How Portland’s last ‘whorehouse riot’ got started

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

The last cannon ever fired at someone in Portland went off with a boom on Munjoy Hill in the middle of the 19th century. The stones packed inside it peppered the house of one Augustus King. He fired back with a gun of his own. Then all hell broke loose. It took the city militia to quell the riot that ensued.

That was in September, but the trouble had started two months earlier — 168 years ago this month, in July 1849.

At the time, Portland boasted a population of about 21,000 souls. It included 22 doctors, 43 lawyers and seven dentists. It was a thriving city on the upswing. Even so, Munjoy Hill was pretty much the outskirts of the town. The observatory was there but it was mostly scrubby pasture and dirt lanes.

There were a few businesses there, with most catering to short-term Portland citizens, like sailors. Augustus King owned a dance hall next to his house where, for or a price, seamen could dance with the ladies. On the other side was a seedy hotel. Even through the hazy lens of history it isn’t hard to see what was going on. King was a pimp.

This is a view of what Munjoy Hill might have looked like in the 1840s. Charles Quincy Goodhue drew this in 1895. Augustus King's dance hall would have been just off the lower left of the picture. This image is item number 4144 at the Maine Memory Network.

This is a view of what Munjoy Hill might have looked like in the 1840s. Charles Quincy Goodhue drew this in 1895. Augustus King’s dance hall would have been just off the lower left of the picture. This image is item number 4144 at the Maine Memory Network.

On Independence Day that year, King and some of his sailor clients had an argument. The exact nature of their evening squabble is not remembered, but I’ll wager it was about money and services rendered. In any case, it came to blows and King fired a gun to scare off the sailors.

The sailors came back one night, three weeks later, with a 6-pound cannon. They fired it into King’s house. The shot came through the wall, shattered the headboard on King’s bed and exited through the opposite wall. King, his wife and child were all asleep in the bed. His wife’s hand was injured.

King returned fire and the sailors fled, again.

On an interesting side note, King was a black man and his wife was white. That wasn’t illegal in Maine, but it also wasn’t common. I can’t find any evidence that the attacks were racially motivated, but I doubt this detail played no role at all.

The Eastern Argus newspaper called on the police force to bring King’s attackers to justice. This was unlikely to happen as the city police force was scarcely two months old. Its 20 officers did not even carry guns. King, however, convinced the sailors would return, began to stockpile guns and ammo.

He was right. On Sept. 7, a likely drunken group of sailors from two different coastal schooners paid King a visit. This time, they had guns of their own. A firefight broke out but the sailors retreated. Over a dozen came back that evening with a pivot cannon. They loaded it with rocks and fired several broadsides at King’s house.

King, armed to the teeth, fired back, as he’d already done more than once. When the dust settled and the smoke cleared away, a clear victor emerged: King. He was unscathed.

The sailors fared worse in what went down in history as the bluntly named “Whorehouse Riot.” King wounded 14 of them and killed a schooner captain from Cape Anne. His ship sailed away with his body before the authorities could investigate. Most of the sailors disappeared, too.

The next day, the city marshal arrested “five bad girls,” as he called them, along with King and the hotel owner. While in jail another mob set fire to King’s dance hall. The rioters kept police and fire crews at bay most of the night until armed militiamen arrived. They managed to keep the arsonists from torching King’s house as well.

Nobody showed up in court to testify against King and and the authorities released him. He quickly sold his house, left town and vanished from recorded history.

The Eastern Argus wrote, “He has shown great courage and in a better cause would be quite a hero.”

There are no longer dance halls and open prostitution on Munjoy Hill. The street where King’s house and business stood is gone, too. That side of the hill, below Sheridan Street, was hauled off for fill. It’s now laying underneath Commercial Street. Where King lies is anybody’s guess.

Note: The video I posted above is a song I wrote a while back. That’s me in The Squid Jiggers performing it in Freeport in 2014. It was inspired by this tale. It’s about a Munjoy Hill brothel, told from the point of view of a sailor.

Another note: I stole a lot of this tale from an excellent story by, that eminent man of Maine history, William David Barry. It appeared in the May 1990 issue of Downeast magazine. Go to your local library and read the whole thing. You won’t be sorry.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.