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Taillights Were The Unlikely Catalyst for a 1916 Prison Riot in Kansas

Think people in the past did not know how to riot? Well, they sure did and this piece of news proves it. In the quaint town of Augusta, Kansas in 1916, a simple traffic law sparked a full-blown riot.

According to the news article, 2,000 people would storm the local jail and do a whole lot of damage. Not only was the jail left in tatters, all the prisoners were set free.

The reason? One popular resident was arrested for not having a taillight. Did the residents have a good reason for the riot?

Read on to find out more about this interesting ground-breaking news of the day.

newspaper article about mob wrecking jail
Meade County News – October 19, 1916

It all started in April of 1916 when Ordinance #274 passed. It focused on a few rules for driving automobiles in town.

The speed limit was set at 15-mph. When turning a corner, speed was to be reduced to 8-mph. Also, there were barrels placed in the middle of each intersection. When making a left turn, drivers were to go around the barrel in the intersection. “Good and sufficient brakes” were a requirement. “A suitable bell, horn or other signal” was to be sounded fifty feet prior to any intersection. One half hour after sunset and one half hour before sunrise, one or more lamps showing white light “visible within a reasonable distance from the direction toward such vehicle is proceeding and a red light visible from the reverse direction” were required.

The last sentence of that ordinance is what set the stage for a riot. At first glance it sounds reasonable enough, right?

Well, not in the pothole-riddled streets of Augusta.

The town’s notoriously rough roads had a pesky habit of “jarring out” the oil-burning taillights on cars in town.

If you were not around in 1916 you may wonder what “jarring out” is. That term refers to the oil splashing around in oil lamps, essentially putting out the flame that is keeping the tail light lit.

So, you might be that law abiding citizen, making sure your taillight was lit when you leave home. But once you get into the town, the rough roads would splash the oil and put that light out.

And when it went out, the police were there waiting to give you a ticket. Ironically, that is still done quite often today with speed traps!

Drivers found themselves always at odds with the local police, led by the Crowe brothers. They were all too eager to slap them with a hefty $16.85 fine (over $400 today!) for their faulty lights.

Tensions came to a head on October 5, 1916 when a prominent citizen named W.R. “Pill Peel” Peal decided to stage a protest.

Peal saddled up his horse, affixed a bright red lantern to the end of a long pole, and paraded through the streets, taunting the frustrated cops on the prowl for taillight violations.

This did not go over well with the Crowe brothers, who promptly arrested Peal and tossed him in the slammer.

But the citizens of Augusta were having none of it. Within minutes, a mob of 600 riled-up residents descended on the jail, armed with sledgehammers and crowbars. They battered down the doors, freed all the prisoners, and then marched en masse to the mayor’s house, demanding the entire police force be discharged.

The chaos didn’t stop there.

The unruly crowd then proceeded to actively encourage passing motorists to break every law in the book – speeding, driving on the wrong side of the road, and, of course, extinguishing taillights. It was like a bizarre, early 20th century version of a flash mob, except instead of dancing, they were trying to get arrested.

The local newspaper initially dismissed the whole affair as a “Halloween celebration.” This was despite the very real property damage and the cops literally being run out of town.

But there’s no denying the sheer absurdity of it all. A full-blown riot sparked by something as mundane as busted taillights.

On October 5, 1916, a follow up amendment with details of the riot would be posted.

Enforcement of ordinance #274, as it had been done over the past several months, came to an abrupt halt. On that evening, W. R. Peal, a prominent Augustan (who was later treasurer of Butler County) came riding a horse down State Street. Mr. Peal had a long pole in one hand that had a lantern with a bright red globe hanging on the end of the pole. Inside, the flame flickered illuminating the red globe. The significance of the light was obvious to everyone.

People along the curbs and sidewalks clapped and hooted, mocking the marshal, who was patrolling the street looking for non-burning taillights. The marshal and his men arrest Mr. Peal and took him to jail. This did not go over well with the citizens of Augusta. A mob, six hundred or so in size, of angry citizens quickly formed. Marshal Crowe jumped on a car and shouted at the crowd to disperse. No one listened. He drew his pistol and fired several shots over their heads. The crowd was not affected and a brickbat came sailing through the air, hitting Crowe in the in the head and knocking him unconscious. He fell from the car and three or four men from the crowd started beating and kicking Crowe. Others rushed in and warded off the attackers.

They then hurriedly moved the officer away from the scene. The mob, however, was not finished…. Someone suggested that they tear down the calaboose (jail). A majority seemed to have agreed and with sledgehammers and crowbars in hand, the group went to the jail. They pounded and pried on the walls and doors until the doors came crashing down. They freed all the prisoners, Mr. Peal included. Once all were freed, a march to the mayor’s house ensued, demanding the discharge of the entire police force.

The mayor was not home and could not be found. Nor could any of the policemen. All had gone into hiding. John West, who was eleven years old at the time, reported that one of the policemen spent that night under his bed. John’s father was the city street commissioner at the time, and may have been one to come to the aid of Crowe. None of the police officers ever showed up in Augusta again. An official from Topeka was sent by the Governor to fix things. They wanted to nip the possibility of any recurrence of this type of events.

Martial law was considered, however as it turned out, the officials’ presence proved to be sufficient as a deterrent. The official recommended that Butler County increase the size of its law enforcement body. Two days later, the owner of Robinson’s Grocery was arrested. Obviously, someone stepped up to be the new marshal. And by the way, the charge for the owner… taillights on his auto!

This 1916 riot is a testament to the fact that even the most trivial of issues can bring a community to the brink of chaos, especially when greedy cops and crumbling infrastructure are involved.

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