Byron Potter, 27, had been working as a guard at the Freight Depot of the Michigan Southern Railroad for 14 months when, on April 5, 1857, he became involved in a desperate fight.
That evening a woman approached Potter and asked him to direct her to a respectable lodging, and he recommended the Exchange Hotel. There were a number of “hotel runners” present, men whose job it was to persuade travelers to got to the hotel they worked for, and then take them there with their baggage. Such work was fiercely competitive, and at the time was dominated by Irish immigrants. One of the runners, Morris Geary, who worked for the Limerick House, berated Potter for presuming to direct the woman to a competing hotel, using “the most vulgar and profane language.”
As Geary continued his abuse, threatening to knock Potter's brains out, Potter arrested him and started to take him to the watch house. Geary resisted and struck Potter in the face, and a crowd of Irish runners came to his assistance. Jerry Shiner, keeper of the Limerick House and “a notorious rowdy,” seized Potter by the arms as the mob rescued the prisoner.
Potter then headed towards the freight house, but had not gotten far when Geary came up to him, grabbed him by the whiskers, and attempted to hit him in the face. At the same time, another runner, Patrick Brown, struck at Potter with a stick, and another, William Galvin, punched him above the eye. Meanwhile, a crowd of runners surrounded Potter, shouting, “Kill him! Kill him!”
The Chicago Daily Tribune reported, “Finding it impossible to beat off his assailants, the officer drew a large heavy bowie knife, and stabbed the three men who were nearest him - inflicting frightful wounds. This prompt and efficient action on the part of the officer so frightened the Irish that they fell back for a moment, enabling Potter to get so far in advance of his assailants that he reached the Exchange Hotel ahead of them. They followed after him, shouting, 'Catch him! Kill him! Cut his heart out!' etc.”
Potter went directly through the hotel and out the back door, and then went to the First District Station House for assistance. The rioters cursed and yelled in front of the hotel for a while, but finding that Potter was gone, they went back to the Limerick House. Accompanied by four or five policemen, Potter went up to the Limerick House to learn the condition of the wounded men and arrest some of the rioters, but the crowd would permit no arrests to be made, and again tried to kill Potter. It was with difficulty that the officers protected him from the crowd.
The wounds Potter had inflicted were reported as follows: “Patrick Brown received a stab upon the right side of his body, about three inches in length and two and a half to three inches in depth. This wound was between the false and true ribs, just below the breast bone, the knife wounding the lower lobe of the lung and liver. He died in about three minutes after reaching the house, some five or six minutes after receiving the wound. . . Morris Geary, who commenced the fracas, received a terrible gash just below and a little to the left of the navel, through which his intestines protruded, and also a severe cut upon the wrist which severed the arteries. It is probable he will die. . . . William Galvin is wounded in the right side between the fifth and sixth ribs, the cut being an inch and a half wide by two inches deep. He will probably recover.”
As it happened, Geary as well as Galvin recovered from his wounds. Potter was not charged with Brown's death, as it was determined that he had acted entirely in self-defense.