‘Riverton riot’ of 1906

In the early years of the 20th century, local newspapers reported Lithuanian ethnicity in crimes of violence, much as media later in the century reported race.

However, it’s easy to see why a “Lithuanian” brawl could have seemed relevant to U.S.-born readers back when immigrant-on-immigrant crime in the impoverished neighborhoods, often called “patches,” where immigrant miners lived, socialized, drank and fought, so often stereotyped them in the news.

July-December 1906, the Illinois State Register covered a “Riverton Riot,” allegedly by three related Lithuanian saloon-keepers, that resulted in the near-death of the local marshal, John A. Cline. The prosecution side of the story was that Cline ordered Lithuanian immigrant Maude (Martha) Grigiski (Grigiskis) to close her Riverton saloon, which was illegally open on a Sunday. Grigiski reportedly refused, pulled a gun and backed Cline out of her yard. Then her husband, William, arrived, seized the officer’s club and started beating him over the head. Maude reportedly joined in the beating with the butt of her pistol, while brother-in-law Peter (Simon) Grigiskis arrived and allegedly started beating Cline with a brickbat.

The three Grigiskis were charged with assault and battery with intent to kill, and “riot.” They made bail of $1,200 each, apparently after William exited first and sold some property to bail out his wife. Marshal Cline received 56 stitches to close wounds on his scalp.

The newspaper reported “almost the entire village” was subpoenaed in the case, many as character witnesses. Those who had not been subpoenaed came along to witness the proceedings, so that the courtroom was full even before the trial  began. The paper also reported, “Most of the witnesses in this case will be Lithuanians, and an interpreter will be necessitated.”

When the defense took the stand, the Grigiskis proceeded to make a case for their actions based on the alleged “immoral character” of Marshal Cline, which was attested by many (presumably Lithuanian) witnesses. William Grigiski then testified that the assault was the result of Cline first attacking his wife. Maude testified that she had closed her saloon as ordered, but then Cline insisted they go back inside to see if anyone was still there, at which point he made advances and knocked her out with his revolver.

The real issue could have been the law closing saloons and taverns, frequently operated by immigrants for immigrants, on Sundays, back in the time of 70-hour, six-day work weeks, when Sunday was the only day off for workmen to drink and socialize–and for tavern-keepers to earn a living. In New York City back when Teddy Roosevelt was police commissioner, more than 10,000 German immigrants marched to oppose a similar Sunday tavern closing law. So, such bans were not only likely a precursor to Prohibition, they almost undoubtedly were aimed at immigrant workmen and tavern-keepers. In fact, Simon Grigiski had been fined $25, along with six Italian tavern-keepers, back in 1902 for the same offense, according to the newspaper.

On Dec. 29, 1906, after weeks of trial, the Illinois State Journal reported Simon was acquitted, and William and Maude Grigiski were convicted, denied a new trial, and fined $100 plus costs, each: a total judgment amounting to $400. (One has to wonder at a fine, only, for assaulting a lawman—maybe it was a compromise of some sort based on real doubts as to Cline’s character?)  It’s unknown if the Grigiskis were allowed to re-open their saloon.

Lithuanians Ralph Patkus, Tony Gabriel and Peter Soto were also arrested or charged with participating in the assault on Cline. One can almost imagine the whole Lithuanian neighborhood joining in a fight apparently in defense of their countrymen, and against a well-known and despised representative of the law. The three other men were not tried.

Contributor: Sandy Baksys

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Copyright Lithuanians in Springfield, IllinoisReprinted with permission.

This entry was posted in Crime and vice, Law enforcement, Lithuanians, Local government and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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