A host of suspicious characters made its way to Bangor a century ago beginning with the first warm days of spring and lasting until snowflakes trickled from the sky. The city’s two daily newspapers kept a record of depredations, real and imagined.
Professional beggars made their appearance in May that year. They were up to no good, the Bangor Daily Commercial declared on May 28, 1909. Using “chemicals” or “a little temporary contortion” these men were able to turn a sore or a minor disfigurement into a major crippling condition. Even those with missing body parts usually had an artificial limb that enabled them to get around as well as anyone else when their workday was over.
“The presence of a lot of beggars in a place may usually be taken as a sure sign that there is a crowd of crooks around or coming soon,” said the newspaper. Beggars often were part of a larger network. They served as go-betweens and spies for yeggs, a breed of burglars known for their safe-cracking skills. When the crowds came to Bangor to the fair, the beggars worked with pickpockets, serving as a repository for stolen cash and jewelry.
Tramps arrived about this time as well. Hobo stories, often based on rumor, were a staple of springtime journalism. “Word was brought to Bangor Tuesday night by the train crew of number eight, arriving at 12:30 from Vanceboro, that there had been four breaks in Old Town by hoboes, and three of the men had been arrested,” reported the Bangor Daily News on June 2.
Since the reporter couldn’t raise the Old Town police, he relied on the telephone operator for information. Three more tramps had eluded the law, jumping number eight for Bangor. “So the heartless terrors are undoubtedly at present immediately within our midst,” the reporter moaned. By the end of the brief story, however, he added that “so far as could be ascertained” there really had been no breaks in Old Town at all.
The stories grew wilder. Five yeggmen — “stylish yeggs” that is — were reportedly headed from Portland to Bangor in “a huge red and yellow $10,000 automobile,” said the Commercial on July 7. Even the reporter doubted this tale. Yeggs of the higher class — “the silk hat, frock coat variety” — seldom made their way north to the Queen City, the pickings being too meager.
A few days later “train wreckers” were thought to be responsible for discombobulating the signals at Northern Maine Junction in Hermon. This area was a major hobo hangout, featuring a veritable tramp “hotel” complete with rooms, furniture, a cookstove and other domestic accoutrements. “The Knights of the Road” were im-mediately under suspicion. They ran into the woods leaving police once again emptyhanded. Their hotel was dismembered, however.
Yeggs finally gave hungry reporters something to write about. A terrific explosion shattered the safe at the National Biscuit Company on Buck Street near the railroad tracks. About $16 was stolen, the Bangor Daily News reported on July 6. The thieves were of the “hobo-professional” variety, but not “slick professionals.” Tools for the job were stolen from a nearby train car. That afternoon, a house on Main Street was ransacked. Police believed the two jobs were related. They headed for Northern Maine Junction looking for the usual suspects.
Two days later, five “boes” were rounded up by Bangor police and booked for vagrancy. People in the area had been complaining about incidents, including begging for food, that had been occurring ever since an elderly woman was assaulted in Hampden some days before. The recent breaks were the last straw.
Tramps had been arriving in Bangor for weeks, three or four in a bunch on the head-ends of the night trains or in freight cars. Their favorite camping spot was land called Foley Shore between the railroad tracks and the river near Eastern Maine General Hospital. “They have run of the idea that Bangor is a tramp’s paradise, and the sooner they are separated from that supposition the better,” growled a reporter for the Bangor Daily News on July 8.
Four of these members of “The Order of Free Lunch” got tough jail sentences — four months for two of them, two months for a third but only a month for the fourth because of his youth. A fifth man was released because he had some money in his pocket. After the trial, Police Chief John Bowen vowed to rid the city of vagrants. “Woe betide the tramp who settles upon Bangor as a tarrying place,” warned the jubilant reporter.
The police, however, had not collared the right hoboes. Just a few days later, another incident occurred when T. J. Daley & Co.’s grocery store at 325 Main St. was burglarized. The thieves took about $8 and a large amount of groceries, the Commercial reported on July 12. Yeggs were suspected, but police could not tell how many were involved or how they got in. Daley’s safe had been blown open so many times before that he left it unlocked, taking most of the day’s proceeds home with him.
Banana peels littered the floor. “That more than one man was concerned in the break is the opinion of Mr. Daley, and he accounts for this by the large number of bananas that were eaten. One man would have had a hard job to get away with so many,” the Commercial’s reporter observed.
An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Send comments about this column to him at email@example.com.