioters had stolen a Federal cannon, and threatened to use it. Magruder pled with the mob to abandon it and surrender, but they refused. The crowd threw bricks, the government claimed that guns were shot at the Marines, and the Marines then fired into the crowd, killing ten, which dispersed the rioters. A coroner’s jury later criticized Magruder and the Marines, and called the homicides unjustified, but the press saw a victory for law and order.

David Christopher Bohlayer was one of these rioters. Deposed on June 24, he left a detailed account of the events that day. He stated that the Marines already had the cannon back when they formed in line of attack. He continued, saying that a brick was thrown at the Marines by someone in the crowd, the Marines charged with bayonets, then Magruder ordered the Marines to fire into the crowd. Bohlayer maintained that no pistol was shot from the crowd until after the Marines had fired, and moreover that Magruder was intoxicated.

Neither President Buchanan nor new Mayor Magruder had any use for No-Nothings, nor their riotous accomplices. Some of the rioters were indicted for intent to kill the Marines, and imprisoned. Bohlayer was one of these. The 1860 U.S. Census shows Bohlayer as incarcerated in the penitentiary in Washington, DC, for “intent to kill.” His occupation was listed as butcher.

In 1861, Buchanan and Magruder were both out of office, and the No-Nothings had been relegated to history. Someone appealed to Lincoln to pardon Bohlayer, and Lincoln clearly doubted that Bohlayer had actually tried to kill any Marine. So he agreed.

Document signed as President, Washington, August 9, 1861, being that pardon. “I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of State to affix the seal of the United States to the Presidential Warrant for the pardon of David Christopher Bohlayer…and for so doing this shall be his warrant.”  

Why did Lincoln pardon Bohlayer? It may well have had to do with his volunteering for the Union Army. Less than two months after this pardon was issued, one David Bohlayer enlisted in the New York Artillery, from which he was detached in 1862. In 1863, David Christopher Bohlayer registered for the draft in Washington. It is easy to see why Lincoln was lenient in this case and likely others, as this pardon dates from just two weeks after Bull Run, and the Union needed all the men it could get.

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