Maine liquor detectives invaded Bangor during the spring and summer of 1909 in a major effort to crush the Queen City’s booze business. This was not the first assault by the much-reviled Sturgis deputies, named after the state commission that supervised their work. Their tactics this time, however, were so heavy-handed that city and county officials sought ways to run them out of town.
The battle at the Riverside House was typical. Located at Washington and Oak streets, it was one of the many boardinghouses catering to loggers and other transients on the waterfront. Many of these dens served bootleg liquor to their inmates. Women of ill repute helped them drink it. Many of these dives were elaborately constructed to avoid detection in police raids.
“A miniature fortress” or “apartment” erected at one end of the hotel’s bar provided “an ingenious system for dispensing intoxicants,” said the Bangor Daily News on July 12. This fortress, which had “an opening large enough to admit a pitcher” and running water, was constructed of heavy planking with a securely barred door. Bangor police raided the hotel on July 10 with little incident. Even though the bartender had managed to pour all the liquor down the drain within the “fortress” before emerging, they found enough evidence to arrest him and the proprietors, Frank and Charles Largay.
Three days later, a large contingent of Sturgis deputies raided the same establishment with different results. A large crowd gathered. The BDN compared the event to a battle scene from the novel of medieval warfare, “Ivanhoe”: “One day last week a battalion of sappers and miners from Sturgis headquarters was dispatched to assail a fortification on Washington Street. There were eight deputies with two crowbars, a pickaxe and two public carriages …” The “half-savages” crossed the moat, smashed down the door and “threw themselves against the entrenched forces which were composed of one aged man, who was lame, and two hotel chambermaids.”
Angry city councilors were tired of this kind of ruckus. They passed a resolution that same evening calling on the state to remove the Sturgis deputies from Bangor. Councilor Fahey was particularly upset: “This afternoon, while passing down Exchange Street, I saw a raid by these Sturgis men. And instead of going about it quietly, as the police would have done, they had axes and crowbars and a mob of 2,000 people more or less was following them. That’s the keynote of all their operations here; riot and disorder. What are they sent here for, anyway, to do the work which we ourselves have men to do?”
The answer to his question was simple. The local police and sheriff’s deputies were not enforcing the law. As a result, Bangor had an estimated 200-300 saloons that continued to dole out the hard stuff even though state prohibition had been on the law books since 1851. The city preferred its own infamous “Bangor Plan,” which the BDN called a system of “refined graft.” Officials rounded up all the saloonkeepers once a year, fined them and allowed them to reopen. The Sturgis Commission had disrupted this well-oiled mirage. Seen as an infringement on local control, even by some people nominally in favor of prohibition, Sturgis was dividing the pro-prohibition Republican Party and costing it votes, as well as angering many influential Bangoreans — Republicans and Democrats alike.
That same summer of 1909, the Sturgis men tried several innovative methods to destroy Bangor’s liquor trade. Two prominent owners of buildings that housed bars were arrested for allowing liquor to be sold on their premises. One of them was Joseph P. Bass, the publisher of the Bangor Daily Commercial. The Commercial, a Democratic, anti-prohibition paper, regularly attacked the law in its columns.
Using another novel tactic, the Sturgis men raided four drugstores. The BDN declared in its headline of Sept. 17, “Entire Squad of Ten Troop Around and Gather Up Much Merry Medicine.” Many patent medicines of the day contained large amounts of liquor. The deputies were able to convince the judge to convict only one of the druggists, Albert S. Chick of Exchange Street.
Rumors abounded that summer. One said the sheriff was about to be arrested for not enforcing the law. Not true. Another rumor alleged the Sturgis men (and the local police) picked on poor people. True as can be. Hugh Cox, the steward of the Pastime Club, a Main Street social organization that seemed to specialize in imbibing, was convicted of illegal possession. He demanded, “If this place is raided, then you ought to raid the Elks and the Tarratine Club, as they sell rum the same as I.” It was an old refrain.
The Sturgis men left a trail of mayhem that summer and fall. “There are now 21 special deputies on duty in Bangor,” said the BDN on July 19. “They are visiting hotels and bar-rooms daily, using bars and picks to break down partitions and disclose hiding places of beer and hard liquor. At times from eight to ten deputies armed with axes and bars, arrive in front of a hotel in… public carriages and spend nearly half a day in removing plank doors lined with zinc, iron and other metal.”
In early September, eight deputies clobbered the Eastern Express Co. and Crowe’s Restaurant in the building at 55 Pickering Square. “After smashing down a couple of doors, pulling pictures off the wall, seizing a lot of empty kegs…and making themselves otherwise obnoxious, the deputies departed leaving the wreck behind them,” the Commercial reported on Sept. 3.
A near riot involving several hundred men and boys resulted after the deputies handcuffed Arthur and Frank Cox, who ran a saloon at 75 Pickering Square. “It was the handcuffs that put the crowd in such an ugly mood,” observed the BDN on Sept. 22. A deputy punched Frank, a mere boy, in the jaw.
By November, the Penobscot County commissioners had had enough. They stopped paying the bill to the state for the Sturgis services. The county lost the lawsuit that resulted, however. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the laws governing the commission were constitutional, the BDN announced on Nov. 29, 1910.
The battle over prohibition in Maine was far from over. Year after year, more people were arrested for intoxication in Bangor than for all other crimes combined. The BDN let it be known in an editorial on Aug. 2, 1909, “Neither day or night or holiday or Sabbath has there been an hour when a man with money … has been unable to buy all the intoxicating liquors he could pay for.” Such was prohibition in old Bangor.
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 email@example.com.