Bootleggers’ automobile bested cops’ horse

Posted June 21, 2009, at 6:41 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

A century ago criminals were starting to make their getaways in automobiles, while law officers were still depending on horses and shoe leather for transportation.

This technology gap resulted in some comical confrontations worthy of the Keystone Kops Hall of Fame.

What was probably the first automobile chase involving local law enforcement officers in Penobscot County occurred a century ago this week when Harry Harmon and Elsie Spinney drove into the Queen City from Holden to purchase some bootleg liquor. The Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department got wind of this illegal transaction and lit out after the duo. The only trouble was the department didn’t own an automobile, so officers had to charter a horse and carriage for the chase, the Bangor Daily News reported on June 23, 1909.

Not being entirely familiar with the old dirt roads back then, I’ll let the reporter for the newspaper tell the ensuing tale in his own colorful way:

“Brewer bridge was crossed and outposts reported that the pursued had taken the Holden trail. On the ‘deps’ pressed, when suddenly — Mercy! and a couple of Oh, Horrors! — the horse collapsed from the excitement. In the direction of Eddington Bend, Mr. Harmon and Mrs. Spinney were fast disappearing in the distant distance. Here the first chapter ends as all chapters should — in the exciting part.”

The next chapter opened with the appearance of an automobile driven by an unnamed Bangor resident — “Our Hero” to use the old-time parlance. Learning of the catastrophe, he gallantly offered the frustrated officers the use of his machine. Deputy Burke was left behind to guard the horse, while Deputy Garland went honking down the road to an unidentified spot where Harmon and Spinney were apprehended.

The next day, the culprits were found guilty of illegal transportation, and fined $100 and costs or 60 days in jail, said the newspaper. Harmon was treated particularly harshly. He was arraigned on an additional search-and-seizure charge and fined $100 and sentenced to 60 days with an additional 60 days if he didn’t pay the fine. Both appealed. Only Spinney made bail, and Harmon went to jail.

In the next few years, police departments became motorized as automobiles proliferated and became more powerful. Thanks to Fred and Debbie Bryant’s history of the Bangor Police Department, we know, for example, that Bangor bought its first patrol car in June 1914, a 60-horsepower, six-cylinder paddy wagon made by the White Automobile Co. It cost $3,500. By then, doubtlessly, the first gangsters were robbing gas stations from autos and blazing off into the sunset in a trail of dust.

Meanwhile, back when Harry Harmon and Mrs. Spinney were chugging down the “Holden trail,” the Bangor Police Department was experimenting with another piece of transportation technology, the bicycle. “A BICYCLE COP,” said a headline in the Bangor Daily News on June 29, 1909. “Patrolman Gehigan Is Patrolling Parks in Manner Novel to Bangor — an Experiment.”

Police Chief John Bowen was the experimenter. Should favorable results follow, Bangor might have a squad of bicycle cops. The goal was to preserve order on “the outskirts” of the city where police were hard-pressed to answer complaints in a timely manner. “For some time complaints have been made to the police department to the effect that boys and older youths were creating disturbances in the parks about the city, but when the police arrived everything would be quiet,” reported the newspaper.

Patrolman Gehigan had been assigned to ride his bicycle about Broadway and Chapin Park and vicinity during his shift between 2:30 and 10:30 p.m. Apparently, back then, young hoodlums went home to bed about that time.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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