Except for the boozing and brawling that routinely occurred downtown, Bangor was relatively free of crime a century ago — that is, until the Eastern Maine State Fair set up each August. Then “small armies of crooks” were reported headed for the Queen City to take advantage of the rustics with their pockets full of cash who crowded Maplewood Park fairgrounds.
If a naive fairgoer wasn’t deprived of some of his hard-earned wealth at one of the crooked games and fake shows (such as the plaster-of-paris mermaid that bobbed in a tank of water), he would probably lose out to one of the shady operators hanging at the edge of the crowd running trick card games or selling watered-down liquor.
Even before the fair started, the police began getting the message out. NO COMFORT FOR CROOKS IN BANGOR: They Will Be Flung Into Cells the Moment They Try Any Funny Games, announced a headline in the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 20, 1908, five days before the fair’s opening.
“Eastern Maine is apparently about to enjoy a visitation from a small army of crooks and bad men in general. In the train arriving in the city at 3:05 o’clock Wednesday morning there was a merry band of 47, which went to Ellsworth. A good many of them came back to Bangor in the New York train Wednesday afternoon and lost themselves in the crowd,” said the story. Such minor details as who had done the counting and how one recognized these crooks were omitted.
One gentleman was thought to have been relieved of his gold watch. “A likely company of visitors were immediately rounded up in the by-ways and hedges” until this gentleman discovered the timepiece in his pocket.
Flim-flammers, meanwhile, had tried the old “wrong change game” on a peanut and popcorn vendor, who chased them down and got his money back. Such trivial events marked the beginnings of a crime wave in old Bangor.
A few days later the Bangor Daily Commercial outlined arrangements for police protection at the fair, which was marking its 25th anniversary. There was a special police force, amounting to more than 30 enlistees, plus sheriff’s deputies, Bangor officers and even some state Sturgis detectives looking for liquor. Many wore plain clothes. Much of the time these officers of the law skulked about the midway where the sideshows, games and food concessions were attracting huge crowds.
Everything went smoothly on opening day. Only one pocket peddler was arrested with two pints of whiskey.
“Chief Bowen is leaving no stone unturned to see that the public is protected from the ‘crooks,’ which are in plain evidence at the fair,” a reporter asserted authoritatively in the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 26, 1908.
Mysterious happenings were definitely on the increase. A man reported to the chief that his suit, which had been stolen in another city, appeared at the fair worn by the alleged thief. What nerve!
The crime wave picked up some momentum the next day. “The crowd of crooks which is following the Midway committed its first act of violence Wednesday night by trying to knock out Patrolman Robinson while that officer was arresting one of their number for pocket picking,” announced the Daily News on the morning of Aug. 27.
A man reported he had been robbed on a street car. Patrol-man Robinson collared a suspect in front of the Bangor Auditorium, then located at the corner of Main and Buck streets. A big crowd gathered and someone hit the patrolman on the head. “The prisoner escaped, but the officer kept his straw hat as a souvenir.”
Half an hour later, oddly enough, a member of the night yard crew at the Maine Central was robbed of his hat at gun-point. Was the robber the original miscreant trying to get a new hat? He then jumped aboard one of the night trains out of town, or so the newspaper suggested.
The full extent of fair mayhem was not reported until the last day, when many of the midway acts were already packing up to leave. So were many of the bad guys, the Bangor Daily News announced that morning: “In the neighborhood of 20 crooks, gamesters, cappers, strong-arm men, thugs, yeggs, house-breakers, second-story workers … rode out of our village at 12:45 this morning in the ‘second midnight’ for the west. ‘The farther they go the better,’ said Police Sergt. Pierce.”
Pickpockets had reaped quite a harvest the day before. Upward of 20 complaints had been made. The thieves had a new gimmick. Two would start a fight and as a crowd gathered to watch the festivities, their confederates moved in and relieved the happy spectators of their valuables.
That afternoon the Commercial gave additional details. One police officer estimated the pickpockets had cleaned up as much as $2,000, including a $100 roll from “a Bangor Greek.” The thieves also were operating on the trolley cars to Old Town, as one University of Maine professor found out. Many people didn’t report their losses. More than a dozen empty purses had been found in the streets.
Bangor’s finest may have been the biggest victims of this crime wave, however. The day after the fair ended, the Bangor Daily News reported “three fatalities.” A city policeman had lost his club and gun to thugs. A special fair constable had been relieved of his wallet while gaping at the free exhibition in front of the tent where the Parisian dancing girls performed. Another officer had lost his badge to brigands. All remained nameless.
“No big show is complete without its little comedy skits,” commented the reporter, wisely terminating his coverage of the greatest show in eastern Maine in 1908.
WANTED: Does any reader have a photo of William Conners, manager of the Bangor Boom for many years and a city councilor and state legislator, that could be used for publication? Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at